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29 Oct 2002 : Column 779—continued

Caroline Flint: If we end Thursday sittings at 6 o'clock, without making other changes, we shall be reducing the hours for debate in this place.

Mr. McCabe: In order to allay my hon. Friend's anxiety, I am happy to find another hour somewhere else in the week to stick back on.

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We are coupling together two things that do not need to go together, because we know fine well that the proposal about the hours is contentious. We are creating a false linkage. I hope that hon. Members will support the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). We should deal with the issues that people want to tackle; if we do not want to deal with something, we should not be railroaded into it.

Many Members have talked about the 10-minute limit on speeches. I have no problem with the proposal that we should make short speeches, but recently we have noticed that such limits have tended to reduce Members' willingness to take interventions. The worst example was during the recall debate on Iraq. All over the place, people were demanding the recall of Parliament, but instead of a debate full of interventions we heard a succession of 10-minute statements that had been written on the previous night before the document was released in the morning. They added very little to the debate.

If we add some injury time, but for only two interventions, we are saying that debates must be limited to formatted 10-minute speeches with two interventions. That will not enrich the parliamentary process; it will do nothing for us when we are dealing with real matters where there is a difference of opinion and we need to try to influence each other and persuade each other of our views. It will turn us into a succession of robots, with two little gaps in our speeches.

Mr. Love: The other thing that characterised the Iraq debate was the fact that a large number of Members never got to say anything at all. There is tension, but the proposals would offer a reasonable compromise to ensure that we have the type of debate that my hon. Friend wants, with contributions from as many Members as possible.

Mr. McCabe: I am not disputing the proposal that we should make shorter speeches. In general, I support it. My point is that to entrench two interventions per speech will not necessarily assist reasoned debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and several other Members said that we must do everything in our power to avoid time wasting in Parliament. However, if I was in opposition, one of the few weapons at my disposal would be the opportunity to frustrate the Government, and that might involve a certain element of time wasting. Although I hope that my hon. Friend is right and that it will be 20 or 30 years before we are in opposition, I am not sure that I want to put myself in the position where almost no powers would be available for an Opposition to frustrate a Government that is hell-bent on doing things that I disapprove of.

Such ideas are attractive when we have a huge majority, but the time will come when that will not be the case for members of my party. If I disagree with a Government, I want to be able to frustrate them.

9.14 pm

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): It is extraordinary that this modest package of reforms should be the subject of debate rather than consensus. That it should provoke such passion and that we should take such pains over it is not to our credit.

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It will bewilder the public. It shows how detached we are from the daily realities that they experience. After all—I have heard very little reference to this—this is their place. This is their Parliament, not ours. We are here under licence to represent their interests, to give them a voice and to ensure that the laws that we pass on their behalf are good laws. We are not here, although many Members—some on the Labour Benches but many on the Opposition Benches—believe that we are, for our own convenience, our own comfort, our own aggrandisement or, in some cases, our own profit.

The key question in my mind is: do our current arrangements here help us to discharge our duties to our constituents as efficiently and effectively as possible? In my view, the answer is no. I have heard hon. Friends cavil at the idea that we should make this place an efficient place in which to do business. I find that extraordinary. We demand of our constituents, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) said a few minutes ago, that they should modernise their working practices, whether it be in the public services or in the private sector, and yet we resist that imprecation ourselves.

I believe that the Modernisation Committee's recommendations are sensible and constructive. They do not go far enough, and they should be seen to be the beginning of a process, not the end of it, and they should address the causes as well as the symptoms of Parliament's problems. The measures proposed are eminently reasonable. Who would not support the carry-over motions, which increase the scope for scrutiny and the improvement of legislation, except those who wish to wreck the programme on which a Government have been elected?

I am all for scrutiny, I am all for criticism, I am all for amendment, I am all for improvement of legislation. That is the proper task of Parliament; it is not to frustrate the Government who are elected to promote their programme, not to wreck that legislation. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has been naked in his advice to his quiet man, the Leader of the Opposition, to the effect that the role of the Opposition is to wreck rather than oppose or improve. I think that we shall have to differ on what the role of the Opposition should be.

Who would oppose time limits, other than those who are always guaranteed to speak, not because of the quality of the contributions that they make to debate but because of a combination of good health, a fat majority and long service in this place? My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) was quite right about the hierarchy that operates in this place. There is a two-tier membership of the House of Commons, as is too often revealed in the major set-piece debates. Many hon. Members have mentioned the debates on Iraq on 24 September. That was a classic example of the two-tier membership of the House of Commons, in which MPs from more recent intakes—1997 and 2001 in particular—are rendered second-class Members in the House of Commons, and by the same token their constituents are deprived of an equal right to

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representation in the House of Commons. That should end. It is not a subject of the proposals tonight, but I hope that those who do take these decisions—

Ian Lucas: Why not?

Peter Bradley: I believe that it is a matter for the Speaker and I am sure that he has heard the strong views of many Members on both sides of the Chamber on this issue.

Much has been said about the length of speeches. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) railed that 10 or 12 minutes was not enough to allow him to make the points that he wanted to make. I believe that I could have condensed what he said into about 37 seconds—[Interruption.] I will be generous; perhaps 38.

However, I take issue with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). He says that he is sent here to represent his constituents and that he has a right and a duty to them to speak for as long as he needs to speak in this place. I have to tell him that I was sent here by my constituents; every Member of the House was sent here by his or her constituents and every one of them should have an equal right to express their views and represent those of their constituents. The longer my right hon. Friend or I speak, the fewer of our colleagues can contribute to the debate, and it seems to me that the greater the number of voices that are heard in a debate, whether they agree with one another or not, the better the quality of that debate is likely to be and the better the representation that we give to the people who send us here.

Who could oppose better facilities for the public, whose Parliament this is? It is a shame and an embarrassment, if not a scandal, that when people visit Parliament—whether they are tourists or people with an interest in how our democracy works—we make them stand outside in the rain. This is their Parliament, but we stand them outside in all weathers. If they are fortunate enough to enter the building, we deny them the right to have a cup of tea, which is probably just as well because we also deny them the right to relieve themselves when nature calls. That is a contemptuous way in which to express our democracy and to deal with our constituents.

As for hours, I can see no problem with rearranging the hours in which we do business in the House. I have heard no hon. Member suggest that he or she wants to go home at 7 o'clock. No one has said, XI want to bunk off at 7", although I have to say that, like other human beings, I would like occasionally to walk over the bridge to the Royal Festival hall or to go to the theatre. That is the real life that Opposition Members talk about when they seek to defend the fat cheques that they get from their consultancies. I would like to do what my constituents do just once in a while, and it would be just once in a while because I have plenty to keep me busy and happy in my office and around the precincts of Westminster.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), who said that, after 7 pm, a thousand blossoms can bloom in the House. Why should we not have debates—those that we rarely have—about Select Committee reports? Why not invite other people into the Chamber to debate with us after

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7 o'clock? They do not have to be elected Members of the House of Commons. For that matter, why should we not be able to leave the precincts of Westminster and discover that we can have debates and political discourse, and enlighten ourselves, and perhaps other people, outside the village of Westminster? Would not that be a valuable contribution to a revitalised democracy in Westminster?

The argument today has been between those who recognise that they are paid as professional politicians—I make no apology for the fact that I am a professional politician, and I am very well paid for it in my view—and want to do a professional job, as they should, and those who are paid for full-time jobs, but want to work part time. The argument is between those who believe in public service and those who, frankly, believe in self-service.

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