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29 Oct 2002 : Column 753—continued

Mr. Bryant: When Winston Churchill spoke in the 1930s he was a Privy Councillor, so he was not subject to the 10-minute rule that operated for much of the 1930s. In fact, he was able to speak from the Front Bench.

Mr. Leigh: That is a fair point. At that stage, Winston Churchill already had enormous experience, and the example underlines the point that I am making. There will be occasions when Members of particular experience should be allowed latitude.

We have all sat through debates in which the Whips have run out of the doors of the Chamber to look for people to speak to deliberately fill out the debate. Let us

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not delude ourselves: Parliament is not working—most of the time the Chamber is empty. There has been a flight of interest from the Chamber—and not just from the general public, but from Members of Parliament. That might be the result of our procedures or may be to do with the fact that we all have offices and televisions and many of us sit on Select Committees. That is the reality, but let us at least try to get debates that are topical and to the point and in which Members give brief résumés of what they believe. One can give a great speech in 10 minutes. How long was the Gettysburg address—three, four or five minutes? If one chooses one's language carefully, one can make a great speech.

Linda Gilroy: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that in today's conditions Churchill would have been able to rise to the challenge of giving a short speech on the important topics of the day?

Mr. Leigh: That is what I said. I am sure that Churchill would have done so.

I believe that the Leader of the House has generally got it right. On most occasions, for most speeches, from most Back Benchers, 10 minutes is enough. If that gives younger Members more chance to get in, that is all to the good. It is frustrating for hundreds of them—mainly those on the Government side—who can hardly ever take part in a debate.

Mr. McCabe: I certainly accept the hon. Gentleman's point about short speeches, but would not time-limited speeches tend to reduce Members' willingness to take interventions? That, in itself, would limit debate. Instead of debate, we would have a series of 10-minute statements.

Mr. Leigh: I have already given way three times in my speech, because I notice that the Clerk stops the clock each time that I do so. If we pass the reforms, there is the suggestion that speakers will have injury time. We should speak for 10 minutes, and the more interventions we take, the more interesting our speeches will be. If we are given injury time, that is all to the good. That suggestion is in the proposals, so I do not accept the point that time limits will lead to sterile debate.

I am normally a great admirer of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs—he is a superlative parliamentarian—but I did not understand his argument on sitting hours. It was not one of his better speeches. What was the point that he was trying to make? He said that, as Chairman of the Committee, he was approached by members of the press who told him that there was no point in the Committee meeting after 4 o'clock because it would not be reported. It now meets in the morning, but he suggests that the Chamber should meet in the afternoon. There is no logic to his point.

David Hencke of The Guardian came to the Public Accounts Committee and told us that, since Gladstone's time, the Committee had always met at 4 o'clock on Monday and Wednesday. Our hearings are virtually never reported, and that is the honest truth. We get plenty of reportage about our reports on the National Audit Office and of some of my comments, but our hearings are very rarely reported, because they are at 4 o'clock. David Hencke said that there was no point in

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our meeting at that time in the afternoon. The modern deadlines of the modern press world dictate that, unless one deals with a real item of news, what one says after 4 o'clock will never be reported.

What is the point of our being here and pretending that what we say at this time—7.36 pm—will be reported in tomorrow's national newspapers? How many Back Benchers now present have had their speeches reported recently, even in the broadsheets? The answer is precious few. It may be that even if they speak at 11 am, they will not be reported—that is probably true—but there is at least a chance that they will be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) gave one of his marvellously entertaining speeches. He said that we must go out and work during the day as barristers, trade union leaders, members of the regular armed forces and that sort of thing. That is great, but how many former regular Army officers, with one great exception whom we all know, sit on the Opposition Benches? How many distinguished lawyers are on our Benches? There are very few. I see a lot of retired special advisers on these Benches. I am not criticising them, but that is the reality.

There is the myth that, if we can only keep our current hours, we will draw in great talent such as captains of industry, trade union leaders and distinguished barristers. However, they are not coming here, because we do not pay them enough. They earn too much outside and do too big a job. The reason that they do not come here has nothing to do with our hours. Let us leave aside the myth, because the truth of the matter is that, sadly, the House is primarily composed of full-time professional politicians. We must dispense with the illusion that we live in the Victorian age and that we all go out during the day to get to know the real world. I wish that were true, but it is not.

