I beg to move,
That Orders A to I relating to the Programming of Bills, made by the House on 28th June 2001, and programme orders of the current session of Parliament relating to bills which are carried over to the next session, shall continue to have effect in the next session of Parliament.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following motion:
That the Order relating to Deferred Divisions, made by the House on 28th June 2001, shall continue to have effect in the next session Parliament.
We have two motions before us this afternoon. The first is a motion to renew for the next Session the Sessional Orders on the programming of Bills, which were first agreed by the House on
As the Order Paper indicates, the first report of the Modernisation Committee, on the programming of Bills, is relevant to the debate. I am grateful to my colleagues on the Modernisation Committee for the positive way in which they engaged in producing this report. They have produced a constructive and thoughtful report on a complex and sometimes contentious matter. Notwithstanding the minority report submitted by Mr. Shepherd, whose sincere and principled objections to programming I acknowledge, in the end the Committee adopted the final report unanimously and without division.
The Committee's report sets out the context in which this afternoon's debate will, I hope, proceed. We accept that the programming of parliamentary business does not always work as well as we might wish, but properly enacted, programming is a positive development, allowing more effective scrutiny of legislation. The notion that the scrutiny of Bills should be subject to a parliamentary timetable has been a staple recommendation of parliamentary and independent reports for the past 20 years. In 1985, the Procedure Committee recommended that Bills be timetabled. In 1992, the Jopling Committee reiterated that proposal and in the same year the independent Hansard Society Commission on the Legislative Process regarded it as a central feature of any reforms to improve scrutiny. And in 1997, the Modernisation Committee's first report highlighted the importance of programming legislation, stating that other proposals for improving the legislative process—such as the scrutiny of draft Bills—could not be seen in isolation from the legislative timetable.
It is in this context that I hope we can debate this afternoon's motions. I urge all Members to recognise that, as paragraph 9 of the Modernisation Committee's report points out,
"there was never a 'golden age' of full scrutiny of all clauses of all bills; on the contrary, prior to the introduction of programming, there was deep and widespread dissatisfaction with the haphazard nature of scrutiny, which led to . . . considerable pressure from Members and others, over a number of years, for some form of timetabling of Government bills to be introduced; and . . . the procedures whereby bills might be programmed have been the subject of careful consideration in the past".
Of course, the effectiveness of any such system relies on the way in which it is implemented. The Modernisation Committee's report is candid about the pros and cons of the way in which the current provisions are enacted:
"When it works well, it is of benefit, a) to the Government, which is assured of getting its legislative programme; b) to the Opposition, which is assured of having adequate time to scrutinise those parts of a bill to which it attaches importance; and c) to the country as a whole, which benefits from better legislation."
The reality is that if the report states boldly that it is important to understand that programming is here to stay, and then proceeds to discuss various reasons why it might not necessarily be the best thing, it is difficult to believe that it is quite as balanced a report as my right hon. Friend suggests.
In the end, this is a matter for the House to decide, but my hon. Friend will agree that criticisms of the way in which programming has been handled and suggestions as to how it could be improved will have to be taken into account by the Government in years to come.
In keeping with the point made by my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody, the report acknowledges that programming has not always worked well in practice. When things do not go according to plan,
"it can result in legislation receiving inadequate scrutiny leading to frustration on all sides as well as the increased danger that the House will pass defective legislation."
The essence of its success lies in the spirit of co-operation between those acting for the Government and those acting for the Opposition on a particular Bill—a point stressed in evidence given to the Committee by the Chairman of Ways and Means. The Government believe that where the main parties engage positively in discussions on the programme, programming can, and does, work well.
The Government will consider carefully how they can respond to the Modernisation Committee's recommendations; we look to the Opposition to do likewise. For these reasons, the Modernisation Committee endorses the continued use of programme motions governed by the existing Sessional Orders. It recommends no change to the motions before us, reflecting the belief that any existing problems lie not with the Sessional Orders themselves, but with the way in which they are sometimes operated.
The second motion before us relates to the provisions for deferred Divisions. I am aware that when deferred Divisions were introduced, some Members had objections in principle to the separation of decision from debate, and were concerned that they would impact on attendance and the vigour of debate. I do not believe that those concerns have been borne out in practice; most Members find the deferral of Divisions in certain well-defined circumstances to be of great convenience.
I hope that this afternoon's debate can be conducted not in a spirit of partisanship, but with a wider concern for the quality of parliamentary scrutiny. Both motions should be debated in the context of the wider package of reforms implemented in the past few years—including pre-legislative scrutiny—which is designed to make the Commons more effective and efficient. For example, the massive increase in the number of draft Bills produced by Government in the past few years has undoubtedly enhanced the Commons' ability to scrutinise and shape legislation. I reaffirm our commitment to continuing to produce more Bills for pre-legislative scrutiny.
We could all point to individual events, taken in isolation, in which practice has not lived up to theory, and the Modernisation Committee's report highlights such concerns frankly and openly. However, solutions lie not in petty point-scoring, but in grown-up politics, and I urge Members to take a broader view, so that this debate can be conducted in that spirit. For my part, I will continue to listen to all proposals for reform that will strengthen and enhance parliamentary scrutiny. I commend the motions to the House.
I disagree with almost everything that the Leader of the House has just said, but I want to make it clear from the start—lest anyone listening to today's debate or reading the subsequent Hansard account be under any illusion—that this ghastly, so-called Modernisation Committee is, and has been, simply a vehicle through which a Government with a very large majority can reduce the role of the House of Commons in properly scrutinising legislation. That is what it has been and has become. The Modernisation Committee is not some misty-eyed, impartial philosophical guardian of the rights of the House of Commons; it is a Committee of the House with a very large Government majority, chaired by a Cabinet Minister. Although it is deemed to be a Select Committee, it is a vehicle for the wish of the Government. It saddens me that this Government, to whom the electorate gave an enormous majority in 1997 and 2001, have seen fit to abuse that majority by effectively reducing the House of Commons' role in a number of ways.
Because we are considering two specific motions and a Modernisation Committee report, we are examining only two ways in which the role of the House of Commons has been altered—not irrevocably but for the time being, a point to which I shall return. For my modest contribution to today's debate, I thought that I could do no better than to pick out some items in the report with which I agree, and some with which I disagree. To my surprise, there are one or two items with which I do indeed agree, but I disagree with most of them.
Let us start with paragraph 11(a), which states:
"The Government of the day must be assured of getting its legislation through in reasonable time (provided that it can obtain the approval of the House)."
In a sense, that sums up rather well this Government's attitude. They begin by stating that the relationship between the Government of the day and the House of Commons should be such that the former must get their legislation through "in reasonable time". By way of a footnote, one has to ask the interesting question of whether they mean through Parliament, or through the House of Commons. Of course, there is a very important distinction to be made here. Although the Government have reduced to a rather pathetic shadow of its former self the House of Commons' role in holding them to account, happily, the House of Lords is still very much alive and kicking. These days, the House of Lords does most of the work in holding the Government to account. It sits longer and more often—
Could I ask the right hon. Gentleman to read the next sub-paragraph? He read out paragraph 11(a)—that the
"Government of the day must be assured of getting its legislation"— but not the next sub-paragraph, which states:
"The Opposition in particular, and Members in general must have a full opportunity to discuss and seek to change provisions to which they attach importance."
Furthermore, paragraph 12(c) states:
"All parts of a bill must be properly considered."
The truth is that, as a result of the reforms that we have introduced, scrutiny in the House is now more effective than ever before.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that, which is the crux of the debate. What he has just said is an absurd proposition, to which we shall return in more detail in a few moments.
I want to focus the House's attention on the central proposition. What worries me is the Government's assumption that, having been given a large majority by the electorate, they have the right to legislate to an unlimited extent, at will, regardless of the wishes of the House of Commons. The Government believe that their role is to alter our procedures so that they can get their legislation through with the minimum of inconvenience and fuss. That is the central proposition, to which I take great exception.
I have spent 20 years in this place, first through the 1980s as a Government Back Bencher and subsequently as a Minister. Even with the large majority that we enjoyed in 1983, we did not fiddle with the procedures of the House in order to make life easier or reduce the opportunities available to the Opposition. As a Back Bencher and then a Minister, I spent many hours in Committee allowing the Opposition to determine the amount of time a Committee devoted to a particular Bill. We brought in a guillotine or timetable motion only when the Government viewed the time period as excessive—a point to which I shall return in a few moments. The key point is the presumption that Ministers alone decide how much time the House and Standing Committees will take to consider legislation. That is what has undermined the role that Members of Parliament, particularly the Opposition, can play.
Would the right hon. Gentleman prefer the old practice of guillotining, which he and other Conservative Ministers exercised and which was exclusively at the discretion of the Executive, to timetabling, which the House, through its Programming Sub-Committee, is allowed under the current arrangements?
The answer is yes. An informative table is appended to the excellent minority report of my hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd. I was hoping that someone would allow me to raise this matter and the Deputy Leader of the House has provided me with an opportunity to do so.
I draw the House's attention to page 31 of the report, which highlights the Education Bill of the 1992–93 Session. It had 255 clauses and 17 schedules, and the date of the allocation of time motion was
In the 1980s and on to the 1990s, it was standard practice to allow up to 150 hours in Committee—occasionally, at the discretion of the Opposition, even up to 200—before the Government took the view that it was necessary to introduce a guillotine. That is why my reply to the Deputy Leader of the House is that I prefer the earlier approach. What often happened was that the then Opposition, now the Government, would expend considerable time—sometimes two or three days—debating the sittings motion. Hon. Members who had the privilege of being in the House at the time will recall that that was the Opposition's choice; that was how they chose to spend their time in Committee—I have no complaints about that. We then allowed them to spend weeks and months in Committee—again at their discretion—to debate the legislation. Only after a very long lapse of time would the Government, with some reluctance, introduce a guillotine motion.
Yes, I preferred that approach. Under the current system, even before a Committee has embarked on its work, the Government decide how much time it will take and then often introduce what we call "knives".
The right hon. Gentleman is being selective in his choice of Bills. Does he recall, for example, the Transport Bill 1985? Because of the guillotine imposed by Conservative Ministers at the time, many important clauses and schedules—particularly on pensions—were never debated at all. Is not the present timetabling method much better and fairer than the guillotine?
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is no. He and I could wander together down memory lane, and I would be happy to do so. However, if we were to examine the entrails of that Bill and look into the amount of time taken by the then Opposition in the Standing Committee and what particular issues were discussed, I suspect that it would considerably weaken the hon. Gentleman's point. At the moment I cannot remember the Bill in detail, but I would not mind betting that he and his hon. Friends probably spent the first sitting or two debating the timetable motion—no doubt with reference to grandmothers, tea cakes, holidays, the weather and all the other subjects so much beloved by the Opposition at the time.
I have to agree in part with the right hon. Gentleman's point. That may have been true of some hon. Members, but others on our side of the House did not like that method of operation because it prevented us from getting to the meat of the Bill. The present timetabling process is, I believe, fairer.
That should have been a matter for the hon. Gentleman to sort out with his hon. Friends. I shall leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills—his work has brought this problem out—to make the point more forcibly than I could that any attempt to argue that we are getting more effective scrutiny of Bills under the present system of arbitrary timetabling before a Committee even embarks on its work than under the old system cannot be sustained. The truth is that, under the current system, very substantial parts of large and important Bills are not being addressed by the Standing Committees at all because of the arbitrary nature of the guillotining that takes place, as I have said, before the Committee starts its work. I cannot make the point often enough that under the old system the Committee was allowed to start its deliberations and it was the Opposition—back then, as now, Government Back Benchers said very little—who were allowed to decide which clauses were debated and at what rate of progress. I cannot help it if Mr. Marshall and his hon. Friends fell out over it. I cannot help it if the hon. Gentleman sat there mute, waiting for his favourite clause to come up, while his hon. Friends were occupying endless time talking about irrelevancies. That is the hon. Gentleman's problem. If he and his hon. Friends wasted time, that is not for me to explain.
