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10.30 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) for his reference to my previous speech, but he may have slightly misunderstood. I did not say that there was not a good case for removing some of the antiquity of this place that gets in the way of making it a businesslike assembly. However, that should not be our main, or only, objective. Many things that need to be done to this place are nothing to do with wigs and swords. He instanced the way in which we vote, which is antique to an extreme. There is no reason why we could not still go through Division Lobbies, but with swipe cards to make the operation much speedier. As a Government Back Bencher, he will agree that having the opportunity to pin a Minister against the wall regularly, in a place where there are no civil servants to protect him, is very useful.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the obsession with wigs and swords might become a distraction? Doing away with such things might become a compensation for the lack of real radicalism. It might be better to stay with the wigs and swords, and make some radical changes to the way in which we work.

Mr. Tyler: I have some sympathy with that view. If the new Committee is merely going to modernise the dress of the servants of the House, it will be a terrible wasted opportunity. I am sure that that will not be the case. The Leader of the House and other members of the Government have shown that they have much more serious matters in hand.

It is equally important that we move by evolution and consultation, with special attention to Parliament's role as the scrutineer of the Executive. I think that Labour Members will agree that if all that we are asked to do is to speed Government business, we will fail in the real duty of Parliament, which is to ensure that the Government's business is handled better than it would have been if Parliament had not been sitting. It is a question not only of the speed of the operation but of the quality of the product.

I shall not again cover all the issues that were raised in the debate a fortnight ago, but we have not yet addressed sufficiently the anxieties of Back Benchers of all parties, especially on initiation of debates in respect of motions and private Members' Bills. Under all Governments in recent years, the Executive have had far too much influence over timing and over the extent to which such business has been taken seriously.

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My principal concern is to make sure that the very proper priority that has been given to the Committee of dealing with legislation does not lead to neglect of the fact that Parliament has other important concerns.

With the help of the Library--it took about five minutes; it is amazing what it can produce--I compared the figures for the general election of 1951 with those for 1 May this year. In 1951, 96.8 per cent. of those who voted, voted for the duopoly. They voted either Conservative or Labour. A vast majority--79.2 per cent.--of the total electorate, voted for one or other of those parties. There was a legitimate two-party system in operation in the country, and it was represented here by the opposing banks of Members who sat on either side of the House.

On 1 May 1997, 73.9 per cent. of the electorate voted for the two-party system duopoly.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): Of those who voted.

Mr. Tyler: My hon. Friend is right; it was 73.9 per cent. of those who voted. Only 52.8 per cent. of those who were entitled to vote voted for a two-party system. In that sense, this place is now an anachronism. It institutes a duopoly of Government and Opposition, which is not the reality out in the real world.

Many hon. Members from all parties have come to this place with considerable and long experience in local government. No local government would operate on the basis of automatic confrontation.

We have seen in the past 48 hours what absurdity automatic opposition leads us into. We spent almost four and a half hours debating a motion on whether we could find more time to debate the substance of the issue. The statement and vote on the timetable motion took up so much time that four and a half hours was taken out of the real business of scrutinising the Government's legislation. All hon. Members should be concerned about that.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): The hon. Gentleman will know that in most local authorities there is provision for voting by show of hands and that only important votes are recorded. Is he aware that Standing Order No. 40 makes provision for us to vote by standing in our places? Does he agree with the early-day motion that will appear on the Order Paper tomorrow, which urges the greater use of that provision, especially when there is a series of votes in one evening, and that we should record the important votes, which would be the first ones?

Mr. Tyler: There are two major problems with that. First, if all Labour Members were to attempt to stand in their places, it would be self-evidently impossible to find such places. So the hon. Gentleman can recognise that there are difficulties. Secondly, our constituents are entitled to know how we have voted. It is patently obvious that we could not record our vote in person if we voted by standing in our places. Nevertheless, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that there may be ways in which, in certain circumstances, we could speed up the voting procedure and enable more issues to be put to the vote.

Mr. Flynn rose--

Mr. Tyler: I will not give way again because other hon. Members want to speak.

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There are other ways in which the voting procedure could be considerably accelerated. The Procedure Committee considered them. It is absurd that when we have a sequence of votes we have to wait each time for Tellers to be appointed, Clerks to get to their places and so on. There must be ways of speeding that up.

It is clear that we shall have to reform radically the way in which the House operates. It is not necessary to move our whole Assembly to Glasgow, but if we do not modernise the way in which it operates, if we do not make it a true reflection of what is happening in the country, the centre of gravity in the body politic will move, in terms of devolution, to other parts of the United Kingdom and perhaps to the European Parliament. We will become increasingly irrelevant if we do not make our procedures more relevant to the real life of the wider public.

