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Many issues are brought up by Members who want a debate rather than necessarily to get the law changed. They need time for the debates and on occasion the debates are embarrassing for those who sit on the Front
Benches of the political parties. I dare say that the Lisbon Treaty (Referendum) Bill will certainly be embarrassing for the Government-
Irrespective of the issue, we could consider in such a way all 20 Bills that have been proposed. The Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill sounds like a pretty important Bill and is listed as the first to be discussed on 26 February. Why not debate that Bill this Friday? Why not allow the time for the arguments to be heard and, if it is the will of the House, for it to get its Second Reading, to go to Committee and to come back to the House for Third Reading? I just do not understand why the Government have taken this view-
Barbara Keeley: I think that the hon. Gentleman is challenging the principle of having some non-sitting Fridays. On this side of the House, we believe that Members need time to discharge their duties in their constituencies as well as in this House. The system of non-sitting Fridays was introduced, I understand, on the recommendation of the former Conservative Chief Whip, Lord Jopling, and has been widely welcomed since its introduction by Members in all parties as they have that time to discharge duties in their constituencies. Given the difficulties that have gripped our constituencies -certainly mine-over the last couple of days due to the extreme weather, it is pretty important that Members should have the chance to get back there.
Mr. Bone: Fridays are important for constituency work, but I do constituency work every day of the week. We are talking about 13 Fridays a Session, and, basically, only the mornings of those days. I do not think that the hon. Lady's argument washes. She failed to say that on a Friday it is only Members who are interested in a particular Bill who turn up, and not the whole House. If the hon. Lady can guarantee that the whole House will turn up on the eight days that she has suggested, so it would be her motion that would give them the other Fridays off, I might be inclined to think again about the motion. Of course, that is not at all what the motion is about. The motion is about restricting the voice of this House.
The hon. Lady's helpful intervention leads me to "Rebuilding the House", the first report of the 2008-09 Session by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons. It talks about the timing of private Members' Bills and states:
"The House should be responsible for ensuring that merely procedural devices cannot obstruct Private Members' Bills, and that they are brought to a decision."
The shadow Leader of the House also argued that there is a problem with Fridays. "Rebuilding the House" suggests in paragraph 193 that Wednesday evenings
could be used for private Members' Bills. I have not sought to go that far, but it would overcome entirely the hon. Lady's objection that too many Fridays will be used up. If I could have a guarantee from the shadow Leader of the House before the end of the debate that instead of using the Fridays that are free, they will put the extra five days' business on Wednesdays, I would more than happily withdraw my amendment and accept the shadow Leader of the House's words-
Mr. Bone: I apologise. Because of her ability, I just assumed that she was Leader. As Deputy Leader of the House, she might want to take some advice before responding. I hope that at some stage we will hear the Government's view on the motion. To say that they have been silent is not quite correct, but "I beg to move" is hardly a good enough argument for a motion that has been on the Order Paper since 23 November and has been objected to by Members of the House on every single evening since.
"Private Members' Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 8, 15, 22 and 29 January; 5 and 26 February"-
"5, 12, 19 and 26 March"
and I have not suggested another private Members' Bills day until 23 April. Although I do not know the dates for the Easter recess, I know when Easter is so I have allowed for those Fridays, too. I think the hon. Lady was being slightly harsh on me in suggesting that I had picked on every Friday.
I have not heard the argument, but perhaps it will be made at some stage, that there is not enough time for Bills to be printed and prepared for a debate on 8 January-this Friday. However, we already know that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome could get his Bill then and he could probably have a whole sitting on it, so it is possible. The reason that the Bills have not been printed is that the Government failed under Standing Order No. 14 to provide the dates that they said they would provide and which they are required to do by Standing Orders.
I take what might be an old-fashioned view that Standing Orders exist to protect Parliament-I am sure that is correct-and particularly to protect Back-Bench Members of Parliament and Opposition Members of Parliament against the power of the Executive. Year after year we have seen the Government-the Executive-take more and more power, no matter which party has been in control. This year is a turning point. Parliament has been brought into disrepute by what happened last year. People are demanding that Parliament assert itself and become more independent of the Executive. It is
amazing that in a year when people are saying that, the Government propose to cut the time for Back-Bench debate.
