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I would certainly consider withdrawing my amendment if the Deputy Leader of the House were to pop up and say that the Government would table another motion on the timing of private Members' Bills, so that there could be 18 such sittings in the next Session. Again, however, there is a deathly silence-
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman is repeating himself. He has done so twice while I have been in the Chair, and, on his own admission, he has also repeated something that he said earlier. We are not like a cinema in continuous performance for the benefit of people arriving late. I suggest that he speak strictly to the terms of his amendment, which he has now done for some considerable time.
Mr. Greg Knight: Will my hon. Friend confirm what he was saying earlier about his willingness to withdraw his amendment if the Government responded positively? He mentioned taking private Members' Bills on a Wednesday. I assume that he means that those debates would take place after the moment of interruption on a Wednesday, and not as part of the main business-
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) will not be distracted by the distinguished Chairman of the Procedure Committee on matters of that kind. We are not talking about Wednesdays in this amendment; we are talking about Fridays.
Mr. Bone: I want to be very clear that my amendment does not seek to change the precedent of discussing private Members' Bills on Fridays. I have deliberately not gone down that route, because it would involve a change to Standing Orders. My amendment simply seeks to make the House do what it says that it should do, which is to have 13 sittings for private Members' Bills. I have a problem, however, in that we have not heard the Government's arguments at all. The only words we have heard from them are, "I beg to move", and a few interventions. I am therefore trying to anticipate what they might have said in putting forward an alternative argument.
Mr. Wilshire: I am mindful of what you said about Wednesdays, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which is quite right, but can my hon. Friend tell us why he chose the Fridays in his amendment? What is the significance of those particular Fridays?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman, by his own admission, was unable to be here for a large part of the debate. Those points have been covered, and I shall have to invoke Standing Orders on repetition against the hon. Member for Wellingborough if he is tempted down that line.
My amendment does not break Standing Orders in any way. The Government could have chosen the Fridays that I have chosen. None of them will be in a recess, including the anticipated Easter recess. Between each, enough days are provided for the presentation and publication of Bills, and there are enough days for the House to consider them. That is why 18 January could and should have been used.
Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not being in the Chamber earlier in the debate. Constituency work kept me away, as I sat here throughout yesterday.
In his commentaries on the amendment, has the hon. Gentleman been able to point out the comparison between this House and the US Congress? Congressmen make a very great merit with their constituents of legislation that they have personally got on to the statute book. Does not that emphasise the importance of the amendment, and of maximising the number of days available in the remainder of the time of this Parliament?
Mr. Bone: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his point and that is on the record, but I do not want to be drawn into making comparisons with the US Senate. Clearly, the US Executive are outside Congress and the Executive here are in the House.
It is very good news that the Government Chief Whip has turned up to listen to and encourage debate in the House on more time for parliamentary business. I am really pleased to see him here and I hope he has an opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a little later.
Other hon. Members may wish to speak in the debate, and I shall take this opportunity to conclude my remarks. By supporting my amendment, the House would not demur from anything in the Government motion and it would not affect any Member who has already selected a day.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): The motion in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House provides for private Members' Bills to be considered on eight Fridays, rather than the 13 provided for in Standing Order No. 14(4), and appoints the days.
As I indicated earlier, we are, for the first time since 1997, in the fifth Session of a Parliament. That is key in the context of the motion. We know that the current Session must end no later than 10 May this year. That means that there could be a maximum of only 82 sitting days, including the eight Fridays proposed in the motion, which compares with an average of 158 sitting days per Session since 2001. The motion therefore reduces the number of sitting Fridays pro rata to match the length of the Session. As I have indicated a number of times in interventions, in 1991-92 and 1996-97, motions with a similar effect were proposed by the then Conservative Administrations and agreed by the House.
The remaining provisions of the motion are consequential on the change in the number of days. They bring forward from the eighth to the fifth Friday the earliest
date on which a Bill may be referred to a Second Reading Committee, and the date on which Bills start to take precedence according to how much progress they have made rather than simply according to the order in which they were introduced.