One crucial difference is that under the old arrangements to which my right hon. Friend refers, the Opposition had at least an opportunity to present arguments as to why a guillotine might have been inappropriate. We had a three-hour debate on the guillotine. If my right hon. Friend looks through the list in the report, he will see that the guillotine was often not applied until a breakdown of business in the Committee took place.
That is indeed the case and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing it out. A subsidiary but important matter is how far one had the opportunity to debate the guillotining in itself—an opportunity that the Government have all but done away with. That was an important part of the procedure at the time, which is sadly no longer the case.
Let us move on to paragraph 13 of the report, which states:
"The Government will inevitably get its legislation"— and then generously adds,
"subject to the agreement of the House."
I do not believe that there should be any inevitability about the Government getting its legislation at all. Funnily enough, although we now find ourselves at the end of the Session, much legislation is still being dealt with in another place. We in the House of Commons are marking time. Sadly, it is becoming embarrassingly obvious that there is very little substantive business for us to do, while the House of Lords is doing the real business of holding the Government to account.
For the Government or the Committee—they are the same thing, effectively—to have the gall and the impudence to say that the Government will inevitably get their legislation gives the game away and shows the Government's attitude to the parliamentary process. I hope that the Government will not inevitably get their legislation, if only because they are trying to stuff too much legislation through the parliamentary process. They can easily get their legislation through the House of Commons because of the mechanism that we are discussing—the programming of Bills—but happily still in the House of Lords, where the Government do not have a majority and cannot control the timetable, they will not inevitably get their legislation. Indeed, they may have to give up some of it—parts of Bills or Bills in their entirety. So even that statement, which gives the lie to the Government's attitude to the parliamentary process, happily is not true.
The picture painted by the right hon. Gentleman suggests to the public and to the House that the Government are not allowing time. Will he consider two comparative statistics? In the 1991–92 Session, the House considered 17 Bills, to which 295 hours were devoted in Standing Committee. Ten years later, in the 2000–01 Session, again the House considered 17 Bills, which took up 301 hours in Standing Committee. Do those statistics not show that what the right hon. Gentleman is arguing is simply not true?
No, of course not. That shows the superficial nature of the Minister's understanding of the way the House works. Without looking at the Bills in great detail—their size, complexity and how controversial or otherwise they are—one cannot make a judgment. The raw figures tell us nothing, but my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills will tell us something.
Yes. We must remember that the first period cited by the Minister was the run-up to the 1992 general election, and in the arrangements between the Whips Offices—the "usual channels", as they were called—a huge number of deals were done to expedite business to clear the decks for the general election that was to follow.
Which I personally regret. I would much rather the Opposition of the day had prevented that process from happening, regardless who was in government. It is true that when we were in government, we were allowed to get away with murder by slack opposition, which I hope will not happen again.
I move on to paragraph 19, in which there is something that I agree with. There is not much that I agree with in the report, but in fairness I thought I had better identify one or two paragraphs with which I could agree. Paragraph 19 states:
"There is a danger that, where programme orders specify unnecessarily short timetables, or where time is badly allocated within the overall limits set out in the original programme order, programming will be seen as only a convenience for the Government, allowing it to get legislation through the House in a hurry."
I agree. That is the case. When I comment on the deferred Divisions issue, I shall repeat the word that the Leader of the House let slip: convenience. That is so much the hallmark of the attitude of the Government and Ministers to the House. We are now all about convenience—convenience for the Government, convenience for Members of Parliament—and it has become the present Government's watchword. Nothing must be done that is inconvenient to the Government or to Members of Parliament. Hence the programming of Standing Committees, the change of hours and so many other measures that the Government have introduced, all of which are, in my view, detrimental to the effective role of the House and the Opposition in dealing with the Government and their proposed legislation.
Paragraph 25 goes on to state:
"The purpose of programming is to enhance the House's scrutiny of bills, not to curtail legitimate debate."
How on earth a Committee, even one with a Government majority and even one chaired by a Cabinet Minister, can have the impertinence to say that escapes me. The entire purpose of programming is precisely to curtail debate and to facilitate the Government's legislation.
I say that with some confidence because it is half hinted at, or half admitted, in the report that the Government believe that at the time of Second Reading—the in-principle debate on a Bill—they can foretell how much time a Standing Committee will require to consider a Bill. That indicates that they have no wish to allow the Committee to deliberate properly or even to decide how much time it should take. Before the process even starts, the Government say, "We think the Bill should take three weeks." How can they possibly know that about Bills with a large number of clauses and schedules and many complexities?
Until the Standing Committee is constituted and the legitimate outside interest groups make their input to the process, the Government cannot know how long proper scrutiny or consideration of a Bill will take. Yet the whole philosophy of programming set out in the report and in the motions before us rest on that very assumption. It is that to which I take such exception.
Paragraph 25 goes on to claim that the process is of benefit
"to the Opposition, which is assured of having adequate time".
The Opposition are not assured of anything of the kind, for the reasons that I have just given. Quite the opposite—the Opposition are denied the time that they may wish to have to scrutinise a Bill.
"It is important for all sides to recognise that programming is here to stay".
What arrogance. What impertinence on the part of the Government. How can they say that or know that? I do not believe that programming is here to stay. They might have said, "We believe that programming is here for as long as we are in government and prepared to hold the House of Commons under our jackboot." That might have been accurate, but as soon as we are in government, I hope that programming will not be here to stay.
I hope I can give an undertaking from the Dispatch Box that we would seek to reverse that. In any case, in a strict parliamentary sense, that statement is not and cannot be true, because each Parliament, happily, decides its own arrangements for procedures and Standing Orders. The assertion in paragraph 28 is invalid and untrue.
In paragraph 30 the report deals with timing and makes the valid comment that
"points raised during the second reading debate may be taken into account when decisions are taken about how to allocate time to each part of the bill."
In that respect, I acknowledge that a small concession and a little progress has been made. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend Mr. Cameron tells me that it was his amendment. I congratulate him on persuading the Committee at least of that. I remain to be convinced. I should like to think that that will happen, I hope it will, but I shall believe it when I see it. If the Government are prepared to make that small concession, I hope that they will wait a decent interval after the Second Reading debate to get some sense of what the House, various Members and outside interest groups feel, and make some adjustment to the time that a Bill spends in Standing Committee. I should like to think that that would be a small step in the right direction, but I am not sure that it will happen.
I shall leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills to tell the House the thrust of his excellent minority report. Suffice to say that I agree with the point that he made and the direction in which he wanted to take the Committee, and I regret that the Committee did not feel that it could support his minority report.
It should be obvious by now that I shall not vote for the motions. They seek to apply to future Sessions of Parliament arrangements that have turned out to be completely unsatisfactory. I regret that that is the attitude of Ministers and the Government to our parliamentary proceedings. If one wanted to see any proof of how easy life has been made for the Government, one has only to look at the fact that the Leader of the House can now predict the calendar for an entire year ahead.
One has only to look at the reduced number of sittings. The Leader of the House keeps telling us, because it is what his script tells him, that the House is not sitting fewer days or hours than it did. That is not so. We used to sit on Fridays, regularly and routinely. Fridays have all gone except, happily, for the 13 private Member's Bill Fridays, to which I look forward so much and in which I seek to participate as much as possible. Sadly, the other Fridays during which the House used to sit have all disappeared. Where did they go? They have all gone, to be replaced by nothing at all, as far as I can tell.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have introduced debates in Westminster Hall, which—[Interruption.] He shrugs in scorn, but there is greater opportunity for Members to raise issues and subject Ministers to scrutiny and accountability in Westminster Hall, and many of his Back Benchers take advantage of that. We must consider the changes on Friday and in other respects as part of a rounded whole. On scrutiny, the Liaison Committee now periodically holds the Prime Minister to account. That never happened before, and is another move forward in parliamentary scrutiny under this Government. With regard to Fridays, would Conservative Back Benchers and some of his Front Benchers prefer to give up their constituency Fridays and come back to the House on Friday mornings at his request?
I would hope that all hon. Members would rather be doing their duties at Westminster if that opportunity were given to them. It is a matter for individual decision, but I would always give priority to my duties at Westminster and I hope that that would be the case for all other Members of Parliament.
We used to have on Fridays debates that were not simply the equivalent of Adjournment debates. We had the power to table proposals on which a vote could be held. It was because of that power that the Abortion Act 1967 went ahead and the law on homosexual behaviour changed. Back Benchers could decide whether they approved or disapproved of various controversial matters, but they do not have that power today and it is important that we make that clear.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Yes, we did have legislative Fridays—if I may put it like that—and to talk about the silly sideshow that is Westminster Hall is not good enough. Fortunately, we cannot legislate in Westminster Hall and, given the gold-plated undertaking by a former Leader of the House that we will never legislate in Westminster Hall, it can be no substitute for proper sittings of the House in this Chamber on a Friday. I do not accept that argument.
As for the claim that the Prime Minister now appears before the Liaison Committee, that is all very well for the great and the grand of the House, but what about us ordinary punters who might want to have a chance to question the Prime Minister occasionally? I shall have a further point to make about the Prime Minister when I discuss deferred Divisions, which are one of the biggest insults to the House that we have seen in my memory. It was always thought, certainly by those outside the House, that there was a direct link between a debate taking place and a vote taking place. It was assumed that Members of Parliament would be in the Chamber, or at least would have the opportunity to be in the Chamber, to listen to a debate and then to vote on it. If there were consequential Divisions, that would certainly have to be the case. Now we have the insult of deferred Divisions. If a debate comes on inconveniently late, which may now mean after 7 pm, it appears that it would be an imposition on Members to expect them to tarry in the House to cast their vote. Therefore, the debate may take place, but everyone except those taking part may leave the premises to return several days later and cast their vote on the issue on a ballot paper. That is not what I thought the House of Commons was about when I first arrived here.
The position is even worse than I have described so far. The deferred votes take place—surprise, surprise—just at the time when the Prime Minister makes one of his rare, once-a-week visits to the House of Commons, so that he may take part in the balloted Divisions and slightly boost his voting record, which is dismal at best. We have the double whammy of Members being able to vote on a debate that they did not attend and for which they were not even in the building, and the Prime Minister coming along to vote on something of which he was blissfully unaware. That is the height of absurdity and the essence of the Government's attitude to the House of Commons and its proceedings. Debates are an irrelevance—apparently—and now so are votes.
I hope that the business of deferred decisions turns out to be an anomaly that we get rid of as soon as we are in a position to do so. I hope that it does not fall into the category of changes that the report described as here for ever. Nothing in this House—at least so far—is for ever, and successive Parliaments review such matters. I hope that that turns out to be the case in this instance. I deprecate the appearance of these matters on the Order Paper today. I shall oppose them and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to do so, too.
Parliaments are only as effective as their Members, and how they organise their affairs is fundamental to the way in which they present themselves to the general public. At present, there is much debate about the inability of parliamentarians to engender support in the population and to attract young people to vote and take part in political life. There is a direct connection between that and the way in which Parliaments behave.
The Leader of the House was kind enough to suggest that we view the changes that we are debating today in terms of the overall package. He suggested that we should look not only at this report, but at all the other changes that have been made. That is what I intend to do, from the strong belief that we are taking the wrong direction. The report contains many bland and unexceptional comments. It says that the Opposition should have the right to have their views heard, that the Government should have enough time for their business, that we should have sufficient time to scrutinise Bills and that, under no circumstances, should the Government table hundreds of amendments at a late stage in a Bill's progress. It is not difficult to agree with all those sentiments. We all want a Parliament that has sufficient time to scrutinise Bills. It also needs to understand the implications of legislation but, increasingly, that is not the case.
