We now come to the main business. As Members will be aware, the House yesterday ordered that at 6 pm the Chair should put the Questions on all six motions relating to procedure to be moved by the Leader of the House, so clearly we must have a joint debate on motions 2 to 7 on the Order Paper. The House will also see that I have selected all four amendments to motion 2 tabled by Sir Nicholas Winterton and his colleagues on the Procedure Committee. At the conclusion of the debate, I will therefore invite the hon. Member for Macclesfield to move formally any of those amendments that he wishes to press to a vote. Motions 2 to 7 will then be put to the vote, one after the other.
I beg to move,
That the House takes note of the Fourth Report of the Procedure Committee, on Programming of Legislation, HC 325, and the Government's Response thereto (published as the Committee's Fifth Special Report of the current Session, HC 1169);
and makes the following provision:
That, with effect from the beginning of the next Session of Parliament, the Orders of the House of 28th June 2001 relating to Programming of Bills be Standing Orders of the House, with the following Amendments:
(1) In Order A (Programme Motions), in paragraph (6), leave out 'or where paragraph (8) of Sessional Order B (Programming Committees) applies,'.
(2) In Order A, in paragraph (10), leave out 'In an excepted case' and insert 'If any of the exceptions applies'.
(3) In Order B (Programming Committees), leave out paragraphs (8) to (10).
(4) In Order C (Programming Sub-Committees), in paragraph (1), after 'and', insert 'subject to paragraph (9A) of this order'.
(5) In Order C, after paragraph (9), insert—
'(9A) A Minister of the Crown may make any motion in a standing committee which could have been the subject of a resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee; and for the purposes of this order the motion shall be treated as if it were in the terms of a resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee: provided that proceedings on such a motion shall lapse if any member of the committee signifies objection to it.'
(6) In Order D (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings in Standing Committee or in Committee of the whole House), in paragraph (2), after 'others)' insert 'in the same order as they would fall to be put if this order did not apply'; and in sub-paragraph (c), leave out 'division' and insert 'decision'.
(7) In Order D, in paragraph (5), at end insert ', except that the question shall be put separately on any clause of or schedule to the bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out'.
(8) In Order E (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration or third reading), in paragraph (2), after 'others)' insert 'in the same order as they would fall to be put if this order did not apply'; and in sub-paragraph (c), leave out 'division' and insert 'decision'.
We have six motions before us this afternoon. The first is a motion to take note of the report of the Procedure Committee on programming of legislation, and to make permanent the Sessional Orders on programming of Bills, with certain amendments. The second is a motion to take note of the report of the Procedure Committee on procedures for debates, private Members' Bills and the powers of the Speaker, and to implement the Committee's recommendation of an experiment with shorter Back-Bench speeches. The third is a motion to make permanent the Sessional Order on deferred Divisions. The fourth is a motion to make permanent the temporary Standing Order on carry-over of Bills, with certain amendments to clarify its application. The fifth is a motion to increase the Speaker's discretion over the application of the short speeches rule, following representations from the Liaison Committee, and the sixth is a motion to implement the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee that the term "strangers" be no longer used in referring to visitors to the House.
In respect of four of the motions—those that contain textual amendments—explanatory memorandums have been made available in the Vote Office. These may assist Members by showing how the Standing Orders would be amended by the motions.
First, I am grateful to the Procedure Committee for its timely consideration of programming. This builds on the work that was done last year by the Modernisation Committee. Proper timetabling of Bills has been a central recommendation of parliamentary and independent reports for 20 years or more. It is not a whim of the current Government. In 1985, the Procedure Committee recommended that Bills should be timetabled. The proposal was reiterated by the Jopling Committee in 1992. The independent Hansard Society Commission on the Legislative Process, also in 1992, regarded it as a central feature of any reforms to improve scrutiny. In 1997, the Modernisation Committee's first report highlighted the importance of programming legislation, stating that other proposals for improving the legislative process—scrutiny of draft Bills, for example—could not be seen in isolation from the legislative timetable.
Does the Leader of the House recognise that the earlier attempts concerned agreed programming, not the imposition of the guillotine, which the Government have employed since 2000? Does he agree that the Procedure Committee was trying to find ways to return to a more consensual approach that would better meet the needs of the House than the current oppressive regime?
First, we have taken some of the Procedure Committee's amendments on board. Secondly, it is a myth that programming is at variance with the principle of consensus. Let me provide the hon. Gentleman with the figures: in the past Session, 70 per cent. of programme orders were achieved consensually, and of the 24 Bills committed to Standing Committee, 23 had programme orders and five also had supplemental programme orders, which allow business and timing to be changed by consensus. Of the 28 programme orders, 20 were agreed formally and only eight resulted in a Division—in other words, nearly three quarters of programme orders were achieved consensually.
I can provide the hon. Gentleman with many more statistics: the vast majority of Programming Sub-Committees achieved consensus, and Divisions have occurred in only two of the 33 Programming Sub-Committees so far this Session—in other words, 94 per cent. of those Programming Sub-Committees reached agreement without a Division.
In spite of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, has not the Procedure Committee clearly demonstrated that significant portions of many Bills that leave this House are unexamined and not discussed, which means that the Government have not been held to account? Has not the Procedure Committee provided the formula for redressing that particular problem?
The hon. Gentleman is far more distinguished and experienced than me. [Interruption.] I am glad that I have achieved unanimity on that point. He knows that some clauses and schedules of previous Bills were not discussed, often by consensus, because the Opposition wished to focus on the areas that concerned them most and about which there was most argument. In addition, guillotines were used in previous eras—every Government used them and they were a regular feature of the parliamentary process. We have achieved a programming structure that allows the maximum consensus to be built, as I have just described.
For the sake of clarity, will the Leader of the House make it clear that in the good old days back in the 1980s, Committees were allowed to determine their own timetables and run their own course until the Government eventually and reluctantly may have had to guillotine a Bill, but only after the Opposition had determined the pace of the Committee? To put the matter in context, how many clauses now leave guillotined Standing Committees unconsidered?
My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House tells me that that figure has decreased. On Committees, only four out of the 23 Programming Sub-Committee resolutions put to the full Standing Committees on the Bills concerned were divided on—in other words, three quarters of Standing Committees were content with the resolution agreed by the Programming Sub-Committee. I submit that that shows that the programming procedure, which we have modified in response to points made by hon. Members and, with the will of House, intend to modify further this afternoon in response to representations from the Procedure Committee, has been improved to the extent that it now operates across the board with a massive degree of consensus.
In which case, I am sure that my right hon. Friend can say how much of his legislation during the past Session has not included 600 or 700 amendments on Third Reading and in the House of Lords. If that efficient manner of examining legislation is so highly commended, he can surely demonstrate that the Government are not amending their own legislation in increasing numbers of instances on Third Reading?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are seeing a lot of Government amendments, which I do not encourage as Leader of the House because they do not make for smooth business. However, we have seen increasing consensus on the management of business, and some of the sticky points that were apparent in the early days of programming have now been removed, and we can move forward together on that basis.
The right hon. Gentleman obviously has many statistics at his disposal this afternoon. Regardless of the resolutions made in Programming Sub-Committees when Bills went Upstairs, how many of those programme motions were voted against on the Floor of the House when they were brought down to the main Chamber and appeared on the Order Paper?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the scrutiny of legislation in this House is to a large extent dependent on how well informed hon. Members are? No structure can ensure that well informed hon. Members scrutinise Bills. Does he remember how much time was wasted in this House in 1992–97 by filibustering, which was done in the name of scrutinising legislation? It was not scrutiny; it was wasting hon. Members' time.
John Golding provides a classic example of successful Labour filibustering in opposition—he once spoke expertly for some 17 hours to the great advantage of the Labour party—but whether that can be defended as a sensible use of parliamentary time is an altogether different question. In my initial period in the House between 1991 and 1997, I recall constant filibustering by Labour Opposition Members—it was part of the game. Now we can focus on the clauses that really concern Opposition Members and provide enough time for them to be scrutinised and debated properly.
That point is demonstrated by the consistent consensus in Committees, where the Government have even structured sitting schedules around the Opposition's requests. On the Civil Contingencies Bill, for example, no Thursday morning sittings were scheduled to allow the Opposition spokesman, Mr. Heald, to prepare for business questions, where—this shows how generous we were—he gave me a tough time. On
On the Civil Contingencies Bill, despite the courtesy of the excellent Government Whip, we voted against the programme motion.
There you go.
As the Modernisation Committee's 2003 report pointed out, there was never a golden age of full scrutiny of all clauses of all Bills. Before the introduction of programming, the haphazard nature of scrutiny caused deep and widespread dissatisfaction. Programming was a response to considerable pressure from hon. Members on both sides of the House and others over a number of years for the sensible timetabling of Government Bills. Properly applied, programming is a positive development, allowing more effective scrutiny of legislation.
Neither the Modernisation Committee nor the Procedure Committee opposes the principle of programming. That is important. They both made sensible suggestions, some of which we have already taken on board—and in the case of the Modernisation Committee, some of which we will take on board this afternoon, with the will of the House. For all their protestations, I do not believe that the Opposition would abandon programming were they in government.
We propose that the programming Sessional Orders be made permanent. There is little to be gained from continued annual debates on the matter. Programming is now an established part of our procedures and that should be reflected in our Standing Orders.
Before the Leader of the House continues to pray in aid the Modernisation Committee and even, if I may say so, the Procedure Committee chaired by my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton, can he confirm for the record that the Modernisation Committee was set up by the Labour Government in 1997; that it is, uniquely, chaired by a Cabinet Minister, namely himself and, formerly, his predecessors; and that it has a large Government majority? We should be in no doubt that these Committees represent the will not of the House but of the Government.
The right hon. Gentleman has had a severe bee in his bonnet about the Modernisation Committee all along. It so happens that his successor as shadow Leader of the House has taken his seat on the Committee, and a very good thing too. The idea that it is some kind of Government fix is nonsense. I can say from personal experience that the fact that it is an independent Committee gives rise to a lot of discussion, as well as some concern, within Government about the likely directions and recommendations of its inquiries. All its Back-Bench members are very independent-minded, including the shadow Leader of the House.
We acknowledge, however, that certain improvements to programming could be made. Perhaps most significantly, we propose to implement the Procedure Committee's recommendation that where everyone is content the Standing Committee should be able to make decisions to vary the programme without need for the Programming Sub-Committee to meet. I understand that there is some disappointment that the Government did not go further in agreeing to the Procedure Committee's other recommendations, but I can assure the House that they were given very careful consideration.
I shall take each of the amendments in turn. First, Sir Nicholas Winterton and others suggest that the Committee's recommendation in paragraph 52—that a factual statement of clauses and schedules not considered in Committee should be produced—should be implemented. We gave careful consideration to this recommendation but in the end were not persuaded that it would be useful to produce such a statement. The information would be misleading. Clauses and schedules may not be debated for a variety of reasons, not least because they are uncontroversial and the Opposition do not want to. Moreover, although a clause itself may not be debated, amendments on that clause may have been well debated with groups of amendments on earlier clauses. If Members wish to know whether debate in Standing Committee was curtailed by the operation of the programme motion, that information is readily available through reading the relevant Standing Committee Hansard. All the information is already in the public domain.
As I said, the information is readily available. If the hon. Gentleman or any other right hon. or hon. Member is worried that a Bill has come back to the House without being sufficiently scrutinised in Committee, they can check that for themselves. If, as he wants, we put this into Standing Orders, that would give the Opposition a ready-made opportunity to create, for partisan reasons, circumstances whereby certain clauses are not debated, and then say that the Bill has not been properly scrutinised.
No, I want to make more progress.
Let me put this in perspective. The average duration of a Programming Sub-Committee meeting has been two minutes, while the longest was 30 minutes. If this was a case of the Government railroading legislation through Committees, with a big civil war going on between Opposition and Government, the whole process would be logjammed. The truth is that Government and Opposition Whips and other Committee members, including the Chairman, have the opportunity to achieve consensus and regularly do precisely that.
Secondly, members of the Procedure Committee tabled an amendment to implement their recommendation that programme motions be decided without debate only with cross-party support; on other occasions, they would be subject to a one-hour debate. Again, we considered that recommendation very carefully, but felt that it was unrealistic—perhaps even naive. In our response to the Procedure Committee, we said:
"The Government is very willing to engage with the Opposition to try and establish a cross-party approach to the programming of future bills. But it should be recognised that there are strong political pressures on the Opposition, be it of whatever party, to oppose the Government's proposals for timetabling of all but the least controversial of bills. While the Opposition may be willing to adopt a pragmatic approach in informal negotiations through the usual channels, it would be very difficult for it to sign up publicly to a programme for scrutiny of a Bill to which it is opposed in principle. The experiment with 'agreed programming' in 1998–2000 demonstrated this very clearly. The effect of the Committee's recommendation would therefore be that programme motions would be routinely debated, detaining the House for an additional hour after the vote on second reading."
The Government do not believe that that would be in the interests of the House.
The amendment would also implement the Committee's recommendation that programme motions should not be put to the House until 48 hours or more after Second Reading. The Government are not persuaded that it is desirable or necessary so to delay consideration of the initial programme motion. We believe that it is more convenient for Ministers, Opposition spokesmen and women, and the House as a whole, to continue to take the initial programme motion immediately after Second Reading. If points arise on Second Reading that suggest that the out date should be revised, the Programming Sub-Committee can take those into account and recommend change if it thinks fit. Indeed, that has occurred on several occasions during the past Session.
Thirdly, members of the Committee tabled an amendment to give Chairmen of Standing Committees discretion to delay a knife to allow injury time for Divisions in the House, or for a quarter of an hour if he considers it to be
"for the general convenience of the Committee".
We gave open-minded consideration to those recommendations, but on reflection felt that they were unnecessary and undesirable.
I understand the argument behind the amendments. Equally, I hope that hon. Members will appreciate why the Government continue to oppose such changes. The essence of the success of programming lies in the spirit of co-operation between those acting for Government and Opposition on a particular Bill. The Government believe that where the main parties engage positively in discussions on the programme, programming can and does work well—for the Government, for the Opposition and for members of the public, including interested parties who wish to know when a particular clause or part of a Bill is to be debated in Committee and can now timetable their attendance in advance, make their travel arrangements and come to watch the debate.
I am listening to the Leader of the House extremely carefully. Is he not aware that the unanimous report of the Procedure Committee had the sole objective of making programming more acceptable in all parts of the House? The decisions were taken on a cross-party basis because we believed that we were building into the way in which this House operates safeguards for the whole House, not just the Government.
I understand and respect the hon. Gentleman's motivation. He made it clear that he was not opposed to the principle of programming but was trying to make it better. I accepted several of the recommendations from the Procedure Committee that he chairs; others I did not accept, for the reasons that I described.
It is important to put it on the record that of the 23 Bills that have been committed to Standing Committee this Session, 12—more than half—had no knives incorporated into their programme apart from the out date. Of the 11 Bills where the Programming Sub-Committee agreed to the incorporation of knives, four had two knives, three had three knives, two had five knives and one had seven knives. There is understandable concern, which I share, that programming should be in the interests of the whole House. The hon. Member for Macclesfield has made some practical suggestions for improving matters. We have accepted some and rejected others, for the reasons that I have given. We are not therefore considering a big Opposition-Government confrontation; we are simply assessing how best we can move forward and improve programming.
I want to reinforce the fact that the amendments represent an attempt to balance the programming system slightly more in favour of the whole House. The Leader of the House should reconsider his response. Earlier, he said that programme motions help outsiders to plan their travel arrangements, but he went on to say that approximately 12 Bills had no knives in them. How did people plan their travel arrangements for those Bills?
The point is that when there are knives, and the out date is determined by the programme motion, people know roughly when things will occur.
Given the adversarial nature of this place, it is understandable that the focus is on Government and Opposition parties. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that programming benefits at least Back-Bench Members of the governing party, who used to be under pressure to say nothing in Committee but are now set free to participate in debates? I believe that scrutiny is consequently of better quality.
I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend. I was saying exactly the opposite of what she suggests. I agreed with my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney that programming had encouraged Back Benchers of all parties, including the Government party, to make constructive contributions.
The second motion before us takes note of the Procedure Committee's fourth report of the previous Session on procedures for debates, private Members' Bills, the powers of the Speaker and the Government's reply. The report is wide ranging and I shall leave it to the Chairman of the Committee to describe it in detail.
The motion implements the recommendation in paragraph 13 of the report for an experiment with shorter Back-Bench speeches. It is proposed that, between certain hours—the Committee suggests an hour before the winding-up speeches, or half an hour in a half-day debate—the Speaker might call on Back Benchers to make shorter speeches, down to a minimum of three minutes depending on the number of Members who want to take part. The precise arrangements would be for the Speaker to determine. The experiment would run for the next two Sessions, and we could then consider whether it should continue.
The third motion seeks to make permanent the Sessional Order on deferred Divisions. I believe that most hon. Members find the provision for Divisions to be deferred in specific, well-defined circumstances of great convenience, and I see little point in the House revisiting what is now established practice, Session by Session.
The fourth motion would make permanent the temporary Standing Order on carry-over of Bills, which was agreed by the House for this Parliament only in October 2002. As the Procedure Committee found in its report on programming,
"carry-over increases flexibility and has the potential to lessen bottlenecks in the legislative process".
The Committee commended the gradual way in which the Government have introduced carry-over. Two Bills were carried over from the previous Session to the current Session, and three from this House and another in the House of Lords are to be carried over from the current Session to the next.
Those who believed that carry-over was an underhand method of undermining the Sessional cut-off have been proved wrong.
I shall give way shortly.
Carry-over has been a helpful but modest measure to increase flexibility in legislative planning, facilitating pre-legislative scrutiny. That is important: it is not a coincidence that all three Bills to be carried over in this House this Session have been published in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his courtesy, but he missed out a rather important sentence in our recommendation on carry-over. Although the report states that it
"increases flexibility and has the potential to lessen bottlenecks in the legislative process", paragraph 62 states that
"however, we also believe that this should proceed with cross-party agreement."