Mr. Forth: Can my hon. Friend give an example of what he thinks is a model legislature or Parliament that attracts the attention, support and enthusiasm of its voters?

Mr. Leigh: My right hon. Friend makes a very wise point. He is right. All over the world, interest is flying away from elected Parliaments. Whether one considers the Senate, which is non-confrontational, or the Australian Parliament, which is very confrontational, one sees that there is less and less interest. That is to do with the fact that our societies are very affluent. Certainly in the House, the two political parties are drawing closer together and there is not the great divide of class or the huge areas of poverty that there were in the past. All that is true, but it has nothing to do with the question of whether we meet at 9.30 am, 11.30 am or 2.30 pm. They are facts of life. Let us, at least, try to fight back.

We can live in the past and say that the procedures that we adopt now should remain the same as they have been for 100 years. We can give speeches of 20 or 30 minutes of very little relevance and delivered by people who do not understand the subject, who have been tapped on the shoulder by a friendly Whip and who

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speak in the hope that they will be promoted. We can make those speeches at 7.30 in the evening. It is all very cosy, but what does it achieve?

Mr. Stephen O'Brien : My hon. Friend makes it clear that he is saddened by the move to an increasing number of professional politicians, which is reflected in the proposal to sit earlier. Bearing in mind the fact that some of us have a manufacturing background, does he think that his approach will help to widen the composition of the House or merely to enshrine it, which would be the result of adopting the proposals that he seems to advocate?

Mr. Leigh: That is a fair point. As someone who had a real career outside the House, my hon. Friend is an exception to the rule. I wish we were encouraging more people like him, but we are not and we must live with that reality.

I have one last point to make on Committees. There is a great myth that we used to have wonderful Standing Committees. What we actually had was loads of filibustering. We wasted 100 hours in the early weeks of a Committee. In 18 years of Labour opposition, how many Bills did they stop by using that great parliamentary power of delaying legislation? Labour Members can intervene if they like.

We used to debate Cromwell's statue. It was meaningless. We need timetabling if we are to move with the real world. However, if I support the Leader of the House to that extent, will he at least acknowledge that much of the timetabling has been draconian and that we need co-operation between the two Front Benches so that we get a decent debate? In the last Parliament, a Bill's Committee stage, Second Reading, Report and Third Reading were held on one day, which was absurd.

The Leader of the House is a genuine parliamentarian. He is trying to change the approach and to get agreement, and he is broadly doing the right thing. I support him on limiting speeches generally, on timetabling and on Parliament meeting early in the day so that there is a chance that when we speak the nation will listen.

7.42 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I have been sitting here feeling deeply deprived. I go through my correspondence during the day and sit in my constituency surgeries at the weekend, and it is obvious that I have a unique, special and different electorate. I have always known that, but it has now been demonstrated. They talk to me about the laws on social security, education, housing and immigration, but somehow or other, and I cannot understand why, over the past 30 years no one has come to me and said, XI will not vote for you if you stay in the House of Commons after 10 o'clock at night." I have obviously been desperately deprived because what they say to me is, XThis is a bad law. It affects me in this way. Go and do something about it", and they expect me to go and do something about it.

I am sorry that the Leader of the House is not in the Chamber. I am sure that that has nothing to do with the

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fact that I have just risen to speak. I have read some of his suggestions carefully. They include:

and that the new Thursday working hours were a success because they enabled

Not Members of Parliament, just the media agenda.

I have carefully scrutinised some of the gifts on offer from the Leader of the House. Sadly, I begin to detect that some of them come with slightly dubious origins and even more dubious benefits. For example, a number of radical and important changes were made in the last Parliament, every one of which had the direct effect of limiting something. Timetabling limits the opportunity of the Opposition to comment on legislation in an effective way. Timetabling of speeches limits the opportunity of Back Benchers to intervene and comment.

All those suggestions have to be considered carefully, and I ask myself one question: who benefits from the changes? Is it the House of Commons? Will we get better legislation? Where in the suggestions is there a drive to give Select Committees the right to debate their reports on the Floor of the House? Where is it suggested that Members of Parliament should have the opportunity to initiate legislation?