We must consider the effect of the changes that have taken place. The hours of sitting have changed massively and that directly affects the times at which we see our constituents, the amount of work that we can do, the work of Select Committees and access to the House for those outside. For example, school parties from my constituency, which is not close to the House of Commons, cannot go round the House as they once could. The work of Select Committees has been affected. Because everything is concentrated into two days in the middle of the week, Select Committees are constantly interrupted by Divisions. A Select Committee may be questioning someone on issues of considerable importance to the general public, such as railway or air services, but it must constantly suspend its sitting for Divisions.
My hon. Friend has much experience in the House—far more than I have—but I disagree with her. Our work is not concentrated into two days. We sit Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. People choose to concentrate Committee sittings into Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but Select Committees are free to meet on Mondays or Thursdays.
I am happy to meet on any day of the week that my Committee members choose, but we have already altered the times of our Committee sittings more than once and it has no effect because the Government choose to concentrate the work of the House into two days, leaving a large amount of space at either end of the week.
The reality is that we have not improved scrutiny. Time after time, the Government table amendments on Third Reading—and even after a Bill has been to the other place and returned. We are frequently told that an issue raised in a Bill is important but that it was not discussed in Committee because of the timetable motion. It is fashionable to claim—as the report does—that there was never a golden age in which legislation was properly scrutinised. That was the line taken by the previous Leader of the House, who of course did not himself take a great part in any of the boring chores of looking carefully at legislation.
The way we work has changed, and for the worse. I do not say that the House of Commons should never alter its procedures. It has done so consistently ever since I came here and it has done so for 300 to 400 years without any obvious inability to adjust to the problems of the time. However, the reality is that changes such as deferred voting, timetabling for pieces of legislation or concentrating debates within controlled hours do not improve the quality of Bills or debates. That is a matter of considerable concern. Back Benchers have lost, by a salami-slicing technique, a number of their original powers to bring forward important political matters, and to get them voted on.
It is increasingly clear that people outside the House have no respect for Members of Parliament. Why should they? We do not have time to deal with those aspects of life that concern them.
I am easy to dismiss, as I am very old in relation to this modernising Government and can be regarded as a sort of female Methuselah. However, I have learned one thing since I came to the House—that democracy works only when electors feel that they can identify with what is being done in their name in writing laws or reflecting their views about political problems. They do not want Parliament to be a sort of factory that creates many pages of legislation that they neither see nor understand. They want Parliament to deal with matters that are important to them.
The Government do much that is good. Why are they so insecure that they have to rubbish parliamentary procedures that developed out of people's needs and understanding over a long period? The Government have all the right instincts, so why are they so insecure in their relationship with the House that they cannot give us the procedures that would allow debate to be as open, lengthy—and, yes, boring—as it used to be?
For some people, modernisation equals streamlining, the curtailment of debate and of the powers of the awkward squad, and the restriction of the general role of Back Benchers. Long live the role of the awkward squad! The Labour party was created by, and takes its sustenance from, those who constitute the awkward squad. In some areas, they are called democrats, in others Labour Members of Parliament. We must not imagine that the bland clichés of the report are a true reflection of the dangers that we face. The report does not even debate those dangers.
I am depressed, upset and frightened that the Government constantly want to change the way that Parliament works. If they believe that the changes improve matters, they are mistaken and incompetently ignorant. I do not want to accept that of my Government. Somehow or other, we have lost sight of what Parliaments do. Parliaments discuss, legislate and debate. They often cause the Executive considerable difficulty. Heaven help us if we lose sight of that.
I am a permanent member of the awkward squad. Some say that Liberal Democrats always will be, but that may not be true. However, the central proposition of the speech by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich—that what is before us this afternoon is bland and unexceptional—is true. Some of the Modernisation Committee's members, from all parties, tried to make the report much less bland. We wanted to amend it to make it more robust and to change the Sessional Orders to make the present provisions work better. Unfortunately, we found ourselves up against a brick wall.
The hon. Lady knows how Select Committees work and has encountered the same wall many times. It is betraying no secrets to say that that brick wall is the Government Whips Office. I wanted to make some practical proposals to improve matters, as I do not think that the present provisions are practical or sustainable in the long run.
Mr. Forth made one very important statement—that the previous Conservative Government, of whom he was a member, were allowed to get away with murder. I am grateful to him for putting that statement on the record. If he is reappointed to his current role, I wonder whether he will be allowed to live that down.
I have great regard for the right hon. Gentleman, and enjoy what he says about how this place works. I have some sympathy with some of the concerns that he has expressed, both in government and in opposition. However, he has called the Modernisation Committee "ghastly", but he is totally ignorant of the Committee's work. Some Conservative Members in the Chamber now have made a positive contribution to the discussions in that Committee, and in the last Parliament, Sir Peter Emery was a driving force in trying to improve the workings of the House. It is absurd for the right hon. Gentleman to describe everyone as ghastly, just because he is in one of his gothic moods. If he intends to follow the example of the former leader of the Conservative party and write novels, I hope that he will write something that has its feet on the ground, and not the horror stories to frighten the children that he always tries on in the House.
I am nervous about the distinction made by the hon. Gentleman between Modernisation Committee members and the excellent, barnstorming speech made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth. Conservative Members have more in common with my right hon. Friend than with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I do not want the hon. Gentleman to dissociate the views of Conservative members of the Committee from much of what my right hon. Friend set out in his speech.
The hon. Gentleman is a welcome addition to the Committee, but he did not have the opportunity, as I did, to listen to Sir George Young in the previous Parliament, when he made an important contribution to the Committee's work. That contribution can be seen in several reports. Nor has the hon. Gentleman yet had a full opportunity to hear Sir Nicholas Winterton, who has made a positive contribution to our discussions over a long period. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we are not all ghastly, as claimed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.
I hope that everyone who has witnessed how the changes have operated in recent years will accept two truths—that programming does not work, even in the eyes of people who, like me, have some sympathy with the objectives, and that the previous arrangements of a so-called golden age are a complete will o'the wisp. They never worked particularly well, for a variety of reasons but not least because different parties have different interests. That is why it is important to ensure that the terms of trade—an expression that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire used to use in the Committee—are reasonably well balanced, so that we all can make an intelligent contribution to improving legislation.
I hope that all hon. Members participating in this debate have read the full report of the Select Committee, including the contribution that comes in the form of an alternative report by Mr. Shepherd. I pay tribute to him, and we are indebted to him for extracting the data about how this business has been handled in the past.
When people read the report, I hope that they will not assume that we are satisfied with the present arrangements, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, or that the Committee does not have a real wish to improve matters. We are currently frustrated, but the issue will not go away.
Paragraph 11, to which reference has been made from both the other Front Benches, describes a modest objective: ensuring that different interests in the House are met by the way in which we operate. However, paragraph 25 is the most important one and, if hon. Members have a copy of the report, perhaps they could take this opportunity quickly to read it. It notes that we should be looking for a way of operating that gives the Government a reasonable chance to get their legislative programme through. "Reasonable" is the important word. Some years ago when a colleague and I found ourselves in the relevant Lobby, we counted up the inches of statute that the House had passed from the beginning of the 16th century to 1950. At that moment, it was the same length as the section showing the statutes passed by the House since 1950.
In this place, we try to consume a huge amount of extremely detailed legislation and we frequently give ourselves legislative indigestion. A previous Modernisation Committee report recommended that other Select Committees should play a larger role in pre-legislative scrutiny. In due course, I hope that that would improve the situation but hon. Members will agree that such work would not be the first choice for Members of Select Committees; they enjoy paying fact-finding visits to other parts of the world much more than scrutinising proposed legislation. I fear that we all tend to have that fault.
Paragraph 25 also states that Opposition parties have a prime responsibility to identify which parts of a Bill require particular scrutiny. That lays a great responsibility on us. Under the previous arrangements, a great deal of time was taken up in discussion of sittings motions, which neither did justice to the importance of the issues that were to follow nor gave Parliament a good reputation. The most important thing is that we try to ensure that the product of this place is better. We should be in a win-win-win situation. Clearly, we are not at present, but that should be our objective. The Government should be more confident that legislation will be reasonably assessed and scrutinised and that it will be done in time, and the Opposition should have much more influence over the way in which that detailed work is undertaken. At the end of the day, however, it is vital that we pass better legislation.
I share the concern expressed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that we are trying to do far too much. If devolution does nothing else, I hope that eventually it will take away from this place some of the issues that do not need to be dealt with here. The previous Prime Minister, Mr. John Major, had the misfortune to invent a rather ugly word—subsidiarity—but the principle was right: decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the people whom they affect. The House still has to find a mechanism for achieving that.
Does the hon. Gentleman concede that the Government's desire hitherto to set an end date for a Standing Committee before it has even started puts an artificial onus on all the Committee's members, individually and collectively, and on all the legitimate outside interest groups to compromise their work to fit into the artificiality of those time constraints? Does he agree that it should be the other way around? Before that end date is even thought about, the members of the Committee and the interest groups should wait until they are well into their deliberations so that they can see how much time is reasonably required for them to carry out their work.
The right hon. Gentleman has leapt ahead of my argument. I shall come back to his point, with which I have some sympathy, as I have some practical suggestions that may assist the process. May I modestly suggest that he read the short memorandum that I sent to the Committee, which is in the appendix? To some extent, it meets his point.
I want to refer to another item in the appendix—the memorandum from the Chairman of Ways and Means. He is in a unique position because he can sense how things are operating. As Chairman of the Chairmen's Panel, he receives feedback from the Committees, he regularly takes the Chair in this place and, of course, he has long experience as a Member. I quote in full one of the statements in his memorandum:
"In summary I suggested that the more comprehensive introduction of programming had not led to bills being scrutinised more thoroughly or completely than hitherto; that programming was capable of being used constructively; that, short of any more fundamental approach, detailed programming should not be left in the hands of the usual channels; and that in effect all that had been achieved thus far was legislation in a hurry."
That is a formidable critique from a uniquely informed and objective standpoint. All members of the Committee, whatever their party, took seriously that important set of views. The Chairman of Ways and Means spelled out—as he has done on previous occasions—several practical suggestions for the Committee.
The more fundamental approach to which the right hon. Gentleman referred in his memorandum would obviously involve some form of independent legislative business committee, answerable to the whole House. That will not be easy to achieve—there is so much history to deal with in this place—but we should not ignore the fact that most deliberative assemblies that are similar to ours, including the Holyrood Parliament, which serves the Scottish people, are much more open and transparent, enabling all Members of all parties to make their contribution.
This afternoon, we should give notice that the report is not the end of the story. The Whips—the usual channels—are, in effect, on probation; unless they can help us to improve the situation the reform will have to be much more radical than is currently being suggested. The report and the debate are putting down a marker that if the system does not improve and we do not achieve better results all round for everybody, especially in the quality of the legislation that we pass, the Whips' present decisive role in organising the legislative business of the House will have to be modified.
The Chairman of Ways and Means has repeatedly emphasised, in his evidence to the Committee and on previous occasions, that all parties have responsibility for finding ways to make that process work better, for the benefit of our constituents, for the better delivery of a better-quality product and for the reputation of Parliament. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is right. The general public do not merely feel that we are rather irrelevant; people who come up against the detail of legislation—whether in business, trade unions or whatever—often see only too clearly the inadequacy of the consideration that we give in this place. Whether the legislation is on dangerous dogs or the Child Support Agency, the inadequacy of our work in this place is, all too often, only too apparent to the people who are directly affected by it.
A steamrolling Executive may occasionally be faced by an Opposition that is wholly obsessed with oppositionitis, but the two feed off each other; they are not completely independent. They create equal and opposite alternatives.
Taking a lead from the comments of the Chairman of Ways and Means, I want to make some constructive suggestions. In that context, I have served on a Standing Committee in this Parliament and have frequently done so in the past, but I am not sure how recently the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has served on a Committee considering a Bill. Has he been involved in a Bill that has been the subject of a programme carefully decided by the Programming Sub-Committee? That brings me back to my memorandum, in which I pointed out that it is critical that the Members who are to do the job of scrutinising Bills should take a primary role in deciding how the job should be done. It is absurd that we used to hold three-hour debates in the Chamber on how to split up the time for a Bill. The Members who contributed to such debates were, almost invariably, not going to be members of the Committee. They set the terms of reference but they were not going to do the job.