That slightly changes the emphasis of the Leader of the House.
The right hon. Gentleman's contrived anger is genuinely synthetic. Carry-over normally happens by consensus. The hon. Member for Macclesfield makes a fair point.
Let me press the Leader of the House a little further: will he give an assurance that, in future, the Government will carry over only with cross-party agreement?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that we must get agreement in both Houses to move forward. I want to act by consensus, but I do not want to place a block on carry-over in the Standing Orders if consensus cannot be gained. It is in the Government's interests to get consensus, which a constructive Opposition provide most of the time.
We believe that it would be timely to make the Standing Order on carry-over permanent. A few amendments are proposed to make it clear that the Order would not apply to private Members' Bills or Lords Bills, and that any programming order agreed in the first Session would continue to apply in the second.
The fifth motion amends
The sixth and final motion seeks to implement the recommendation made by the Modernisation Committee in its report on connecting Parliament with the public that the term "strangers" be no longer used in referring to visitors to the House. It amends each of the Standing Orders that refer to "strangers" or "stranger", replacing that with "the public" or "member of the public" as appropriate.
The right hon. Gentleman describes that as pathetic, but the "Oxford English Dictionary" defines a stranger as
"one who is not a member or an official of the House and is present at its debates only on sufferance".
I believe that our visitors, voters and citizens are entitled to view our debates, and that they should not be shunted into a pigeonhole labelled "Strangers". As the Modernisation Committee said,
"this is the last impression we should be wanting to give to people who exercise their democratic right to visit us."
The earliest reference to a "stranger" in the Commons Journal appears to be on
"that no member of this House do presume to bring any stranger or strangers into this House or gallery thereof, while the House is sitting."
For a long time, members of the public were barred from scrutinising what happens in the House. Redlich's 1908 "Procedure of the House of Commons" records that during the 16th and 17th centuries, calls were repeatedly taken to ascertain whether strangers were present, primarily because of the threat of Catholic spies. Surely we can move on from those days.
Lady strangers have been subjected to particular restrictions in the past. Redlich's book states:
"Between 1778 and 1834, ladies were expressly excluded. They might, it is true, come if they be content with a view from the roof chamber over the ceiling inserted in the old St. Stephen's chapel through the ventilator, around which seats were placed."
We are considering an ancient, mediaeval—if not earlier—practice. We should get rid of it.
I was going on to say that the motion does not address how we refer to parts of this House: the Strangers Gallery, the Strangers Dining Room or the Strangers Bar. Of course, those are matters for Mr. Speaker, as advised by the relevant domestic Committees, which, I understand, are aware of the recommendation by the Modernisation Committee.
These motions represent a sensible package of reforms: a consolidation of experimental reforms, which have now stood the test of time and proved their worth, and some modest innovations. I hope that the House will agree to their implementation. I commend the motions to the House.
Some people will dismiss today's debate as marginal and insignificant and concerned only with procedural matters. They could not be more wrong. Today's debate is about accountability and about Parliament having the tools it needs to hold the Prime Minister and his Government to account. It is important that we take parliamentary procedure seriously. It is by cutting the pennies that make up the pounds that this Government have devalued the currency of Parliament.
I want to congratulate the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton, under whose guidance the Committee has a produced a fine report—its fourth report of the Session—on programming. I welcome the report's recommendations, which contain much sense and good material. I am pleased that members of the Committee took notice of some points made not just by Ministers but by others, including me and my right hon. and hon. Friends, during the evidence sessions.
Programming affects the scrutiny that this House and its Committees can exert over Government proposals. As the Committee noted in its introduction, programming has been
"the most significant change made for some years in the way in which the House considers Bills".
Over recent years, there has been a lot of controversy over the extent to which Bills should be debated within a rigid timetable. Throughout the 1990s, we were prepared to try to reach agreement on such matters. From 1997 onwards, we agreed programme motions on an all-party basis, including 11 in the 1997–98 Session and four in each of the following Sessions. Some difficult Bills such as the Scotland and Government of Wales Bills were timetabled by agreement, even though that involved great technical difficulties, given that the Committee stages were on the Floor of the House, with many Members wishing to speak from different perspectives.
The failure of the consensual approach developed in that period resulted from the Government trying to pack Sessions with extra legislation, relying on our good will and allowing insufficient time for proper consideration. We lost patience with the system, agreed programming died and we ended up with routine guillotining. The Leader of the House says that programmes have been agreed in Committee and, on odd occasions, on the Floor of the House, but the fact is that on the overwhelming number of occasions when programme motions have been considered on the Floor of the House we have opposed them, not only because we do not think it right that the views of the Opposition should be completely disregarded and programmes imposed, but because the Government have routinely not allowed enough time for business.
I agree that a Government are entitled to get their legislation through without inordinate delay, but—
As my hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd says from a sedentary position, there is no sanction on the Government, and it is not right for a Bill to reach the end of its progress through the House without all its significant aspects and issues having been examined and debated.
"concern about the volume of legislation which passes undebated is entirely legitimate".
At that time, of course, the Committee was chaired not by the Leader of the House but by his predecessor, but I am sure that if the current Leader of the House examined the issue he would agree that large amounts of legislation should not be passed undebated. Indeed, hon. Members on both sides of the House should agree on that point, yet that is precisely what happens persistently under the current system. We only have to look at the evidence that the Clerk to the House gave to the Procedure Committee, which appears in table A on page 5, to see the sad state into which the House has fallen. With one Bill, 36 groups of amendments were not considered in Committee, and with another 105 clauses were not debated in any way. It is just not good enough for the Leader of the House to say that those provisions would not have been considered anyway.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that it would be a good idea to make comparisons with what happened to Bills before we had programming? During the 1992–97 Parliament I sat on several Standing Committees and recall that, for several reasons, a great number of clauses were not debated. It is not correct, therefore, to say that Bills have not been debated only since programming was introduced. It would be fairer if the hon. Gentleman were to make a wider comparison.
I do not accept that the Labour Opposition were as idle or useless as has been suggested. Mrs. Dunwoody will remember the Criminal Justice Bill Committee, on which we sat for 240 hours. It is true that some Labour members of the Committee—not the Prime Minister, who, although he was on the Committee, never attended anywhere other than the Corridor—made some good points, and we agreed amendments as a result.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many clauses are now thoroughly less well debated as a consequence of the liberation of Government Back Benchers, who take up time, thereby denying it to the Opposition who would effectively make points? Opposition Members are constrained from doing so as a consequence of the operation of the timetable.
Of course, were the Government to make a pincer movement, not only by proposing a tight programme but by encouraging their Back Benchers to speak at great length, they could oppress the Opposition even more than they do at present. My hon. Friend Tony Baldry made that point in a recent Westminster Hall debate, to which I believe the Deputy Leader of the House responded.
If the structure is so tyrannical from the Opposition's point of view, why did eight of the 22 Bills that have completed their Committee stage so far this Session report early? If the Opposition were being denied the chance to scrutinise all those Bills, why did they report early? Why will the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that the Government are well able to—and do—reconsider the out date when the need arises? We extended the out date for the Pensions Bill, for the Higher Education Bill and, more recently, for the Mental Capacity and Civil Partnership Bills, in that spirit.
If the Government want to be as constructive as the Leader of the House suggests, they could simply agree the modest amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield has tabled, which move the balance slightly in favour of the proper scrutiny of legislation. It is sad that a Government with such a large majority should have got into the way of thinking, "We are in power, so we will do things our way." I am absolutely certain that were the Leader of the House standing on this side, as he may well be in six months' time, he would be saying what I am saying. No Opposition could tolerate the way in which this Government want to operate.
Is not one of the worst abuses of the timetabling system the Government's habit of tabling a huge number of amendments very late in the day, both in Committee and on Report? A notable example of such abuse occurred in the case of the Bill that became the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. Although there were two Standing Committees, not just one, the Government still managed to table a huge chunk of amendments on Report. Moreover, there is still no timetable motion for the Report stage of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, which will take place tomorrow, because the Government have withdrawn some of the amendments that they tabled last week.
I was intending to make the same points. Indeed, we have made them week after week during business questions, as the Leader of the House must acknowledge. I have raised the question of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill twice, each time asking whether we have yet received all the Government amendments. Each time the Leader of the House has said that he is anxious for there not to be too many late amendments—and then another raft of them arrives a few days before the next stage. That is no way in which to conduct the business of the House. Now we hear that even the latest batch of amendments is flawed, and the Government have had to withdraw them. No doubt we shall get another lot, and there will be another recommital. It is a shambolic way of doing business.
May I raise the wider issue of changing Standing Orders? Is my hon. Friend aware that the last Conservative Government did not change any of them without the consent of the official Opposition? The last changes were, I think, the Jopling reforms. The then Prime Minister, John Major, instructed the person in charge of the negotiations—me—that no changes should be implemented unless the then official Opposition approved each and every one. Has my hon. Friend been similarly asked by the Leader of the House whether he consents to these changes?
The process has not been similar in any way.
It is a sad thing for the House that it is not possible to stand by conventions that are seen to work over time. It is a good thing if we can find ways of moving forward on matters of procedure without the ruthless arrogance that we see nowadays. The Clerk of the House has been impartial, as ever, in his evidence, and table A is an indictment of the Government, showing that thousands of issues have been ignored and have not been debated. Interest groups come to us, as the Opposition, and say "We would like this point to be aired in Committee, because we do not think the Bill will work properly unless it is considered." How must they feel when for want of time, with the fall of the knife, a matter of real concern to them falls as well?
It is worth noting that the Finance Bill, which involves large amounts of money, is not dealt with in that way. It is the one exception. The Government do not guillotine it because they know that those in the City of London, the real power brokers, would not accept that for a minute.
The hon. Gentleman is falling into a familiar Conservative trap. Basically, he is saying that doing nothing is not political. Doing nothing is just as political as changing. Doing nothing is what the Conservatives are excellent at. That is why they are Conservatives; that is why they love the status quo—
Absolutely. But things have to change, things have to modernise, and the Conservative party will have to accept that. We are presenting our proposals in a reasonable, sensible way, and it is about time the Opposition looked at them in a reasonable, sensible way.
The right hon. Gentleman may have arrived too late to hear the considered remarks made earlier.
The Opposition are not standing in the way of progress. We are saying that an all-party Committee, one of the most senior in the House, dominated—like all Committees—by Labour Members, has examined the issues and taken evidence from all parts of the House and from the Clerk. A memorandum of yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is being considered. After all that consideration, the Committee came up with a number of modest proposals to improve programming, make it more consensual, and ensure that these matters are dealt with more sensibly. What is the Government's answer? It is no—unless it just happens to suit the Minister. Those are the only amendments that have been accepted.
There may well be an imbalance between those two individuals when it comes to experience, knowledge and understanding of this place, but I do not want to discuss personalities—at least, not for a moment.
The idea that we should programme Bills 48 hours after Second Reading has one benefit. By that time, the parameters and ambit of debate are known, which is why the Committee suggested that modest change. We support it; the Government do not.
It is important for the House to realise that we are not suggesting that there should be a debate on this. We are saying that the programme motion should be put to the House without debate 48 hours after Second Reading. Genuine discussion could take place between the Whips of all the major parties, and the House and Government would be aware of the principal concerns about a Bill.
Experience shows that that would be useful. In one of the worst examples of programming, which resulted in the sit-in involving my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe, things went wrong because the Government did not programme after Second Reading. It became obvious during Second Reading that extra amendments were needed to deal with the Huntingdon Life Sciences issue. Rather than sticking to the number of sittings that they agreed on Second Reading, the Government cut the number. It was a case of more amendments, less time.
The hon. Gentleman presents the motion as a gigantic attempt by the Government to smash all dissent from the Opposition. In fact, programme motions are tabled after discussion with the usual channels. As the statistics I have given demonstrate, the Programming Sub-Committee can modify the subsequent changes that are often made, sometimes at the suggestion—made informally—of the Chairman of the relevant Standing Committee. It has consistently done so, and as a result some out dates have been lengthened and some Bills have completed their progress early.
I understand and respect differences of opinion, but the idea that this is an oppressive Government ramming through their views is simply not correct.
What the Leader of the House forgets is that under the old arrangements, genuine discussion and negotiation took place on the amount of time that was available and necessary. Under the current arrangements, it is a case of "Take what we are offering, or we will impose it on you". The Opposition should not have to be a supplicant, begging the Government for time to do the job that our electors sent us here to do.
I have been on Standing Committees that, although their sittings finished early, ran out of time. That is entirely possible as a consequence of the way in which knives fall. When highly contentious clauses are involved the Committee runs out of time, and then ends up with hours and hours, if not sittings and sittings, in which to discuss wholly uncontentious material.
That was a constructive observation, and my hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Will he give us an undertaking that whatever happens today, if there were a change of Government at the next election—as we are all confident there will be— a Conservative Administration would implement the Procedure Committee's report without any amendment?
I certainly hope that it will be possible for the Opposition to include proposals in their manifesto that meet the spirit of what my hon. Friend wants.
I apologise for not having heard all the Leader of the House's speech. May I return the hon. Gentleman to his scurrilous attack on Government Back Benchers in Standing Committees? Does he not accept that even the most loyal Back Benchers can take their role in a Standing Committee extremely seriously, and may wish to improve legislation? Indeed, some of the most effective probing of Government comes from Government Back Benchers rather than the Opposition, who are generally more interested in filibustering than in improving legislation.
I have much sympathy with the shadow Leader's argument, particularly about the programming of Bills. However, when specifically asked whether the Opposition would, if elected, accept the amendments, he said something about the spirit of the amendments, rather than about the amendments. Is that not the problem? In opposition, hon. Members say one thing, but when they get on the Government Benches they do something different.
We welcome the proposal that programme motions should be decided without debate only where there is cross-party support. We believe that the Government should have to justify their programmes. I also welcome the idea to give Standing Committee Chairmen discretion to allow 15 minutes overtime for completion of debate, or to make up for time lost in a Division.
The Select Committee tried to build consensus to allow programming to continue from Parliament to Parliament. The Government should be ashamed that they turned down those modest but worthwhile ideas. They accept proposals that help them, but turn down those that help scrutiny. That is cherry-picking of the worst sort—another slap in the face for the Select Committee. Even at this late stage, will the Leader of the House not think of the interests of the House and accept the amendments?
Right hon. and hon. Members will be familiar with the experiment that has been conducted with deferred Divisions. As the House will be aware, the great objection to deferred Divisions is the dislocation that they create between the debate and the decision. They have removed the connection between decision and debate, unpicking one of the key links in parliamentary scrutiny. It makes life easier for the Government, their business managers and Back Benchers—
It makes life easier for the Prime Minister because he needs to come here only on Wednesdays, but overall it is not in the interests of the House to have fractured debate, with the decision being made much later. One of the arguments that was always advanced for deferred Divisions was the sitting hours. People said, "It is often difficult late at night for everyone to stay and perhaps we should have the Divisions when they can be present." As we have changed the sitting hours, that argument falls by the wayside. Therefore, I ask the Leader of the House to withdraw motion 4 and to think again.
I have mixed feelings about carrying legislation over from one parliamentary Session to the next if it runs out of legislative time. It seems sensible to have the definite benefits of increased flexibility that that facility can offer to the legislative process. It can be a waste of time if Bills fall at the end of a Session and have to be reintroduced in the same form in the next. I think that there is agreement on both sides of the House that such a situation can be undesirable. However, I have reservations about a mechanism being built into the procedure whereby the discipline of an annual cut-off point is removed from Government business managers. There is a great danger that the lack of pressure could encourage even more sloppiness in the drafting, programming and timetabling of legislation. That is clearly not desirable. On balance, the House should give the benefit of the doubt to carry-over, but it should be done only with the consent of the Opposition, not imposed by the Government. That is why I will oppose motion 5 tonight.
On that point, if my understanding and memory are correct, the original Standing Order provides for carry-over with the Opposition's consent. Is that not the case? Therefore, there is no need to make a change, if one accepts my hon. Friend's argument. Is he aware that in the 1997–2001 Parliament, the Opposition Chief Whip was never asked for his consent to a carry-over? Therefore, there can be no accusation that the Opposition blocked the use of the original Standing Order.
My right hon. Friend is correct to say that the understanding is that it would be possible to carry-over Bills only with the consent of the Opposition but, from my understanding and reading of the Standing Order, it does not say so. I oppose the order becoming a Standing Order under motion 5, with all the force that that implies. We may ossify the wording or entrench it, but without the commitment, which underpins it, being on the record. If the Leader of the House or deputy Leader of the House can give me assurances about that, or if I am wrong, I will be happy to think again.
Should not the hon. Gentleman be saying that, while the motion may go through today, the Modernisation Committee should look further at it? I have always argued that we elect a five-year Parliament. I accept that there should be some restriction on the period that Bills are before us, but they should not fall at the end of a Session. We should have a logical programme of Bills being introduced steadily over the five years and going into Committee at different times, instead of having silly logjams in this House and then in the other House. We should have a more sensible phased Parliament. Surely in 2004 that is the way to be moving.
I support more flexibility but I do not agree that we should move to a five-year plan. The problem with the five-year plan is that it would encourage a sloppy approach. As the hon. Gentleman should know, we have enough trouble getting a list of the Bills and draft Bills for the Session at the time of the Queen's Speech. The Leader of the House, to give him full credit, has now agreed that we will have that this year, but it will be the first time that we have a full list of the Bills. Therefore, the difficulties of moving to a five-year plan would be severe.
Will my hon. Friend give the House an assurance that, if the Government accept his proposition on carry-over, which I think has a lot of sense, if legislation were proposed for carry-over that Conservatives could live with, that some Government Front Benchers liked and were proposing but that did not the meet the wishes of many Labour Back Benchers, he would speak for those Labour Back Benchers and ensure that debate was not curtailed?
