Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Much of the discussion is about how much time is taken up, which raises the use of filibustering and the extent to which a particular Chairman construes whether that has occurred. I have grave reservations about whether the use of time is the best weapon for the Opposition, because it is better to use argument. However, it is true that the distortions to which the right hon. Gentleman refers are often a reflection of people misusing time and the Chairman not enforcing the rule on filibuster.

Mr. Cook: I do not wish to assent to criticism of the Chair, but I agree that scrutiny can be effectively carried

28 Jun 2001 : Column 827

out by telling argument, not by the length of time that a speech takes. I speak with experience because I spent longer in opposition than any Conservative Member in the Chamber. It is possible for the Opposition to change legislation. The ingredients for successful scrutiny to challenge and change legislation are persuasive argument, mobilisation of the public to express their view and the formation of alliances across the Floor of the House with other Members who can be persuaded to share the same opinion. On that basis, we were sometimes successful in changing legislation while in opposition. I remember forming an alliance, which I can now admit to my hon. Friends, with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to amend the Community Care Bill. We did that with the substantial support of the country.

In my long years in opposition, I rarely saw policy or legislation seriously challenged by the wasting of the House's time. The general effect of such activity united those on the Government Benches in their determination to see a measure through. That is the result of much of what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst does, which is why I tabled a motion today to enable the House to accept the programming motions forthwith as recommended by the Modernisation Committee.

There are no medals for spending long hours in the Chamber; nor does our legislation necessarily benefit from long hours. We sit for longer than most democratic Parliaments and it is not self-evident that the quality of our law making is any better. There is nothing to be proud of in a culture of long hours. In my time, I have put in as many hours as any other hon. Member. Indeed, I was locked in the Library twice when I was shadow health spokesman because the custodian took the reasonable view that, as the House had risen and everyone else had gone home, no one would be in there. I have no objection to Opposition Members staying in the House or Library until they are locked in--indeed, I can arrange that for anyone who volunteers--but there is no reason why those who want to work all hours of the night should be allowed to force the rest of the House to keep them company.

I commend the motion to the House as a valuable foundation for the efficient use of our time and effective scrutiny of Government legislation.

3.5 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): This subject is truly a House of Commons matter. It affects the rights of all Members of Parliament to fulfil the important function of scrutinising legislation and of tabling and debating amendments to ensure that the Executive is held to account.

The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) made his point well. Although the term "modernisation" is frequently used, what is done in its name does not strengthen Parliament, the Chamber or the rights of hon. Members on both sides of the House to hold the Executive to account. Instead, it strengthens the Executive. Since I became shadow Leader of the House, I have objected strongly, and shall continue to do so until I leave this post, on a point of principle that the so-called Modernisation Committee should be chaired by a Minister--specifically, the Leader of the House, who has a responsibility to protect the rights and duties of Members of Parliament.

28 Jun 2001 : Column 828

The Modernisation Committee under this Government and formed by this Government is no less than a tool of this Government. It is outrageous that it should be used in such a way by them, and by the Leader of the House in particular, to introduce changes that affect the Standing Orders and the rights of the House so that we depart from the tradition of seeking consensus across the House. Consensus should not be sought in just one Committee, because that goes against the grain of what we have always understood to be the rights of hon. Members.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Liberal Democrats--who now make the ludicrous claim that they are some sort of opposition--have done nothing but work hand in glove with the Government on the Modernisation Committee to contrive to reduce the opportunities available for opposition and have acted as their tool?

Mrs. Browning: As always, my right hon. Friend is right. However, I add a caveat. The new Liberal Democrat Chief Whip for the Modernisation Committee expressed concern about the way in which legislation passed through the House, especially in the previous Parliament. I hope that my right hon. Friend is as hopeful as I am about that development. That Chief Whip was worried, as many of us were, about the guillotining of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill and the fact that more than 600 Lords amendments were not scrutinised by the Chamber. Much of the Bill will need to be tidied up and put right by us because problems were not properly addressed at the time. Indeed, just before the House rose for the general election, the imprints--an important aspect of the Bill--had to be reconsidered.

It is to no one's advantage if legislation is not properly scrutinised and challenged before it becomes an Act. I suspect that much of the legislation that was passed in the previous Parliament will cause great problems, not least because people ask about our intention behind the laws that we enact. If it has not even been scrutinised or debated, if there is no official record of the intent of the House at the time, how can we say that we are the legislators? Once it is seen that Parliament did not address matters, people outside will second-guess its intent. That is not the way in which any legislature should behave.

I say to the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) in all sincerity that it is the job of the Leader of the House to ensure that there are procedures that respect the right of all of us--in government or in opposition or on the Front or Back Benches--not only to challenge the Executive but to do our job in scrutinising and amending legislation.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): Is not there a curiosity in all this? Although the Liberals have indicated their great support for these measures, as they have throughout, when it has come to implementing them, they have voted against every guillotine motion. That is contradictory. That did not enable the Leader of the House to reflect on what was happening in practice and on the fact that our opposition is based on experience, not theory.

Mrs. Browning: That is exactly right. I must at this stage put on record my grateful thanks to my hon. Friend, who has stood shoulder to shoulder with me in the

28 Jun 2001 : Column 829

Modernisation Committee to try to ensure that those of us who have grave concerns have them put on the record of the Committee's proceedings.

Mr. Cash: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is another substantive point about the chairmanship of the Modernisation Committee? As I said in yesterday's debate on the constitution, and certainly according to past conventions of the House, all Select Committees that are scrutiny Committees should automatically be chaired by an Opposition Member. The Public Accounts Committee is so chaired, although we face a disgraceful situation concerning the European Scrutiny Committee. I have great respect for its Chairman; this is not a personal objection. Am I right that there will not be the independence in Parliament for which people are calling if the naked exercise of power through the Whips and the appointment of Chairmen of those Committees is not sorted out? That is a fundamental question on which the debate should turn.

Mrs. Browning: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Since becoming shadow Leader of the House, I have made that point myself. Indeed, the point is not just that a Select Committee is chaired by a member of the Government--the Leader of the House--but that, interestingly, the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Leader of the House took a place on that Committee. I do not know whether that will be so in future. The Committee is a tool of the Government. It was intended to be so by this Government. This Government intended to ensure that, under the guise of a Select Committee, they could change the Standing Orders. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, given tradition and what we know and understand of Select Committees, it is of course nothing of the sort.

I would not necessarily press for such a Committee to be chaired by a member of the Opposition. I would happily accept a Back-Bench Chairman of any party in the House. The Committee deals with matters to do with the House. It is therefore not just entirely inappropriate but obscene that it is chaired by a member of the Government.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): The hon. Lady is making a great deal of bluster about the Committee and its formulation. Let us consider the points under debate. She is suggesting that the programming of business is worse than the guillotining that her Government undertook. I remember very well from the decade that I spent in opposition the very problems to which she has alluded about tabling many amendments at the last minute and the difficulty of interpreting legislation in the country. We ought to get to the heart of the matter, which is the value of programming business.

Next Section

IndexHome Page