Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman mentioned my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire

28 Jun 2001 : Column 843

(Sir G. Young). I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not omit to mention that my right hon. Friend prepared a minority report on the Modernisation Committee's previous report, which originally introduced programming and deferred Divisions.

Mr. Tyler: That is true. However, it is also true that, in the report that we are currently considering, which has given rise to the motions--their details are the responsibility of the Leader of the House; they are nothing to do with the Committee or me--we took up the right hon. Gentleman's point. It states that the terms of trade between the Government and the Opposition need to be re-evaluated.

The Government of the day have an opportunity, a responsibility and a right to introduce legislation. If they have a mandate and retain a majority in the House, they have the opportunity to do that in reasonable time. Are the Conservative Opposition saying that the electoral system has gone wrong, and that because only some 40 per cent. of voters supported the new Government with their large majority, their legislative opportunities should be circumscribed? Are they saying that the fact that less than a quarter of the electorate voted for the Government means that they should be more humble? If so, that is new, and if they want to support us in introducing a fair voting system, we welcome all allies, even at this stage.

Let us assume for the moment that all hon. Members agree that a Government elected under our democratic, parliamentary system are entitled to introduce legislation while they command a majority in the House. The report also said that, within the time allocated for the legislation, it should be up to Opposition parties to make the running. They and Government Back-Bench Members should stipulate the priorities for consideration and votes. That will not happen if we revert to the blunt instrument of a guillotine, if that is not a contradiction. If there is a guillotine, the Government organise their business to prevent the Opposition and dissenting voices on the Government side from having their say and getting their vote.

The Transport Bill was a classic example. We had a programme motion, but, by agreement between the three main parties, and the full involvement of Government Back-Bench Members, we enabled the people who had genuine anxieties about the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services to have their say and their vote. If there had been a guillotine, the Government would have made sure that that did not occur. We therefore believe that, on an experimental basis--we always work on that basis--programme motions are more helpful to the conduct of good business in the House than guillotine motions. I know that in the past the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has voted for a great many guillotine motions. She might be embarrassed by that. So far as I can recall, I have never voted for a guillotine motion, and neither have most of my colleagues. That is because we think that they just do not work. We vote for programme motions.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is not here at the moment, but he made a rather misleading statement earlier about the Liberal Democrats which I must correct. We have voted against programme motions when they have immediately followed a Second Reading debate, because we felt that that was not the right context in which to discuss the matter. The right context in which to discuss the way in

28 Jun 2001 : Column 844

which business is to be handled is a debate in Committee involving the people who are going to handle that business.

That is why the Select Committee proposals said, "Take it away from the Floor of the House, because it will not be discussed by the people who will then be responsible for the way in which the Bill is considered. Take it into Committee." In Committee, those who are going participate in the discussion will have an input into the way in which the programme is designed, and the Chairman of the Standing Committee will seek to ensure fair play and that a balance is maintained between the different interests, including those of the Back Benchers--an important point made earlier by the hon. Member for Macclesfield.

Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman is making a perfectly sensible suggestion, but it would be even more sensible if we could devise a way of ensuring that the membership of the Standing Committee--which, under the hon. Gentleman's scheme, would be devising the timetable--were not so controlled by those on the Front Benches. The danger is that the Standing Committee will contain people who are broadly speaking, the creatures of those on the Front Benches.

Mr. Tyler: I very much agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is extremely important that those who have experience on the Front Benches get on to the Back Benches as fast as possible. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's redemption since he left the Government Front Bench is remarkable. I do not recall him raising these points at any stage when his Government were packing Committees on Bills and Select Committees in the 1992 to 1997 Parliament. However, he makes a perfectly valid point, which I endorse. Although it is not appropriate for this debate, the process by which people are put on to Committees--be they scrutiny Committees for Bills or other Committees--is an important issue to which I know the Leader of the House will want to return on a different occasion.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman accept, on the strength of the operation thus far of Programming Sub-Committees, that one of their enduring problems is that they seem to suffer from an identity crisis? They are what might politely--or less politely--be described as political cross-dressers or transvestites. On the one hand it is mooted that they are really a variation on the theme of a Standing Committee. If that is the case, why is there no verbatim transcript of the proceedings? Alternatively, it is suggested that they are Select Committees. In that case, what on earth is the business of the Government Whip in sitting on them?