I do not believe in curtailing debate. I am not sure that I entirely got the full force of my right hon. Friend's remarks but I do not believe in guillotining. I do not want anything that unreasonably curtails debate.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the difference between the procedure in carry-over and the procedure in dissolution? The procedure in dissolution is that the Opposition are consulted as to which Bills are to be allowed to go through and which are not, whereas on carry-over that discipline is lost. Therefore, the Government should reconsider the matter. There is no discipline throughout the parliamentary year to ensure that Bills are put through both Houses on time, in time for the Queen's Speech, as they used to be in the old days.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The other point is that the Leader of the House is a great one for saying that we should have at least as good procedures and rights as the other place. The other place is consulted and consent is required for carry-over. At this end, I believe that that is not the case. The Leader of the House can intervene on me if he wishes. The elected representatives in the House of Commons should have at least as good a system for scrutiny as the Lords.
It is appropriate that I have just one short point to make on the subject of short time limits on speeches. This experiment, which is to be welcomed, should allow for more Members to get into a debate. Moreover, Select Committee Chairmen should not be subjected to strict time limits if the debate in question concerns a Committee report. Chairmen such as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield make extremely valuable contributions to the House's examination of such reports, and they should be allowed to express their views as they see fit and with a reasonable amount of time being allowed. This sensible, light-touch approach would raise the quality of debate.
I am most grateful. I could tell that the hon. Gentleman was on dodgy ground when discussing the previous subject, given that a fellow member of the shadow Cabinet interrupted him; there's a novelty for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Does the hon. Gentleman think that those of us who regularly make short speeches should be given credit for doing so, and that if the speech in question is very short, it should not be counted against us by Mr. Speaker in deciding whether to call us again?
I would not dream of telling Mr. Speaker how to work out such matters, but I am sure that it is true that a short contribution does not debar one to quite the same extent as a very long one.
I turn finally to strangers. The question of whether to delete references to "strangers" from Standing Orders is not the most significant one, but for my part I think it a pity to lose the ceremonial aspect of this ancient tradition. This proposal is one of many in the Modernisation Committee's report on connecting Parliament with the public, and it is strange that it should be one of the first to receive the House's full attention. The suggestion that not calling members of the public strangers will improve Parliament's accessibility is surely misguided. I agree that we must not be seen to be letting the public view us at work on sufferance only, but stripping away the charm and magic of this place is entirely the wrong way to approach the problem. The last thing that we want is for Parliament's historical legacy to be gradually eroded, until it becomes just another nasty new Labour-style institution.
Although I agree with motions 3 and 6 and support the Select Committee's excellent work, I think it wrong that the Leader of the House cannot go further.
In democratic societies, Parliaments exist in order that differing views can be taken into an arena in which they can be debated and considered properly. How those arenas—be they Parliaments or local councils—arrange their affairs is much more important than simply producing a book of rules; it is a question of fairness, of order and of making it possible for everybody to take part in a proper debate. Such arrangements affect the conscious and deliberate end of particular debates.
This Parliament has, over many hundreds of years, evolved its rules because it has found that if it is manifestly unfair to any of its Members—who are then unable to express the views that they want to represent—the whole principle of government can be undermined. It is a question not just of the maintenance of order in a Parliament, but of something much more dangerous and fundamental. Elected Members who feel unable seriously to explore the real political problems of the day are not only damaged in themselves; the constituencies that they represent here are also damaged.
When we talk about the rules of order, it should not be—nor is it—a simple case of one party saying, "It is to our advantage to take these decisions", and of another party opposing for the sake of opposing, knowing full well that should the position be reversed, it would behave in the same way. I hope that today, there will be Labour Members—perhaps those who heard the Leader of the House's introductory speech—who will seriously examine the content that we are debating.
When a very large majority controls a Parliament, it is particularly important that the interests of minorities—whoever they are, and however irritating and ill informed—are not overridden, either genuinely or apparently. During 18 years of Conservative Government, we witnessed how a Government who ignore the interests of some parts of the United Kingdom—I am thinking of the specific political differences between England and Scotland—can produce such revulsion that there is an immediate need, upon a change of government, to bring in totally different laws and, indeed, a degree of devolution. Such a need was dictated largely by the political pressures that were allowed to build up because debates in the House of Commons did not reflect constituents' views sufficiently widely.
I have listened to every word that my hon. Friend has said and I have great respect for her experience. Does she agree that it would also be wrong if the irritating and ill-informed minority to whom she refers frustrated the will of the majority?
I doubt whether there is any danger of that under a system of government that relies on the current first-past-the-post principle, of which I thoroughly approve. If my right hon. Friend—who was not here at the beginning of the debate—will forgive me for saying so, that argument is total nonsense.
In talking about these matters, it is important first to look carefully at what went before and then to examine what it is we are debating today. One suggestion is that this is simply a matter of tidying up the rules, and that there is no real political effect; that we need simply to agree to certain small changes that are in the interests of all Members, and all will be well in future. That is total, dangerous nonsense. These rules will affect the role of every Back Bencher. It is also true that a Cabinet Minister chaired the Modernisation Committee that initiated and took these decisions.
I have been here long enough to know that it does not really matter what the colour of the Government is; there may not be an automatic connection between the rights of Back Benchers and the Government. Indeed, it has been known for Governments of all colours to get together with Opposition Front Benchers and to agree to measures that actually remove Back Benchers' rights because they are quite happy to have order of a kind that reflects their particular narrow interests. That is the effect of programming.
Of course, we are told that we need not worry, and that we should not look back to a golden era in which everything worked perfectly. Of course there was never a golden era. No Parliament consisting of human beings will ever be perfect; if it were, something would have gone disastrously wrong. But certain methods were open to Back Benchers to delay legislation, to inspect its true content or to negotiate with the Government of the day to secure changes that were tremendously important. Whichever way one looks at it, programming does away with that.
That in itself would not be reason enough to oppose programming if it led to close examination of every part of legislation. It would be all right if one could say that every part of every Bill that has been programmed since 1997 has been considered word by word and line by line, and in such a way that our constituents had the chance to comment on it. It would not be so bad if every piece of legislation had emerged far better at the end of the process, or if the Government were so pleased that they did not need to amend their Bills. If so, I would be here today saying that programming had something to offer and that we should support it.
The reality is that it does not work like that; automatic programming has produced a lot of legislation that has not been considered in any detail and has consistently required amendment by the Government on Third Reading or in the House of Lords. When I say that Bills have been amended, I do not mean only once or twice. In some instances, Government Bills have required 400 new amendments, showing the extent of the problem that we have to deal with.
No. I do not want to take too long and I want to make some serious points.
We should make it absolutely clear that if we allow these measures to go permanently into our Standing Orders, we will be giving away the right not only to debate legislation properly, but to alter the way in which the House of Commons organises its business in future.
The Leader of the House told us that we did not need to worry too much about the breakdown of consensus because the Programming Committees seldom debate or argue. It does not surprise me if Whips Office managers come to an agreement. In many instances, Whips on both sides of the House will have much more common cause with each other than with Back Benchers and Front Benchers. That has not changed in all my time in Parliament. It is also important to understand that if we are to have this sort of arrangement, the Government must be far more flexible and far more serious about the way in which they debate these matters with Back Benchers.
The Leader of the House mentioned the Traffic Management Bill, which was a classic. We were told that, under the new arrangements, everyone would have time to get here and "programme their travel". Well, I do not know how anyone who wanted to talk about the Traffic Management Bill could have programmed their travel. It was printed on
We should also understand that deferred divisions, for example, enshrine a principle that says, "You may be a debating Chamber, but we do not want you debate things that you will have to vote on at the end of the day. That might be embarrassing because you might listen to the arguments or even change the way you decided to vote." The Government want to divide people from the proper ordering of how they cast their votes in the hope that no one will notice what is going on.
On deferred Divisions, the hon. Lady makes an excellent point. The worst possible feature is the fact that those who did not participate in the debate can vote on the Wednesday while those who did participate may be unavoidably unable to vote on Wednesday. It is a ridiculous system.
The trouble is that that shows that some Members of Parliament—I am not making allegations about one party or the other; it is the view of many who have recently entered the House—believe that being the Government is simply a matter of announcing what they want, pushing it through Committee and moving it on to the House of Lords, where any debate is seen as inconvenient and unhelpful. The idea is that the Government should get what they want through at a particular time. It is not a new attitude. It has been the attitude of Governments ever since I became a Member. Sadly, we seem prepared to enshrine it in the Standing Orders in a way that will prove very difficult to amend.
That goes for many of the other points about the carry-over of Bills. I sat and listened to the debates and explanations. Apparently, there will be no carry-over of legislation unless it is a very important Bill or specifically needed. The Government will not routinely carry over Bills, we are told, but will do so only where special circumstances apply. The reality is that what the Government are seeking to enshrine in the Standing Orders will make that an almost routine procedure.
If the Minister believes that not operating with a cut-off point is a good idea, I recommend that he spend some time in the European Parliament. He should examine what happens when the procedures to bring unsatisfactory legislation to an end at a reasonable time do not exist. If we ever reach the state of the European Parliament in my day there, we will have legislation that has hung around for 16 years because nobody wants it and nobody can think of a way of getting rid of it, and there is no procedural method of making it clear that such legislation will go no further. If we ever get to that position, the Minister will rue the day that he seriously made his suggestions about the carry-over of Bills.
I do not want to miss the hon. Lady's point about the European Parliament, which affects the proposals on short speeches. I accept that there may be some merit in trying to squeeze in a few extra speakers at the end of a debate if they have sat through the whole procedure and are bursting to make a point. However, does she agree that we should put down a marker, but that we should not allow it to become a slippery slope? If the proposals are extended as she suggested earlier and the Government tried to make short speeches the norm, Back Benchers could end up with only three minutes, or even two, to speak, as is the farcical situation in the European Parliament?
Other organisations have an even better idea. I was once offered one minute and 30 seconds for my contribution to a debate. Luckily, the Conservative sitting beside me—this was in an international Parliament—was offered the same, so we decided that we would get up, announce our names and our country and sit down. I am sure that that would never happen in the House of Commons—[Interruption]—but it is something that we should be aware of.
If these matters had been considered properly, I would have expected the Leader of the House to demonstrate clearly to us today which of the particular measures has worked and improved the way in which we do our business. For example, I would have expected to be told how many Bills had been amended massively on Third Reading or how many clauses of Bills had been affected.
I sought to acquire that sort of information and found that, in 1996–97, there were 896 clauses and schedules on the introduction of legislation. There were 1,044 pages, which had become 1,143 on Royal Assent. In 1999–2000, there were 2,637 clauses and schedules; 2,796 pages, which had become 3,600 on Royal Assent. There may be a dozen different reasons for that. I am not suggesting that it was the result only of programming, but it would have been helpful had we heard a reasoned argument this afternoon. It is not good enough to hear, "We tried this and it is very good, so we must keep it and make it permanent". I want a proper debate of the House's privileges, interests and commitments before I agree to permanent changes to our Standing Orders.
Finally, some of us are regarded as beyond the pale because we dare to think that some things that happened in the House before 1997 were not wholly reprehensible. Some of us value some of the changes that took place. The Leader of the House mentioned my friend, John Golding. He is an interesting example because of the length of time he once spoke to a Bill. He had been a telecoms engineer, understood the Bill perfectly—it changed that industry for ever—and spoke for about 14 hours without repeating himself. I can assure the House that, had he done so, the Chairman of the Committee would have had him thrown out. In other words, he did not break the rules of order; nor did he seek to distort the debate. He used genuine and acceptable methods to ensure that the legislation did not pass in a wholly unamended form. MPs should strongly defend that right.
I do not necessarily want to go back to filibustering or to abandon programming, but I want something much more important. I want the Government to understand that we are not elected to the House simply to agree every bit of legislation that is put forward. Proposals are often unfinished, inadequate and insufficiently debated. I want the Government to agree that I came here to help produce good laws, not bad ones. The Procedure Committee has made some very mild suggestions; if the Government persist in not accepting them, I shall begin to have very grave doubts.
I am delighted to follow Mrs. Dunwoody, who speaks with great commitment, conviction and experience. I want to pick up on her final point. She will have noticed that, in business questions last week, the Leader of the House answered my question by making it absolutely clear that this is a free vote. I hope that all Labour Members recall that. These are not Government recommendations, and there will be no interference or influence from the Whips. I shall be interested to see whether the hon. Lady and other colleagues are able to take advantage of this unusual opportunity.
The whole House owes a debt of gratitude to Sir Nicholas Winterton, and to all his colleagues on the Procedure Committee. The Committee reached a unanimous decision and it would be invidious to pick out too many names, but Rosemary McKenna is worthy of particular note. She is no patsy, but she was persuaded by the evidence that these proposals are the right way to go.
I also endorse what the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said about this set of proposals being carefully constructed, and based on evidence. The recommendations have not been grabbed out of the air, but have been considered very thoughtfully. It is worth noting, too, that the Leader of the House and others gave evidence to the Committee.
When the Deputy Leader of the House responds to the debate, I hope that he will be able to address the Committee's recommendations. We are talking about a Select Committee of this House giving advice about House matters, and the evidence that it has taken is very comprehensive.
I do not want to make you blush, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I want to draw particular attention to the excellent memorandum that you put to the Committee. I think that it shows the base of experience shared by all those who chair our Committees—and you, sir, also have that responsibility—and the memorandum contains a number of very practical suggestions that the Committee clearly took very seriously.
I hope that all hon. Members taking part in this debate have read pages 19, 20 and 21 in the evidence section of the report, which are of critical importance because that evidence is based on real experience. The Leader of the House has come to these matters comparatively recently, but experienced people from all parts of the House have decided that something must be done along the lines recommended by the Procedure Committee.
I have the advantage—I suppose that it is an advantage—of having been in on the act when we were first considering how to improve procedures. Unlike the Leader of the House and the Conservative spokesman, Mr. Heald, I was involved in the discussions from 1997 onwards in the Modernisation Committee and through the usual channels. There was general recognition that the blunt instrument of the guillotine—I suppose that, in this context one can call a guillotine a blunt instrument—was no longer appropriate for our business. All too often, it was being misused by hon. Members on both sides of the House to prevent good discussion and examination. As a result, we were not doing our duty in terms of effective scrutiny.
The amendments tabled by the Procedure Committee take account of the experience since 1997. As has been recognised already, they also make it clear that no golden age preceded that date. Successive Governments used the guillotine procedure in a way that did not help good scrutiny, and which certainly did not give opportunities to the Opposition parties to do their job.
The hon. Gentleman will concede that, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, each Standing Committee began its consideration of legislation without a timetable. Essentially, Opposition Members were in charge of timing and could dictate the pace of proceedings. The crucial difference now is that the Government dictate and control the shape, size, timing and end date of Committees. In parliamentary terms, the balance has been altered. Formerly, the Government had the majority and the Opposition controlled the time. That has changed radically. Now, the Government have the majority and also control the time. Surely the hon. Gentleman can see the dangers in that.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to develop my theme, but I accept that there is validity in what he has said. However, I was a Member of this House for a very brief time in the 1970s, and I recall that I had the crucial, swing vote in the Committees on which I served because the Government of the day had no overall majority. The situation was very curious: I could determine the timetable for consideration of certain Bills in certain Committees. I do not think that that is a very clever idea either—although I was, of course, a very wise young man.
I am in favour, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of precisely what you identify in your memorandum. Good will is needed on both sides to make these proposals work, so that we can fulfil a tripartite purpose. The report states the original purpose, says what members of the Modernisation Committee looked at, and makes some recommendations. I think that it responds to the point just made by Mr. Forth.
First, there is no doubt that a Government should have reasonable opportunity and power to secure their business within a reasonable period. Effectively, it is not unreasonable for a Government to determine when legislative proposals leave Standing Committee, and to try and get through the House the business that they promised to the electorate in their election manifesto.
However, my point is that that depends on the Government taking a reasonable attitude to timing. When a Government introduce strings of amendments, new clauses and new schedules, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich described, they cannot expect that those debates can be compressed into the time scale originally set out.
I want to develop three points, and then there may be a chance for the right hon. Gentleman to contribute.
Secondly, Opposition Members and Government Back Benchers have a responsibility to prioritise the parts of particular legislation that they consider most need scrutiny. On this point, I am very much in tune with what the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said. It is important that that prioritisation should be a matter of discussion and that members of the Opposition parties and Government Back Benchers should have a role in that decision. In a moment, I shall describe how I think that that should be done.
Thirdly, the goal must be that we end up with a better product. That is surely what we should all be trying to obtain.
On that specific point, ending up with a better product involves proper scrutiny. I accept that, but none of the critics—not my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody, nor Mr. Heald, who spoke for the Opposition—has mentioned a major change that has taken place. I am talking about pre-legislative scrutiny. I have just taken part in a Joint Committee—comprised of Members of the Houses of Lords and of Commons—on the draft Charities Bill. We went through it paragraph by paragraph, and we have made recommendations to the Government before publication of the final Bill. Why does the hon. Gentleman not take account of that major change?
Observers might think that that was a planted question. I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising a point that I was about to come to. We in this House are developing methods that allow Bills to be scrutinised carefully before they reach the Floor of the House. That is very valuable, but it should inform the discussion about prioritisation. It should not simply offer a carte blanche—a blank cheque—to the Government to decide how everything should be handled.
No, as I want to develop my argument.
It is critical that the House consider very carefully the amendments tabled by the Procedure Committee. It is an all-party Committee with a Government majority, and its recommendations would fulfil all our objectives.
I shall illustrate how the proposals can be developed. It is critical that those who are going to do the hard work of scrutiny in Standing Committee or on Report on the Floor of the House should have the opportunity to make decisions about priority. That should involve more than just a general discussion behind the Speaker's Chair between Whips. The people who are going to do the work of scrutiny should have the responsibility—not just the opportunity—to make that decision.