Surely a basic and sensible approach is to try to ensure that the people who are most concerned should be the ones who decide about the job. Similarly, at present, the Whips discuss how to carve up the programme before the Committee is even appointed. As my unanimously agreed amendment to the report suggests, the operative moment for deciding when such discussions should start is when the Committee is appointed, when the names come before the House for notification—rather than approval, in normal circumstances. That is the moment and those are the people who should be involved in the discussions, not least because that is the moment when Back Benchers can exert some influence. Up to then, only the Front Benchers will know which are the important issues. I find it extraordinary that anyone should hanker after those three-hour debates during which, by their very nature, the non-participants in the detailed work used to make all the running.
Similarly, it is critical that, when debating a Bill on Report in the Chamber, those hon. Members who have served on the Committee should have the first right to discuss, decide and influence the total amount of time used and how it should be used. No doubt, those hon. Members will be influenced by other hon. Members who may feel that the Committee has ignored an issue, but at least those who have served on the Committee will be fully acquainted with the important issues and which issues were not properly discussed.
Mr. Cameron and I also agree that, when the Chairman of a Standing Committee, who is independent and above the partisan views of the members of the Committee, feels that whole chunks of the Bill—perhaps new clauses, new schedules and completely new issues—have not been discussed properly, the very basic requirement of the House should be that we have a report on Report. We tried to promote that suggestion in the Modernisation Committee. It is an absurd anomaly that Report includes no report whatsoever from the Committee.
How would the hon. Gentleman deal with the situation where the Government themselves table 300 or 400 amendments that totally change not only the context, but frequently the content of a Bill?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for asking that—it was almost a planted question—because I addressed the issue in a suggestion that I made to the Modernisation Committee. In those circumstances, the responsibility lies with the Chairman, who is independent, to tell that Standing Committee that such work cannot be undertaken in the current framework. If the Programming Sub-Committee could not agree on a change to the programme motion and it were patently impossible to allow appropriate time, even with additional sittings, it would be the responsibility of that Chairman to return to the House to seek an amendment of the out date. I do not see any other way—any other safety valve—for a Committee to try to do the job properly if it is constrained in such a way.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that that would put enormous and unacceptable pressure on those on the Chairmen's Panel, who are there to carry out the correct conduct of the proceedings on Bills, not to take a strong political position? That would put not only enormous pressure on them, but demand that the Speaker's role changed because their logical line of information would be the Speaker, who would then be required to take what, in effect, would be a clearly political position.
I understand the hon. Lady's concern, but some members of the Chairmen's Panel who have addressed this issue feel that, if they had the support of their Committee in thinking that its job was impossible, they could undertake precisely that role in reporting back to the House. If the Committee were simply divided on party lines and Government Back Benchers simply went along with their party line, well, more fool they, because they would be falling into precisely the trap that the hon. Lady referred to a few minutes ago.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I share his view that we should try to make Report involve a proper report back from the Committee. Does he think that that would be helpful because those hon. Members who are interested in the Bill but did not serve on the Committee would benefit from such a report? An element of the report—this relates to what Mrs. Dunwoody said—would cover what Government amendments were introduced and what weight they had. Is it not the case that, with Bills such as the Criminal Justice Bill, very important amendments are made in Committee of which other hon. Members are not fully aware?
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman says. More transparency is needed. For example, a report about the fact that issues arose late in Committee, were not debated and went though virtually on the nod would be extremely helpful. I am grateful to him for his support on that issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I should have paid tribute to him for the fact that he has promoted that idea. I put it to the Deputy Leader of the House that, on a tripartite basis, we feel that there is an absurdity and that the House should address the anomaly.
Two other points come out in the evidence put to the Modernisation Committee, and we have not yet been able to find the right way to develop them and incorporate them in our process. First, it surely must be important that the process that decides how best to slice up Committee time cannot logically begin until those Members who will serve on that Committee are agreed upon—I mentioned that just now—but then there must be proper time before the Committee sits. It is written into the report that we think that the Government should allow at least two weekends between the agreement on the Floor of the House about who will serve on a Committee before that Committee sits. That time is the minimum to allow not just those hon. Members who will serve on the Committee but other hon. Members who may be interested to feed into the process of determining how best to divide up the time. There must be greater flexibility to cope with unforeseen issues such as the extra material that comes forward.
Secondly, the final decisions on the allocation of time on Report surely cannot logically take account of the discussions in Committee, let alone tabled amendments, until we know what they will be. There is a current case: the Water Bill will be considered in the House on Monday. Substantial amendments may well be tabled today—or, indeed, at least in theory, on Monday—that could be selected for debate. How can it be decided days previously how to divide up the proceedings on Report, especially when time is relatively limited, without full knowledge of the issues to be raised? We have to pace that process more intelligently than we have done.
I regret that we will have to let the existing Sessional Orders stand—I assume that we will do so—because the report is, frankly, a non-progress report. A great deal of work remains to be done. I hope that the Leader of the House and, indeed, other hon. Members will give a firm undertaking that this is not the last word on the issue. I regret that, for reasons not unconnected with the changes in the Modernisation Committee's chairmanship this year, we have not made as much progress on the issue as I should have liked, but let me re-emphasise that we were unable to make better progress in the end because there was a degree of complacent lethargy in the usual channels.
All too often, the main Opposition Whips Office has taken the view that, "Oh, one day we may be over there again, so we don't want to improve the situation, open up, make things more transparent, let Back Benchers in and have a legislative business committee." I regret that very much. My hon. Friend the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip was here just now, but perhaps it is just as well if I say in his absence that we do not want to be dragged into the sort of lethargy that, I am afraid, the usual channels have undertaken all too often in the pursuit of the old Buggins's turn approach: "We'll get there one day, and in the meantime, it's too bad."
After that demolition of the existing process, I wish to ask about the proposals for improvement—the motion—because it involves the continuance of the existing Sessional Orders. I have not heard how one reconciles support for the continuance of the Sessional Orders with the burden of the argument that the hon. Gentleman has just made. Perhaps he could crisply tell us.
The hon. Gentleman has heard me often in Committee; I shall be as brief as I can. I want to change the Sessional Orders, but it is clear that we have to try to develop a cross-party consensus. Just to throw out the Sessional Orders this afternoon would not be a constructive way forward, but I hope that he will give me his support in the Modernisation Committee so that we do not let this bone of contention lie. I hope that he will persuade his colleagues, too, that oppositionitis—rejecting any attempt to improve the situation—is equally foolish, negative and does nothing for Parliament's reputation. There is work to be done, and somehow or other we have to persuade those in the Whips Offices of the other two main parties that this issue will not go away.
It is illogical to say, "I disagree with all of this. We've looked at it more than once. It is not working. However, I am going to let it go because other people want it." We are here to express a view and to say if we do not want something. Many of us are used to being in minorities that turn into majorities. If the hon. Gentleman is serious, he should vote against the Sessional Orders.
I am grateful for that. The memorandum does not suggest reverting back to what was an unsatisfactory situation. I do not accept the implication of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills that everything will be wonderful when we go back to the old system. The situation was eloquently described by the Chairman of Ways and Means, whose suggestions have been blocked. I tactfully warn the Whips that that blockage cannot be allowed to continue for ever. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich has much more experience than I have of what happens in the Government Whips Office, but I think that one day the House will revolt against the hegemony of the Whips Office.
We have had fewer deferred Divisions recently, which I welcome. They should not happen every evening. To some extent, they have become a non-issue. It is important to recall that they were accepted on the basis that they were to be on stand-alone subsidiary issues. We should not be in the invidious position of having to make a major decision on a deferred vote.
I do not know where the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst got the idea that the problem had never arisen before. As a conscientious Member of the House, he is in the Chamber to hear every word that is discussed before he votes, but I have to break it to him—perhaps he has not observed this before—that some hon. Members will not have heard our words of wisdom if we vote today. Quite a few Members come to the House to vote without a completely clear idea of the issues at stake. That is an awful confession and perhaps I should not say it, but as we all know that the best way to keep a secret is to talk about it in the Chamber on a Thursday afternoon, I think that I will escape without encountering the wrath of the gods.
We often vote on an amendment that has either not been debated or been debated the day before. Detaching the debate and the Division is not a dreadful, radical, revolutionary idea. If every time we voted, every Member of Parliament had to put his or her hand on a truthometer or, for those of us who believe, the Bible and say, "I've heard every word of the discussion", there would not be many people in the Division Lobby. The idea that we are breaking a great parliamentary and constitutional convention by detaching a debate from a Division is, frankly, baloney. I hope we can put that to bed.
That may be true. What I have also noticed, which is interesting, is that Members on both sides of the House—no doubt this applies to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst as well—sometimes take the advice of others on how to vote when they go through the Division Lobby with their pink bit of paper on a Wednesday afternoon. He is a man of great independence, so I recognise that he will weigh up the advantages of the advice that he is given, perhaps from the usual channels, as he goes through the Division Lobby. Let us not fool ourselves, however. The House could not operate if every time we divided every hon. Member had to weigh up every issue debated in the preceding discussion, as much as I may wish that that were the case.
The hon. Gentleman does his best to be here for every debate but, as I am about to finish, I will not give way again.
Deferred Divisions are not the ideal way to operate, but they are a reasonable way of dealing with a small problem. It is significant that we do not have to vote in that way often. The Modernisation Committee still has a great deal of work to do. I look forward with interest to hearing what other hon. Members think should be our top priority.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow Mr. Tyler. As is so often the case when we discuss parliamentary matters and the way in which we discuss our business, I find myself broadly and strongly in agreement with almost everything he says. I shall cover in detail some of the points he made.
I hope that the House listened to what my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody said. She put the debate in the right context. What is Parliament all about? What are we doing here? How well do we hold the Executive to account? We are sent here both to support our parties and also, as parliamentarians, to scrutinise the Executive. The proposals, in that they affect the procedures of the House, go to the heart of those issues. The truth, as I think hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise, is that we scrutinise the Government very poorly indeed at the moment, and it is getting worse.
When the former leader of the Conservative party, Sir Edward Heath, gave his final speech to the House—he sat where the hon. Member for North Cornwall is sitting now—he said that in his parliamentary lifetime power had shifted inexorably from Parliament to the Executive, and that if we had any sense we would scrutinise ourselves, resist that move and correct the position. If anything, things have got worse since then, as any fair-minded parliamentarian on either side of the House would recognise. If we cannot see the dangers in that and the warnings to us, we will blindly bear witness to the complete decline of Parliament and parliamentary democracy. It is as serious as that. That is why we have to get the procedures right.
Unlike the shadow Leader of the House, I think that, in principle, there is a lot of good sense in the programming of business, but in practice it is not working, and the ways in which it is not working are serious. Unless Parliament asserts itself and corrects the position along the lines discussed today, we will become a place that simply rubber-stamps the Executive, and that will be to the detriment of everyone.
I am in favour of programming in principle. There is nothing exceptional about trying to have an orderly procedure for our business. The first Standing Committee that I sat on was in 1983 on the Telecommunications Bill, which privatised the telecommunications sector. We prided ourselves in opposing it rigorously. I sat beside, and at the feet of, Mr. John Golding, the former Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who took me through the procedures. He said, "Our job, my boy, is to oppose." Indeed, he drove me back to north Staffordshire every Thursday night and explained what we had done well and what we had done badly. His idea of opposition was to make life as uncomfortable for the Minister, Mr. Kenneth Baker, now the noble Lord Baker, as we possibly could. His view of how that could be achieved was by prolonging procedures. Colleagues, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, will remember his famous 11-hour speech when we considered that Bill.