Mr. Tyler: I bow to the hon. Gentleman's superior judgment. He obviously has direct experience of political cross-dressers whereas I have never encountered one, so I cannot speak on that with authority. However, he makes a serious point, which I take. I am sure that the Leader of the House and his deputy are listening carefully. There is mixed experience--let us put it no more strongly than that--of the operation of the Programming Sub-Committees. Some of my colleagues came back saying that they had worked remarkably well; some said

28 Jun 2001 : Column 845

that they had been led well by the Chair of the Committee; and some came back and said that, frankly, it was all sewn up in advance.

I say with great care as I look round the House, and now that I am no longer part of the usual channels, that I am amazed by the contributions of some previous members of the Government Whips Office--I am not looking at anyone in particular--earlier this afternoon. My experience of carve-ups between those on the two Front Benches was that they deliberately excluded the third party, and other minor parties, in the House, and often also excluded very carefully any consideration of the views of Government Back Benchers. That was true under successive Governments. If, by means of the proposals, programme motions will enable a less formal but more open dialogue to take place with those on the Back Benches in the Committees, that must be good for Parliament. I hope that that would restore some of the reputation to which other hon. Members have referred.

I am a great believer in evolution in this place. Having been in and out of it for some time, I am conscious that people outside think that we are far too staid in the way in which we conduct our business. They think that we get stuck in a rut and that we do not know what is going on in the world outside. The proposals that the Leader of the House has put before us represent a modest step, based on the solid support of a broad cross-section of members--not everyone; I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton--in the Modernisation Committee. The principle is right that those who are going to do the detailed scrutiny are the best people to decide how that scrutiny should be punctuated.

Mr. Grieve: I return to the point that I made earlier on Lords amendments, and I would be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments on that. Nobody will determine the programming in that regard apart from the Leader of the House or the Minister in charge of the Bill in question. Does not that fly in the face of the intention that the hon. Gentleman says the Modernisation Committee had in coming up with these proposals?

Mr. Tyler: It is perfectly true that I do not recall a detailed discussion about Lords amendments. I shall look to the Minister to respond to that question when he replies. That is a perfectly fair point.

The choice before the House is this: do we want to revert to a situation in which an imposed guillotine is going to be used after appropriate amounts of waffle and hours of filibustering? It would not technically be filibustering, but we all know a near-filibuster when we see one. Is that the right way forward for the House? Alternatively, are we prepared, on some Bills at least--not on all of them; the Leader of the House has already given that assurance--to try to seek agreement in the Committee on the best way to programme the debate? I think that that is the better route.

I am extremely disappointed that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills is not still here. Having said how important this debate was, it is disappointing that he has not stayed for it. Yet even he abstained on guillotine motions. I have here the proceedings of the Finance Bill

28 Jun 2001 : Column 846

from February 1994. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton voted for the guillotine on that occasion, but even the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, who makes such a fetish of saying that we must never be forced to do anything we do not want to do, recognised that there was some merit in trying to make progress with the business of the House. It is better to have agreement across the Floor, and to have Back-Bench contributions, than to have everlasting guillotines.

I confess that I cannot get wildly excited either way on the subject of deferred Divisions, and I do not believe that the great British public can either. However, it is nonsense to say that this is breaking some terrible precedent or some great tradition. After all, we sometimes have a two-day debate on the remaining stages of a Bill or a delayed vote because amendments are grouped together. That can happen all too often.

However, what I really object to is the humbug of suggesting that 659 Members--or however many are permitted to vote--sit here throughout every debate and listen to every argument before they come to a conclusion. That day has long since gone, if it ever existed. Looking round the House now, I do not know how many Members are going to vote at 6.30 pm, but no one could say that they have all been sitting here listening to my words of wisdom and therefore know precisely what the issues are all about--and that that is why it is so critical that we have to ensure that they are all here. I am sorry to pick on the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, but he made this point very strongly on an earlier occasion. He is not here to listen to my arguments, so how can I persuade him? I fear he may go into the Opposition Lobby as well.

The proposals are not breaking precedents and I regard that as a dubious argument. They represent only a tiny step, and I hope that it is in the right direction.

I also hope that the House will be prepared at least to experiment, because that will mean that we can demonstrate to the world at large that we are taking our business more seriously. We are seeking to work in a more businesslike way and perhaps, in a small way, we might be able to reverse that disastrous turnout to which I referred earlier.

Next Section

IndexHome Page