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Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con):
The point that has just been made is extremely important. It is richly ironic that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was parading in front of us today expressing concern that there is a guillotine on House business. This was, of course, a long-echoed and genuine call made by many Conservative Members in the previous Parliament, and one that I have made in respect of not only House business, but all business for 25 years. So
consistency is certainly not behind the hon. Gentleman, but he did make some fine points. I feel strongly that the way of these guillotine motions, which I had hoped would not be in the locker of the coalition in this way, on House business, is wrong. One of the constant irritations in having so many motions grouped together in this way and then having a vote at the end is it results in our having a general debate that has no coherency in the thread of what we are debating. This is a poor business motion because as each of the motions comes to be voted on after 9.30 pm we will have lost where we stood in the arguments-this is a muddle. A typical trick of past judgments was to muddle all this up, so that no theme and no argument is consistent, necessarily, with the business as we vote upon it.
Barbara Keeley: That is part of the point that I was making. A discourtesy was shown to the Opposition because the motion was not shared with us. I would have expected our main debate to be segmented. In the past, if we were considering several House business motions, we would have given an hour on one, and perhaps taken two motions for an hour and half-[Hon. Members: "No."] That is the case; I remember it happening. If there had been any discussions with us, we could have suggested such an approach.
Mr Shepherd: Of course the hon. Lady could have held discussions. I know that those on the Government Front Bench are open to discussions, and if the hon. Lady had thought that her point was genuine-I accept that it must be, given that it is the point that I am arguing-she could no doubt have spoken to them. She represents a significant party in this country.
Mr Kevan Jones: I would not refer to the hon. Gentleman as a constant irritant; his approach on such matters is obviously consistent. However, if the motion is pressed to a Division, will he vote against it? Will he also consistently speak against programming, as he has done since I have been a Member?
Mr Shepherd: I will vote as I have always voted on these matters. However, given the temper of new Labour's opposition, as on identity cards, I rather suspect that there will not be a vote, but I am prepared to toss a coin and do my duty.
The Deputy Leader of the House has made all the arguments that I am setting out on previous occasions, so I am surprised that he has acceded to the motion. I am making an important point about the segmentation of debate. The approach proposed in the motion causes confusion. Many Members with a terrific interest in a particular motion that we will consider will be drifting around. The approach makes it easy for people to desert the Chamber to go off across London, and to return only at 9.30 pm to become part of the machine that will roll the proposals through.
The hon. Member for North Durham has a point in that we rarely discuss such matters and the House has a record of constantly using the power of a majority to get this sort of proposal through. He made the good point that about a third of hon. Members-certainly more than 100-are new Members who have never been
party to such discussions. The changes that we will consider are important. I support almost all of them, although my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) made a point that must be addressed. If our debate was segmented, his well-made point would command our attention and we would see how wrong it is to exclude properly elected Members of Parliament for distinctive parts of the United Kingdom from having representation on Committees that are of importance to the House, and whose importance is intended to be reinforced by the very measures that we will consider.
Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) did the House a great service by raising his points, although I am not sure whether he intended to. He set out one of the strongest arguments that I have heard for a Back-Bench business committee. We on the Back Benches-he now joins us there-should elect our own people to decide how our time is carved up. The argument about segmentation made by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) is right, but if we had a Back-Bench business committee, we would be able to discuss such considerations sensibly. It is always the Government who impose such rigidity on us, and that is why we are talking about creating that committee.
Mr Jones: That might be the case, but several hon. Members will remember that when my hon. Friend was a Whip, he took quite a hard line on such issues. Given the limited time that is being allocated to the main debate, does he agree that there is a danger that some of the motions will not even be debated?
Mr Allen: It is very unfair of my hon. Friend to raise my history. I am a recovering Whip; I am taking one day at a time. I think that I am doing pretty well so far, and with his encouragement, I will continue to try to do so.
The important and serious point raised by this exchange is one that every Member in this House must confront: there is a limit on time in this House and this Chamber. How do we dispose of that time effectively? We can guillotine. That is a pejorative term for a stop on debate, regardless of what has been debated, and what important issues have not been debated at all.
Programming was introduced in 1997; I was instrumental in that, so perhaps I was not quite as barbaric a Whip as my hon. Friend tried to paint me. We tried to introduce a system whereby we had agreement across the Floor, and with the minority parties, on how we would divide
business, so that it could be sensibly debated, and so that no serious issue was ever left undebated. Unfortunately, that fell apart-this may be a useful history lesson for the newer Members-when a number of Opposition Members wanted to extend and play around with the rules of the House. A number of senior Government Members said, "Okay, we're not going to play. We're just going back to the old system of imposing a timetable."