One issue is of real concern. This House, in contrast to the other place, does not recognise the fact that we no longer have a two-party system. The other place automatically recognises that there are three major parties, in terms of speeches, time, the selection of reasoned amendments and so on. The other place recognises that the third party is the third of three major parties, not simply a larger minority party. We have only one or perhaps two references in our Standing Orders to that. We shall have to look again at the Standing Orders. It is urgent.

Hon. Members old and new, especially those who have had extensive experience of local government, are surprised at the way in which we operate this place--the confrontational jousting match, which we saw again, I am sorry to say, in Prime Minister's questions this afternoon. I accept that improvements have been made, but we are still seeing absurd confrontation, often where confrontation does not exist. It is largely a bit of play-acting. It is the Punch and Judy show. That may be of great interest to the Dutch and American television audiences, although they may get rather bored with half an hour--it is long for any cabaret--but it does not do justice to the real function of Parliament.

Those who have come here from local government will also recognise that the potential true value of Committees in this place is not met. I hope that we will also be able to consider that. In particular, I hope that the Select Committees will be given a greater role in the pre-legislative development of ideas. I know that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have done detailed work on that. I know that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) is particularly anxious that that should happen.

All too often we display to the public a confrontational duopoly, but they are looking for true pluralism in their politics. The Prime Minister has given a lead in this respect, but soon we will want to see actions rather than words to ensure that that commitment was not just one given for the benefit of the general election. It must be put into practice after that election success.

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10.39 pm

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw): I followed with great interest the remarks by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), but, once again, he is making a push for his party. Confrontation and careerism bedevil the House.

Let us be honest. Things get bogged down in Committee because that is the place to make a reputation by tabling 1,000 amendments. I have spent nearly 30 long weary years in the House at night, so I will not detain it for too long now. We have all been through this before. Individual ambition and careerism will demand that certain hon. Members will table 50 amendments. The Government Whips will say to their boys, "Stay quiet. Fill the crossword in, do your mail or whatever you like." After two or three weeks, everyone gets fed up and the word goes round the Whips, "They'll let us have the Bill a week on Tuesday morning if you don't say anything and just nod it through."

The Opposition educate the Government. One can see the civil servants' ears prick up when an Opposition Member moves a probing amendment and asks whether something means X or Y. That Member reveals a dual meaning behind a phrase in a Bill and argues that it would not stand up in court. The civil servants then tell Ministers that the Opposition are right, and they then table about 125 Government amendments on Report to correct mistakes that should have been sorted out when the Bill was read the First time.

Surely we could get together and sort out such problems well before a Bill begins its proceedings. That is just not done because of the careerist ambitions of younger Members in particular. There is nothing wrong with that. It is the ladder or the limelight. One can become an instant media star on television by showing off, being sent off or acting the goat. Alternatively, Members can climb the ladder like Mrs. Thatcher--no one had ever heard of her until she got into the Cabinet--and hope to get a Cabinet job. That is the nature of politics.

Surely with our majority we could avoid such confrontation for the next four years. The hon. Member for North Cornwall spoke about voting. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I were in the Whips Office when the Labour party started off with a majority of one in 1974 and finished up with a minority of 17. The Whips Office killed six people--I say that with deep sympathy. Some of them had to have their operations at 10 o'clock in the morning and come in here to vote at 10 o'clock at night. Others had to postpone their operations until the recess. Alex Wilson, Millie Miller and Frank Hatton all died because of that. Alex Lyon, the husband of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), died years afterwards as a result of the traumas that went on then.

It was a wonderful macho time. We actually enjoyed not knowing what the vote would be until 10 o'clock at night. It was better than any cliff-hanger football match or whatever. It certainly did not represent government. For all we talked about getting rid of those procedures, we never did. Helene Hayman had a baby and came in, and I remember the headline in the Daily Mail, which ran, "Government hangs by a nappy pin". That was absolutely true. Perhaps people would like the House to stagger

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along like that, but it is certainly not government. I wrote a play about it, but no one believed it because it was such black farce.

We used to have a bog trotter. When the Division bell rang, we had a top and bottom bog trotter whose job it was to run around all the toilets to see if anyone was locked in. We had to look under the door for feet and, if seen, we looked over the top. If that person was one of theirs we left him, if it was one of ours, we got him out--if necessary with a screwdriver to unlock the door from the outside. That was the sort of nonsense that occurred when the House divided.