John Golding was a remarkable man. I do not want my hon. Friend to be unfair to him. He went on for more than 11 hours, but because he knew everything there was to know about telecommunications not only did he not repeat himself, but the Chairman did not have to call him to order because, almost unusually, he knew what he was talking about.
I concede to my hon. Friend that nobody knew more about the telecommunications industry and its practices than Mr. John Golding. However, I should explain that he kept in order only by the skin of his teeth. He explained to me what he described as the Swiss roll way of scrutinising amendments in Committee. His method was to roll out an argument against an amendment. Having reached the end of the argument, his practice was to say, "It is just possible that I am mistaken." He would then roll out the entire argument again from a negative point of view, thus scrutinising his own opposition to the amendment.
Everything that Mr. John Golding said was well informed. Perhaps he was much better informed than the rest of the membership of the Committee put together because of his great experience. It is a slightly romantic idea that everything that he said was completely constructive or in order.
I suspect that we were wrong to oppose that Bill in the way that we did. It certainly made consideration of it nonsensical in Committee. It was not really proper scrutiny, not least because when eventually we so irritated the Government that they imposed a guillotine, swathes of the Bill—I think that we reached only clause 30 of an 80-clause Bill—that affected people working in the telecommunications industry enormously were never debated.
From that moment on, I recognised that, exciting and macho though it was to fight the Government in such a way, it was wholly non-productive and did not serve good scrutiny. Ever since, I have recognised that there is much to be said for good programming. However, that is a big proviso. There must be intelligent programming.
The hon. Gentleman is setting out the grounds of the judgment of opposition parties as to how they treat consideration of a Bill. In consequence of the decisions of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues the then Government introduced a guillotine, which was a matter that had to be debated on the Floor of the House. We are talking about who has ownership of a Bill in Committee, and that has historically been the Committee itself.
I do not dispute the hon. Gentleman's last statement. A Bill should be the property of a Standing Committee while it is in Committee. However, I dispute his earlier point. The assumption behind it is that time is the only weapon of any interest, and it was not an effective weapon against the then Government.
The assumption was not that time was the only weapon. It was the judgment of those who were then in Opposition as to how they should conduct themselves.
Indeed. I concede that. However, it was the convention that Standing Committees saw time as their only way of putting pressure on the Government, and it was not effective pressure when it came to scrutiny. It was pointless pressure. I do not think that either party can point to a substantive concession being made in Committee or on the Floor of the House because of the pressure of time.
One of the points of harassment, nuisance and guerrilla warfare is that occasionally it might elicit information from a Government or even a concession. More important, in the overall sense of the parliamentary Session and the way it works, such an approach may force a Government to prioritise their business in the relationship between this place and the House of Lords. The weapon of time is not necessarily as futile as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It may seem sterile in Committee when considered in isolation, but in the overall context of parliamentary procedure it can have relevance.
I concede that strategically time has a significance. However, specifically, in the scrutiny of a Bill, it is irrelevant and possibly even counterproductive. There is a distinction between strategy and detail.
Would my hon. Friend agree that these recent exchanges overlook an important body of membership of the House? I refer to Back-Bench Members who support the Government of the day. Under the old system they were under great pressure to shut up and do nothing. I can remember a Whip telling me to fill in my Christmas cards rather than even follow the debate. Under programming, Back-Bench Members get an equal share of the time if they want to participate in debate. I would argue that the quality of debates in Committee has increased greatly.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right and that there can be a proper and even-handed debate in Committee, though that reduces the time available to the Opposition. However, I accept that it improves scrutiny. Important and valuable contributions can be made by Government Back Benchers on behalf of constituents or as a result of previous knowledge, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said. My hon. Friend makes a good and fair point. That is another reason why I think that in principle programming is a good idea, if it can be made to work.
The House is enormously in debt to Mr. Shepherd for the 20-pages worth of detail in the report, showing that the constriction of time has changed considerably. His comments have not been read into the record. Perhaps I should wait for the hon. Gentleman's speech and not anticipate it.
By my estimate, between 1881 and 1975 debate was curtailed on Bills on 80 occasions. During 1997—the Government's first year—consideration of Bills was curtailed on only three occasions. Since 1998, time has been curtailed and circumscribed on 93 occasions. Something is going badly wrong. As has been said, it is happening not as a last resort, as it was when the guillotine was imposed up until 1997, about 120 years, but as a first resort. It is happening even before we can see the shape and flow of debate or argument on a Bill. The hon. Member for North Cornwall was absolutely right in saying that until the Bill goes into Committee we cannot hear fully what representations outside bodies will make. I am referring to those that will have to put the proposed legislation into effect in their industries, in the public sector or wherever. Until we can hear the Government defending their Bill and deploying their arguments, we cannot test whether it is good or bad legislation. The idea that all the amendments are clear before we go into Committee is a fiction.
In a decent Committee, the process of scrutiny provokes intelligent legislation, intelligent scrutiny and intelligent amendments, possibly from the Government as much as from the Opposition. In recent years the Government, to their credit, have recognised that, as a matter of routine, proposed legislation is nowadays so poorly drafted that their own legislation sometimes needs dozens or even hundreds of Government amendments. That happens in Committee. The idea that as we go into Committee we can have any idea how long consideration should last, or will naturally last, is a fantasy. It is only in Committee that we begin to see the picture.
I move on to possible ways of remedying the situation. The House is in the debt of the Chairman and Ways and Means and the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills for the shape of a more constructive system. We need a more hybrid system, and essentially that is what the Chairman of Ways and Means and the hon. Member for North Cornwall appear to me, as I read their contributions in the report, to be advocating.
We should have programming that gives an out-date. That is sensible. It concentrates everyone's mind if it is known that there are so many hours or so many sittings in which to divide the debate. That ensures that the important parts of the Bill, which depending on the drafting sometimes appear at the beginning of the Bill or at the end of it, can be covered. It is irresponsible of the House to allow legislation to pass from this place to the other place if important areas of a Bill have not been scrutinised. We should be ashamed of ourselves if that ever happens. Having an out-date would concentrate people's minds and ensure full scrutiny takes place. We would know roughly when scrutiny would be complete but, in addition to an out-date, there should be procedures within the programme for that date to be reassessed. I assume that that is what the hon. Member for North Cornwall is proposing—during discussion of the Bill there ought to be an opportunity for both Government and Opposition to review the proposed out-date. The setting of an out-date and a review in Committee should be transparent, public and published, so that everybody can see what is going on and what the arguments of the Government and the Opposition are. It is not acceptable for a date to be smuggled out via the usual channels and produced as a fait accompli. We must have a transparent system with some elasticity and flexibility to allow for injury time when things go wrong.
If the Government think that they will be run ragged by that arrangement in practice, they have the right that Governments have had for the past 100 years—no one has ever objected to it—and can introduce a guillotine if it is clear that the Opposition are playing games and obstructing proceedings. Old guillotine motions had to brought to the Floor of the House, justified and explained. The Government had to have a good case, or at least one for the Leader of the House to make. Most Members, with exceptions such as Mr. Forth, would have confidence in a hybrid system that is flexible, transparent, open and is not smuggled away. Such a system would address the question of whether we legislate well, provide enough time, achieve fair scrutiny and are ceasing to rubber-stamp Government legislation. If we can answer those questions we will begin to move towards a way of conducting our business that is more intelligent and more credible to the public.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Fisher, who is the shop steward of Parliament First, an organisation that draws support from Members on both sides of the House, is seeking to improve the terms of trade between Parliament and the Executive and has sponsored a number of exciting publications and ideas. I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
In the spirit of our debate, I want to subject my speech to a tight programme motion and make a short contribution on two general matters. First, however, I should like to pick up a point made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth about the circularity of the matters under discussion. The front page of the report shows that the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee is Mr. Hain. Paragraph 29 makes recommendations about late amendments, and states:
"The Government should support such proposals."
The recommendations are aimed at the Government, particularly its business managers, and the chief business manager is the Leader of the House, who is also the Chairman of the Committee. We need to repatriate the Modernisation Committee, and perhaps change its name to the "Strengthening of Parliament Committee". The House would then be in charge of setting the agenda, rather than ceding it to the Leader of the House, who is increasingly becoming like the character in "The Mikado" who wore a number of different hats and spent a large chunk of the opera talking to himself in his various roles.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd for his amendment, and we look forward to his speech, as he has been a doughty defender of the rights of the House in this area. Two factors influence the shape of our proceedings in the House. One is defined and tangible and consists of Standing Orders, rules and Sessional Orders. The other is less defined and consists of the relationships between the usual channels, personalities and the mood of the House. If the second factor is all right, the rules are less important. If it is wrong, the rules become very important. In the last Parliament, relationships became difficult. In my view, a few of my colleagues were too diligent in subjecting the business of the House to detailed scrutiny, and deals were no longer possible. The Government used their majority unilaterally to change the rules and, in my view, overreacted slightly. The rules that we are debating today were therefore introduced, but they are not satisfactory. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that they are obstructing the House in its efforts to deal with its business better.
The mood of the House has changed and is different from what it was at the beginning of the last Parliament. We now have an opportunity to do what Mr. Tyler and others have suggested—look at the advice of the Chairman of Ways and Means at Ev 2 in the report, which states:
"A programme for a standing committee should prescribe an out-date only. It is the experience of Chairmen that the use of internal knives is frequently unhelpful."
I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House that in the next Session we should try with a number of Bills to go back to a system that can work perfectly well with good will. We should leave to the good sense of the Committee, the usual channels and the Front-Bench spokesmen the decision on how to use the available time, thus avoiding the inflexibility of a programme motion. If we try that and it does not work, fine. However, there is an appetite for making that alternative approach work, and it would be an improvement on current arrangements.
At the heart of the problem, as has been said, is the size of the Government's legislative programme. Peers are on their last legs, and are up all night dealing with the remaining stages of a number of Bills, many of which left the Commons with a large number of clauses unconsidered. The evidence is in the Modernisation Committee report. I served on two Standing Committees in this Session—one considered the Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Act 2003 and the other the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill. In both cases, we did not debate key clauses. We were not fooling around wasting time—we genuinely did not have time to address some of the key issues. No wonder that the other place is having to focus on such provisions. The position on Government amendments has got worse, rather than better in recent years.
May I make an observation about the other place? If the right hon. Gentleman makes a detailed comparison of the extent of scrutiny of Bills in the other place and our own experience in the Commons, he will find that the Lords are not scrutinising Bills as effectively as us. In addition, the House of Lords does not have a proper procedure for timetabling business, which is one reason why it is getting into a mess and effectively defying the will of the Commons.
I would draw a different conclusion from the Leader of the House. If the Lords are to avoid the problems that we have been discussing this afternoon, it is important that the Government do not have the facility to introduce guillotines and programme motions in the upper House, as there would then be a risk of legislation going through both Houses with inadequate consideration.
The root of the problem that we are discussing this afternoon is the fact that we are trying get a quart into a pint pot. Until the Government exercise self-discipline on the volume of Bills that are introduced, we shall continue to have arguments about the way in which we programme legislation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was generous about paragraph 11 of the report, in which the Committee outlined four basic criteria that a reformed legislative system should be able to meet. Three of the four criteria have not been met. The Opposition do not have a full opportunity to discuss and seek to change provisions to which they attach importance; all parts of a Bill are not properly considered; and Bills are not prepared properly in many cases and require a mass of new Government amendments. By the Committee's own criteria, the present regime is missing three of the four targets.
I have nothing against draft Bills, but I am slightly worried about paragraph 15, which looks at such Bills. Of the 10 draft Bills introduced in this Session, six were considered by departmental Select Committees whose members, in a sense, are the best folk to do that job. However, there is a risk of their agenda being captured by a hyperactive Government Department, and the Committee's other work being squeezed out. I can therefore see some advantage in establishing more Joint Committees so that the other place can help to deal with the legislative burden.
