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29 Oct 2002 : Column 687—continued

Air Weapons

Jonathan Shaw accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Firearms Act 1968 to restrict the acquisition and possession of air weapons; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Thursday 7 November, and to be printed [Bill 198].

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Speaker's Statement

3.44 pm

Mr. Speaker: Before I call a Minister to move motion No. 2, it may be helpful to indicate to the House how the debate will proceed on the modernisation and procedure motions that are before us today. Assuming that the business of the House motion is agreed to, I propose to allow a general debate covering motions Nos. 3 to 13 together. At 10 pm, we will then go through the motions in order. On each motion, we will vote first on the amendments that I have selected, and then on the motion itself, amended or not as the case may be.

I remind the House that the scope of debate on the business of the House motion is limited to the procedural arrangements for the main debate.



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Modernisation of the House of Commons

3.45 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I beg to move,

This is a Parliament with a long history stretching back over eight centuries. That history can be a strength of this place. Our very antiquity is one of the reasons for the legitimacy of this place in the nation's constitution. It can also be a trap, however, if we become too attached to our procedures because that is the way in which we have always done things, or if we resist change that is necessary to be representative of a rapidly changing society outside.

The day of our debate sees publication of a poll that underlines the challenge facing the House if it is to retain public respect. Most of the public believe that we are not effective at our job. A majority believe that we are

and that majority has got bigger over the past year. The best case for modernisation is that this House will lose its authority if it is seen by the nation to be out of date.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cook: I have just begun. I will, of course, give way to hon. Members as I proceed with my speech, and I am conscious that many Members will wish to intervene. It might be helpful if I am allowed to proceed a little further, and the hon. Gentleman can intervene at the appropriate moment in the speech, in which I will cover several different issues.

First, however, I want to say that the sole purpose of the measures before the House tonight is to produce a more effective Parliament. Since the publication of my memorandum on modernisation a year ago, I have rejected the notion that there is some kind of conflict between Government and the House of Commons on the need for an effective Parliament. Good scrutiny makes for good government

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) indicated assent.

Mr. Cook: I am glad that on at least one point I carry the right hon. Gentleman with me. I live in hope.

At the heart of the package, therefore, are a number of proposals to improve scrutiny. I want to start with the measures to make Question Time more relevant and more topical. I congratulate the members of the Procedure Committee, and particularly its Chairman, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas

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Winterton), on a thorough investigation and a radical set of proposals, nearly all of which have been accepted by the Government—[Laughter.] The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) laughs at that point. May I commend to him the fascinating historical account of Question Time at the opening of the Procedure Committee report? I was intrigued to note from that account that in 1991 the Conservative Government rejected the shorter notice for Question Time that this Government are accepting. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will spare us any extravagant claims about Conservative commitment to parliamentary scrutiny, which was never borne out when the Conservative party was in office.

We welcome the proposal for a radical reduction in the period of notice for oral questions. The present period of notice is a clear fortnight, which is a ludicrously long period. Events in the real world have a tendency to move faster than the leisurely pace of our Standing Orders. The Standing Order before us today cuts the period of notice dramatically from 10 sitting days to three sitting days.

The Government also accept the recommendation for electronic tabling of questions. Traditionalists will be relieved to hear that they can continue to table questions with a pencil and a buff form. However, the Standing Order gives authority to Mr. Speaker to introduce electronic tabling for those Members who wish to use modern information technology, and who will welcome the convenience of being able to table questions direct from their constituency or while on parliamentary delegations. No business starting out today would adopt our present manual procedures, which are more in keeping with the period architecture of this Palace than the high-tech economy in which our constituents work.

Mr. Hawkins: Does the right hon. Gentleman not share my concern that the opportunity for Members to table questions from their constituencies will simply lead to many Labour Members failing to attend the Chamber at all? They are more interested in being absentee MPs than in doing the job of parliamentary scrutiny here.

Mr. Cook: I only have to look around the Chamber to be encouraged by the fact that my hon. Friends are here to take a full part in the debate. The hon. Gentleman makes an unfair and unreasonable slur on the commitment of my colleagues. One reason why there is a majority among Labour Members in favour of earlier sitting hours is the fact that we are full-time professional MPs who are in the precincts in the morning anyway.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) rose—

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) rose—

Mr. Cook: The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) has started something. I give way to my hon. Friend.

Shona McIsaac: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, of the 146 Members who vote in more than 80 per cent. of Divisions, 134 are Labour Members and that only

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six are Conservatives? Does that not show that we on the Labour Benches take parliamentary scrutiny seriously? Of those Members, 34 are Labour women.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for quoting figures that were, of course, on the tip of my tongue. They demonstrate beyond argument Labour Members' commitment to making this an effective Chamber.

Mr. Simon Thomas: I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the tabling of questions and give the proposals my full support. However, will he explain why an extra day has been allowed for the Wales Office? Has he seen its postbag since devolution was introduced? It has diminished considerably, so why should an extra day be allowed for the territorial offices? Should not the arrangements be the same as for other Departments?

Mr. Cook: I warmly support devolution and I rather thought that the hon. Gentleman's party did too. However, the consequence of devolution is that the execution of policy and, indeed, decisions on policy are now taken in Edinburgh, Cardiff and, when the Northern Ireland Assembly is restored, Belfast. The territorial offices have very small staffs and depend on consultation with the devolved bodies for consultation on answers. I would have thought that he would want us to introduce a change that would enable those Departments to consult the devolved bodies before coming to Parliament with an answer. That is why they will have an additional day in which to prepare the answers.

Before leaving the issue of electronic tabling, I wish to point out that we attach great importance to the principle that any question tabled in the British Parliament must be put down by an elected Member. It is important that we guard against parliamentary questions being initiated by staff without the approval of a Member. We will therefore seek a robust system of authentication that will show that the Member concerned has given specific approval to the question. We fully agree with the Procedure Committee that Mr. Speaker should keep the new system under review and be ready to intervene if there is evidence that it produces a sharp increase in the total volume of questions, as that might indicate abuse.

At the request of the Table Office, the new procedures for questions will not come into effect until January so that thorough preparations can be made. Before I turn from the Procedure Committee's report on questions, I hope that I will carry the whole House with me in recording our appreciation of the Clerks in the Table Office who always work under pressure and in circumstances that, on occasions, require a fine line in diplomacy.

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