I remember the famous case of Leslie Spriggs, the then Member for St. Helens. We had a tied vote and he was brought to the House in an ambulance having suffered a severe heart attack. The two Whips went out to look in the ambulance and there was Leslie Spriggs laid there as though he was dead. I believe that John Stradling Thomas said to Joe Harper, "How do we know that he is alive?" So he leaned forward, turned the knob on the heart machine, the green light went around, and he said, "There, you've lost--it's 311." That is an absolutely true story. It is the sort of nonsense that used to happen. No one believes it, but it is true.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) regularly used to have a row with the Speaker at about 3.30 pm. I used to hold his shoulders down, saying, "Don't get expelled, you're the majority." It was unbelievable, especially compared with the huge majority that we have in this Parliament. My hon. Friend made the best suggestion when he said that there should be three counters at the end of the Chamber so that we could get through the vote 50 per cent. faster. That could be done simply, without involving major changes.

The Order Paper is a disgrace. If it were the programme for a football match or even an amateur dramatic production, it would say, "The leading players at 3.30 pm will be Mr. Blair, answering questions, with Mr. Howard replying for the Opposition. There will then be a ten-minute Bill", and so on. It would explain what was happening. People in the Public Gallery are bewildered by the Order Paper. They do not have a clue what is going on. There is not even a commentator on television like Freddie Truman or Brian Johnston at a cricket match, who could explain what is happening--for example, "This man has been called by the Speaker because he is chairman of the Anglo-Middle East group." He could give the background.

When Parliament was first broadcast, for the first three days the BBC broadcast everything that came through the loudspeakers. It was libellous, it was unbelievably crude, but it was hilarious. The BBC panicked and said, "Somebody will sue us for libel. If it is in Hansard it is okay, but if it is not in Hansard we will be done for libel." So the BBC stopped broadcasting everything; now, it jams the broadcast so all people hear is, "Hear, hear, hear." It is terrified of being sued for libel.

The Chamber sounds like animals in a zoo, but for the people in the arena who can hear, it is often witty and sometimes caustic and destructive of careers--but that is politics. It is a rough old trade. We have to find some way of getting that across so that the public can get a taste of what is happening without it denigrating Parliament.

The system for Gallery tickets is a farce--hon. Members get two every 18 days. It is a farce to have to go into a ballot for Prime Minister's questions. We could

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spend a year entering the ballot in the hope of coming within the first six questions, but in fact getting nowhere near the top. Constituents want to know why we do not ask the Prime Minister about such and such a hospital, a factory, a bypass, and so on. We cannot, and we get frustrated. Everybody is bobbing up and down. People want to know why we are jumping up and down, but they are not given any explanation about the Speaker trying to be impartial. Our constituency parties do not understand why we have not been able to ask our questions.

It would be better to have a rota for Prime Minister's questions, like the rota for tickets for the Public Gallery. I could then say that, for example, on 27 June it is my turn for the Prime Minister and try and get my constituents tickets for the Gallery. At least the constituency would have the opportunity for one of its problems to be put to the Prime Minister, whereas under the present ballot system we could go on trying for ever.

This place was set up 100 years ago for people who lived in London and never went to their constituencies--except when the stink from the River Thames became so bad in August that they went to their country houses and waited for the harvest. They never bothered about their constituencies. Most of them worked in the City or were lawyers who earned a guinea a word at the Old Bailey. They came in at 4.30 with a red bag on their backs which they hung up in the cloakroom. They came to have a drink and relax. Everything was fitted around their day.

It cannot go on. Everybody in the world thinks that we are crazy. They ask, why can we not start at 9 o'clock like they do at the town hall, or at some reasonable time; and why can we not finish at a reasonable time? I feel tremendously sorry for the women who have come into this Parliament. Even we men know the problems of bringing up families. The divorce rate in the House is horrendous, because of the breakdowns in marriages. I can remember when, 20-odd years ago, my wife had a youngster at 20 minutes to 9 and I was here voting on a three-line Whip. I told the Chief Whip and he said, "Good lad--get through the Lobby and don't forget the three-liner tomorrow at half-past 3." It was two days before I got up north to see my youngster. It is crazy. People do not give us medals for doing that--they think that we are absolutely stupid. There is no reason why we could not work normal hours. With modern trains, people could get down here for half-past 10, go home after a vote to see their kids at 10 o'clock at night and then come down again the next day.

Let us face it, the most important thing in politics now is the pressure from our constituents. The members of the parent-teacher association really believe that their Member of Parliament meeting them is more important than his speaking on an amendment to the Budget. Whether we like it or not, that is what they think. The public and the voters will call the tune and, if we do not respond to them, we shall see other elections in which the turnout goes down to 65 per cent., 60 per cent., or 58 per cent. as it was in the American elections when Bill Clinton was elected. At the end of the century, we have to grasp the nettle: change is going to come and we had better make a start on it.

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