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Parliamentary Reform

45. Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): What further proposals she plans to bring before the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on parliamentary reform; and if she will make a statement. [155218]

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The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The Committee has initiated several important experiments in the way the House works--Westminster Hall sittings, the hours of Thursday sittings, programming and deferred voting. The Committee will look at other matters such as the use of IT, but the priority must be to keep those experiments under review.

Mr. Mackinlay: I am pleased that we are to look at other matters. May I invite the Leader of the House--albeit out of season--to consider the long summer parliamentary recess during which there is no scrutiny and no accountability by this place? Often, disasters occur which would normally mean statements at the Dispatch Box. We commit our armed forces to combat situations about which there would normally be statements at the Dispatch Box. There is summitry about which there would normally also be statements at the Dispatch Box. After each summer recess, may we have a written report from each Minister of his or her stewardship during the closed period and a statement from the Prime Minister, when Parliament reconvenes, about what has passed during those long summer weeks of recess?

Mrs. Beckett: With respect to my hon. Friend, we do not commit our armed forces every summer recess, although I appreciate that it has happened occasionally. My hon. Friend makes a serious point. The Government take steps to keep the House and the country informed. As to the precise mechanism that my hon. Friend suggests for so doing, I do not undertake to agree to it, but I certainly undertake to give it consideration.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the right hon. Lady find an opportunity for the House to review the trial arrangements for programme motions in the Chamber and in Committee? She will be aware that her Committee published a new report on the issue yesterday. I think that she will acknowledge that the report owes its genesis to the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) who, during this Parliament and previous Parliaments, as Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure, has been anxious to improve the way in which the House scrutinises legislation. It was very much on his initiative that the new report was produced.

The right hon. Lady is also aware that there is cross-party agreement on that admirably brief--one-page--report, although the Committee was not unanimous. As the unexpected weeks available for good business in the House give us an opportunity to do so, can the House itself now debate the issue, to ensure that, if and when there is an election, the new Standing or Sessional Orders in the new Parliament can take account of the Committee's advice?

Mrs. Beckett: Certainly, I recognise the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. He is entirely right that the recent, brief report received cross-party support. One might almost say all-party support, although he is right, too, to point out that the report was not unanimous. He is also right to pay tribute to the work of the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) who, down the years, has certainly made a substantial contribution to the House--not least, perhaps, during these past days in making the report.

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I have noticed that during the past couple of days a whole raft of issues has been raised for which it is confidently predicted that it will be easy for the Government to find time. As ever, I shall give what favourable consideration I can to those matters, but the purpose of the report to which the hon. Gentleman refers was indeed to encourage reconsideration of the trial. The need for new Sessional Orders will in any case make that necessary.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): May I suggest one parliamentary reform, namely to try to stop the practice whereby, from time to time, a Government Whip comes marching in with a stick? At one time he would have walked backwards. Is it really necessary? I have written to my right hon. Friend on the subject. Does she not agree that just as Black Rod no longer interrupts our proceedings when it is necessary to state that an Act has become law, messages from Her Majesty could be read out by the Speaker? Why on earth do we have this pantomime performance in the 21st century? Wakey, wakey!

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that he has written to me on the matter, and I am compelled to tell him that it is more a matter for the Procedure Committee than for me. I understand his point, but he will know that there are different views on the matter throughout the House.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Mercifully, there will probably be only one more meeting of the ghastly Modernisation Committee before the general election. Following the right hon. Lady's comments, I should perhaps put it on record that although the report published yesterday had the support of two of my colleagues, it certainly does not have the support of the official Opposition.

Returning to the question asked by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), has the right hon. Lady considered the inappropriateness of a Cabinet Minister, and the Leader of the House at that, chairing a Committee that changes and proposes amendments to the Standing Orders of the House which affect Back Benchers on both sides of the House? In her reflections on the so-called wonderful experiment that we have had to endure for the past four years, has she considered giving the chairmanship to a representative from the Back Benches rather than herself?

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Lady is her usual gracious self. She is right to place on record the fact that the report to which the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) referred did not attract the support of the official Opposition, but it is also right to place on record the fact that it did attract the support of two of the most senior and experienced Conservative Members. With regard to the hon. Lady's remarks about inappropriateness, she will know that it was this party's manifesto proposal that there should be a Select Committee on modernisation of the House and that it should be chaired by the Leader of the House. As I have pointed out to her before, it is not unprecedented for a Select Committee to be so chaired. [Interruption.]

In light of the comment made by the Opposition Deputy Chief Whip, I shall make only one other enlightening remark on the subject. I have never before thought it

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necessary or desirable to do what I am about to do, and I am not sure that it is the right thing to do now, but in view of the words of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), I should perhaps tell the House of a resolution carried at the end of the Committee's deliberations last week. I accept that the hon. Lady had left the room at that point--perhaps she would have tried to prevent the resolution being carried. The Committee resolved:

I fear that that was moved by a Conservative Member.

Deferred Divisions

46. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): What assessment she has made of the experiment with deferred Divisions; and when it will be reviewed. [155219]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): Deferred Divisions appear to be working well in allowing debate after the moment of interruption without forcing the majority of the House to remain until late into the night to deal with matters of minority interest. There had been 33 deferred Divisions as at 28 March, which is a potential eight and a quarter hours of voting time; in only eight were more than 100 votes recorded in the No Lobby, and in 21, fewer than 20 Members voted in the No Lobby.

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Mrs. Williams: Can my hon. Friend confirm that the system will continue in the next Session? Does he agree that the official Opposition do not want serious debate in the Chamber and are intent only on wasting time?

Mr. Tipping: What I can confirm is that the system is an experiment, and it is a matter for the House to decide. I can say candidly to my hon. Friend that I support it. It saves time and is in the best interests of the House. Of course, there is an argument that if some Opposition Members--I stress the word "some"--had not been keen to devote so much time to certain subjects of so little interest, it might not have been necessary for the House collectively to assert its right to protect itself.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I am sure that the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) meant to refer to the next Parliament, rather than the next Session of Parliament, when she asked her supplementary question.

Will the Minister not accept that deferred Divisions may well undermine and negate the influence of Back-Bench opinion on both sides of the House because the influence of Back Benchers' speeches will have been forgotten by the time the Divisions take place, and that good government results from Back-Bench opinion on both sides of the House being properly expressed?

Mr. Tipping: Of course good government depends on exchanging ideas and opinions, and I have spent many happy hours late at night in the Chamber, listening to the debates. Those Members who wish to take part in the debate can, and they frequently do so at length, but I do not think that deferred Divisions have changed the weight of opinion or the importance of Back-Bench opinion.

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