Finally, there is a risk that deferred Divisions will bring the House into disrepute and encourage cynicism outside about how we conduct our business. I think that there is something almost cynical about voting on a proposal five or six days after it has been debated. The hon. Member for North Cornwall sought to justify such an arrangement by saying that, in debating Bills, there were circumstances in which we voted on an amendment on the day after it had been debated. However, that occurs because of where an amendment falls in considering a Bill and I do not think it is a true parallel with what the Government are now doing. I shall certainly vote against the recommendations on deferred Divisions.
Like the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, I have nothing against programming in principle, as it can represent a good opportunity to make better use of time, but we are certainly not there yet. I shall need persuading before I accept that the current Sessional Orders are the same ones that we should live with in the next Session. I urge the Modernisation Committee to revisit the matter and to see whether it can propose a better remedy for the problems that we have addressed this afternoon.
The only matter on the Order Paper that there has been no attempt to amend is whether we should continue with the existing Sessional Orders. I am a member of the Select Committee on Modernisation, which has now deliberated on that question twice. On both occasions, a majority has concluded that the arrangement is not working quite as we would like. We must ask why. I have had enough of this.
We have a history in this House, and rules and regulations called Standing Orders. We can compare the past with the present and look at the one question that my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth asked: are our Orders working? My right hon. Friend Sir George Young said that the arrangement does not even meet three of the four objectives set by the Select Committee. It certainly does not do so.
The purpose of my minority report—I shall speak to it, if I may—was not to be contentious, but to try to give a history and the background to what we have been through. I regret that tables A and B, which form a crucial document for anyone who wants to examine how programme orders or guillotines have operated in this Session, do not follow my one question: have the Sessional Orders achieved their objective? I sought to list appendices A and B in that part of the report so that the text flowed and so that we could ask ourselves what the effects had been on the basis of a direct comparison. The truth is that, when the information is set out and seen on the page, there is no evidence to support the contention that we are discussing Bills any better than we have in the past. What we have put in the hands of the Government, however, is the means systematically to guillotine every Bill that comes before this place.
One member of the Committee, whom I shall not name, said that they had never read "Erskine May", which records the traditions of this House, how Standing Orders have been used and the practice that has been followed. "Erskine May" refers to guillotine motions. The 1997 edition notes that such motions
"may be regarded as the extreme limit to which procedure goes in affirming the rights of the majority at the expense of the minorities of the House, and it cannot be denied that they are capable of being used in such a way as to upset the balance, generally so carefully preserved, between the claims of business, and the rights of debate."
I maintain that our report—the majority report—does not even address that central proposition of "Erskine May", which reflects the practice, custom and purpose of this House.
Mrs. Dunwoody, the distinguished Chairman of one of our Select Committees, had it in mind that the focus of why we are here—the assemblage of Clerks and the majesty of Parliament—is not about us, but about those whom we represent. Having given the Government this enormous power of majoritarianism in Sessional Orders, there is no weighing process whereby we can criticise them for giving only three minutes to debate the slaughter of a first-born Bill and for insisting on their out-date. Not one Member can say "Hang on, I think that the slaughter of the first-born might require half an hour."
We have so accepted a process that seeps through our understanding of who we are and what we are about. Outside bodies, including the Hansard Society, for which I have great respect, and Clerks have toiled over the years, saying, "Surely, as reasonable people, we can construct a system whereby we can weigh elements of debate, and allow freedom of expression and the rights of opposition." Yet in looking at the history of this place, we see that its origin was to give opposition ownership in Committees, as they were taken from the Floor of the House and put off the premises, so to speak. That was about doing our job for ourselves and it gave opposition the ownership of saying, in one sense, "This is the proposition of us, the majority; we believe this is right—challenge us."
That is familiar to every Briton. We do it in our courts: I make a case, and the defence makes its case. That is essential to our concept of equity and justice. This high court, as it once was, followed that tradition, but, as the figures given by Mr. Fisher showed, it broke with it almost a century and a third ago. The Irish question had brought the Government to despair: three months, no less, were spent on one measure. The effect of the new arrangements were recognised at that time—indeed, some of the comments that were made have been cited. At the will of the majority, a great constitutional measure could, if necessary, be swept through in an afternoon. People were mindful of the fact that that was a very important departure, and that its effect was significant for the well-being of the nation.
When we discuss guillotines in the modern age, it is one of the ironies of life that, as we become less educated, in a sense, about who we are, where we come from and who we represent, we find it tedious that oppositions and minorities should be allowed to rattle on. The truth is that Governments have had the power, and have maintained it over the years, to say "We have had enough of this." However, that power should be used only at the end of the process once it has been ascertained that what is happening is deliberate obstructionism rather than considered argument about whether a Bill is appropriate for the country.
I totted up slightly different figures from those of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central—my hon. Friend—and I put them in the report. Between 1946 and
The truth is that, historically, most Bills were not opposed. I have sat through debates as the House has supported tranches of such legislation. Committees have undertaken detailed scrutiny quite satisfactorily. This has become a major issue because guillotines represent an instrument of the Government's control over this House. That is why the Government want the Sessional Orders to continue.
I have many beliefs that I want to represent on behalf of my constituents. I profoundly believe that the new constitution for Europe destroys the very essence of democracy in this country. I want that to be fully debated, but if the Orders are passed there is nothing to stop the Government saying that two days in Committee of the whole House is sufficient—and I cannot even debate whether that is so. Yet when we are denied a referendum, the Prime Minister advances the argument that our custom and usage is for Parliament to consider all such issues and that the will of Parliament will prevail. That is why this is a major constitutional issue. We want to find a way in which rational and decent people can properly discuss legislation, but the Leader of the House, who sits on the Select Committee that makes these proposals, has delivered into the hands of the Government the means by which they render us ineffective.
Other hon. Members touched on the consequences. Power has moved from here to the House of Lords, which is drowning in the examination of legislation that we are not considering. I urge hon. Members, the public, the Hansard Society—anyone who trusts in Parliament or is interested in the fundamentals of our democracy—to look at the detail on the guillotines in tables A and B. When I speak to people outside who question what we are, or are not, doing has no idea that if I want to speak on, say, the fluoridation of water, I am subject to a two-hour guillotine that will not even remotely allow me to express a human rights interest in the autonomy of the individual. They do not understand that the new Labour Government have constructed Sessional Orders that throttle and belittle our purpose.
We talk about connecting with the outside world, but we are not connecting with anyone. Parliament would revive if we were allowed to carry out the task that we were elected to perform—to come here to give assent or acquiescence to the measures proposed by the Government or to reject them if we think them inappropriate. The massive armies of parties locked in debates between themselves have lost the wider purpose of our business. These Sessional Orders should be rejected: we should revert to the practice that has been successful in the past.
I welcome the opportunity to speak, albeit briefly, in the debate. Before I do so, I apologise to Mr. Forth for having come into the Chamber halfway through his passionate speech. I am afraid that I was a victim of programming—the programming of planes from Germany, where last night I attended an awards ceremony: not for me, I hasten to say, but for my husband. I got here as quickly as I could.
As a member of the Modernisation Committee, I am extremely pleased to support the reinstatement of the Sessional Orders and broadly to support the contents of our report. The report is not, as some hon. Members assert, blindly in favour of programming—in fact, it criticises it and says that we need to revisit it constantly. It says that the programming that we have at the moment is imperfect and that we must continue to work on it as a Parliament—not as parties—to make it better.
I welcome the comments of Mr. Tyler and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), because I believe that we have to consider where knives fall in Committees. It is not sensible to set knives—or even, sometimes, an out-date—before the Committee has first met and has looked at what it has to discuss in terms of contentious areas and areas where more time might be needed. We should be able to do that together, as adults, and to arrive at a decent compromise that allows proper scrutiny and debate.
The report says that the purpose of programming is to enhance legitimate debate and scrutiny. Frankly, when I first came into this House in 1997, a great deal of our debate was not legitimate. Had I been present for John Golding's 11-hour speech on telecommunications, riveting and encyclopaedic though it may have been, I am afraid that I would not have felt it to be a legitimate use of the House's time; and, as a taxpayer, I would have been extremely irritated that the only way in which the Opposition—which was my party in those days—could think of opposing the Bill was by delaying it.
I know that my hon. Friend has strong views about another place, but, for her information, two Labour Members once managed completely to derail an inadequate plan for its reorganisation by using the tactics of delay, not only against that legislation, but against every piece of legislation, until the Government of the day abandoned it. They were Lord Joel Barnett, who had been a Treasury Minister, and my most honoured friend, the right hon. Robert Sheldon. It would be difficult to make remarks such as those that she just made if one was not here and did not understand how such procedures worked.
I bow to my hon. Friend's greater knowledge of what happened in this place before I entered it, but I was referring to a specific example. What those noble Friends did was useful and good, but I am talking about using 11 hours of delaying tactics. When I came here in 1997, we did not have programming. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said, it was not introduced until 1998, and that was out of necessity. I have served on the Standing Committees on two Bills—the National Minimum Wage Bill, which had no programming, and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which had programming, but is specifically mentioned in the report as being an example of bad programming that did not allow enough time.
My hon. Friend says that we were forced into considering programming. Presumably, therefore, she is suggesting that during our first Session in 1997 we were completely stymied by mindless opposition, but there is no evidence for that. Indeed, the details that Mr. Shepherd appended to the report show that we needed to use the guillotine only four times during that Session, which is about the average for the previous 10 years.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I did not say that we were being paralysed. Let me underline again what I was saying about legitimate debate. The National Minimum Wage Bill Committee once sat for 36 hours. The Deputy Prime Minister and I listened to the Opposition discuss almost anything except the minimum wage. That was the longest sitting of any Standing Committee.
It sounds to me as if what the hon. Lady is complaining about is the fact that she was inconvenienced. We come back to this time and again: whatever the pros and cons may be of delay or irritation—I am in favour of that being used against any Government, and I experienced it when I was in government and did not complain about it at the time—I am irked that Labour Members seem to be obsessed with having an easy, slick, organised, convenient life, rather than occasionally accepting inconvenience. Is that what the hon. Lady is saying?
That is precisely what I am not saying. I came into politics to make things better. I do not care how inconvenienced I am or how long I spend in this House if what we are doing is legitimate and useful. On the National Minimum Wage Bill Committee it was not legitimate or useful. It was wasting time. The right hon. Gentleman seems to think that time wasting is the only way in which we can oppose. It is not.
The point, surely, is that what is legitimate in the hon. Lady's terms should not be solely in the purview of the governing party. Legitimacy is not for the Government to dictate or define; that is for the House and individual Members. Surely she would acknowledge that.
Nor is that just for individual Members to define. Individual Members and the Opposition held members of the National Minimum Wage Bill Committee prisoner. [Interruption.] I am not complaining about it. I am saying that it was a waste of time and that we should not be in Parliament wasting our time and taxpayers' time.
No, I should like to make some progress.
The purpose of programming is to enhance debate and scrutiny, so I am glad to support it. We need to revisit exactly how we impose programming on lengthier Bills. This report outlines that and gives a steer towards it. We have to stop harking back to the old days. They were not all that good, nor all that bad. I hope that I will not hark back to my time in the House in quite the same way as some have done today. I am 60 years old and a pensioner. I am not young or particularly keen on modernisation. I am too old for it. However, I am particularly keen on this House being effective and respected. A reason why we are losing respect is not, as some hon. Members say, because we are not working long hours. We all work impossibly long hours either here or in our constituencies. It is because we talk rubbish a lot of the time and we have to admit that.
The hon. Gentleman knows more than I do about talking rubbish. I have heard him do so in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill Committee. We must stop it if we are to be respected and taken seriously again.
My only observation, other than congratulating the hon. Lady on being 60, a year which I also celebrate—important as it is to the debate—is that the old days are just seven years ago. They are not some mythical past. I should be grateful if she, too, would explain why she supports these measures when they are clearly not working.
I believe that the measures are working—not well, but they are working. We have a duty to make them work better. What we are doing in Parliament is to prevent them from working at all. We resist programming and say that if we go back everything will be all right. We have to look at what we have. It is there because it is necessary to stop us talking rubbish.
