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Procedure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:41 pm on 27th February 1986.

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Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam , Blaydon 6:41 pm, 27th February 1986

I join the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) for his kindness and tolerance in chairing the Select Committee on Procedure and for allowing hon. Members like me, who have a distinct minority view on that Committee, to have if anything more than our fair share of say in the Committee's deliberations. The Committee is very hard working.

It is rare for me to disagree with a Select Committee of which I am a member. I have never before voted against reporting a Select Committee's findings to the House. However, I found the proposals on timetabling so unacceptable that, like the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), I felt that I had no choice but to vote against them.

I cannot support the recommendation in the fourth motion about Special Standing Committees. The evidence to which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred, and the other evidence that exists, is overwhelmingly in favour of the Special Standing Committees.

I ask hon. Members to examine the amendment to the recommendation in the second motion about committal. It is odd to limit committal to Special Standing Committees to a Minister of the Crown. If the Special Standing Committees were used more frequently, and on a broader range of Bills, many of the problems which hon. Members who support the first amendment are facing would be solved.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred to the statement by the Solicitor-General on what is now the Criminal Attempts Act 1981. I do not want to return to that, save to say that I believe that the point raised by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed would be true for a large number of Bills.

Referral to Special Standing Committees would rake account of more than just the point made by the hon. Member for Honiton. It is illogical to argue that the enforced timetabling and consideration of all the clauses of a Bill some of which, as all hon. Members know, are inconsequential, would provide for either better understanding of the Bill or a realisation by Ministers sponsoring the Bill that there was something fundamentally wrong with it. We would, as usual, be in opposition politics.

Consideration by a Special Standing Committee, in which detailed evidence could be taken from the people affected, could have a profound effect on Ministers, in a way which my making a speech would not have, even if I or other hon. Members were subsequently proved to be right.

I too, would like to enter the "Guinness Book of Records". As a Member sponsored by the National Communications Union, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) on being elected as my general secretary. He spoke an hour ago, and I should like to be the first to disagree with him. His conclusions about the timetabling of all Bills and the use of a Legislative Business Committee are utterly wrong. If Conservative Members had listened to my hon. Friend's arguments they would all vote against the recommendation, because my hon. Friend made strong arguments against it.

I believe that the history of successive Governments in relation to the rights and privileges of hon. Members is not a good one. Our rights and privileges have been seriously eroded over the years. If we introduce a Legislative Business Committee, our rights and privileges will be further eroded. We have not considered properly the kind of animal that we wish to create. The Committee would not be the kind of flexible body that the hon. Member for Honiton would have us believe. For example, the recommendation in paragraph 36 of the report of the Select Committee on Procedure states that the Committee should consist of senior Back-Bench Members to be elected by a Committee of Selection without the interference of the Whips. If hon. Members believe that, they will believe anything. We all know, and I am a Whip myself, what happens in the Committee of Selection. We should not be naive at the start.

We are also asked to believe that, as paragraph 39 of the Select Committee on Procedure states: Any system of time-tabling needs to preserve a measure of flexibility to cope with unexpected developments during the progress of a Bill. That is all very well, but paragraph 39 continues: Such a request should only be made if entirely new factors arose during a bill's progress—factors not known when the maximum number of hours was set.

Again that is all very well, but what happens if a mistake has been made? What happens if we have it wrong and the members of the Legislative Business Committee do not understand the full impact of some of the Bill's clauses?

One of two things would then happen. Either a Committee would be horribly strapped for time and so be unable to carry out the kind of investigation which the hon. Member for Honiton suggested, or it would be sitting around wondering what to do next and inventing amendments. That is the situation that could arise, and it is another problem which the Legislative Business Committee could cause.

The Americans invented such an animal about 150 years ago. Its original purpose was to do just what the hon. Member for Honiton suggested it ought to do. It has developed in such a way that the Executive now comes to the Committee as a supplicant. The Committee has a life of its own, and has taken to itself prerogatives which used to exist on the Floor of the House of Representatives. That could happen if a similar Committee were appointed here.

I invite hon. Members to vote against the first recommendation. If Conservative Members are worried about Committees sitting too late at night, I remind them that the Chairmen of Standing Committees will not accept a closure motion from a member of the Opposition. They will accept a closure motion only from a Minister. Government Members have the solution in their own hands. If they walk out of the Committee, I assure them that Opposition Members will follow, rendering the Committee inquorate, and that will sort out the Whip. It is not the Opposition but the Government who run Committees all night.

There is a misconception that the only weapon that the Opposition have is time. That is not true. The only weapon that the Opposition have is uncertainty, and the function of that is time. We must understand that.