The Government would lose nothing by providing those extra Fridays. All it would mean is that a Minister would have to turn up on a Friday five more times than is suggested by the Government. Although this is a small piece of the overall reform of Parliament, it is exceptionally important that the Government realise that cutting off difficult debate is not in their interest. They have made that mistake time and again since I have been in Parliament. By reducing the amount of time allowed through programme motions, debate has not carried on and parts of Bills have not even been scrutinised. That is a failure of the Government. The more an item is debated, the more the Government can put their point of view.
Barbara Keeley: I come back to the question that I have already put to the hon. Gentleman. Are members of his Front-Bench team in agreement with the points that he is making? He keeps speaking about cutting off debate and denying Back-Bench Members the chance for debate, but we have allocated private Members' Bill days pro rata in a short Session, exactly as was done in 1996-97 and 1991-92, under a Conservative Administration. If he chooses to condemn an Administration for that, I invite him to condemn earlier ones too, and to tell the House whether members of his Front-Bench team agree with what he is doing today.
Mr. Bone: If I stood up and said that my Front-Bench team agreed with me and that I had the approval of the Whips Office, with my reputation no one would believe me. It would be wholly wrong. I have no idea what members of my Front-Bench team will say on the matter. I hope my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire will have an opportunity to speak. He has made it clear in the House that he was amazed and dismayed at the failure of the Government to bring the motion before the House before Christmas so that we could have a debate.
In answer to the hon. Lady, I refer to Standing Orders. I have the 2009 edition, which has not changed in relation to Standing Order No. 14. It says that the House must allocate 13 days in each Session for private Members' Bills on Fridays. I shall read Standing Order No. 14(4), which in my booklet is on page 16. It states:
"Private Members' bills shall have precedence over government business on thirteen Fridays in each session to be appointed by the House."
That Standing Order could go on and say, as the Deputy Leader of the House would like it to say, that that should be pro rata if there is to be a general election in that Session. Standing Orders do not say that. If the Government wanted to change Standing Orders to say that, they would have to provide that in the following Session, which would be a longer Session, more than 13 Fridays would be allowed. But that is not what the Standing Order says. Why not? It is because of the ballot. I have put in for the ballot every year since I entered the House and come nowhere near the top 20.
If one is in that top 20, one expects to have an opportunity to get one's voice heard. That is what the Standing Orders are about, and that is what the Government just do not get.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): I apologise to my hon. Friend and to the House for having been at a Transport Committee sitting, but I have watched the annunciator screen with some admiration, thinking of the pearls of wisdom that my hon. Friend will have been delivering while I have not been in the Chamber. He rightly said that Standing Orders say that there shall be 13 sitting Fridays-not that if the Session is longer, there should be more than 13. They say exactly 13. I have been a Member for 20-plus years and have, therefore, sat through long Sessions and short Sessions. On every occasion that I have ever known a Session to go beyond its length of time, there never have been more than 13 such sittings. Not only do the Standing Orders not say that there must be more, there have not been any more. Is my hon. Friend aware of any occasion when there have been more than 13? That is the most powerful part of the argument: if it has to be 13, it has to be 13.
Mr. Bone: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, and that is exactly the point. Standing Orders are absolutely clear: 13 Fridays are set aside for private Members' business in each Session. They do not talk about reducing the number in a short Session or extending the number in a long Session. We cannot extend the number of Fridays for private Members' business unless we suspend Standing Orders, and I return to my original argument that Standing Orders exist to protect this Parliament and this House against the power of the Executive. I have yet to hear from the Deputy Leader of the House why the surplus Fridays that we are not using before a general election can be held cannot be used. She has been keen to pop up and down to intervene, but she has never answered that question.
I have said that our having had to wait until today to debate this motion is ridiculous, and that private Members have presented their Bills without knowing the date of their Second Reading. The elephant in the House, however, is that we know that there will be a general election, although not when that general election will be called.
If Standing Orders say that 13 Fridays should be set aside, it is surely logical, in a year when there will be a general election, to take the first Friday available and run things on from there. That would give more Members the chance of a Second Reading at which their Bills might be debated, and it would give their Bills more chance of going into and coming out of Committee. The hon. Lady keeps referring to previous Executives, saying, "They cut the number of sittings down," but if we look at the statistics we find that many more Bills got through: 49 in the final Parliament of the Conservative Government, against eight under this control-freak Executive.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con):
I apologise to my hon. Friend for not having been present at the beginning of his contribution; I was at a sitting of the Procedure Committee. I have the privilege of being a
co-signatory to his amendment, however, and not having listened to the whole debate, I wondered whether he would be minded to put his proposed change to the vote. If he were so minded, I would be very supportive of it.