We must also stop drawing a comparison between guillotining and programming. Guillotining is cutting off debate, whereas programming is getting together to decide where and when we debate. We need to make sure that we understand that programming is something that we do together. It is the responsibility in particular of Ministers and the usual channels to make sure that it works.
The Committee had a chance to do something about that, but, as far as I know, it did not so. I was not on that Committee, but I know that there were a massive number of clauses.
We are not taking responsibility for what we are doing. The report tries to get us to do that. I have enormous respect for Mr. Shepherd and I respect his minority report. I pledge to work with him to make programming work better. We must understand that guillotining is suppressing debate and programming is trying to work out together how to give the Opposition enough time to discuss contentious areas and not just filibuster contentious areas. I support the report.
It is a pleasure to follow Barbara Follett. She did not tell us whether her husband won the award in Berlin, but I am sure we are all keen Ken Follett readers and hope that he picked up a globe or whatever last night.
We have had an excellent, albeit short debate. Perhaps in contrast to some contributors I should stress my inexperience. Nevertheless, I can say that I made my maiden speech during a debate on programming. I expressed my scepticism then and I have had little reason to change my view since.
Several hon. Members talked about the Modernisation Committee report. Perhaps it is wrong for me to express a view, having joined the Committee so recently, but I have great sympathy with what my right hon. Friend Sir George Young said. I do not think that the Committee works properly. It is neither a Committee of the House, independent of the Government, nor something else. It is half way between. It is ably chaired by the Leader of the House, but it would be better if the Committee looked at the processes and procedures—[Interruption.] I would not call it the Modernisation Committee; it should be renamed. It would be better if parliamentary colleagues had a proper look at these issues without the Government being so involved, so I agree with my right hon. Friend that it does not work.
Summing up the debate for my party, I oppose the Sessional Orders for three good reasons. First, the routine programming of Bills is wrong. Hon. Members have expressed differing views. Some favour having an out-date for all Bills, but only that; some, such as my hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd, whose minority report is very good, would go much further. It is interesting that we heard only one contribution from someone—the hon. Member for Stevenage—who believes that the system is working and that there should be routine programming of Bills.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills made an extremely strong speech, and I want to quote the opening line of his minority report, which says it all:
The routine programming of Bills, which we now have, does not allow for that degree of tolerance and forbearance. My hon. Friend quoted some powerful figures. The report says that
"in the 57 years from 1946 to 1997 only 67 bills were guillotined", but that in the past six years there have in effect been 94 guillotines.
Therefore, my first reason for opposing the Sessional Orders is that routine programming should not be necessary. The Government should look at the point made by my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton, among others, and try to give some Bills just an out-date and not a detailed programme motion.
My second reason for opposing the Sessional Orders is that by any stretch of the imagination the current system is simply not working, as Mr. Fisher and many others said. The figures in the memo at the back of the Public Bill Office report are staggering. There are 27 Bills in the current Session, and knives have come into play 53 times. Two hundred and sixty-four groups of amendments have not been reached because of knives. Last night I added up all the clauses and schedules not reached, and it comes to a staggering 519. Many of those are not discussed at all, not even on Report. The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons asked what the figures were previously, but he must listen to Members in his own party who, after careful consideration, are saying that the system really is not working.
In an intervention on the hon. Member for Stevenage I mentioned the Criminal Justice Bill, on whose Standing Committee I sat. There was no filibustering in that Committee. Mr. Kidney also served on it and I am sure that he would back me up if he were here. On that Bill, 71 groups of amendments were not reached and 106 clauses and schedules were not discussed at all. Just to give one example, that Bill made the big change in criminal procedure of moving the charging of suspects from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service. It was not debated at all in Committee. It was not reached and therefore went under the knife. If our constituents knew how badly we were doing the vital work of scrutiny, they would rightly be even more concerned.
The hon. Gentleman said that I thought that the system was working well, although I may be misquoting him. I think that it needs a great deal of improvement, and he has just given an example of where that is needed. That is why I am glad that he is on the Modernisation Committee. Perhaps we can work on that.
That brings us to some of the points that I have made during my brief time on the Committee. We need to look at those issues. We need some change.
The third reason why the Sessional Orders should not remain as they are is contained in the very powerful evidence that we heard from the Chairman of Ways and Means, which has been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire and by the hon. Members for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. That is powerful evidence from someone who really understands how previous systems worked or did not work, and how the current system is not working. We should take that extremely seriously. Mrs. Dunwoody, too, referred in a powerful speech to the contribution of the Chairman of Ways and Means and said that we were going down the wrong track. Why are the Government so scared of having further debate in this place? That is a third reason why the system needs radical surgery.
Any newcomer to this place cannot help but be struck by these simple facts: we pass too much legislation, we do it too quickly and we do not give it enough scrutiny. Many Members have expressed those views this afternoon. The situation is already bad and the evidence seems to suggest that it is getting worse. The Modernisation Committee minority report, drafted by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, gave some figures for the pages of legislation passing through this place. In 1997–98 there were 1,900; by 1999–2000 that had risen to 2,537. I have figures from the Library, showing that the situation is getting worse still. One could argue that the introduction of programming has made the Government's life simply too easy because it encourages sloppy legislation. The number of Bills has not risen markedly—there were 39 in 1997–98 and 40 in 2001–02—but programming encourages sloppy legislation because the Government know that they can programme legislation and ram it through the House.
In the remainder of my time I shall point out what I think is wrong with the system and say where we need to make progress. The hon. Member for North Cornwall took a similar approach. Here comes the shopping list. First, it should not be necessary to programme all Bills. There should be flexibility. Why not have an out-date where possible and, if the Government believe it to be necessary, programming where needed? They should consider that, rather than just having routine programming to drive everything through.
Secondly, as a number of hon. Members have said—for instance, the hon. Members for Stevenage and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central—programme motions are dealt with at virtually the same time as Second Reading. There should be time for a Committee to consider points made on Second Reading, and to decide whether to oppose the Bill and which matters need to be discussed in most detail. No account is taken of the number of amendments that may be tabled, not just by the Opposition but by the Government.
Thirdly, nowadays most programme motions are not debated. Surely they should be debated, especially when they relate to big Bills. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills gave a good example: will the programme motion on the legislation relating to the European constitution be taken straight through the House, with no proper discussion of how much time should be spent debating that legislation? I would prefer us not to have these wretched programme motions at all, but in that instance it would certainly be wrong for us not to be able to discuss the amount of time to be spent on debate.
Fourthly, the use of knives in Committee is far too inflexible. I know that the Programming Sub-Committee can change the arrangement, but that happens far too rarely. In the case of the Criminal Justice Bill, important measures fell under the knife. The Modernisation Committee report gives a brilliant example relating to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. All credit should be given to the Leader of the House for allowing us to include it, for it is pretty shocking. The report says:
"The effects of the short timetable were exacerbated to some degree by lengthy speeches . . . In the end, 58 groups of amendments and 73 clauses and schedules were lost to the knife. Clauses which were taken forthwith under the knife included all but four of the 11 clauses in Part 1".
The Leader of the House said that it was good for lobby groups to know when certain parts of a Bill would be debated, but it is just as true that it is dreadful for the lobby groups when the part of a Bill that they care about falls under the knife and is not discussed.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the provision for debating amendments tabled at a late stage. That is mentioned in the report. Will the Leader of the House give us some guarantees regarding the allowing of more time for debate? The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central used a good phrase: he said that there should be transparent public and published discussions on that.
The hon. Members for Stafford and for North Cornwall and I would all like a proper Report stage. Members who do not serve on a Standing Committee may be interested in the Bill none the less, and may want to know what has happened to it. They may have spoken and listened to speeches on Second Reading; once the Bill has disappeared into a Standing Committee, they may find it difficult to follow the Committee stage in detail, given all the work we must do here. What is needed is a proper report, perhaps from the Chairman of the Committee, listing amendments that were not debated, clauses that were not reached, schedules that were not discussed and Government amendments that were introduced, and specifying the amount of time spent debating those amendments. That would give hon. Members a sense of the shape of the Bill, how it had changed in Committee, and what work Parliament should still be doing to ensure that we do our job properly.
Third Reading has not been discussed today, but I want to place it on the record that Report stages much too often last only one day, with Third Reading following immediately. Members with an interest in the Bill who were not involved in the Committee stage might want to consider what happened on Report before deciding what to say on Third Reading. Third Readings are becoming a dignified rather than an efficient part of the constitution, which I think is wrong.
Another issue not mentioned today was the subject of a powerful point made to the Modernisation Committee by the Chairman of Ways and Means. I refer to Back-Bench amendments. Mrs. Curtis-Thomas, who has done a huge amount of work on the subject of historical allegations of abuse in children's homes, came up with some serious amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill. A lot of thought had gone into them, but because of the way in which the knives operated on Report, they fell. Obviously, there is little transparency in what is selected and what is not.
The Chairman of Ways and Means makes an excellent suggestion, which is to set up some form of legislative business Committee, to which Back-Bench Members could appeal and explain why their amendments should be selected and debated. I hope that that idea will be considered. Back-Bench amendments are all too often lost, particularly under our present harsh programming regime.
There are some good suggestions in the Modernisation Committee report. Programming Sub-Committees should meet as a matter of routine if the Government table a lot of amendments; I hope that that will happen. I also hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will give us a guarantee about the paragraph that says that more time should be guaranteed between the introduction of a Bill and its Second Reading, and also between the choosing of a Standing Committee and the start of its work.
Like my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth, I remain of the view that a great deal more needs to be done. The test should not be whether we are getting home early, or whether the passage of legislation is predictable; it should be whether we are doing our job properly—and as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich and others have said so clearly, we are not doing it right at the moment.
We have three things to do in the House. The first is to stand up for our constituents and the second is to hold the Government to account. Those two we do quite well. The third, however, is the business of passing legislation, and in my experience over the past two years, that is something we do very badly. I do not believe that the Sessional Orders will address that problem at all, so I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote them down when we get the chance, and start with a clean sheet of paper.
The whole House will agree that this has been an interesting and useful debate, and I thank right hon. and hon. Members, led by Mr. Forth, for their contributions. Let me repeat the remarks of the Leader of the House and say that it would be a great shame if this were to be the right hon. Gentleman's last speech as shadow Leader of the House. He is an asset to the House, even if on some occasions—indeed, on many occasions—he is somewhat on his own.
I notice that the right hon. Gentleman has not been reaching for his bleeper this afternoon; indeed, I am not even sure whether he has taken to wearing such a modern device—but if he has one, clearly it has not gone off. I congratulate him. He might wish to point out to the House that his deputy, who also made a good and well-informed speech today, was special adviser to Mr. Howard, so I am sure that he will be watching his progress very closely.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has a duty to the House and to the process of scrutinising the Executive's proposals, but he also, rightly, has a duty to the Government and to their right to achieve their legislative programme. After all, that is what the Government were elected to carry out. I think that most Members believe that the balance between those two pressures is about right. As many people have said in the debate, it could improve, but—contrary to what the shadow Leader of the House said—it is legitimate for the Government to expect that their legislative programme will be reasonably scrutinised and, at the end of the day, they should have the opportunity—
Let me develop my point before hon. Members start to intervene.
Programming did not originate with this Government; it originated from Committees of the House, particularly in 1985 and 1992, with Conservative majorities. Programming was not, as the Opposition have attempted to suggest today, motivated by the needs of a heavy-handed Government making irresponsible use of a large majority. It was originally motivated by a desire among Back Benchers on both sides of the House—and, indeed, among Front Benchers—for sensible timetabling of Bills.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but my point is that the motivation for programming has not come about through the desire of the Executive. He is more experienced in, and aware of, the route map of programming, but I should point out that programming evolved; it was not invented by the new Government in 1997. I wanted to make that point because it is an extremely important one.
