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29 Oct 2002 : Column 740continued
We have in the Leader of the House one of the finest debaters I have listened to in the 32 years in which I have sat in the House of Commons. He would not have developed that reputation if there had been mandatory time limits when he was developing his skills as a speaker. My right hon. Friend knows the high regard in which I hold him, but it does look as though he is pulling up the ladder that he climbed and that others will be unable to climb it.
Genuine debate requires an exchange of ideas. Genuine debate means that when I listen to an hon. Member, I may have my mind changed. If I cannot do that because I am looking at the digital clock the whole time, wondering about the length of the intervention and the length of my response, I am hobbled. I do not claim for a moment that my contributions to debates in the House are necessarily of any great value, but my constituents send me here to represent them. That means that I have things to say, whether or not those things are good or valid. That is for me to decide and for me to have a chance of trying. That is why I believe that the House will be making a serious error if it votes for mandatory time limits.
Let us imagine it is 1938. Winston Churchill gets up: he inveighs against Chamberlain, he inveighs against appeasement, he inveighs against Hitler and he inveighs against Mussolini. He says that we must be prepared for a second world war. While he is developing his argument, Mr. Deputy Speaker says, XOrder. The right hon. Gentleman has come to the end of his 12 minutes." We cannot know when a speech is necessary and we cannot know when a speech may not be prolix but essential to the way the country operates. That is why I hope that the House will not vote for these mandatory time limits, but leave it instead to the discretion of the Speaker, although I would actually prefer even that not to happen.
There is no way in which we will ever turn this House of Commons into a rational organisation comparable to other workplaces and activities in which people are employed. This place is sui generisa large room in which people speak, listen to each other, change the laws of the country and revolutionise the country, as the Attlee Government did between 1945 and 1950. There is
If we lose sight of what we are here for, and believe that by having time limits we can hear more speeches and that by working from 9 to 5, or whatever it is, we will persuade our constituents that we are like them, we will fail. The very fact that we are here is because we want to represent our constituents, but we are not like them. If we were like them, we would not be here. If we were like them, we would not have fought to get here; we would not have done the things that got us here. We are sui generiswe are the British House of Commons. Although I support many of the proposals that my right hon. Friend makes and shall vote for them, I fear that the proposals on time limits and the change in hours will damage us as a House of Parliament, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will reflect on that.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). I agree with his theme that culture is more important than procedure, and I hope to return to that point in a moment.
One needs to put the debate in the slightly broader context of the modernising agenda since 1997. The balance of the reforms so far have, in my view, made life easier for the Government. The automatic programming of every Bill, the introduction of deferred Divisions and the cut off at 10 o'clock may, incidentally, have made life more congenial for individual MPs as well, and I am not against that. However, the consequence has been to tilt what I call the terms of trade away from Parliament towards the Executive. We now need to tilt them back.
Sir George Young: I strongly believe that in the last Parliament the terms of trade shifted away from Parliament towards the Executive and made it easier for the Government to get their business through the House. The criteria by which I judge the reforms before us is what they do to those terms of trade.
I find this a much more balanced package. There has been a genuine attempt to find and build a consensus, unlike what happened in the last Parliament, when the reforms were forced through using a parliamentary majority. I welcome the new tone and am able to support most of the proposals, with one exception.
The most radical proposal has not been mentioned once in the debate. I refer to paragraph 44 of the report in which collective consultation with other parties is proposed on the Queen's Speech. That represents, or could represent, the first tentative steps towards prising the Government's fingers off the programme of the House. Many people believe that ownership of that programme ought to be here and not with the Government. So I welcome that proposal, and would like to know more about it. Will there be a Committee? Will Back Benchers be on it? Will the Executive have a built-in majority on that Committee? If this proposal represents the first step towards the House repatriating the ability to control its own business, I believe that it could be more important than many of the others.
In principle, I am not opposed to carry-over. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), I accept the arguments in the Norton report that carry-over is a more sensible approach to the scrutiny of Bills and that we would get a better flow of legislation. When the Leader of the House winds up the debate, it would be helpful if he would confirm what I think was said in an exchange during the opening speeches: if there is disagreement between the two Houses at the end of a Session, this House cannot unilaterally carry over the disputed measure. As long as we have that safeguard, I shall be happy with the proposals for carry-over.
I approached the question of an early start with an entirely open mind, but when I read that section of the Committee's report I found it one-dimensional and almost blinkered. Paragraphs 54 to 63 are nearly all about the Chamberas if MPs did nothing else. In his introductory speech, the Leader of the House made the same mistake: he tended to discount what takes place in the morning. Only in paragraph 64 of the report is there an acknowledgement of life outside the Chamber. Then we hit this sentence:
Mention was made of the impact on Ministers, who normally spend the mornings in their Departments or making contact with the real world. The report refers to the impact on constituency worka point touched on by hon. Members in this debate. It states that morning sittings would be Xbound to detract" from Standing Committee and Select Committee meetings. It is unclear what has happened during the intervening four years to overturn those unequivocal recommendations from a former Leader of the House.
A further, albeit subsidiary, point is that much of the business for Thursdays is unwhipped. On Thursday, we shall debate defence on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Last Thursday, we debated local government finance on the Adjournment. If we stopped at 7 pm on Wednesdays and there was a tendency to schedule unwhipped business for Thursdays, some colleagues would be tempted to go home, compressing yet more business into two parliamentary days and generating unhelpful media comment.
I welcome the move to greater topicality for departmental questions. I should have gone further and proposed a ten-minute period at the end of departmental questions for completely open questions. The Prime Minister tries to answer open questions about the Government for about half an hour each week so there is no reason that a Secretary of State, too, should not be expected to answer open questions for about ten minutes about the management of his or her Department. That would make the question session even more topical.
A reform that I should have liked is alluded to in paragraph 80. Opposition parties should be able to trade in Opposition days for the right to demand a statement on a subject about which the Government are reticent. The report's proposals ensure prime timein fact, even more timefor Government statements, although I question the assumption that such statements should last an hour, but it would have been fairer to balance that reform with the right of Opposition parties to demand a statement, also in prime time. That would have been consistent with holding the Government to account. Traditional Opposition days, even if they are taken as half days, do not represent the best use of Opposition time. We need a more flexible approach.
I am unequivocally in favour of shorter speeches although I am open to persuasion as to how we would achieve them. Speech limits work well in the upper House where contributions tend to be focused. This Chamber should strive to be less like Radio 3 and more like Classic FMa recommendation that may not find its way on to the BBC's XYesterday in Parliament" programme.
The question is not whether a 15-minute speech is better than a 10-minute speech, but whether three 10-minute speeches add more value to the debate than two 15-minute speeches. The marginal utility of the last five minutes of a speech that could be shortened to 10 minutes is less than that of a fresh contribution that might otherwise be lost.
There is a risk involved. We see it already. Members who realise that they will not get in will clamber aboard the opening speeches, which are not time-limited. Some Front-Bench speeches are far too long and if Back-Bench speeches are to be compulsorily, or voluntarily, shortened, we must have discipline from the Front Benches.