I hope that we will have a sensible debate on timetabling, and if the Government will not allow us to have one, I hope that the Back-Bench business committee will create one at the very first opportunity. It is outrageous that while vast amounts of time are expended on clause 1, line 1, we never reach serious issues in the midst of Report stage. Those are really important matters. In a sense, that is the elephant in the room, and the issue that we need to confront. I hope that, some day soon-at an early day, perhaps, if early-day motions are tidied up-we can have a debate on how we ensure effective timetabling. If the Government do not ensure that, the Back-Bench business committee probably will. I hope that it will. In order to do that, we need to make progress this evening. We have to ensure that the business of the House motion is put to the vote speedily and move on, so that we can get that long-awaited Back-Bench business committee, which was voted for by the House unanimously before the general election.
I served on the Wright Committee with a completely open mind, and I hope that I did an honest job of work. The point was to try to ensure that everybody in the Chamber was properly represented on Committees. I have been a member of one or two Select Committees, and I am a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee. We Plaid Cymru Members are prepared to pull our weight as parliamentarians, but I was alarmed to discover late last night that the likelihood is that if the motion on Select Committee membership is passed unamended, we shall find ourselves not represented on the Welsh Affairs Committee. It is not just that that is offensive; it is more important than that.
The Welsh Affairs Committee plays a central, pivotal role in the legislative process in Wales, because it carries out pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills from the National Assembly for Wales. We are in government in Wales. Are the Government saying that we, as members of a governing party, cannot be represented on the Committee performing that important function? I understand that my friends in the Scottish National party will be excluded in a similar way. It is quite outrageous if that is to happen.
Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene and clarify matters? [Interruption.] I shall speak to my colleagues. If motion 13 is not to be moved, I shall move on to the issue of the Back-Bench business committee. When I was on the Wright Committee, I made the point several times that the minority parties must be represented on the Back-Bench business committee as well, because
we play a full part in what goes on in this place. I am in my 19th year here, and if I did not pull my weight, I would not still be here.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I know the hon. Gentleman is making an important point, but it is not one that should be made in the debate on the motion before the House, which is a programme motion. Will he please confine himself to the motion before us?
Mr Llwyd: We should have more time to discuss all these issues. One of the evils that we are now confronting is the fact that there has been no discussion. Chairs of Select Committees are not being brought into the discussion, and least of all are the minority parties. I speak for my colleagues and friends in the Scottish National party and, I believe, the Democratic Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party as well.
Mr Kevan Jones: My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) raised the point that the new Back-Bench business committee will have supernatural powers to unpick decisions. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that even if time is found in a future debate to discuss the issues that he mentions, we may have a debate in the House that wafts over many subjects, but does not change what has happened?
Mr Llwyd: That is a rather pessimistic view. I thought the purpose of the Wright Committee was to make changes. I believed that when the motions came before the House a few months ago, we were on the way to making proper changes. We fell short-we did not get it all-but at least we moved forward. From the perspective of the minority parties, we are now moving backwards. I shall say no more at this stage, except that if the motions go in the way that they will, it is because of a lack of consultation. There has been no proper discussion, and I am disappointed because I have great respect for the Leader of the House and the Parliamentary Secretary.
I shall deal first with the important point made by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), which touched on the point of order from the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). It is essential that we find a way of allowing the minority parties to play their part properly in the Select Committee system. It may be helpful to the House to indicate that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will not move motion 13 this evening, because we need to talk further about this.
Unfortunately, the proposition and the amendments that have been tabled are not helpful to the hon. Gentleman in securing what he wants. Indeed, the amendment to which he put his name would have prevented the minority parties from having a member on the Select Committees that he wanted. That shows that it is important that we discuss the matter further, and make sure that we get the right result.
Mr Heath: I cannot go into detail at this point because we are debating the business motion and I would be out of order. The hon. Gentleman may wish to raise the point with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) spoke about our position on programme motions. I say gently to her that there may be a world of difference between a programme motion intended to prevent Members reaching a conclusion or even debating important matters of legislation, and one intended to help the House reach a conclusion on a matter that we have been debating for a very long time. That is a real difference, which she ought to appreciate. I hope that that partially answers the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd).
The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) made an extremely important point-that if we secure the agreement of the House this afternoon to the changes, never again will it be for a Minister to determine these matters. It will be for the Back-Bench business committee to decide its own business, and that is as it should be.
Barbara Keeley: The hon. Gentleman has not yet answered the point about the lack of consultation. The mess that Government Members have got themselves into this afternoon could have been avoided if there had been more consultation with the Opposition and the minority parties.
Mr Heath: I do not accept that there has not been consultation, that the motions were not tabled at an early stage, or that we have not been talking about this subject for months and months and months, nay, years. I note that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Kevan Jones) says that today is not appropriate for discussing the matter, but I note also that the previous Government never found a day when it was right to take a decision on these essential reforms. Today, we are going to put that right. Today, we are actually going to reach some decisions and open up the business of this House to the control of Back Benchers, where it belongs. I hope that we will now proceed with that.
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