I shall give an example of that. Amendment (a) is very interesting and deals with what happens when a Bill comes back to the House on Report. This is a classic case, as no report is produced for Report stage. That is another of the misnomers that we encounter in this place. No report is produced for the House about how a Bill has been debated, handled and considered, or about what has been left out and what late amendments submitted.
I recall the Report stage of the Bill that became the Transport Act 2000, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich will recall it too, as she was a key participant in the discussions at that time. I do not want to reveal any terrible secrets, but I remember that a number of Government Back-Bench Members wanted to ensure that issues of concern to them were subject to proper discussion on Report on the Floor of the House. I, as my party's Chief Whip, went to the then Chief Whip for the Government, Ann Taylor, who sensibly thought that it was important to timetable the discussion on the Floor of the House to enable Members on both sides, including Labour Back Benchers, to debate issues that were divisive and controversial and to have a Division on them. That is a classic, sensible way to use programming. We agreed a programme across all the parties—I do not recall whether Sir George Young or a colleague was involved—so that the issues that hon. Members wanted to debate could be prioritised. That is the sort of programming that I favour, because it does credit to the House and, most importantly, it produces better legislation.
On amendment (b), the Procedure Committee has produced a sensible suggestion that incorporates what we discussed all those years ago. It makes a clear distinction between those who discuss these matters in Committee and the general run of Members, because the delay is not just for fun. It is to ensure that the members of the Committee know that they are indeed to serve on it. The programme motion would incorporate the views of those Members who would do the job, and not just those of the Whips. The delay has a specific function and I congratulate the Committee on introducing that suggestion.
Amendment (c) is also very sensible, but amendment (d) is critical. It is self-determination within the Committee that is critical to effective decision making. The Programming Sub-Committee should not just take the form of a quiet discussion between the Whips. It should offer an opportunity for anyone on the Standing Committee involved to put their view about the way in which the Bill is being handled, its sticking points and controversial issues. I know from experience and from talking to several Chairs—
Well, I have talked to the Chairwomen and Chairmen of the Committees on this issue. The role of those people could be very important, because they could facilitate an effective discussion outwith the formality of the Committee sitting to ensure that proper priority is given to the decisions.
I have outlined the core principles. The Programming Sub-Committee should take full responsibility for the way in which Bills are considered in Committee. When Committee stage takes place on the Floor of the House, a fuller discussion is required. Back Benchers should have access to those discussions and they should not be a matter only for the three major parties. On Report, that is even more the case, because that is the moment at which the House is entitled to a report on the Bill by the independent Chair of the Committee. In that way, the whole House could be advised by the Standing Committee, which had full knowledge of the issues involved.
I am strongly in favour of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee and the way in which it has incorporated them into practical amendments to the motions. Although it will be a free vote, I hope that my colleagues will support me.
Motion No. 3 contains some sensible suggestions. We have now had time to recognise that sometimes there is great pressure from Members wishing to speak in a debate. I wish occasionally that we were allowed two days for a Second Reading, but the sheer weight of legislation makes that more difficult. However, the quid pro quo for agreeing to give the Chair more discretion on the timing of speeches should be the Government agreeing to be more flexible when allocating time for Second Readings. The Government should also take more note of what a Committee Chair, and his or her Committee, has to say about the extent to which a Bill has been considered. However, I accept that in all circumstances there will be occasions when the number of Members wishing to speak should mean that the Speaker, or his representatives in the Chair, has the option to limit speeches.
The argument about deferred Divisions is curious. In a sense, we will have a deferred Division at 6 pm. I have not counted how many hon. Members are in their places, but it is nonsense to suggest—as Mr. Shepherd said a few moments ago—that we all arrive to vote having fully discussed and listened to all the arguments. On occasion, most of us—although I hope not all of us all the time—come to a Division without having heard all the arguments or speeches. It is now 3 pm and there are three hours to go before we have a Division, but that does not mean that it will be disconnected from the debate. Precedents exist: on occasion we had deferred votes on matters that came before the House when it sat in Committee or on Report, even before deferred Divisions were introduced. Indeed, we have had remarkably few deferred Divisions recently, which shows that it has been a useful discipline on the Government. I hope that that will continue. Deferred Divisions should be the exception, rather than the rule, as seems to be the pattern at the moment.
On motion No. 5, the hon. Member for Macclesfield places great emphasis on the issue of cross-party agreement. Not only is that obligatory in the other place, but there it is—to some extent—linked to the issue of pre-legislative scrutiny. That is a valid argument and an effective way to ensure that the end product is not damaged by the guillotine at the end of the Session—which has always seemed a curious way to do business. We all know—it is a fact of life—that as the end of a Session approaches, interesting discussions take place through the usual channels at both ends of the building. If the Government are not required to secure cross-party agreement, it reduces the Opposition's ability to do their job.
In your memorandum, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you placed great emphasis on the need for some mechanism to discuss such issues. At the moment, all such discussions are very informal. I would like the Deputy Leader of the House to look again at the recommendations from the Modernisation Committee, and accepted by the House, that immediately after the Queen's Speech we should have cross-party discussions on the format of the legislative programme. The Opposition parties would have the opportunity to say which Bills might be candidates for carry-over, which required pre-legislative scrutiny, and so on. That would avoid the current ridiculous situation in December and January—the London bus syndrome—when five Bills tear through the House at top speed and then none follow for months. The same thing happens in the other place. We need to pace the legislative programme better. Carry-over of Bills should be allowed, but it should be a matter for discussion between the parties.
In your very interesting memorandum, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you suggested that we might look again at the proposal for some form of business Committee, however informal, as the Scottish Parliament has. I hope that the Government will consider that issue again. It is true that after that recommendation was accepted by the House, we had such a discussion. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and I met the Leader of the House and we had a desultory conversation—because the outcome looked like a fait accompli—and we asked that the debate should continue. It never did. Indeed, the Leader of the House resigned before we had an opportunity to make such a Committee a permanent feature of our parliamentary year. I suspect the sticky fingers of the Whips Office, because it saw the whole idea of any public—or, at least, more formal—discussion with Opposition parties about the format of the legislative programme as reducing its nefarious powers. It is no wonder that some Labour Members talk about the Whips Office as the dark forces of retrograde action.
Finally, it is time that we did something about the misnomer "strangers"—at least formally in our Standing Orders. I do not care who says what in Central Lobby when the Speaker's procession goes through—whether they say "Hats off, strangers" or "Hats off, visitors". Incidentally, as only strangers are required to remove their hats it implies that all Members are still wearing theirs. That is a bit anachronistic, too. I have a drawing by the great Phil May of a Member, complete with his top hat, sitting in the place currently occupied by Mr. Mudie. We no longer wear them, although the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst may wish that we did. We move on, and the time has come for us to say more honestly and openly that those who send us here have the right to be treated as part of the body politic rather than as strangers to it.
No, I am about to finish.
The report is extremely important. It is evidence-based and the Committee has taken infinite trouble. It is supported by all the parties represented on the Committee and there is to be a free vote. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to give an assurance, perhaps endorsed by one of his Front-Bench Treasury colleagues, that no guidance—I use the word advisedly—will be given to Labour Members when the Divisions take place today, and that all Members on both sides of the House will vote as their consciences, rather than the Whips, dictate.
I am grateful to be called, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am also extremely grateful to you and to the Speaker for selecting the amendments tabled by the Procedure Committee. I emphasise that they were tabled by all parties represented on the Committee.
I shall refer briefly to the speech made by Mrs. Dunwoody. We may be political opponents, but I respect her as an outstanding parliamentarian who has made a huge contribution during the many years she has served in this place. She is a true democrat who, in debates such as this, represents the best interests of the House as a whole, not of her party or of the Opposition, and that is of paramount importance.
I thank Mr. Tyler for his support for the Procedure Committee's recommendations. That shows that the Committee can obtain support across the House for its reasonable proposals, for the benefit of the House and its job of scrutinising legislation and holding to account the Government of the day.
I shall speak to the amendments. Is it your wish that I move them formally later on, Mr. Deputy Speaker?
I find it difficult to give advice to the hon. Gentleman, who is Chairman of the Procedure Committee, but it would be appropriate to move the amendments at the end, before the votes are taken.
I shall concentrate on the amendments and on the two Procedure Committee reports that are the subject of the first two motions. I advise the House that we published our report on the programming of legislation in July. I remind the House that programming was introduced on a consensual—I emphasise that word—basis in 1997, but it is with great sadness that I must note that over the next two years that consensus broke down.
In 2000, the Modernisation Committee recommended a more detailed set of provisions but it implied that programming would still be used—I say this especially to the Deputy Leader of the House—only when there was cross-party agreement. The previous allocation of time orders would be available when necessary where there was no such agreement. To an extent, the Government motions go against the first two recommendations of the Modernisation Committee, by denying that programme motions should be by consensus and that where there was no consensus the previous allocation of time orders would be available.
In fact, the orders introduced by the Government in 2000 include no requirement for cross-party agreement, and most of the time, sadly, it has not been forthcoming, for reasons that my hon. Friend Mr. Heald spelled out in his opening speech. Although there are plenty of examples of day-to-day co-operation, it remains the case that most programme orders are divided on.
The Modernisation Committee reported on programming a year ago. The Leader of the House referred to that report. The aim of the Procedure Committee was to build on the report, take some evidence from Members, and consider whether we could make programming more generally acceptable across the House, either by changing the programming orders or by encouraging a change in the way those orders are used.
There is no inconsistency in opposing the principle of a Government Bill while seeking to agree on the length of time for which it needs to be debated. In our report, which as usual was unanimous, we proposed a number of changes to the Sessional Orders to try to make programming work better for all concerned while providing safeguards—I direct these remarks particularly to the Deputy Leader of the House. The Government's motion does not implement all of them, so we have tabled some amendments—again, with cross-party support—to implement those that they did not accept.
I shall go through the main recommendations in the order in which they are set out in our report.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and his Committee, who have done marvellous work, and I heartily recommend their conclusions to the House.
When I was a Minister, I was keen that there was enough time in Committee for all Back-Bench Members on both sides of the House to make all their points. There is one thing worse for a Minister than having too lively a Committee stage and that is to let a defective piece of legislation go through, thus making the whole Government look silly because it was not properly scrutinised and amended. Does my hon. Friend agree that Ministers, in their own interest, should want more serious debate in Committee to spare them the embarrassment of bad legislation?
I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friend, but I emphasise my concern that, historically, there have been occasions when filibustering, whether by the Government or the Opposition, was the order of the day. That is something that I deeply regret. However, if the House is to do its job, it is essential that adequate time be allocated for proper and full detailed scrutiny of legislation.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the intervention made by Mr. Foulkes, based on his experience on a recent Joint Committee on pre-legislative scrutiny. Does my hon. Friend agree that that suggests that more time is needed for Standing Committees? I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that were the recommendations of the right hon. Gentleman's Committee not to be taken, he would have rather more to say if he were subsequently to find himself on the Standing Committee for that Bill. I have been in that position as a member of a Standing Committee; because the Government had not taken account of the arguments made during the pre-legislative scrutiny, we had more to say and thus needed greater time in which to say it.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting issue. My only comment in response is that I fully and warmly support pre-legislative scrutiny. I hope that there will be more of it and that the Government will be more forthcoming in the new Session of Parliament about those measures that will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. However, following my hon. Friend's intervention in relation to Mr. Foulkes—a past Minister in a Labour Government—I will say that Standing Committees are likely to be better informed; thus while the debates may be as long as in the past, they will be better focused and the quality and relevance of debate will be improved.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware that the Civil Contingencies Bill underwent pre-legislative scrutiny? At the end of the Standing Committee, the Minister, the Liberal spokesman and I agreed that, in fact, the Standing Committee had been much better as a result of the pre-legislative scrutiny.
My hon. Friend, who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench, merely confirms what I have already said in response to the question from my hon. Friend Mr. Swayne. I have spoken at great length to my hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd, whose views on that Bill are very strong, and I suspect that, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he may even mention that Bill in this debate.
Our first recommendation is the subject of amendments (b) and (c). The Procedure Committee believes that there should be some incentive for the parties in the House to agree—yes, to agree—on a programme order. We propose that a programme motion should pass without debate only if it is tabled with the support of three parties, including the Government and the largest Opposition party; otherwise, there should be a one-hour debate. We also suggest that, whether or not there is a debate, there should be an opportunity to take decisions on amendments to programme motions.
The Government's reply suggests that the Opposition parties would continue to oppose programme motions and force an hour's debate on each occasion. I sincerely believe that that would not be the case. By contrast with the Government's view, I would expect the Procedure Committee's proposals to result in a better atmosphere in which both those on the Opposition Front Bench and the Government would negotiate more fully and constructively, so that a debate would seldom, if ever, be necessary. The principle of encouraging agreement by dispensing with a debate when agreement is achieved is recognised elsewhere in the programming orders and in the Standing Orders on regulatory reform orders.
The Procedure Committee thought that programming is introduced to our current procedures too soon. Currently, the Government have to table a programme motion before the debate on Second Reading, thereby fixing an out date for the Standing Committee before even hearing the arguments and assessing the opposition to a Bill. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire. The Procedure Committee recommends that the initial programme motion should not be voted on until 48 hours after the debate on Second Reading. That is also dealt with in amendment (b). I repeat that the programme motion, which we believe should be considered 48 hours after the debate on Second Reading, would be decided by vote, if a vote were necessary, without debate. I see no good reason why the Government could not accept that proposal.
When a Bill is being considered in Standing Committee, there is often a need to make changes to the programme motion, either because the Government have agreed to change the out date or because one of the internal knives needs moving. Currently, such a change necessitates a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee, sometimes in the middle of a Standing Committee sitting. Often, however, the change proposed has already been negotiated between the parties. We have therefore recommended that the necessary motion should be moved in the Standing Committee itself, unless any Member objects. We are glad that the Government have accepted that recommendation, which appears in paragraph (5) of the motion. That should save time, and it is also for the convenience not only of the House but of the Standing Committee particularly.
Sometimes, however, there may be no time to change the timetable as I suggest. I have in mind occasions when there is a series of Divisions in the House, and when the Committee returns, the time allowed has expired and the Chairman has to put the question straight away. I hope that the Leader of the House will listen to this. We therefore recommend injury time for Divisions in the House. It seems only fair that, if we are given an allocation of time under a programme motion, we should be allowed that full allocation and the Divisions in the House should not be included in that time. We also recommend a general power for the Chairman to delay the falling of a knife by up to 15 minutes for the general convenience of the Committee. Both those recommendations are dealt with in our amendment (d).
One further recommendation that we made—this appears in our amendment (a)—is for a list to be drawn up of the clauses and schedules that have not been discussed in Committee because of the operation of the programme motion. That is intended to inform the debate on Report on the Floor of the House. The Government reply points out that hon. Members could extract that information from the Standing Committee Hansard and in part they are right, but we believe that it would be much more convenient to print it at the back of the amendment paper used on Report.
In particular, I remind the Leader of the House—he did not refer to this in his opening speech—that clause numbers often change after consideration in Committee and that our statement on the rear of the amendment paper could contain the revised numbers. So I hope that the Leader of the House might review his decision on that.
It is both, but the statement would be primarily for information.
As I am also a member of the Chairmen's Panel, I have chaired a number of Committees in which there has been no delay, no filibustering at all, but time has run out without important clauses and schedules to the Bill being debated. It would help the whole House to have that information and perhaps know the accurate numbers of the clauses and schedules when the Bill is debated on the Floor of the House. I do not propose that in any way to try to delay or protract the debate on Report, but it is important.
As the Leader of the House rightly said, there are occasions when a clause is not fully debated but is voted on there and then because it is not particularly controversial. Often, clauses are passed by agreement, without full debate. I have experienced that many times, but it is wrong when a Standing Committee has not, for lack of time, debated important clauses and schedules or provided any time for new clauses.
The remaining paragraphs of the Government motion implement minor improvements suggested by the Clerks—I am grateful to them—that the Procedure Committee has endorsed.
I should also mention some other recommendations that the Government have accepted, but that do not need any change to the programming orders, including the suggestions that there should usually be as few internal knives as possible, that Standing Committee sittings could, or perhaps should, occasionally be longer if necessary and that Members should keep their speeches reasonably short. The latter suggestion also refers to Ministers who occasional seem to drag out their speeches unnecessarily. We also recommended that Government amendments for debate on the Floor on Report should be tabled in good time, because that is important if the House is to do its job properly at that stage.
The next motion takes note of our report of last November on procedures for debates, private Members' Bills and the powers of the Speaker. It will provide for a two-Session experiment on our proposal to allow an hour of short speeches before the wind-ups. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack for suggesting the proposal when he gave evidence to our Committee. The motion contains the words "three minutes", but I must emphasise to hon. Members, and especially my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth, that that would be a minimum time limit.
We recommended that on suitable occasions, the last hour before the wind-ups should be divided equally among Members who had attended most of the debate and were still waiting to speak. The limit would be as short as three minutes only if there were 20 or more such Members. The experiment would build on informal attempts that are often made at present by the Whips and others to fit everyone in before the wind-ups start. Of course, Members would prefer an eight-minute speech to a three-minute speech, but I must suggest rationally that for most hon. Members, a three-minute speech would be better than no speech at all. We also recommended that the same procedure could be applied to the half hour before the wind-ups in a half-day debate.
The Committee's report made several other recommendations that are not the subject of today's motions, but I shall be interested to find out which receive support in the House. We made a proposal about lists of speakers, although I know that the idea is controversial and that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and Mr. Speaker have strong views about it. We suggested the possibility of linking Westminster Hall debates to relevant early-day motions. I should tell the Leader of the House that I fully support the use of Westminster Hall. As a complementary Chamber, it has provided a useful and valuable outlet in which hon. Members may raise issues of importance to them and their constituents and Select Committee reports may be debated. We also recommended that it was time to increase the £200 drafting allowance for the top 10 Members in the ballot on private Members' Bills. I hope that those suggestions will receive the House's attention in due course. The Committee also made recommendations on the Speaker's role in emergency recalls of the House. It is the view of many hon. Members that the recall of the House in an emergency should be in the hands of Mr. Speaker rather than the Government.
