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29 Oct 2002 : Column 691—continued

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): On a point of clarification, is it the right hon. Gentleman's intention to allow encrypted signatures in the tabling of questions?

Mr. Cook: These are matters for the House authorities, whom we will consult. Indeed, we have offered them the services of the e-Envoy so that we

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introduce—[Interruption.] I am not sure what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst finds objectionable in that. The e-Envoy has a large, well-staffed and well-resourced office that contains expertise on electronic operations in government. Surely it is right for the Government to make that expertise available to the House to make sure that we get a robust system of authentication.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): I am sure the Leader of the House carries us all with him when he proposes to reduce the length of time for tabling oral questions from 14 days to three. That would obviously improve scrutiny. In the same mode, I assume he agrees with my hon. Friend, whose constituency I cannot remember—[Hon. Members: XMacclesfield."] How could I forget? I assume the right hon. Gentleman agrees with my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, and supports the essential amendment on topical questions.

Mr. Cook: I suspect that I am slightly more familiar with the report and the hon. Member for Macclesfield than the right hon. Gentleman appears to be.

By accepting a dramatic reduction in the period of notice to three days, we expect Question Time to be more topical in general. If an urgent question needs to be addressed by someone other than the Department that is answering questions, it is open to the Speaker to accept a private notice question, which we propose should be renamed urgent question so that it is intelligible to the wider public.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cook: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must make progress.

I want to mention one other aspect of questions. Another improvement to scrutiny will come from the proposal by the Modernisation Committee to introduce a question session on cross-cutting issues. Increasingly, Whitehall Departments are adopting a cross-cutting approach. If Westminster wishes to provide effective monitoring, we must also adopt new forms of scrutiny to match those developments. If the House approves the package tonight, we will consult the Chairman of Ways and Means on the best way to introduce such sessions in Westminster Hall. I would envisage the first such question session to be on youth policy, to a team of Ministers from the Home Office, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health.

Better scrutiny is also why I believe that the Commons should be prepared to return as a matter of routine for September sittings. It is not healthy for the elected representatives of the British people to be absent for three months at a stretch. Too much happens while we are away, and too many decisions necessarily have to be taken by Government in our absence, for which there is no opportunity for Ministers to give an account to the Commons.

I was struck at the last two business questions by the number of hon. Members who demanded a statement on events that took place during the recess. If we had

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routine September sittings, there would have been statements on many of those issues. I am confident, for instance, that the House would have heard, and would have welcomed, a major statement on the outcome of the important Johannesburg summit on sustainable development. Recent experience is that we have to make emergency arrangements to come back in September anyway. If every Member who demanded the recall of Parliament some time this summer votes for September sittings, I am confident of a comfortable majority.

I stress that this is not a proposition covertly to cheat Members out of the total length of their summer recess. The deal is that the House will rise two weeks earlier in July, which will be for the convenience of those Members with children at schools that go back in August. In return, Members will be expected to come back for two weeks in September. I understand the concerns of those Members with young children who wish to be at home when the children go back to school in the first week of September. In the event of the House agreeing to September sittings, I propose that we return in the second week of September.

Mr. Forth: Will the Leader of the House give way?

Mr. Cook: Of course. I could not resist giving way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Forth: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has not committed an inadvertent slip of the tongue, because he never does. We were led to believe that the House would sit for three weeks in September, which we fully and enthusiastically support. Has that mysteriously slipped back to two weeks in September, and if so, why?

Mr. Cook: There is no sudden change. On the contrary, if the right hon. Gentleman looks at the report he will see that we discussed the possibility of two or three weeks. I have announced that we will return for two weeks in the coming year. We are open to consultation and have made it clear in the report that we will consult. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to press us to meet in the first week of September, we will listen to those representations, but I think he will find them at variance with the wishes of many hon. Members, especially those with young children who attend schools that start in that week. It is only reasonable that we take account of the pressures on them.

I have stressed that the package will improve Parliament's ability to question Ministers and to scrutinise Government policy. The other major role of this Chamber is to scrutinise and test Government legislation. The package of measures before the House makes a number of proposals to improve the scrutiny of Government Bills. The first of these is the recommendation in the resolution before the House that there should be more routine publication of draft Bills for pre-legislative scrutiny. If we want better laws, Parliament should be consulted before the texts are set in stone. Pre-legislative scrutiny can be carried out through Select Committees or through Joint Committees of both Houses. Either way it gives the MPs

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who are most specialised in the subject the opportunity to comment on the draft and to explore any problems in it with Ministers.

The reality is that by the time we reach the Second Reading of a Bill, battle lines have been drawn up on party lines. If the House wants to influence the shape of legislation, it has to get in on the act when those Bills are still in draft. The key to more effective scrutiny of official Bills is to provide more time for their proceedings through Parliament. I readily admit to the House that, as Leader of the House, I would like Bills to lie for a longer period before Parliament. I am sorry that only one Bill this Session has had enough time to be committed to a Special Standing Committee with the power to call witnesses.

The reason that I am compelled to hurry Bills through the House is the convention that any Bill that is not completed by the end of the Session faces sudden death. As far as we can discover, no other Parliament in the democratic world has such an eccentric rule. Our constituents imagine that they have elected us for a four or five-year term, and most of them would be surprised to hear that in truth they have elected us for a succession of four single years.

The official Opposition cannot have it both ways. Of course I understand that they will try to have it both ways, but they cannot really hope to have it both ways and keep a straight face at the same time.

Mr. Forth: Just watch.

Mr. Cook: I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that he is very bad at keeping a straight face, which makes proceedings very entertaining.

The Opposition cannot demand more time for Bills and simultaneously insist that every Bill drives into a brick wall at the end of the Session. In the last Parliament, the Conservative party commission, chaired by the distinguished constitutional expert, Lord Norton, came down in favour of carry-over. In its report to the last leader of the Conservative Party it recommended:

If the right hon. Gentleman proposes to treat us to a display of indignation at the effrontery of the Modernisation Committee in recommending carry-over, perhaps he could also explain why his party's commission on the same topic came to the same conclusion.

I accept the Modernisation Committee's recommendation that if carry-over is adopted by the House, the longer timetable that it will permit should be used by the Government to provide more flexibility in the programming of Bills. I ask the official Opposition if they will accept the parallel recommendation: that if the Government demonstrate such flexibility, the Opposition should be willing to engage constructively in agreeing to programming motions.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am not acting in collusion with my Front-Bench colleagues? He knows that I am

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concerned about this issue, and it is a little disingenuous to suggest that the arrangement is being made only to give us more time to discuss legislation in the House.

Does the Leader of the House agree that the main constraint on the quantity of legislation at the moment is not the time available in the House of Commons but the time available in the House of Lords before Parliament is prorogued? Every year, the Leader of the House has to tell colleagues to turn away Bills because he cannot get them through the House of Lords, where he cannot programme legislation, before the end of the Session. Does he also agree that the other place is at its most powerful at the end of the Session when Prorogation is approaching and the Government are given the choice, at least in theory, of losing their Bill or making modest concessions on the most important amendments? This disingenuous offering of more time will provide the opportunity, in a few years, to produce a conveyor belt of legislation through the House and greatly reduce the power of the House of Lords, sometimes assisted by this House, to modify Bills at the end of the Session.

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