The motion is not about restricting Members in any way. The Leader of the House tabled a motion, which announces dates pro rata to the length of the Session. The opposition of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) has so far prevented the dates from being set. We are considering a routine House motion, which is necessary to adapt the House's private Member's Bill procedures to the shorter fifth Session.
The motion will allow the private Members' Bill process to continue in an orderly and predictable manner for hon. Members who have been fortunate enough in the ballot to make progress with their measures. I commend it to the House.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I am glad that the Government have finally allowed us to debate this matter-the motion and the amendment have been on the Order Paper since 23 November. I have raised the failure to resolve the matter in business questions, as have other hon. Members. Until today, there has been no certainty about the dates for discussing private Members' Bills. Again, the Government seemed to expect that they could assume Members' support when they timetabled House business. When opposition was expressed in the form of an amendment, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) tabled, the Government assumed that they could get the motion through on the nod at the end of the day's business rather than allowing proper discussion, which we are now having. That is not right and it has been raised in the report, which my hon. Friend mentioned, about allowing the House more control over its business. Under the Wright scenario, I suspect that we would not have had the problems that my hon. Friend described.
However, that is a debate for another day, together with whether we move private Members' Bills from Fridays to Wednesdays. I commend my hon. Friend's defence of private Members' Bills, which was made with no self-interest because I am afraid that he was not successful in the ballot. It is important that the House jealously protects private Members' time. I say that as someone who was successful in the ballot in 1997, when my main problem was not time, but Eric Forth. Getting the Bill round him was the major task, and, indeed, we did that.
Of course, I sympathise with my hon. Friend's desire to maximise the number of days for private Members' Bills. However, the Government's proposal to act pro rata and move to a lower number to reflect the shorter Session is right. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, it is in line with previous practice.
My hon. Friend made several compelling points, some more compelling than others. However, one of his more compelling points was that in a shorter Session, the number of days decreases, but in a longer Session, the number does not increase. The House may want to revert to that in the context of the Wright debate and allocating the future business of the House.
Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Can he, on behalf of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, say that if a Conservative Government were elected later this year, they would take account of the extra length of the Session and allow more private Members' Fridays?
Sir George Young: The short answer is no and the longer answer is probably also no, because the House has yet to debate the Wright report, whether we should have a business committee and how time should be allocated in future. I approach that with an open mind. I served on the Wright Committee and I have much sympathy with it, but I cannot today commit any future Administration to an increase in the pro rata number from 13 to 18 or a higher number, which my hon. Friend ingeniously tries to tempt me to do.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) had no personal interest in the matter. However, I have enormous personal interest, having been successful in the ballot, albeit in a lowly position this year-not that one's position in the ballot makes much difference to making progress with private Members' legislation, because some Government Whip need only shout "Object" for a measure to fall, as I found out in the previous Session. Nevertheless, were the amendment accepted, it would allow time to enable my important School Transport Bill, which would provide for a yellow bus system in this country-greatly to the advantage of children throughout the country and, indeed, the environment-to progress, or at least be debated.
However, the difficulty is typified by the debate. The Executive, not the House, prioritise the House's time for debate. The Executive decide what will happen and put that before the House, and only the Executive are allowed to do so. Answering on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, the right hon. Gentleman says he is unable to commit his party to taking a different position if it were to form the Executive in future, so the Executive would still have control of the business of the House. Back Benchers of all parties do not have as much control of the House's business as I think they should have.
All of that would be corrected if we could make progress on the proposals in the Wright Committee report. I do not intend to debate them today, because they are not the substance of the issue before us, but making progress on that would have the following two results: first, we would never in future have before us another such motion in the name of a Minister; secondly, we would no longer have rationing of days by the Executive. Instead, that would be determined by a committee of the House. It would consider the rationale of all of this and whether it is appropriate to make the abatement which is the substance of the motion, and we would have the option to consider whether Wednesdays are a better day than Fridays for the consideration of private Members' business.