The other motions that we are considering do not arise from Procedure Committee reports, so I do not need to cover them—I shall allow other hon. Members who wish to speak to do that. I should, however, talk about the motion on short speeches to which the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred. The proposal would give the Chair greater latitude on who should be exempted from a time limit on speeches. A debate on a Select Committee report will often be initiated by the Government, as is the case today, but the Chairman might be expected to make his report on behalf of the Committee at length. The motion would allow that to happen whenever the Chair thought it appropriate, so I commend it to the House.
I commend both Procedure Committee reports to the House and urge hon. Members to support amendments (a) to (d), and I do so with these final words. I am committed to this House of Commons. I believe that it must be able to do the job that the people who send us here expect it to. That means that the Government of the day must allow the Opposition adequate time to do their job. The Leader of the House was not in the Chamber when I said that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is an outstanding parliamentarian. She is respected throughout the country for the work that she does not only in the Chamber, but as the Chairman of a Select Committee. Given that she takes her view seriously, as do Mr. Tyler and many other hon. Members, I hope that the votes will be genuinely free and that there will be no pressure on Government Members to support the motions tabled by the Leader of the House. There should be total freedom for Members to exercise their right to ensure that this place remains a democratic assembly and a Parliament in which proper work can be done.
It is a great privilege to follow Sir Nicholas Winterton, for whom I have a great deal of respect. When, as a Minister, I replied to Westminster Hall debates that he chaired, he always treated me with the greatest courtesy and respect, which I greatly appreciated. I also appreciated his remarks today and thought that his arguments on amendment (d) were convincing. I assure him that a gun is not being held to my head on which way to vote, although I will listen to any arguments that the Deputy Leader of the House might make against the amendment.
On the question of the guillotine and filibustering, may I start by saying that some of my colleagues realise that I am not by nature a moderniser?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that.
I opposed the changes to the House's hours, and I still think that they were a mistake, because tremendous problems have been created with double booking and clashes, as I have found today. I want to talk about guillotines and filibustering, because I have a confession to make. When I was an Opposition Back Bencher, I indulged in a great deal of filibustering. That was legitimate, in order within the procedures of the House, and accepted. However, even as I did that for hour after hour, I realised the futility of it all. We did not achieve anything most of the time, except keeping most of us out of bed until the early hours of the morning.
The futility of that process explains why programming is vital. Some Conservative Members are yet to get out of the filibustering mentality. I have served on Committees as both a Minister and a Government Back Bencher in which a great deal of time was allowed to discuss clauses, but Opposition Members inexplicably seemed unable to stop themselves from needlessly going on and on, not asking genuine questions or challenging the Government, but just filling up time. They are unable to get out of that filibustering mentality. We still face that problem. Mr. Forth, who used to be shadow Leader of the House, is probably one of the most proficient and continual habitués of that style of debating.
My first and main point relates to pre-legislative scrutiny. Although I do not always agree with my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody, as she knows, I do respect her experience here, to which the hon. Member for Macclesfield referred. The House showed that it can exercise independent spirit when it re-elected her as Chairman of the Transport Committee, irrespective of what the Government said. However, she and the hon. Members for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) have not fully taken account of the important change that has come about with pre-legislative scrutiny, which I hope will be used more often.
I served on the Joint Committee on the draft Charities Bill, which revealed the practical effects of pre-legislative scrutiny. When we went through the Bill, we took evidence from people who understood the issues—private schools, private hospitals, Oxfam, Age Concern and other bodies and small charities in towns and villages throughout the country—and we made a number of recommendations. Mr. Swayne said that such scrutiny will extend the debate in Standing Committee. I do not think that that is the case. As the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said, we will be better informed and understand the issues better. We will not ask questions for the sake of it on something to which we already know the answer. Pre-legislative scrutiny will narrow down the things on which there is division, so that there is time to debate those matters on which there is a real difference of opinion and real concern.
May I give the right hon. Gentleman the benefit of my experience on the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, on which we had the benefit of the report and the recommendations of the pre-legislative scrutiny phase? It was precisely because the Government had not implemented the recommendations that we were able, armed with the report and the evidence of which he has spoken, to put our arguments more effectively, but that takes time. It is a better-quality debate, but it is not shorter as a consequence of pre-legislative scrutiny.
It may not be shorter on individual issues, but it will narrow down the range of issues on which debate is necessary, although we have yet to see how the Government respond to our report on the draft Charities Bill. I chaired the last sitting of the Joint Committee because my right hon. Friend Mr. Milburn was moved into the Government. We managed to get all-party consensus on a number of divisive issues. I think that many of our recommendations will be accepted by the Government and we will have narrowed down the things that need to be considered in detail in Standing Committee.
It may well be that pre-legislative scrutiny has a value, but surely it can never replace the legislative role of a Standing Committee, of which the members are likely to be completely or substantially different from those who carried out the pre-legislative scrutiny. For the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that because one group has done excellent work beforehand, a completely different group, with a different role, can do less work cannot be right. They are complementary and do not replace one another.
I agree that pre-legislative scrutiny does not replace the proper legislative scrutiny on which we, as elected Members of Parliament, have ultimately to take the decision. What I am saying is that it will narrow down the opportunities for division. I also hope that members of a Standing Committee will not be completely different from those who served on the Joint Committee. We are talking about procedure, and the whole issue is open for discussion. It would be sensible for someone from the Joint Committee to serve on the Standing Committee. We can learn a number of things from the Scottish Parliament, including its experience of pre-legislative scrutiny, which helps to shorten the time that is needed for proper scrutiny.
I freely confess that I was as guilty as anyone of filibustering when the time was available, but I realised the futility of it.
It was not as futile as the right hon. Gentleman thinks. I was a member of that Government, with a large majority. We left the Opposition the weapon of time, which meant that the Government had to think carefully about which contentious issues it wished to bring to the House and it limited the number of contentious issues that we could put through. This Government have removed that important check and balance.
I wish we had limited the number of contentious issues the Thatcher Government put through, but I am afraid that we did not. It was one after another after another. They were bashed through with the guillotine. I think that the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Government who imposed a guillotine on Maastricht and the Single European Act. I remember that well because Lord Robertson and I dealt with it on the Front Bench, and we actually sat on a Friday because the Government were so intent on pushing it through. Secondly, on the carry-over of Bills, I take the same kind of radical view as my hon. Friend Mr. Pike. I do not understand why a Government elected for the duration of a Parliament cannot carry-over their legislative programme during that period.
My right hon. Friend has been a member of the Government, so he knows that if inadequate legislation is introduced and the Government, for one reason or another, do not want to stick with it, one of the easiest and most comfortable ways of getting themselves out of a difficult corner is simply to let it lapse on the pretext that there is not enough time, and introduce better legislation at the beginning of the next Session. Not only have our Government done so consistently, but as far as I can remember, Conservative and other Governments have done so in the past 30 years.
We have got into that mindset. I have served on legislative programming committees in which the previous Lord Chancellor—I had better be careful what I say—submitted Ministers to something similar to the Star Chamber, to make sure that the legislation that we were introducing was as good as possible. There will always be problems with legislation, but other Parliaments manage to introduce carry-over Bills. There is an argument that in Britain the Commons and the Lords have always introduced fresh legislation in each Session, but I have not heard a logical argument why we should not carry over legislation and why Governments should not be able to introduce Bills throughout a Parliament. We have antiquated arrangements, and the House, for example, sits at times of the year when it is illogical to do so. Instead of having several Queen's Speeches during a Parliament it would be sensible to have one at the beginning to outline the legislative programme, and in the process save an awful lot of time, money and inconvenience. There is no logical argument against my proposal, which is more radical than a simple carry-over of Bills.
Thirdly, on the 10-minute limit, I try to make short speeches, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I must watch myself today. It is possible to make as effective a speech in eight or nine minutes as it is in 15 or 20.
I have taken interventions, so I accept the right hon. Gentleman's criticism. Usually, however, when tackling a single subject, Members can make an effective speech within 10 minutes.
Finally, I am happy to remove references to strangers. There is a wonderful establishment in Dalrymple in my constituency called the Kirkton Inn. On the menu, the door, the doormat is the message, "Strangers are only friends you have not yet met." That is a nice sentiment, even though it is has nothing to do with our debate. Perhaps I can send a copy of Hansard to the Kirkton Inn. I have never understood why we use the term "strangers"—let us call such people visitors or the public. For goodness' sake, however, let us not call them the general public. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am not known as a great moderniser, but I agree with the Government's proposals, apart from their recommendations on Order D, against which the hon. Member for Macclesfield argued convincingly. Without any pressure from the Government, I can say that their proposals are very sensible indeed.
There is one thing at least on which Mr. Foulkes and I agree: Mrs. Dunwoody made an excellent speech. I will not follow the right hon. Gentleman in all that he said, although I shall probably pick up some of his points later.
People in this country labour under a great misconception, which is shared by a good number of hon. Members—that is, that Parliament governs the country. How often do people say to us at surgeries, "Well, you govern the country"? Parliament, as we know, does not. Parliament exists to hold the Government to account and to try to supervise those who have been charged with the government of the country. What we are debating today—it is the most important part of our debate—is how we hold the Government effectively to account and maintain an orderly discipline of our business.
My hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton and his Committee have performed a signal service in the report that they produced. The House would be well advised, in a free vote, to accept the recommendations and to reject firmly the changes that the Leader of the House and his colleague wish to insert in the report. In effect, the Leader of the House is emasculating many of the recommendations suggested in a unanimous report by my hon. Friend and his colleagues on an all-party Committee. They have tried to reconcile the understandable desire and need of any Government to get their business through with the absolute necessity for Parliament thoroughly to examine and properly to scrutinise the legislation put before it.
The Deputy Leader of the House is nodding vigorously. I have great regard for him and for his colleague, the Leader of the House. Whether inadvertently or not, what the Government have recommended to the House today is inimical to what my hon. Friend and his colleagues propose. The Government should think again. If they are not prepared to do so, I hope that when he winds up the Deputy Leader of the House will give us a reassurance that there is to be a truly free vote and that every Labour Member, including every member of the Government, is free to vote in whichever Lobby he or she pleases. We are considering a House of Commons matter and it is important for it to be resolved by the House of Commons.
I was half-grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Heald, the shadow Leader of the House, for his response to my pointed intervention. He did not come the whole way, but I hope he will when, with your leave, Madam Deputy Speaker, he winds up the debate. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend says he did not think he was going to do that. I hope he will, so that he can say what I am about to suggest. It is important that the Opposition make it plain that if we are returned to government next year, which I hope and believe we will be, the recommendations of the Procedure Committee will be resurrected and placed before the House with the full support of the Government of the day.
I am one of the few Members present in the Chamber who has been here a very long time but has never served in government. I have briefly served on the Opposition Front Bench, but never in government. I have been critical of my own party in government when it imposed guillotines. I have spoken and voted against them because it is crucial that every Government recognise their accountability to Parliament and do not seek to undermine that accountability.
I had not thought that I would necessarily wind up the debate, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we ought to be able to do at least as well as the proposals of the Procedure Committee to meet the needs of the House in order for it to scrutinise legislation properly. I hope he will find the manifesto proposals satisfactory when they are produced.
I trust that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and I will be consulted when that portion of the manifesto is drafted, just to be sure that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire has got it right.
This debate is important, and it is sad that more hon. Members are not present to discuss how best to hold the Government to account. Having made my points about the Procedure Committee's major report, and having fully endorsed its recommendations, let me pass briefly on to some of the other subjects that we are discussing this afternoon—I seek not only to emulate but perhaps even to better the right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley in making a brief speech.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and his Committee for accepting my proposal, which I put to them in written and oral evidence, for a brief period during debates to provide an opportunity for spontaneous utterance. The increasing tendency for hon. Members to read their speeches is one of the things that has saddened me during my membership of this House. That tendency destroys proper debate, just as the rigorous imposition of time limits may destroy it.
I have often felt a sense of frustration—I am sure that you felt it too before you reached your elevated position, Madam Deputy Speaker—when I have sat through a debate but have not been called. Worst of all, if one sits in a debate and suddenly feels moved to make a contribution, the dice are loaded against those who have not written to the Speaker to ask to take part.
In that spirit of sympathetic and empathetic frustration, and I think particularly of newer hon. Members, I recommended to the Procedure Committee that a portion of each debate—an hour or half an hour depending on the length of the debate—should be used to allow hon. Members who have been assiduous in their attendance, but who have not necessarily written to the Speaker, to catch the Speaker's eye and make a brief contribution.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield emphasised that the three minutes is the minimum time limit—on some occasions, it could be five, six, seven, eight or perhaps even 10 minutes. For one hour, hon. Members who have a contribution to make can make it. I am delighted that that recommendation features in the report and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and his colleagues. I hope that the experiment is successful—it is rightly an experiment—and that it will pass into the practice of this House.
I do not like deferred Divisions—I have voted against them in the past and will vote against them again tonight. In a spirit of honesty, however, I must say that we are having deferred Divisions today and that many hon. Members will troop through the Lobbies tonight not having heard a word of the debate, which undermines the argument.
Returning to my point about short and spontaneous speeches, the opportunity to make a short, spontaneous speech should provide a greater incentive to attend the Chamber. The most unfortunate thing about this Chamber is its progressive depopulation over the years. When I was first elected in 1970, the House was nearly always full for the winding-up speeches and the opening speeches, whatever the subject of the debate, which is not the case now.
It was always the courteous custom that hon. Members who spoke stayed for the following two speeches and came in for both winding-up speeches, unless they had another parliamentary commitment. That custom has gone away from us—courtesy has departed from the House and fewer hon. Members attend the Chamber. I hope that my proposal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield endorses, will have some effect. I shall vote against deferred Divisions, because anything that encourages absence is not to be commended.
I share the view that Bills should be carried over, but only with the Opposition's consent, which is important. Some Bills are terribly important and very complex, but not necessarily contentious in a party political sense. They deserve the closest and most lengthy scrutiny, and nothing should prevent their being carried over. However, that must not become a Government's excuse for rushing through bodged legislation and then pushing it into the next Session because they have not had quite enough time to get it through in the current one.
I very much disagree with the right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, who wants only one State Opening in a Parliament. No Government are so prescient that they know what is going to happen in the next four or five years, so there is a need for an annual review and introduction of legislation for the following year.
I will say very little about short speeches. Chairmen of Select Committees should not be given an inordinate amount of time, but they need enough to explain the reports and recommendations of their Committees, and that cannot be done in eight or ten minutes.
I want to conclude by saying a few words about the final motion. One of the curses of the age is political correctness. Any institution, be it a school, a club or a university has, to some degree, its own vocabulary; and part of our vocabulary is the word "strangers". Having entertained friends and visitors in this House for almost 35 years, I have never—I say this emphatically—heard anyone complain about their reception. No one has felt ostracised or unwelcome; many, however, have commented to the contrary or said that they rather like the slightly quaint vocabulary that we sometimes use. They do not mind being called strangers—they do not see that as a mark of opprobrium but take it in the same spirit as those who patronise the hostelry in Carrick, Cumnock or Doon Valley that we heard about.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I hope that he will allow me to intervene again afterwards.
I bow to the hon. Gentleman's superior quaintness, and I understand the point that he is making, but he should recognise that the proposal did not come out of thin air: it came from the Modernisation Committee, which took very careful evidence, particularly from young people, who feel that certain words are now anomalous and anachronistic. Calling those who send us here strangers is certainly an example of that.
That is part of the patronising condescension that makes people want to put Shakespeare into modern English and to abandon the Book of Common Prayer. It was all right for George III to go around talking to trees, but the hon. Gentleman goes around talking to chairs, such is his succumbing to the mood of political correctness.
All this nonsense reminds me of one of Churchill's famous quips. At the end of the war he was told that one should not call the homes that were being built in this country homes, because some of them were quite small—they should be called accommodation units. Churchill leaned back in his chair and said, "Accommodation unit, sweet accommodation unit. What rubbish." How right he was. This is an example of that rubbish. Those who come here, our constituents and others, are very welcome. This is the Parliament of those who live in this country, and it always will be. They send us here and we are answerable to them, just as the Government are answerable to us in this Chamber.
If we think that by tinkering with the word "strangers" we are helping to give the people the Parliament they deserve, we are deluding ourselves and, indeed, guilty of a massive confidence trick. Our duty in this Chamber is to have an effective Parliament that represents the people's interests and holds the Government to account. We shall serve those interests by voting freely, firmly and decisively for the Procedure Committee's recommendations and by eschewing the syntactic nonsense in motion 7.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, who spoke briefly and without notes—a model to us all. I propose to make the briefest speech in the debate.
The right hon. Member for the triple-barrelled constituency of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) said that he hoped that pre-legislative scrutiny might reduce the amount of time spent in Committee. If he examines the record, he will realise that the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 was subjected to a joint Committee of both Houses but subsequently spent an inordinate time in Committee. I wonder whether the fact that the Gambling Bill has been to a joint Committee will reduce the time that it needs in Standing Committee. The jury is out on whether pre-legislative scrutiny reduces the time that is needed for the Standing Committee stage.
I am a member of Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which examined the draft Animal Welfare Bill. There have been an enormous number of sittings on the draft Bill and I firmly believe that the quality of the measure that reaches the statute book will be significantly improved by the prodigious efforts of those involved.
I do not doubt that, but it was not my point. Will that scrutiny reduce the amount of time that the Standing Committee spends on the draft Bill?
Indeed, but that was the argument that the Leader of the House adduced and that I question.
I commend my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton for producing a readable report that those of us who are not experts on procedure found easy to follow. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, the Procedure Committee and its report set the framework in which we conduct our debates and hold the Government to account. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield has assisted us in that task by shining a procedural torch in some dark constitutional corners.
