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Procedure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 27th February 1986.

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Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West 6:32 pm, 27th February 1986

Part of the price that I pay for representing my constituency is that I am frequently compared with the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), to my disadvantage. As I listened to him, I reflected that I shall never have the compendious knowledge and passionate interest in procedure that he has, but also that for all the assertions made by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen that they have a great knowledge and passionate interest in procedure, the House rarely debates it. That is why I doubt whether, if a proposal were introduced on an experimental or interim basis, it would be easy to change the existing procedure. For that reason, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about experiments.

Most of all, we should recognise that it is extremely difficult for a new Parliament to change the procedure because it is seen to be a way of rigging the new Parliament in such a way as to give yet further impetus to the electorate's decision. I looked with care through the names of the 150 hon. Members who signed the first amendment. While it is true that not all the right hon. and hon. Members came to the House after 1979, a high proportion did. Since the mid-1960s we have seen in particular the rise of presidential politics. To a great extent, a Member of Parliament, especially in this Parliament, is elected, not to be a vigorous Back-Bench Member, whether by choice or chance, but to support his party and leader. The right hon. and hon. Members reflect their belief that they are here to support their leader and party. They also reflect the sheer numbers of Tory Members who were elected in 1979 and, to a greater extent, in 1983, and the difficulty of finding an issue on which the Government can be defeated.

We do not want to change our procedure so that a different Parliament with different perceptions and priorities is stuck with procedures which may be appropriate to a presidential Parliament, to which hon. Members are not elected to scrutinise the Government or legislation as carefully as may have been done in previous Parliaments. Therefore, I entirely agree with the views of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that if we agree to these proposals for automatic timetabling, we on the Back Benches would give the Executive a greater power than has been given to it previously. That would be dangerous, because it would fetter the choice of the people, which is decided by their vote, and the mysterious consequences that their collective vote has. To some extent it is hampered by the procedures of the House. If, in a future Parliament, the mysterious consequence of the collective vote is that we have a Government who believe, not in radical action and a presidential style, but in carrying on the Queen's business quietly, with more consensus, and perhaps even more deference to the House, we have procedures for them. The checks and balances continue to exist. I have nothing new or interesting to say about the proposals for automatic timetabling, except that I agree with my right hon. Friend and with the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore).

There is a proposal for a Legislative Business Committee, which is to be independent. For a short period I was rather oddly positioned in the Whips Office, and I saw something of the way in which it operated. The great advantage of the House in relation to the Whips Offices is that Whips are wrongly credited with having great power and influence, and they are understandably disliked. Except for occasional members of the Whips Offices, they remain silent, and do not even leak.

It is precisely because Whips Offices are so obviously partisan and disliked that they have to behave better than Committees which are allegedly independent. Most of all, they operate continuously. There can be no question of swinging one over and humiliating the Whips Office on the other side. One would know that if one had done a chap last week, he would return the compliment the next week. Therefore, it is important that the broad consensus of the House of Commons is adhered to. We must adhere to the broad, changing consensus of what is decent, honourable and fair within the constraints of fierce party battle.

It is difficult to decide exactly what those conventions are, but, surprisingly enough, they seem to be well understood by the usual channels. The proposals which give great power to the allegedly independent Committee will be to the disadvantage of the House of Commons. The allegedly independent Committee will be governed by the majority — by the Government. It will have a Government majority on it. Most important, it will not have to do business with the Opposition Whips next week and will, from time to time, behave badly. It will no doubt behave like that for partisan reasons, sometimes for reasons of patronage, and sometimes for reasons of friendship. However, it will behave badly.

I suggest that even if the House decides — in my opinion quite wrongly—to have automatic timetabling, the much abused, much hated, but nevertheless effective system of the usual channels ought to be kept.