Members who have not been here for long—I used to hate people who said that—might not know that we had the right to initiate not just private Members' Bills, but motions to debate political subjects and to get a vote on them. Perhaps they do not understand the terrible power that has been taken away from them. On Friday we could debate important subjects and get a vote of the House. If 300 or 400 Members managed to stay here on Friday, as they did, and register their opinion on abortion, reform of the laws on homosexuality and other contentious issues important to their constituents, it was guaranteed that the Government of the day would take that seriously. They might not like it and go around exercising considerable pressure on the Members of Parliament who had registered their votes and views, but they took note of them. Now we do not have that opportunity.

Motions are not voted on. Everything that is contentious can be discussed in a debate on the Adjournment of the House. I have never worked out the socialist position on the Adjournment of the House, but I am happy to debate it at inordinate length. What I do know, however, is that that procedural change means that Members of Parliament who once had the opportunity to influence the Government have not got that chance today.

If I thought that tinkering with the hours would give Back Benchers a new power that would reinvigorate the Chamber and debate within Parliament, I would not only support my right hon. Friend but would be well ahead of him. I would be out there, drawing people into the Lobby, saying, XThis is the best thing that's ever happened." But I will not be doing that because we have to judge the suggestions against what has already happened.

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When my Select Committee was grandiose and large, one half of it used the pre-selective system to look carefully at local government finance. Much detailed work went into that. Committee members spent many hours of considerable importance reading documents and talking to members of local authorities and taking evidence from them. Her Majesty's Government took about as much notice of that work as if it had been written in Greek, and I do not think that many speak Greek even in this Cabinet.

It is suggested that all legislation will be in a form that will allow us to assess its importance. We will have a huge impact and be able to change it before it comes before us as a Bill. I have to say that I am slightly unsure whether that is the case. I have also considered other suggestions and applied them to my Select Committee. The Leader of the House watched with some interest what happened when the Committee wanted to take evidence from Lord Birt and others who not only had important parts to play in the legislation that we were examining, but had influenced matters. For example, Treasury Ministers were negotiating the contracts that my Committee was considering, but we were told that we did not have the power to insist on them appearing in front of us. We were told that they were simply advisers and outwith the parliamentary system. If the motion reformed that practice, I would be way ahead of the Leader of the House.

Let us get rid of the idea that these proposals are intended to benefit the female of the species. Nothing proposed by male parliamentarians is for the benefit of the female of the species, no matter which political party those males represent. Changing the hours will do nothing to change the representation of women in this place; no artificial means will do that. We belong to a voluntary party, and the only way to get good female candidates is to persuade the people whom they want to represent that they are capable of doing the job. They have had no difficulty doing so in the past, and they will have no difficulty in future.

People say, of the change to the hours, that after seven o'clock we will be able to have a life of our own. I have never had any difficulty in having a life of my own. There are those who say, XOf course, you would be able to stay here, in the Dining Room." I remember Barbara Castle, when she retired, saying to all the assembled members of the parliamentary Labour party, XI am not going to thank you for the friendship because, to be perfectly honest, it's been a bit uneven."

The people who vote for us do so because they think that we can have an effect. It would be nice if they voted for us because of the size of our hips or the kind of accent that we have, but they do not. They vote for us because we put before them a programme with which they identify, and they expect us to keep to it and to demonstrate that any law passed in this House is workable, is responsible, is not unfair and is properly drafted. When we understand that and we prove to the people of the United Kingdom that that is really what we are doing, we will not lack support for our political institutions and we will not have difficulty finding people who want to listen to what we say.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) says that Select Committees do not get any publicity if they sit in the afternoon, so they cannot do so. I have to tell him that I chair a Select Committee that has managed to

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get quite a lot of coverage, and it meets at half-past 4 in the afternoon. It gets publicity because we talk to people about matters that they want to know about, and we put those matters into the public domain.

I came here to create laws, not to create a nice little timetable that would enable me to try to find a hairdresser after seven o'clock at night. I came here to influence political views. If we are really serious, my Government, of all Governments, should be saying to Labour Back Benchers that in future they will give every one of us much more power to question Ministers and to insist on statements—the things that are not in these proposals. If the Government were serious about that, every Labour Member would be in the Lobby behind them.

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