I preface my remarks by pointing out that two Select Committees produce reports on procedure—the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee. Is it the best use of scarce resources for two Select Committees to produce reports on procedure?
That is exactly the point that I was about to make. I make no apologies for repeating a view that I have expressed previously. The Leader of the House should not chair the Modernisation Committee because there is a clear conflict of interest. The Leader of the House is in the Cabinet, with the mandate of getting the Government's legislative programme through the House of Commons. The Modernisation Committee has produced recommendations that are different from those of the Procedure Committee. That underlines the fact that they come from different viewpoints.
The role of the House is different from that of the Leader of the House. Our job is to scrutinise the Government's legislative programme and hold the Government to account. Our system is short-circuited if the Leader of the House is also Chairman of the Select Committee that makes recommendations about the rules for processing that programme. It is the only Select Committee that is chaired by a Minister. Without being personal about the current Leader of the House, he should stop leading that Committee. We should have one Select Committee instead of two, it should be called the "Strengthening of Parliament Committee" and someone who is not a member of the Government should chair it.
Let me consider the reports. The mood today is different from the mood in the previous Parliament. With respect to my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth, the mood is perhaps different from that of a year ago. It makes sense to adopt a less confrontational approach to programming Bills. From the Government's point of view, it makes sense to keep in their locker ammunition that they may need to secure the passage of their programme. However, they do not have to deploy it the whole time. We should experiment with a less restrictive regime in the interests of better scrutiny.
For example, the Companies (Audit, Investigations and Community Enterprise) Bill went through the House without a procedural shot being fired. In the next Session, we should experiment with having more Bills without programming, thus going back to the pre-1997 regime, which worked perfectly well for many of us. If it is abused, the Government have the resources that they need to get their Bills through. En passant, I point out that we can examine Bills properly if the Government produce a digestible legislative programme. This is the right point at which to ask the Leader of the House, as he draws up the Loyal Address, not to overburden the House. That lies behind some of the problems that we have seen in recent years. I know that when my hon. Friend Mr. Heald draws up the Loyal Address in six months' time, he will ensure that a Conservative Administration have a digestible programme to be delivered without the programme motions of which we have seen too much in recent years.
On length of speeches, many speeches are far too long, particularly Front-Bench speeches. The longer Front-Bench speeches go on, the more Back Benchers realise that they will not be called, so the more interventions they make to get their views on the record, thereby aggravating the original problem. For written material for the Minister, 20 minutes is too long; 15 minutes is perfectly adequate, with five minutes for interventions. Yesterday, we had a fairly typical series of half-day debates. We had an hour and a half for the three Front-Bench speeches on university admissions, which is disproportionate.
There is a proposal that the Speaker should exempt additional Members from any time limit on speeches. I view that with a little suspicion—the size of the cake will remain the same for everyone else, and the slices will get a little smaller. I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire that the Chairmen of Select Committees need time and space to speak to their report, but in one sense the House already knows their views as they are capsulated in the report: it is everyone else who has not had the opportunity to say anything about the subject. The debate on the Floor of the House is the first chance that the rest of us have to contribute.
I feel challenged by my right hon. Friend. Would he speculate on how many hon. Members read every Select Committee report? I would have said that the number was very small.
I would hope that Members who sought to catch Mr. Speaker's eye in a debate on a Select Committee report would have done the House the courtesy of reading it. I am prepared to support my hon. Friend's recommendation on approval, as it were, not for the reason that he gave but because, over the past few years, the House has tried to develop an alternative structure so that the Government do not hoover up all the talent, and we have started to pay some Select Committee Chairmen. That proposal is part of re-balancing the power in the House by enhancing the role of Select Committee Chairmen. On that basis, I am prepared to support it, but I hope that it will not be abused.
A recommendation in one of the reports, which has not been mentioned, is that attention should be paid to the number of signatures on early-day motions in deciding what subjects should be selected for debate in Westminster Hall. I confess that I am not a fan of early-day motions; they have become a greatly devalued currency, and I do not sign them. If my constituents want me to make my views known to the Government, I prefer to write a letter to the Minister. If the recommendation were adopted, it would add to the pressure on all of us to add our names to early-day motions. I question whether that is a sensible way forward.
I have nothing against carry-over. I regard the legislative programme as being like a motorway—what we want to avoid is rush hours, and at the moment we have a rush hour at the beginning of the Session with all the Second Readings. We would make better use of the legislative process if we more evenly distributed Bills throughout the year.
My reason for requesting an intervention was to emphasise that support, for which I am grateful. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that the London bus syndrome, as it has been described, does not just affect us in Parliament but parliamentary counsel? One of the advantages of carry-over is that parliamentary counsel's resources are, in effect, increased. In my limited experience, that means that better legislation is enacted.
Yes, I would be tempted to go down the route of saying that we should privatise parliamentary counsel, and not be restricted to the use of the ones that we have at the moment.
The Committee makes it absolutely clear that carry-over should only be done with cross-party consent— I intervened on the Leader of the House, as did my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, to seek an assurance that the Government would not use carry-over without cross-party consent. The Standing Order changes allow them to do that. The assurance that I received was not 100 per cent. If the Deputy Leader of the House can assure me further on that in his reply, I would be grateful. I also think that the Government should identify carry-over Bills at their inception rather than deciding halfway through a Session, when they get into trouble, that a Bill needs to be carried over.
I was against deferred Divisions when they were introduced, and, like my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, I am against them now. I consider them to be one of the factors that help to bring this institution into disrepute. I do not think that there should be too big a gap between a debate and a Division, and I shall vote against deferred Divisions.
We have not spent too much time arguing about the term "strangers" as applied to visitors, which I think is a good thing. The more time we spend arguing about what we should call people, the more detached from the real world our constituents will believe us to be. I cannot get frightfully excited about it—it hits me right on my indifference curve—but it is worth noting that the only mention of today's debate in the press has related to it.
My final exhortation is this: let us make up our minds quickly and move on, because there are more important matters for the House to discuss.
The only protection that the public have from an over-mighty Government legislating too much and legislating badly is provided by Members of Parliament in both Chambers, but particularly Members of the House of Commons.
As a Minister in a Government who had a big majority when I joined them, I was very conscious of the fact that leaving the weapon of time in the hands of the Opposition imposed an important constraint on that Government's ability to over-legislate, to legislate in haste or to legislate badly. Ministers had to agonise over the scarce resource of parliamentary time to pass legislation, and rightly so. Now the weapon of time has largely been taken away from the Opposition parties and from Back Benchers from the governing party. The Government no longer need take account of the scarceness of legislative time. They need not work so hard to decide what they really want to do, and to ensure that their legislation is well drafted and well thought through. I think that that is a bad development.
There are two main ways in which legislation can be tested, honed and perfected. The first rests particularly heavily on the shoulders of Ministers. I am glad to say that when I was a Minister I did not have to legislate very often. I was always quite reluctant to legislate, feeling that we had quite enough laws already. When I was required to do so, however, I felt that I had a strong duty to go through any draft proposals likely to come to the House in great detail with those who had drafted them and those who advised on them, in order to test them. I did not want to bring to the House of Commons badly drafted legislation that would be exposed and made to look foolish by other Members, and would then need lengthy and elaborate amendment.
Even a Minister who tried to do the job seriously was sometimes forced into amendment by events, by good points made in Committee or by pressures within collective government; but I think that the first line of defence against bad legislation must be the Minister. In recent years Ministers have found it quite easy to get legislation through the House of Commons. They have realised that large amounts of a Bill will not be debated at all, and have become very sloppy. I do not feel that all Ministers—there are some notable exceptions—have the same earnest intent as those who tackled the issue behind closed doors with their officials and draftsmen, so that legislation would be in a reasonable state when it reached the House.
That is demonstrated by the large number of new clauses and pages that are regularly proposed at a very late stage in a Bill's progress, when it is realised—usually by Government officials rather than a Minister—that the Bill has been badly drafted. Pressure groups outside have finally got to grips with it, and have advised the officials; they in turn make Ministers revise, but they have to revise in a big way.
The second big line of defence for the public who will be affected by legislation is the Standing Committee, along with the wider meetings of the House on Second and Third Readings and, particularly, on Report. The Committee stage is, I think, the most important. Any sensible Minister would not wish to truncate good debate on difficult issues in a Bill. Of course the Committee stage should not be dominated by political disagreements and long speeches that verge on filibuster. The Chair deals with true filibuster, but we all know when Members are being clever enough to stay just within the limits while not using all the time as well as they might. Any Government with a majority have an easy way of dealing with that. Of course, any Government have the ultimate right to curtail debate and to introduce a timetable motion, but it should be the exception rather than the rule, and the Government should have to fight for it and to prove beyond peradventure to reasonable people that it is necessary to take that action because of the conduct of the Committee.
In Committee, a guillotine and individual knives often limit debate on individual clauses and other provisions. Debate could genuinely go on, to the benefit of the Minister as well the Committee, on particular parts of a Bill but it is simply not allowed because the guillotine is too prescriptive and is not thought through well—often, it is impossible in advance to think through how much debate is needed on clause 1, clause 2 clause 3 and the relevant amendments pertaining to those clauses.
Therefore, I urge the Minister even at this late stage to understand the mood of the House of Commons today. It is not one of party political antagonism to the Minister and the Government. It was beautifully expressed by my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton, by his Committee and by hon. Members on both sides of the House who have spoken. The mood is that the Government have simply got the balance wrong, in respect not just of the Opposition and Back Benchers from the governing party but of the people who will be affected by the legislation and Ministers themselves.
There is no mileage for a Minister in being able to prove that he or she has rammed a Bill through in record time, if a year later he or she or a successor has to come back to the House and "I am very sorry"—well, they often do not say sorry—"but we got it all wrong and we need to change the legislation. It was done in haste. We now need to legislate again." It is far better from the Government's point of view if the House of Commons is allowed to do its job properly. That means not guillotining all these proposals. That means allowing sensible debate by hon. Members on both sides of the House, particularly in Committee, so that the double filters work. The Minister will then scrutinise the legislation more carefully before introducing it and the Committee will do the job properly. I urge the Government to understand the mood of the House and to realise that, in all our interests, to have a great Parliament we need time to do the job properly.
I should like to make one or two observations without reprising many years of debate on the subject. The shadow Leader of the House said that the Government had a right to get their business. No constitutional principle has ever accepted that in the past. It cannot be so. The very purpose of Parliament is to examine the propositions that the Executive put before it. What does that mean for Labour MPs who oppose top-up fees, for example? Why do they oppose it if the Government have that right?
That understanding of the rights of Government by this House, as expressed by the shadow Leader of the House, is a profound misunderstanding of the purpose of the House. It plays into the hands of a Government who say, "We must get this business." The whole point of the House is to examine business, which is what has lain behind these debates for many years.
When we were in government, I used to analyse and to speak against the very few guillotines—I now look back on those days with regret—that were imposed in Mrs. Thatcher's heyday. They are nothing to the number of guillotines now. In their first year, the new Labour Government imposed more guillotines than were imposed in the 11 years of Mrs. Thatcher's premiership. It has now become a matter of routine. The House acquiesces in the business being programmed, as it is euphemistically called. In his second fine memorandum, which is included in the report of the Procedure Committee, the Deputy Speaker identifies those arguments, which go back four or five years. We are not much further forward. It has been the Government's shameless intention throughout that all the business in this House be determined by them; not just general debates and specific Bills, but even matters such as the time allocated for their consideration.
It was fascinating to discover in the Leader of the House's very shallow presentation that no reference was made to the facts. Under his leadership, the Modernisation Committee presented a report in 2002 that set out the details of the operation of programme orders in previous Sessions. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton for updating that information. What do we discover about Parliament's ability to discuss legislation? Table A on page 5, on the operation of programme orders for the Communications Bill during the 2002–03 Session, shows the number of clauses or schedules stand part that were not reached because of the knife, a concept that we did not have some years ago. Only 105 were not reached, after all, so what does it matter?
What happened to the Communications Bill on Report? Consideration on Report used to be the vital point at which every Member of this House could contribute to the debate on an issue affecting their constituents. Three knives came into play and, as is shown under the heading
"Groups/Third reading not reached because of knife" seven such groups were not reached.
We should also consider the very important Criminal Justice Bill, which was introduced the following day. Such legislation is central, in that it consists of measures that could send our constituents to prison and make criminal offences of certain acts; indeed, it guides this country's social, economic and political context in terms of criminal law. The Government provided 32 sittings for that Bill; how very generous! Seventy-one groups were not reached because of the knife, and 106 clauses and schedules stand part were not reached for that reason. Bravo! On Report, 11 knives came into play, and 13 such groups were not reached.
I could go on; the situation is indeed absurd. My hon. Friends have served on such Bills, as have new Labour Members. On the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, 58 groups were not reached because of the knife and 73 clauses and schedules stand part were not reached. Such information underlines the effectiveness or otherwise of this approach, and undermines the proud claims of those who believe in what are politely called programme motions, but which, in truth, are indistinguishable from guillotines, as is acknowledged in Mr. Deputy Speaker's memorandum.
The position is worse than my hon. Friend suggests. For every one of those examples, other clauses and groups of amendments were rushed through and given insufficient attention because Members were racing to reach a particular stage, or to make a point that they wished to make, before the knife fell.
I am truly grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Procedure Committee. That Committee used to be considered the most senior of all Committees, in the sense that it dealt with a matter of great importance to us all as ordinary Back Benchers and Members of this House; there is no disputing that fact. My hon. Friend's understanding of such matters has given greater flesh to the bones of an argument that I am making, have made and will continue to make during my parliamentary career. I agree absolutely with what he is saying, and we know the practice to which he refers.
We in this House often speak as if we have created some paradise, yet it is now insignificant in people's minds but for an occasional outburst on issues such as war. This will be the Parliament of war; that is what this issue is really about. Our deliberations on matters such as communications, criminal justice, planning and compulsory purchase and local government are not considered properly in Committee; they are truncated and half-done. They are the background to what is now the majesty and presumption of Executive Government.
The House has a personality. I have tried to make the point that we are all only temporary Members here. Others will succeed us, as others have preceded us. The present Government are just part of the passage of the long life of a nation. The central function of the rules—the rules, like court rules, that govern the way in which we contest the propositions of Executive Government—is to be more permanent.
When the electorate vote, they are effectively settling the question of who should be the Executive, but that is all. They are not settling the detail of page 83 of a manifesto. The electorate cannot possibly know the precise intentions of the Government's Criminal Justice Bill or be aware of the 106 clauses and schedules, stand parts and so on that were not reached. They do not know, so our job is to tickle out and challenge. That is the job of every Member of this House of Commons who is not a member of the Executive; to satisfy themselves, on behalf of their constituents, whether something is appropriate or right. That is our purpose and function.
I seek no office, but I want to know that I am a free man in a free country, in which I can say to the leader of the Government, "You are wrong, and here are the reasons why". However, these scheduling arrangements, timetables and guillotines deny the representative of Aldridge-Brownhills, the triple-barrelled constituency in Ayrshire or wherever the opportunity to examine the details.
I was not intending to make a long speech, because the House has been wearied by my views on this matter for a long period.
I am glad to hear the shadow Leader of the House say, "No, no, no, no". He is right to say that, but he is wrong to accept the principle that the Government have a right to get their business through. If so, why do we bother to examine it? That is the heart of the argument; we examine it, because it is important. If it is wrong, it is important to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the House and the country that it is wrong. It is the country that we are talking to in the Chamber, but no one listens because there is no point. We are not actually doing our job because we are voting for a structure of rules, which Mr. Speaker is obliged by the Orders of the House to enforce, that denies us that right.
It is truly curious when the Leader of the House does not argue that there are merits in his proposition. What is happening? Cicero said a long time ago that those who knew nothing of the time before they were born would for ever remain a child. The Leader of the House demonstrated that in spades. He came in only 10 years ago, yet feels fully competent to talk about how the House was managed 20 years ago. I defer to Mrs. Dunwoody because her experience of the movement of the House over the years is deeper and longer than mine.
I fully accept my hon. Friend's rebuke, but surely he would agree that the Government were entitled to get their business through if, after properly debating the matters before the House, they could command a majority.
Indeed. Governments have that expectation; after all, it is only the Government who represent the majority in the House. However, there was no caveat whatever in what my hon. Friend said. What of the condition that the Government have to meet the test? After all, the Government do not always command all their own supporters; Government Members can, by working with us, with the Liberal Democrats and the nationalists, defeat a Government. I have seen it happen.
I wish to make two further points. One Bill greatly exercised me and my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg; the Civil Contingencies Bill. There was no dispute about clause 1, but clause 2 proposed giving to a Government powers that had never been known outside wartime.
For whatever reason, members of the Opposition Front Bench were so terrified of being accused by the Government that they were not solid in the fight against terrorism that they did not vote against clause 2. That disappointed me, but what happened under the present arrangements? On Report, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and I were denied the opportunity of pointing out that the Bill's definition of an emergency was inadequate, that property could be confiscated with or without compensation and that a junior Minister could suspend primary legislation.
As my right hon. Friend says, the Bill meant that a Whip could do it.
The proposals amounted to a profound assault on the central civil liberties of our people, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and I were not reached in the debate. Our amendments were not selected for discussion. We were therefore left with 10 minutes on Third Reading, after the Front Bench Members of all parties had put their oar in, in which we could stand up and say, "This ain't right." We divided the House, and the tragedy of that Division is that it was the two of us against 659 other hon. Members.
I feel strongly about our civil liberties. We are nothing if we have no regard for our freedoms and where they come from. Those freedoms were originated by others, not by us, and yet we give them away so casually. Members of my own Front Bench would not even walk into a Lobby to deny the principle demanded by the Government that items could be confiscated with or without compensation.