Mr. Bone: I am certainly not going to go over what I have said, because that would be to unfair on other hon. Members who want to speak. However, the issue is very simple: my amendment would restore the 13 Fridays. The trouble is that Standing Orders provide us with a problem, because they say that the House must bring forward 13 days. However, one cannot bring anything forward in this House; the Executive do so.
It may be that in future the reforms proposed in "Rebuilding the House" bring about a House business committee, and I sincerely hope that there will be such a committee and that this problem will never happen again. We have had to wait until today, however, and I think it was only the fact that the Government eventually realised that somebody would turn up at the end of every day's business to object that forced them to have a debate. If Standing Orders are to be changed or suspended on a matter so important as restricting the amount of time for private Members' Bills, we must have a little debate on it. We cannot just allow that to get through on the nod.
Here lies the failure of this Executive. This would never have happened under a different Executive. It would probably not have happened even with a different Prime Minister of the same party. It seems to me that we are making a grave mistake if we allow this motion to go through today.
In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), I do seek to put my amendment to the vote. Before closing, I just want to make it clear again to all hon. Members that supporting my amendment will comply with the Standing Orders and restore 13 Fridays for private Members' Bills, while in no way affecting Members who have already selected the days for their Second Reading, as all the days that they have selected are covered by my amendment. The amendment would add and free up five more days for ordinary Members to have a chance to instigate legislation and either hear the arguments debated or get the matter raised and eventually introduced into law.
I am very pleased to hear that my hon. Friend wants to put the matter to a vote. In reply to an intervention by the Minister, he quite properly said that he was a Back Bencher and did not wish to best-guess what any Front Benchers might think. If I understand it correctly, however, all three main parties have said that they hope to see more power for Parliament and more power and responsibility for Back Benchers in future. It is quite safe to say that all the parties' Front Benchers also think that. By putting his amendment to the vote, is not my hon. Friend offering the House an opportunity for Back Benchers to indicate that they support the view of their Front Benchers? In voting for the amendment, one is voting for more power for Back Benchers to have
the time to which they are entitled. The vote is crucial; it provides a chance to see who agrees with their own Front-Bench team.
Mr. Bone: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, in which he makes a valid point. All the Front-Bench teams signed up to "Rebuilding the House", the Wright report, and it was the Government who drew up a motion for that report to come into being. What they have unfortunately not done is debate the report. That again is an amazing situation. A vote would be a little test, would it not, for the House today. I am sure that all parties are going to allow a free vote; I cannot believe that any party political matter is attached to the vote. It seems quite reasonable for MPs to say that they are going to restore the power of Parliament in a small way by having the voice of Back Benchers heard. As I said, the House needs to be aware of that point in considering my amendment.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): One of the problems we currently have with Fridays is the abysmal attendance. I am not quite sure how I am going to vote on my hon. Friend's amendment, but his answer to this question may well be the deciding factor. If his amendment is accepted, will he give an undertaking that he will be here personally on each of the Fridays listed in it?
I thought that my right hon. Friend might be about to mention the suggestion in the "Rebuilding the House" report that we should have sittings to discuss private Members' Bills on Wednesdays. I have already said that I would not press my amendment to a vote if the Deputy Leader of the House, who has now had time to consider that offer, were to suggest that we should keep the Fridays listed in the Government motion and add five Wednesdays, which would bring more people to the debates. I would be more than happy not to press my amendment to a vote in those circumstances, and I wonder whether she would like to intervene to give me her view on that. So far, the Government have said only, "I beg to move".
Mr. Chope: Again, I apologise for not having been here at the beginning of the debate. Has my hon. Friend received any indication from the Government on whether, in the most unlikely event of their being re-elected in the general election, they would be minded to allow more than 13 Fridays for private Members' Bills in what would be the long first Session of that new Parliament?
Mr. Bone: My hon. Friend raises an issue that I touched on earlier, although in a slightly different way, when I said that Standing Orders do not allow for more than 13 such sittings per Session. The next Session will, however, be much longer than usual. If the general election is in June, the next Session could run until the November of next year. In a Session lasting a normal calendar year, one would have 13 such sittings, but one would expect more in a longer Session. I know, however, that Standing Orders would not permit that. It would therefore be necessary to table another Government motion to extend the number of sittings for private Members' Bills in the next Session to-
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