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Mr. Forth: Wasted?

Mr. Fisher: We have wasted half an hour during which we could have discussed the substantive motion. We are merely debating the time available. Let us get on, because the issues are so important and so central to the balance between the Executive and the legislature that we need all afternoon to discuss that matter, rather than considering whether we are spending time wisely.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Has he finished? I thought that I was intervening.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) did not make his intentions clear. I assumed that he was giving way.

Mr. Fisher: For the convenience of the House, I am happy to give way, although I was within syllables of concluding.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is ever gracious.

Mr. Grieve: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Does he not think it right that we should spend a little time discussing the matter, particularly in the absence of an explanation? It goes to the very root of the relevance of the Chamber and the way in which we operate. The explanation could easily have been provided and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do what it is. Why could we not be told?

Mr. Fisher: I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, but are we not losing our perspective? The important issue is the substantive motion, but we have spent half an hour discussing time, which is a slight error of judgment.

2 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). However, while I agree with many of his sentiments, I do not agree with his specific suggestion that the time spent on this motion is wasted, because it and the next motion are inextricably linked. This motion is a

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forerunner of what is to come: this motion encapsulates the Government's attitude to the House. That is why my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are challenging it.

I am also delighted to follow the last Conservative speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge- Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), whose passionate defence of this House and this Parliament--its traditions and its liberties--is an inspiration to many of us and will, I hope, serve as a lesson to many who have just joined the House. One day they will be on the Opposition Benches, just as one day I started out on the Government Benches. If they treat lightly the way in which we enact legislation on behalf of our constituents, they will not only do their own constituents a disservice, but fail to live up to the responsibilities conferred on them by the privilege of membership of the House. They should therefore treat it with great seriousness.

I do not wish to speak for long, but I will say this. Like my hon. Friend, I had hoped to be able to welcome the Parliamentary Secretary to his new post in the usual way. As the hon. Gentleman will know from the four years that he has spent in the House, the House is very understanding of new Ministers, and of the trepidation with which most sensible new Ministers approach the Dispatch Box--the nervousness, the anticipation and all the rest. It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman started off so inauspiciously; I hope that he will take advantage of the House's indulgence to return to the Dispatch Box and provide the proper explanation that the motion unquestionably demands.

As I said earlier, I consider that a motion to truncate debate on such hugely important issues by half an hour demonstrates the Government's contemptuous attitude to the House. It is significant that the first business before us since the debate on the Gracious Speech should be a measure to truncate the powers of the House, and to confer yet more powers on the Executive--powers that they arrogated to themselves in the last Parliament without the consent of the Opposition. That was not agreed by the House: it was agreed by the Labour party, and by no one else.

The Government should bear it in mind that vengeance will return. If they treat the House and the Opposition with such contempt, they should not expect, when the tables are turned, to be treated with the courtesy with which they should be treating the Opposition now.

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend share the widespread view--it is certainly widespread on the Conservative Benches--that the intended circumscription of debate on business of the House motions would be unacceptable even if it had enjoyed cross-party agreement through the usual channels, which it patently has not? Does he also agree that we need not look into the crystal ball when we can read the book? We know from the way in which Programming Sub-Committees have been constituted that they entail domination by Government Whips. They are hand-picked; they are not accountable. It is here, in the House, that we have our only opportunity to express our views about the wisdom or unwisdom of what the Government propose.

Mr. Howarth: I agree with my hon. Friend; and if he casts his mind back to the last Parliament, he may recall

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that there were those of us who did not always agree that the usual channels were the best defence of our liberties here. We are a new Parliament, however, and we are starting afresh. We mean to ensure--I hope that this applies to Members on both sides of the House; I am certainly much encouraged by what was said by my former Staffordshire colleague, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher)--that there is cross-party determination, in the interests of good government, to prevent the House from being treated with contempt by the Executive.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): The time will certainly come when Conservative Members will be sitting on the Government Benches, although I trust that it will not be for a long time. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that those of us who support the Government on this measure do so not out of arrogance or to prevent proper scrutiny by the Opposition--although we also have a responsibility in that respect--but because we want a balance between proper scrutiny, the role of the House of Commons and our sitting hours, which should be normal, and should not go right through the night when that is totally unnecessary?

Mr. Howarth: I accept that the hon. Gentleman is assiduous in his examination of the Executive, but I do not recall many all-night debates in the last Parliament. When I came into the House in 1983, we had night after night of all-night sittings. I did not enjoy that, and it is not the best way to run this place. I hope that Labour Members will understand that one of the reasons why we did what we did in the last Parliament, led by my indefatigable and wonderful right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who was a great inspiration to us in our endeavours, was that we felt that there was no other way to get the message across that we did not believe that the balance that the hon. Gentleman wants to establish was being struck at the right point.

I want to conclude my remarks, because the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) was right that we should get on to the main business. I hope all hon. Members agree that it is a matter of central importance to the good governance of this country and to those who sent us here that we should have proper scrutiny of the Executive. However, the absence of people in the Press Gallery shows how little interest the media take in the serious issue of the government of this country. That should concern every Member of the House, from whatever party and regardless of the view they hold. The media's indifference to any discussion of these matters, and their concentration on the trivia of our private lives and issues of froth and no substance, is one of the reasons why the House is held in declining regard by our constituents, and why we need a proper debate on this issue. We do not need this programme motion, which, to the discredit of the new Leader of the House, is the first measure he has brought before us.

2.8 pm

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I make a plea to the Leader of the House, who has a very important role. Will he please prevail on his junior Minister, before the debate is brought to an end, to provide a simple, straightforward, brief explanation of why this motion is necessary? As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, in the

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last Parliament I was a member of the Modernisation Committee, and also had the honour to chair the Select Committee on Procedure. I am concerned about the House's ability to monitor the Executive and to hold the Government of the day to account.

I listen with deep respect every time my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) speaks, because, whether he is sitting on the Government Benches or on the Opposition Benches, his belief in upholding the integrity of the House is second to none.

I should like to respond to the intervention of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who is also a fine parliamentarian. The major part of the debate we are about to have will be based on the first report of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, Session 2000-01, "Programming of Legislation", in whose production my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills and I played a part.

We should get on to the main business, but the Government should at least have the courtesy to explain why this unfortunate motion is necessary.

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