My hon. Friend holds views that I greatly respect, and is making a speech that I hope will be widely read. However, is he not making the case that there should be no programme motion affecting the Report stage of a Bill? As Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I am very interested in this matter, as other members of that Committee will be. Is not the Report stage the only opportunity available to all Members of the House to contribute to the debate on a measure? After all, hon. Members may not have been called to speak on Second Reading, or selected to sit on the Standing Committee considering the Bill. Is not the Report stage the only truly Parliament-wide opportunity for hon. Members to contribute to the debate on a Bill? That is especially important when a Bill is as important as the Civil Contingencies Bill, to which my hon. Friend referred.
Of course I am making that case. I am also making, in part, the case put forward by my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood. There is no need for guillotines. It should not be the Government's first presumption that they must guillotine every piece of legislation that comes before the House. Our procedures work without guillotines. I remember, as I said, that there were some 43 guillotines under Mrs. Thatcher and that subordinate guillotines took the figure to about 60.
May I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton? Nomination to Standing Committees is controlled to a large extent by the Whips, who are generally unwilling to nominate hon. Members from their own party unless they are considered reliable. Those of us who are somewhat idiosyncratic in our approach to party discipline do not always find ourselves nominated. As a result, the Report stage is the only real opportunity for hon. Members like us to address the detail of a Bill.
Indeed. A Standing Committee is merely a subordinate instrument of this House, which enables the House to discharge more business than would otherwise be possible.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm that that is the case? My understanding is that the Deputy Leader of the House is not correct. An hon. Member cannot attend a Standing Committee considering a Bill unless he is a member of that Committee. Indeed, that was the substance of the row involving my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe in respect of the Bill that became the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. She was ejected from the Committee.
"Those who know nothing of the time before they were born will remain forever a child".
We actually had the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons stand before us and assert something that is not correct. I regret that. He is the Deputy Leader of the House, but he does not understand the business of the House. Nevertheless, he will advise us to vote for something that I am arguing against. I hope that my party will vote against it convincingly, and I hope that the Liberal Democrats, on the basis of such an inadequate intervention from the Deputy Leader of the House, will also vote against the proposals.
I do not underestimate the importance of university fees and other such matters to the social framework of our country, but perhaps the most profound issue of this Parliament is war. I wish to point out what we will do by limiting freedom of speech through such motions. We were allowed only one day to debate whether we should go to war; the first time that Parliament had been given the authority to make the decision. We all know that representations were made to have more than one day of debate, but many hon. Members were unable to express their feelings about the defining issue of this Parliament. I commend my hon. Friends to vote against the motions.
I shall follow in the spirit of my hon. Friends the Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), because underpinning this debate—which may seem limited in its scope—is one of the paradoxes that has struck me more and more about the House of Commons. It is that the way in which our parliamentary system works means that the House of Commons is expected and asked both to provide and sustain the Government of the day and, at the same time, to hold it to account. That worked reasonably satisfactorily for a long time; indeed, until very recently, when this Government came to power with no respect for the parliamentary process. The present Prime Minister, throughout his career, has shown very little interest in the parliamentary process and the Government have been ruthlessly determined to use their majority to get their way without let or hindrance.
What does my right hon. Friend think of the fact that as we debate two Select Committee reports, there is not a single Labour member of either of those Committees in the Chamber?
My right hon. Friend reflects the point that I am trying to make; interest among Labour Members in Parliament and the parliamentary process has diminished almost to zero. Of course, I exempt Mrs. Dunwoody, who, as ever, has bravely tried to represent her entire party today, with her usual style and commitment.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills pointed out, a system that worked historically, informally and by tradition—all the things that are resented by the Government—has now almost completely broken down. What we have seen today is the culmination—although it may be only part of the way in a long process—of the diminution of the House of Commons and the rampancy and supremacy of the Executive. The apparently esoteric matters before us today form part of that process. The programming of Bills, deferred Divisions and the many other changes that have been made in the past seven years have reduced the opportunities for hon. Members to hold the Government to account through debate, delay, irritation, questioning and all the other means that have been used in the past. They have now almost all disappeared. Delay is now regarded as unacceptable. Debate is regarded as irrelevant and, as was reflected in one or two of the interventions today, the Government expect to legislate in uninterrupted fashion for four or five years.
That is not what I have always understood the parliamentary process to be. Although a Government, by definition, have a majority in the House and will almost invariably be able to legislate and have their way, I believe it is proper that the Government be delayed, held up and irritated and that Ministers be required to answer questions. That was part of the parliamentary process, but time and time again, in these procedural changes that are brought before us, we see that the Government regard debate as an irrelevance and votes as a formality—nothing should stand in the way of the Government and their Members.
Indeed, it is even worse than that: Members should not be inconvenienced in any way. That is what lay behind the change in hours and it is what lies behind the nonsense of the deferred Division. Time and time again, the word "convenience" has started to appear in the parliamentary lexicon. Members must be able to predict what will happen and when, so that nothing should inconvenience them and nothing should come in the way of their activities outside Parliament or outside the Chamber.
In my naivety, I cling to the view that the prime duty of a Member of Parliament is to be at Westminster in the House of Commons—in the Chamber and in Committees. Apparently, however, the new Labour view is that that is now a marginal activity, one that should be fitted, in a predictable way, into the many other activities that Members of Parliament apparently have, of which I have little understanding and for which I have very little sympathy. That is part of the rapid changes that have taken many of us by surprise over the past few years and are reflected in the motions to which we are asked to agree today.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that I am one of those Members who voted for the new hours and immediately regretted it when they actually came into force.
I suspect that if we were to examine closely the Register of Members' Interests, there would be far more Conservative Members with outside interests than Labour Members. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that support for the new hours had nothing to do with outside interests, but more to do with an intention to bring the House, and the Chamber, into the 21st century—flawed though those moves may have turned out to be?
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says, because he uses the phrase "into the 21st century", as if it explained everything and was in itself sufficient reason for making the changes that are proposed. I do not see what is significant about the 21st century. I am not sure what can have suddenly happened when we passed from 2000 to 2001 to give rise to such changes. This is the obsession with modernisation—a word that I have come to detest and which, as far as I am concerned, means nothing, certainly nothing positive, and has given rise to all the adverse changes to which we have been subject.
I resent and oppose the whole concept of programming. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills pointed out, in his typical way, programming, which is a benign enough sounding concept, has been the mechanism whereby the Government have taken the tightest possible grip on parliamentary process and procedure, and diminished the role of Standing Committees to such an extent that they are now merely a cipher. That is symbolic of the relationship that now exists between the Government—the Executive—and Parliament, the House of Commons.
I am following my right hon. Friend's argument with great care, so I think that he will accept what I am about to say. When a Procedure Committee issues a report on House of Commons matters, it should be dealt with by a decision of the House; it should not be for the Government of the day to produce a response on a matter that is entirely the responsibility of the House and nothing to do with the Government.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which goes to the very heart of the relationship that exists between the Government and the House of Commons and returns us to my introductory remarks and the paradox that we have to deal with: at one and the same time, the House of Commons provides and sustains the Government while trying to hold it to account. He is absolutely right. In an ideal world the Government should have no role in determining the procedures of the House of Commons. That is the ideal. Even I, extremist that I am in these matters, would have to concede that we have to find some sort of accommodation and understand the fact that the Government, with their elected majority, should probably have the major influence—I put it no more strongly than that—in the way in which the House works. However, that balance has now become so grotesquely out of kilter that we are put in the current position.
Would my right hon. Friend care to reflect, although he wants to stay in the 20th and 21st centuries, on the fact that the pass was sold in the 19th century, when during the difficulties that arose in relation to Home Rule, Lord Randolph Churchill and others fought against the changes that transferred the Speaker's rules effectively to the Executive. As a former Clerk of the House said in writing about that, that was when the House of Commons lost its control over business, and from that moment onwards, things have gone downhill.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking us back to the 19th century. He would not have to tempt me too much to go further back than that—the further back perhaps the better—but the point is that debates on such issues occasionally give us the opportunity to try to put a stop to that process and perhaps even to reverse it.
I share an awful lot of the views that are being expressed, but is not the basic truth that Members of Parliament have surrendered to the Executive powers that they ought to exercise and that, until we recover our self-respect, the Executive will dominate the House? Should my right hon. Friend not continue to make the point, when people talk about free votes, that all votes are free? It is because we have surrendered our liberty to the Whips that we need to talk about free votes. I believe that Members of Parliament should vote in accordance with their views, and I do not give two hoots about what the Whips say.
My right hon. and learned Friend displays the independence of mind of someone who is at a mature stage in his career, with perhaps not very much expectation of future advance.
Both my right hon. and learned Friend and my right hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech, reflect most magnificently the zeal of the convert.
Not while I am making my confession.
Of course, one's view varies from time to time, depending on how safe one's seat is, the stage of one's career and whether one is in government or opposition. That is self-evident, but it does not diminish the fact that those of us who have had the privilege of being elected for some little time now and have seen the House from the point of view of a Minister, a Government Back Bencher or an Opposition Back Bencher and so on can still hold views about the role of the House of Commons and of Members of Parliament that are perhaps better informed by that experience.
Does my right hon. Friend accept the basic proposition that, whereas it is true that people like me bullied our Back-Bench colleagues when we were Whips, we would also make the confession that we did not think any more highly of them for allowing us to bully them?
My right hon. Friend is making important points, as did my hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd, although he and I have not experienced the need for confession and contrition—or coercion for that matter. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Churchill got it right when, in acknowledging the necessity of political parties and a degree of discipline, he unequivocally said none the less that a Member's first duty was to his country, his second duty was to his constituents and only in the third instance was his duty to his party's policies and programme? If we stuck to that and undermined the overweening power of the Whips, would we not also increase the interest of the people of this country in what goes on here?
I think that we are discussing all the motions before us. In agreeing with my hon. Friend, I was about to mention deferred Divisions, which is the subject of one of the motions—I hope that we will all vote against it.
Deferred Divisions are symbolic of Labour Members' desire to make life as easy as possible. As I recall, the rationale behind deferred Divisions was that it was rather inconvenient for Members of Parliament to have to be in the House at the end of a debate—be that 7 o'clock or 10 o'clock—and vote at that hour. We have moved causally and glibly from that simple proposition to a situation in which absurd ballot papers are made available on Wednesdays for use by hon. Members, not least the Prime Minister so that his abysmal voting record can be improved easily. We now have the phenomenon whereby a motion and the Division on it are neatly detached, often by several days.
One could argue that that situation is not necessarily significant in itself, and I would be the first to concede that on a day such as this, given the number of hon. Members in the Chamber, there may well be some detachment between the debate and the Division on the matter, even if it occurs at the end of the day. However, the symbolism of the deferred Division procedure remains important. It says yet again that we do such things for the convenience of the Government and Members with no regard for the parliamentary process or the relationship that is developing between the Executive and Parliament.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing demand from Labour Members—the Leader of the House confirmed this today—to deal with private Members' Bills on Tuesdays or Wednesdays after 7 o'clock? If that proposal is acceded to, does he agree that the explanations given for the deferred Division procedure show that the Government were concerned about only their convenience rather than that of the House?
The proposal raises interesting points— I shall not discuss them at length, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I shall touch on them if I may. If the proposal were followed through, we would go back to sitting late to deal with private Members' Bills, but we were told that such hours were unacceptable to hon. Members. I am happy to deal with private Members' Bills whenever they come before the House, but I would prefer to consider them on a Friday because we are able to see off most of them because fewer than 40 Members bother to attend on that day to support them. It remains to be seen whether sufficient Members would bother to attend later on a Tuesday or Wednesday, but the proposal gives the lie to the validity of the argument that was originally put before us.
May I say a brief word about the carry-over of Bills? Mr. Foulkes—I can actually say the name of his constituency properly—challenged us when he said that he had never heard a rationale set out for why carry-over was not self-evidently a good idea. Let me attempt to do that in the hope that he will read Hansard in the future. One of the main disciplines on a Government is Sessional discipline, which is the tradition that at the end of a Session, a Government have either legislated on a matter or they have not. That was a key discipline on my Government and it used to be one on this Government. The Government want to escape from that discipline so that they can legislate in any year without limit, but that is a bad thing. We have far too much legislation. The few controls that exist on the Government are diminishing, and Sessional discipline was one of the last remaining ones. For the Government to say, "Oh, by the way, if we run out of time at the end of a Session, let's just go on into the next one so that we can do what we want", without any restriction or discipline strikes me as extremely bad. That is the main reason why the carry-over of Bills is wrong.
My right hon. Friend has missed an important aspect of carry-over. Carry-over is not out of the question because some complicated non-controversial Bills require a great deal of consideration, but surely it becomes unacceptable when it does not have cross-party support.
I might reluctantly have to accept that in exceptional cases, when there is cross-party support, carry-over might be acceptable. I simply say, however, that any Government who are in proper control of their legislative programme should be able to introduce difficult and complex Bills early enough in the Session to deal with them properly during that Session. There may be exceptional circumstances in which an urgent matter might arise towards the end of a Session that requires legislation, but I expect that to be the exception.
I am following the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but surely he accepts that without carry-over and programme motions, which he also opposes, it would be fairly easy for a minority of hon. Members to undermine the will of the House by preventing that will from being carried out. Surely if he believes that the House is a sovereign body, we cannot allow a small minority to talk out Bills that have the support of the House.
The hon. Gentleman illustrates yet again the wisdom of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills in that he has a limited sense of parliamentary history. I do not blame him for that. He arrived recently in the House, and nothing wrong with that. However, in the good old days of the 1980s, a Bill went into Committee with no time restriction or timetable. Opposition Members often delayed, irritated and caused nuisance. Government Back Benchers, such as myself, often sat until 1 and 2 am, which we regarded as part of our job. It was up to the Opposition at that stage, for many hours, many days and sometimes many months, to decide the pace and shape of the Committee. That was right.
At some stage, the Government would say, "Enough already!", and introduce a guillotine motion to allow only a certain amount of further debate. That was how we lived. To my mind, that was a proper balance between the power of the Government—we had a majority of 140 in 1983—and the right of Opposition Members to use the time as they saw fit. That is what has been destroyed.
I share my hon. Friend's memory of that. Colleagues who were here in the 1980s will recall many big Bill Committees running for 150 and 200 hours before they were guillotined.
My right hon. Friend describes the late-night sittings and he is entirely right. Does he agree that the fact that Governments were subjected to late nights constrained their readiness to introduce long and difficult Bills? They were more constrained and the volume of legislation was less partly as a result of the late nights.
I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is right. All those things contribute to restraining and limiting what the Government do. Nearly all of them have gone, which explains the prolix nature of this Government's legislative approach.
When a Government wanted to truncate debate in Committee or on the Floor of the House they had to move a guillotine motion, which could be debated for three hours. So they had to justify the reasoning behind the action because, as our Library notes used to note, the guillotine is the most draconian measure in parliamentary debate.
We do not do debates any more in the House of Commons. The debates that we routinely held on the Floor of the House on statutory instruments, guillotines and so on have all disappeared, some of them completely. Time and time again, motions on the Order Paper are followed by the words "without debate", which symbolises the Government's belief that debate, discourse and exchange of views are an irrelevance. The Government believe that there is no need to hold debates, because they have a large majority and their Members have better things to do. They do not want to be distracted by such things.
Finally, on the issue of strangers, I agree with what has been said about political correctness. No one has told me that they found the use of the term "strangers" offensive, nor that they were deterred from coming to the Palace of Westminster because they are referred to in that way. This is another piece of nonsense. Earlier Mr. Tyler spoke about Chairs, and the proposal to remove references to strangers distracts us from the real business before us. As my right hon. Friend Sir George Young said, only the press are interested in whether or not members of the public should be called strangers. Why do we not call them guests or stakeholders? Surely, we could find a more welcoming term than "the public". If we are going to go down that route, we should be a lot more cuddly and welcoming. Let us hold back, and keep "strangers" until we find something really fuzzy to which people can relate and which, if they were deterred before, will bring them rushing to the Chamber.
I shall be brief, as I am conscious that I have not heard the full debate, for which I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and other contributors.
I shall address the points about Report stage made by my hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd, which were strongly reinforced by my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton, who explicitly suggested that that stage should be exempt from programming. I entirely agree with my hon. Friends, and shall reinforce their argument. In truth, if Members are not selected to serve on Committee they do not have an opportunity fully to address the detail of a Bill unless they participate on Report. Before the Whips remind me, I acknowledge that I have not been forward in volunteering to serve on Committee, but when I have done so I have articulated the Hogg rules—I vote in accordance with my opinion; I move amendments as I think fit; and I conduct myself as a free Member.
That is true, but it does not disqualify me as a matter of definition from having views on a Bill. I have views on almost every Bill that affects the constitution, the law, foreign affairs and many other things, but they are not always the same as my party's views. I am clearly entitled to express those views, and it is wrong to deny me that opportunity. The Report stage is the one opportunity—
It is the only opportunity, my hon. Friend rightly reminds me, for right hon. and hon. Members who did not serve on Committee to address the detail of the Bill.
I shall be candid. When I first came to the House, I wanted to be a Minister and, I am glad to say, I held ministerial office for 13 years, which I enjoyed hugely. Naturally, in pursuit of that ambition I occasionally swallowed my opinions and bullied people. No doubt, I did things that I later regretted, but in favour of myself I would say that when I did so I knew that I was wrong. Now, I am suitably contrite and I can bring to the House the experience of someone who has bullied right hon. and hon. Members in my capacity as a Whip. If I am asked whether I think that is an honourable activity, the answer is no. But if I am asked whether I think it is honourable to allow oneself to be bullied, the answer is even less so. Right hon. and hon. Members must recover their self-respect. We are in this place to assert the rights of Parliament, to hold the Executive to account and to face down our own party. Until we do that, this place will be held in contempt, and rightly so.
I apologise. My hon. Friend Mr. Cash also opposed the Bill. We three should have ample opportunity to point out the evils associated with that legislation and many other pieces of legislation. My colleague has been through the evidence and pointed out the effect of the knives, both in Committee and much more seriously on Report. Very important clauses and schedules were allowed to pass through the House without discussion.