So much is wrong with the current procedures for private Members' business. So many obstacles are put in the way of making rational progress on what may be very commendable Bills, and it appears to me that the will of the House is the last thing to be considered in respect of both the time made available for Bills and whether a Bill goes ahead. It is too simple to scupper something from a sedentary position, rather than debating matters and allowing the House to determine the result.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have to say to the hon. Member that although he said he did not wish to have a wider debate, he seems now to be indulging in just that. He must come back to the amendment before the House today.
Mr. Heath: The amendment and the motion, I think, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course, the motion sets out the Fridays on which private Member's Bills can be considered, and I was considering the procedure that would be applied on those Fridays were the House to agree to them. My contention is simply that the procedure is in desperate need of reform. That is one of the key reforms put forward in the proposals, but it is typical of this Government that we have these proposals and they never get debated. Week after week, we ask at business questions for them to be debated.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not being deliberately difficult, but he is now talking about the wider issue. He is perfectly correct to say that we are talking about the Fridays listed in the motion and the alternative Fridays in the amendment, but we should not be talking about the wider issues that may come out of the investigations of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee.
Mr. Heath: I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being inadvertently obtuse by not responding more promptly to your very clear instruction. I was attempting to say that such behaviour is typical of the Government in respect of the motion before us, as it has some of the key features: it is a motion, take it or leave it, and it has not been debated by the House until now. We have asked week after week for it to be debated. On each and every occasion that it has been listed for debate, the hon. Member for Wellingborough or one of his hon. Friends has shouted "Object", and therefore it has not been debated. Had the Government wished to do so, they could have brought forward this debate at any stage in the last few weeks. It would have been in order for them to have done so. It would have been proper for them to have done so before the First Reading of private Members' Bills shortly before Christmas, but they did not do so. That is one reason why the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
When I was asked for the date of the Second Reading of my own private Member's Bill, I said, "Tomorrow," rather than name a specific date, none of which we knew at that stage because the House had not agreed to the timetable that is the substance of the Deputy Leader of the House's proposal. Because the House had not agreed that, I did not feel that I could assume either that the House would agree to the motion or that the hon. Gentleman's amendment would not be agreed to. I found
myself in some difficulty, therefore, which is why I said, "Tomorrow," when asked about the date for the Second Reading of my Bill.
Mr. Heath: At the risk of repeating myself and incurring the wrath of Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is the School Transport Bill, which in my opinion is a very important Bill, because it deals with matters affecting every schoolchild in this country, road-user safety and the inappropriate use of many vehicles on the morning school run. I am keen, therefore, that the Bill be given an opportunity, on one of these Fridays, to be debated, but I honestly do not believe that it will be if the motion is passed. But that is my misfortune. I should have arranged to be drawn No. 1 in the ballot, rather than No. 19. That way I would at least have ensured a Second Reading. However, it does not alter my view that private Members' business is important, that we should find proper opportunities to debate it and that we need to reform procedures of the House so that we do not get motions of the sort presented by the hon. Lady today.
I agree with an interesting point that the hon. Member for Wellingborough made. I do not think that Standing Orders currently provide for the procedure that appears to be accepted by everyone and which has been used previously. I do not think that the change proposed by the hon. Lady is provided for. Now, perhaps it should be. Perhaps there should be a provision in Standing Orders relating the number of days devoted to private Members' business to the length of the Session. That would be perfectly logical and is probably a view shared by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. There is logic in saying that there should be more days for a long Session and fewer for a short Session, and I do not think that any of us would disagree with that. However, if that is the intention, the House should decide and Standing Orders should provide for it, not for what on the face of it is the absolute opposite, which is an absolute number of days to be provided by the House-not Ministers-for the consideration of private Members' legislation.
I am glad that we have finally had an opportunity to debate this matter. I have no idea why it had to be delayed for so long, other than the normal cloth-eared intransigence of the Conservative Front Bench- [Interruption.] I mean the Government Front Bench. I am sure that the Conservatives will be just as cloth-eared and intransigent when, and if, they ever form a Government, but we shall see-let us give them the benefit of the doubt, for the moment. However, we should have debated the matter earlier, and I certainly shall advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to make their own decisions on whether to support the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Wellingborough, because this is a House matter, not one to be determined by Front Benchers of whatever complexion.
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