Sensible timetabling of discussions—I emphasise the word "sensible"—especially when they are controversial, is a good thing for all concerned. It allows Front Benchers on both sides of the House to plan their speeches and interventions, and to plan with outside bodies, as is legitimate. It allows Back Benchers, who have many competing demands on their time, to know in advance with some accuracy when the issues of concern to them and their constituents will be debated. In my opinion, it is wrong to say that timetabling has had a detrimental effect on scrutiny, and the facts back that up. The House should look to the quality, as well as to the quantity, of scrutiny. On both counts, sensible timetabling has improved matters.
I concede—as the report concedes and my right hon. Friend conceded in his opening remarks—that in certain cases, programming has proved detrimental, and it is the business of this report and of this debate to try to improve it. It works well only if there is co-operation. That is part of its purpose: it gives Standing Committees and the usual channels the responsibility to work together to timetable debates in a sensible way.
In answer to a point raised by Mr. Cameron, it is not programming that makes bad legislation; it is irresponsible filibustering that takes away from Members not involved in that filibuster the opportunity to debate the clauses and schedules that they consider important. If a commitment to co-operation were made—there have been many examples of co-operation in the current Session—programming would work for all of us.
Indeed, in researching for this debate, I found dozens of examples of Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen congratulating the Government usual channels on the well-ordered manner of the debates. I was going to read all of them out, but some of the Members in question are present and I do not want to embarrass them today. However, I shall offer some examples. In the Standing Committee that considered the Licensing Bill, the following was said:
"We have no criticism of the end date and we are happy to work with it".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D,
It was said of the programme motion for the Criminal Justice Bill that
In the Standing Committee on the Extradition Bill, the Opposition spokesman said that
"there was no contention at the short Programming Sub-Committee . . . The matter was left to be reconsidered at a future meeting".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D,
There are many examples of programming benefiting the sensible work of the Committee.
Today's debate has been divided between those with an outright opposition, in principle, to the idea of programming, and those on the other side—I admit that they come from a wide spectrum—who accept the principle of programming but want to improve its operation. The Leader of the House and I include ourselves in the latter category: we are committed to making this work. In that context, it is wrong to portray programming as a measure adopted by a heavy-handed Government; it is a genuine attempt to provide sensible, modern timetabling of debates.
I want to consider the alternatives to programming that were described by my hon. Friend Barbara Follett. The idea that there was a golden age is simply wrong.
I do not want to go too deeply into this issue, but I want to consider those rare occasions when a Bill is considered in Committee on the Floor of the House. Two Bills relating to Northern Ireland were so considered in this Session. Both provided for a great deal of subordinate legislation, so they were not simple Bills. On the first occasion, there was no Committee stage. By the time we had dealt with the programme motion and had Second Reading, the whole thing went through like a tablet of stone. I make this plea: can we avoid that in future, because it is an abuse of Parliament?
Secondly, what are the modalities of deciding what time should be made available in those circumstances, bearing in mind that minority parties as well as the official Opposition and some anoraks like myself are interested in these matters? How are we to deal with the occasions when there is a need for expedition, but not abuse?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He provided some good examples of where sensible flexibility is required. In the first instance, programming was, I concede, undesirable. It is also the case that the House is learning how to use programming in a constructive way. As my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody said, like all parliamentary procedures, it is a matter of evolution. However, if Opposition Members set their faces against it and deny it the opportunity to work, scrutiny—together with the reputation of the House—will suffer.
As a former member of the Whips Office—I, too, have been a Whip—I would like to ask how the Minister reacts to an extremely important recommendation from the Chairman of Ways and Means, which is recorded in the report. He said that
"detailed programming should not be left in the hands of the usual channels".
What is the Minister's response?
My first response is to say what existed before programming. We have heard examples from pre-1992 Sessions and I understand that I was criticised earlier by Mr. Shepherd—I was not present, but I bow to the hon. Gentleman's greater knowledge. What happened in the earlier period was that the usual channels ipso facto agreed the programming and timetabling of Bills. Secondly, if knives are imposed by a majority on a Committee that is unwilling and there is no consensus for that action, the likely outcome—experience on the planning Bill bears this out—is that it will not work well. It will not result in better scrutiny. However, I agree with Mr. Tyler, who agrees in principle with timetabling, that if we are committed to making it work and we learn from our experience—the Hunting Bill is one of many examples—we can move forward together. I must now make progress with my speech.
The Modernisation Committee report is helpful in setting out how we can improve programming for our benefit in the House. It is very strong in its support for the principle, but I believe that the core recommendation is in paragraph 10 on page 5, which points out that the principle is fine, but improvements need to be made. That is the basis on which we bring the motion before the House today.
I invite the House, especially hon. Members opposed to today's motion, to consider the consequences of not having programming. We had some examples of that earlier today. As the report says, there was never a "golden age" of full scrutiny of all clauses of all Bills. On the contrary, there was deep and widespread dissatisfaction with the haphazard nature of scrutiny. That frustration was the motivation that led to the introduction of programming.
In any event, the programming and timetabling of Bills is only one part of the jigsaw of modernisation. I know that the word "modernisation" sends the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst into apoplexy—[Interruption.]—so let me use a different turn of phrase. Making House of Commons procedures relevant to the British public is, I believe, the same as modernisation. Opposition Members are kidding themselves if they believe that the antiquated methods of discussion—through-the-night debates, speeches that nobody listened to—will make the average voter in our constituencies respect this place more. People do not come up to me on the streets of Oldham and say, "Phil, that was a great intervention at 2.30 in the morning on the National Minimum Wage Bill". They are more likely to say, "What on earth are you lot doing down there, behaving like that?". Programming and modernisation represent a serious attempt to reconnect Parliament with the people whom we represent, and the programming motion should be seen in that context.
The Government have improved scrutiny. In this Session, nine Bills have received pre-legislative scrutiny. Does the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst commit himself to adopting pre-legislative scrutiny, in the unhappy event that his party were to take power, or would he prefer, as I suspect is the case, to do away with pre-legislative scrutiny because he thinks it is a modern innovation that has no place in our procedures? It would be interesting to hear his reply in future debates.
The Government introduced Westminster Hall, allowing Back Benchers more opportunities for Adjournment debates. From my experience of trying to make programming work in my previous designation in the Whips Office, I can tell Opposition Members that if they think the usual channels are happy with all the new procedures, they misunderstand the position. Those procedures create a greater workload for Ministers. The number of times that Government or Opposition Back Benchers have forced Ministers to come to the House has increased dramatically since the introduction of Westminster Hall. It is a shame that hon. Members do not take it as seriously as they should.
What frustrates the House on all sides is not the sensible timetabling of Bills, but the attitude of those on the Opposition Front Bench who agree, often in private, with a sensible timetable for debate, and who often agree with the measure before the House or the Committee, and then detain the House late at night with pointless votes against programming out of some misguided sense of opposition. If they oppose the measure, that is what they should vote against. They should not delay the House by debating how it should be debated. It is such Opposition antics, not the sensible timetabling of Bills, that bring the House into disrepute.
The shadow Leader of the House gave the game away in his infamous "back of the taxi" memo. He may be coming to the end of his time as shadow Leader of the House, although I genuinely hope not. Let me remind the House what he said at the beginning of his time as shadow Leader of the House, when he wrote the infamous memo to his Chief Whip:
"We should be more discriminating in targeting Bills . . . to ensure that the controversial Bills cannot be completed".
If one sets out with the objective of opposing a Bill come what may, of course one will oppose in principle the sensible timetabling of Bills, but is it not better to adopt the philosophy of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage, who has pointed out in the House and elsewhere that strong and sensible argument is the strongest weapon of opposition, not filibustering and delay, which in my opinion bring us all into disrepute?
Mr. Norman, who unfortunately could not be present for the debate, has asked:
"Are we just going to get consumed with a rather claustrophobic atmosphere—the in-bred atmosphere of Westminster—and to believe that we are achieving things just by staying up late at night making speeches that nobody ever listens to?"
That is the alternative to timetabling. [Interruption.] I hear it rather unkindly suggested that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells may know about that, but his point is nevertheless valid.
Do we want to go back to legislating without timetabling, when the House was brought into disrepute by schoolboy antics? I respect, as does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the fact that the Opposition have a duty to oppose. That is the nature of our parliamentary democracy, but it is facile to waste the time of hon. Members. How many hours have been spent not on opposing or scrutinising Government proposals, but on arguing about when hon. Members are to argue about when they are to argue about them? We saw that yesterday, in a wholly false debate about the Water Bill, when we could have spent the time discussing other important matters. Hon. Gentlemen criticise my right hon. Friend for not allocating sufficient time, but it is now two hours before the moment of interruption, and where are the hon. Members who oppose the heavy-handed Government with their large majority? I suggest that some are Upstairs celebrating, and some are Downstairs commiserating. Those are not good opposition tactics; they serve to discredit the House.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that he wishes to consider measures to help to make programming work and the hon. Member for Witney made some sensible suggestions. He made a valid point about late amendments. Sensible timetabling is contradicted by the introduction of many late amendments, whether by the Government or the Opposition. The report makes that point and says that the situation should be improved, but many of the Bills that we debate do not have knives, even under the programming regime. Although the hon. Gentleman made some sensible points, I reject the central thrust of his argument, which was opposition in principle to the idea of programming.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage made some strong points, but she also said that she was critical of the current operation of timetabling and wanted to improve it. Many other hon. Members agreed. However, I agree with my hon. Friend's central point. I, too, was on the Committee that considered the national minimum wage. It sat for 36 hours, not to improve scrutiny but for filibuster after filibuster.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich made her opposition clear and I respect that, given her vast experience of debates in the House. However, I disagree with her strongly on one point. She said that parliamentary procedures evolved out of a concern that they were relevant to the people. I do not believe that that was the case. Parliamentary procedures evolved from the practices of the gentlemen's clubs of the Mall and the courtrooms and restaurants of west London. The reason we started at 2.30 in the afternoon was not to make us relevant to the textile workers of Oldham or the railway workers of Crewe; it was to fit in with a timetable that is wholly alien to a modern democracy. While I respect my hon. Friend's views, I reject that argument.
My hon. Friend Mr. Fisher agreed in principle with the report—I thank him for that—but pointed out several dangers and problems that might arise. He reminded the House, wisely and with great pertinence, especially for newer Members such as myself, of the dangers of not having programming. I respect him for that argument.
Sir George Young pointed to some improvements that could be made. I disagree with his point about the House of Lords. I shall not delay the House further with long lists of how—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Well, perhaps I will then. The facts from this Session show that, on average, the House of Commons spends longer on Second Reading than the House of Lords. On average, the House of Commons spends longer in Committee than the House of Lords. On average, time spent on Report is broadly comparable between the two Houses. I concede that it is slightly longer in the House of Lords, but that is because of the way in which the House of Lords takes amendments on Report. On average, the House of Commons spends more time considering Lords' amendments than the House of Lords spends covering Commons' amendments. Line-by-line scrutiny does not exist and never has existed. It is a myth that programming in this House is forcing the other place into spending more time on scrutiny. We know what is happening: it is political opposition. I respect it for that, but let us be honest about it.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, with the great experience that he brings to this matter, said that he has nothing in principle against the motions. I share his view that all those who favour programming want to see it improved.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, in a strong and passionate speech, said that he did not accept the principle of programming. We must respect him for that, but I hope that I can reassure him by saying that programming is not a heavy-handed, irresponsible use of our majority, but an attempt to improve matters for Back Benchers and Front Benchers on both sides of the House, and—most importantly—to make the House of Commons relevant to, and understood by, the people of this country.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That Orders A to I relating to the Programming of Bills, made by the House on 28th June 2001, and programme orders of the current session of Parliament relating to bills which are carried over to the next session, shall continue to have effect in the next session of Parliament.
Motion made, and Question put,
That the Order relating to Deferred Divisions, made by the House on 28th June 2001, shall continue to have effect in the next session Parliament.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]
The House divided: Ayes 242, Noes 80.