That is offensive for a number of reasons. First, it puts too great a burden on the other place. Secondly, it enables Government to be slipshod about the drafting of legislation. It enables them to present legislation late because they know it will not be discussed. Much worse, it undermines the bargain that underpins a democratic society, because the electorate gives away its freedoms and gives us the right to impose penalties and rules on the premise that we will give them serious consideration and debate them properly. If we deny ourselves the ability to do that, we are cutting away the basis on which the public surrenders its own rights. I therefore hope that we will accede to the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and accepted by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills on the question of the Report stage and exempt the Report stage from the programming procedures currently under discussion.
It is a privilege to take part in the debate. I have heard some exceptional speeches, not least from my hon. Friend—it should be my right hon. Friend—Mr. Shepherd, my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg and my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth.
We are discussing fundamental issues. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, we are acting on trust from the electorate and that trust is cut away from under our feet by the machinations of those who run Government business and our own party's business. I would go further and say, as I have said on other occasions, that in the context of the programming arrangements, the Whip system makes the Whips appear as though they had exclusive knowledge and competence to decide what is in the national interest, whereas we know that neither the Whips nor political parties or their leaders have that right or that prerogative—far from it.
I could give several examples, including the corn laws, home rule, tariff reform, appeasement, the Thatcher trade union reforms and, as we heard, Maastricht, as well as Amsterdam and Nice. It is obvious that the minority view prevailed, despite the fact that there were those who took a strong line against the Government of the day or their own party. The Report stage is fundamental to the process: it allows Back Benchers a unique opportunity and should clearly be excluded from programming.
I differ slightly from my hon. Friends on one point, which my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth raised. Getting to clause 3 in a Bill is as much the Opposition's fault as the Government's. Sometimes an unnecessary number of amendments are tabled—a gross self-indulgence that has been pursued on a number of occasions—in the belief that infinite time is available in which to consider the Bill. However, something happens sooner or later. Rather than adhering exclusively to the principle that time is the Opposition's best weapon, I have always believed that argument would be better employed if the use of amendments were more temperate.
On occasions, I have spent four out of six months in Committee on clause 1, which is ludicrous. In those cases, the argument went on and on about a particular clause because it encapsulated much of what followed, but later matters were addressed with a certain laziness and incompetence. A more moderate, measured and selective approach to amendments would perhaps lead to a situation in which Governments would not get so frustrated and impose the guillotine over and over again. The current position is, to say the least, an abuse of this House and of procedure.
I am following my hon. Friend's excellent arguments closely. Does he agree that the situation has turned—it is still totally unsatisfactory—and that the Government are by far and away the most prolix author of amendments?
That point is valid, and I say that having tabled many amendments to some Bills, such as those that introduced the Maastricht, Nice and Amsterdam treaties. I fear that my hon. Friend is right.
I warn the Government that after Friday, when the Prime Minister will sign up to the European constitution, we will move on to the next stage of that question. When I was shadow Attorney-General and during the following year, I spent many hours dealing with the question of primacy in direct argument with the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the Prime Minister. The issue of primacy has now been conceded, in that it is now accepted that this Parliament is sovereign and can legislate accordingly, irrespective of the European Communities Act 1972, if it so wishes.
If it were decided that the Bill introducing the European constitutional treaty could be programmed, the very existence of this House as a proper deliberative assembly on the legislation that would subsequently pour out of Europe, including laws, future treaties and the European Court of Justice's rulings, would effectively be frustrated. The Leader of the House and I have discussed those matters, and he knows that to programme a Bill introducing the European constitutional treaty would be the gravest constitutional outrage. God help this country and God help this House if such a Bill is programmed. I look to the Deputy Leader of the House to assure the House that such a Bill will not be subject to a programme motion under any circumstances.
This has been an extremely good debate. I say at the outset that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I are very conscious of the strongly held views of right hon. and hon. Members and of the huge experience displayed in the debate by Members on both sides of the House. If one tots up the number of years of service of those who spoke, it amounts to some 306 years of parliamentary experience. Having been a Member of this House for seven years, I naturally respect and defer to that experience.
I apologise to Mr. Shepherd for misunderstanding his remarks when I intervened on him. I thought that he was talking about Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation. I regret that mistake and assure him that I will try to concentrate more keenly in future.
I sincerely thank the Chairmen and members of the Procedure Committee and the Modernisation Committee for their work. Their reports are excellent. I assure the House that a great amount of attention, detail and concentrated effort has been put into our response.
I give the further reassurance that we are served by among the best, if not the best, team of civil servants who serve this House, and their point of view is taken very much into consideration. I hope that no right hon. or hon. Member on either side of the House feels that we have not given this matter the consideration that it deserves.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to point-score. I was referring to the civil servants in the Cabinet Office who advise us; of course the Clerks are not civil servants in the sense of working for the Government.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I take the independence of this House extremely seriously. It is in the nature of our parliamentary system that the legislature and the Executive intersect through the Front Benches of the House. My right hon. Friend has not only duties to the Government but duties to the House. Unless we were to make a radical change to the way in which our Parliament and Government interrelate—which I am sure that the traditionalists who have spoken would not support—there will always be a tension between the Government, of whatever party, and the rights of the House.
There will inevitably be disagreements in seeking to get that balance right. However, one of the great strengths of these Houses of Parliament and this House of Commons is that disagreements over procedure are very small compared with the huge areas where there is agreement. That is reflected in the Government's response to the Committees' reports. Nevertheless, debates in the Chamber and such reporting as there is in the press always concentrate on the disagreements.
Many hon. Members expressed their opposition to programming, and I suspect that motion 2 will generate the most disagreement. I say from the outset that our attempts to introduce programming and the way in which it operates do not reflect, and should not be portrayed as, a heavy-handed Executive trying to force their will on to a reluctant House of Commons. I could refer to the statistics, but I fear that when they are quoted hon. Members' minds are often closed. It is not the case that the number of scrutinised clauses in Bills has decreased since the introduction of programming. The opposite is true. Filibustering prevented debate on many clauses because it meant that we did not necessarily focus on controversial clauses but on earlier provisions, often to delay if not to stop debate on the controversial issues that the majority of hon. Members wanted to reach. Programming has not therefore resulted in fewer clauses being scrutinised.
I have a certain sympathy for the view that the Deputy Leader of the House has expressed. There is a world of difference between reasonable amendments, which are presented in a measured and temperate fashion and cover a whole Bill—what appears at the end of a Bill can be as important as what appears at the beginning—and others. However, does he accept that what constitutes a filibuster is a matter for the Chair, whether in Standing Committee or on the Floor of the House? With great respect to the Chair, perhaps a little more stringency could be applied to those who are clearly engaged in a filibuster, which the Chair would understand from reading "Erskine May". There is a solution to the problem and the suggestion of the Deputy Leader of the House is somewhat disingenuous—
Let me make a general and a specific response. At the core of the debate lies a disagreement about the nature of scrutiny and of opposition. Many hon. Members—I imagine the majority, but we shall find out later—contend that strength of argument and evidence that can be brought before Parliament should form the basis of opposition. Others argue that time and its use are a weapon of opposition and that any attempt by the Executive to control that means a diminution of the Opposition's power. The Government firmly support the first argument.
However, it is not true that we have restricted time for debate on major and even minor legislation to a greater extent than happened before 1997. There has been selective citation of the use of guillotines when many more were used before 1997 for reasons that have been given. If we compare the number of guillotines on Bills, many more were used before the Labour Government came to power. Confusion of internal knives with guillotines clouds the debate.
If the Deputy Leader of the House reads the Deputy Speaker's submission, he will realise that the definitions of "programme motion" and "guillotine" are almost indistinguishable—earlier, I mentioned the Standing Order point about guillotines—but he elides the two. Almost every Bill under this Government is guillotined.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, which he made in his speech. Of course, I read the memorandum from the Chairman of Ways and Means and we debated the point in the previous debate on the subject. The point that I am striving to make is the same as the hon. Gentleman's in his minority report to the Procedure Committee. According to his evidence, in the period from 1946 to February 1997, 67 Bills were guillotined, and from
My second point—
If the hon. Gentleman could hear me out—he may not respect my experience in the House, but I hope that he respects my right to put the argument to him.
If we examine the evidence in the fourth report from the Procedure Committee, and the evidence given by Mr. Forth, we find that the cat is out of the bag. On page 44, he was asked about filibustering, and said:
"I concede that in the old days a lot of time was wasted by filibustering—and, frankly, low-grade filibustering".
In his evidence on internal knives—or guillotines, if we want to use the phraseology that he used before—he said:
"The end date is crucial. If I can give away another trade secret, I actually think that knives are helpful to the filibusterers, if there ever were any such people and if they managed to escape the eagle eye of the Chair of the Committee."
In other words, for every knife that the usual channels put in place, there is an opportunity for filibustering. How can programming, which is simply sensible timetabling—which every other institution in this country has, including the courts of law, which have their own procedures on timetabling business—
The right hon. Gentleman rises in indignation that I, a Member with only seven years' experience, should have a view on whether I should be able to go home before midnight or stay here until 4 am. I am quite prepared to stay here until 4 am. I did so on the National Minimum Wage Bill Committee, and it was the best thing I have ever done in Parliament.
If I may, I will just finish my point.
What I see as the sensible timetabling of programming, some right hon. and hon. Members see as a curtailment of their rights. The evidence of that, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. The best bit of evidence is this: the Front Benches on both sides of the House are committed to making programming work better for all concerned, whether Back or Front Benchers. The strong, principled opposition to programming, which some right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House hold dear, is understandable, but making programming work is what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is doing. That is for the benefit of the House. [Interruption.] I should give way to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, as I quoted him at some length.
I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for quoting me, but I think that he is deliberately missing the point, which is perhaps obscured by the quotation. In previous times, the Opposition were largely in control of events until the Government decided that enough was enough. Whether the Opposition used that control wisely was up to them. Now the Government are in control of events and of the timetable from the start. That is the crucial change that has taken place, which he and his colleagues seem to think is perfectly natural, and which I find obnoxious.
What is amazing about the arguments of the conservatives with a small "c" is that they hark back to a golden age when Parliament really was the power in the land—but it was not. In the second Churchill premiership, the then Prime Minister was also the Leader of the House. As Prime Minister and Leader of the House, he would come to the Chamber and tell both Front Benches exactly what they were going to do and when they were going to do it; indeed, he used to hold the Adjournment debate, too. Did they have Programming Sub-Committees in those days? To coin a phrase, did they heck—they used to sort it out in smoke-filled rooms. If that is the golden age to which right hon. and hon. Members refer, we can go back to that—
I must move on.
This Government have given more transparency to how we timetable business in the House than any previous Government, to such an extent that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House more commonly has arguments with his own Whips Office than with the traditionalists among the Opposition. If only right hon. and hon. Gentlemen would accept that point, we would be able to move forward.
The answer to that question is obvious. The reasons for our choosing to accept many of the Committee's recommendations, but to object to a small number of them, have been set out by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. There is honest disagreement on them.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech with some concern. We are debating the Government's motions and the Procedure Committee's amendments to them. While the Leader of the House spent some time in seeking to respond to the amendments, the Deputy Leader of the House is not dealing with them at all. May I remind him that the Procedure Committee has not objected to the Government's deciding on an out date from Standing Committee for a Bill? What we are saying is that the total handling of programming should be genuinely more democratic, and result from in-depth consultation and a knowledge of what the House as a whole thinks of a Bill on Second Reading. If he would attend to that, he would probably be more sympathetic to amendments that I think make programming much more acceptable.
I was coming to those points. I want to respond to the contributions that have been made, but when I reach that stage, the hon. Gentleman may wish to intervene again.
Mr. Cash asked for a commitment that programming would not be used on the Constitution for Europe (Referendum) Bill. I cannot give him that commitment. The arguments for sensible programming and sensible timetabling will apply equally to that Bill when we reach it, but that has not been decided yet.
We heard some fascinating confessions from Mr. Hogg. He confessed that he had swallowed his opinion on many occasions, and that he had been a bully; but I think his main point was that he had lost respect for those whom he was bullying. I felt that he went rather over the top when he said that the arguments before the House this afternoon were undermining democratic society.
I want to say a little in support of the Whips Office. It is, I think, the experience of Members on both sides of the House that without the Whips Office—without the usual channels, and the ability to have a private conversation about the business of the House—we would never get anything done. Of course the rights of minorities and minority points of view must be protected in all parts of the House, but whatever system of programming—or absence of programming—we had, we would have to reach a decision eventually. As everyone knows, without the Whips Offices nothing would get done and nothing would be decided.
I can provide the reassurance for which many hon. Members have asked that this is genuinely a free vote. Hansard will record tomorrow that not all members of the Government Whips Office will support all the Government's recommendations. I assure the House that there are debates even there. Members of the Whips Offices will of course take part in the telling, and will advise Members on the procedures; but there is no pressure from Government on Labour Back Benchers to vote in one way or the other. The strength of our arguments is our weapon, as always. I reject the description of the Whips Offices as the "dark forces".
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst talked of the relationship between the House and the Executive. He said that he had experience of it from different perspectives—as a Front Bencher, a Minister and a Back Bencher. I respect that experience, but he must surely agree that—as I said earlier, and as my right hon. Friend said—there are tensions in the intersection between the Executive and the legislature. There are bound to be disagreements. Is that not the nature of our Parliament? In other countries, the Executive and the legislature are separate. If that were the position here, elected Members of Parliament would have less ability to scrutinise legislation. If that is the road that the right hon. Gentleman wants to go down, he should be honest about that.
Hon. Members asked about early-day motions. The idea of tagging early-day motions merits further consideration. The difficulty we have with automatic entitlement to Westminster Hall debates is that it would diminish the rights of individual Members and minorities. At present, we all have an equal chance of securing a Westminster Hall debate, but if the number of supporters was the criterion for allocation, I suspect that early-day motions would quickly become a tool of the Whips Office—the very dark forces that the hon. Members advancing the idea are keen to avoid.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody made a powerful speech in which she stood up for the rights of Back Benchers. I hope that she will give credence to this argument. The statistics and evidence that we have presented not just in the debate but to the Procedure Committee show categorically that more time for scrutiny of clauses has been achieved with sensible timetabling. I, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the Government agree that, in the early stages especially—and still today in some cases—programming did not work. It was detrimental in certain instances. Standing Committees that I was involved in had programming that did not work, but month after month, year after year, programming has bedded in. It has become broadly accepted across the House—of course, there are exceptions to this view—that it is sensible, particularly for outside bodies that wish to come to scrutinise what is going on here.
Mr. Tyler pointed out that the Procedure Committee's report was unanimous. We accept that, of course. The Committee has a majority of Labour Members. He is right about that—that is one reason why we have listened and accepted many of the recommendations—but it still comes back to an honest disagreement between MPs and the business managers, who have a responsibility to get legislation through, properly scrutinised, as the shadow Leader of the House said. That is why we accepted many of the recommendations—there is all-party agreement.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall specifically asked whether Back Benchers should be able to influence programme motions. That goes to the heart of the matter. This answers some of the points that the distinguished Chairman of the Committee has raised. There is an assumption behind his arguments and behind the amendments that, if the role of the Whips and the usual channels were taken away, we could free Back Benchers from the responsibilities and duties of timetabling legislation. Frankly, that view is naive. If some of these changes were implemented, they would quickly be replaced by new usual channels functions, which would compromise Back Benchers' independence. We cannot get away from the fact that the House is elected on party lines, with an official Opposition and the Government in the majority.
We talked about deferred Divisions. Those who support deferred Divisions would point out that they at least give Members who could not attend the debate the opportunity to read the proceedings in Hansard. It is preferable for a Member to attend the debate in the Chamber, but at least a deferred Division gives that opportunity—it is for the convenience of Members. That is right: it would surely be wrong to make our procedures deliberately for the inconvenience of Members. That is why deferred Divisions—an experiment that many Members opposed very strongly when it was first suggested—have become our customary practice. I bet that in 25 years' time, when a young Deputy Leader of the House tries to change that practice, traditionalists will argue that it should be kept because it is a custom of this House. I hope that I am here to listen to that debate.
Carry-over has proved a success, as has pre-legislative scrutiny, which has been accepted in all parts of the House as a better way to scrutinise Bills. We intend to continue with both. The question has been asked—
I think that I can predict what the hon. Gentleman is going to say. He is seeking an assurance that carry-over will take place only where there is unanimity among the parties. In practice, that is the case in any event—particularly when one bears in mind the other place—but I suspect that the implementation of the guarantee that he seeks would disappoint him. Of course, the assumption is that consideration would be given only to the Bill proposed for carry-over; but in reality, it would be horse-traded with other Bills. In that regard, we should compare disabilities and hunting legislation. In reality, the two would not be separated, as those in the Whips Office know.
In fact, I was going to ask for a rather more narrow assurance. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the House decided on
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks, but I should point out that the Chairmen of the Select Committees are of course involved in discussions on the legislative programme, and in particular on pre-legislative scrutiny. The usual channels are also involved in such discussions, as he knows. Again, if the assurance that he seeks were given, in practice the process would not work, because not all circumstances can be foreseen. The Queen's Speech represents the legislative programme, and the question of its timetabling throughout the year, and of which Bills should be subject to carry-over, has to be decided in the light of real-world events. I hope that he accepts that there is a difference of opinion in that regard.
This issue is critical constitutionally. The Deputy Leader of the House is asking for permission and sanction to change Standing Orders, and he wants to include in them automatic carry-over. The Opposition believe that there should be carry-over, but only with cross-party support. Will he not give that one undertaking, which is constitutionally critical? He said that this issue is not important, and that such support would probably be sought. I am not a lawyer, but I believe that what is in black and white is important, so I want the phrase "with cross-party support in respect of carry-over" included in the Standing Orders.