|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): I propose to continue the experimental sittings in Westminster Hall, which have given Back Benchers more than double the number of daytime Adjournment debates and increased fourfold opportunities to debate Select Committee reports. Those steps must be seen alongside other steps in the extension of scrutiny that have already been made. They include broadening the remit of the European Scrutiny Committee, setting up a Select Committee on Environmental Audit and a Joint Committee on Human Rights, agreeing to the Procedure Committee's proposals for the improved scrutiny of treaties and increasing the opportunities for pre-legislative scrutiny.
Mrs. Beckett: No, that is nonsense. The report has been debated, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said. He is right that many Members support the proposals in the report, but many other Members have great reservations about many of the proposals. On how the issues can be thrashed out, I point out that they have been debated and no doubt they will be discussed again.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): My right hon. Friend will have considered the way in which the Opposition have conducted their business this Session. If she is Chairman of the Modernisation Committee in the new Parliament, could she not propose that the Opposition use their time far more effectively instead of engaging in time wasting? They would then be able to carry out their function of scrutiny, about which they protest so much.
Mrs. Beckett: There is some justice in my hon. Friend's remarks. I hope very much that the Conservative party will have the benefit of a few more years in which to build up its experience of opposition. Given its propensity to knee-jerk reaction to any proposals of the type that have been mentioned, that is sorely needed so that it can effectively use the time of the House for scrutiny. The Opposition attempt to do and say anything that they hope will embarrass the Government as opposed to considering what will be workable and to the advantage of the House as a whole.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): The Lord President will know that the Opposition have committed themselves to a number of important reforms in this area. Can she assure us that, when Parliament is dissolved, the Labour party will also go into the next election fizzing with new ideas about how this place can hold the Government to account and seeking to reverse the damage that it has done in the past four years?
Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the Conservative party is committed to a number of reforms. It had 18 years to implement many of them, but it utterly failed to do so. I assure him that we keep under review the proposals that have been made. If we are returned to power, we hope to build on the improvements and the greater availability of scrutiny from which the House has already benefited.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): A number of Conservative Members have continued to oppose any use of programme motions, but I believe that many Members consider that the Sessional Orders do not
Mrs. Campbell: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Has she had time to analyse the points that have been made during programme motion debates? Does she agree that they tend to be repetitive and that we should consider whether those programme motions are really necessary?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point. She takes a close interest in those matters, so I am sure that she knows that that issue was discussed by the Modernisation Committee and lay behind the production of our most recent report, which commanded support across the Committee and from all parties. Sadly, however, on this occasion, that support was not unanimous.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the right hon. Lady accept that Conservative Members have opposed programme motions because they are guillotines in disguise and were introduced without regard for the nature or complexity of the Bills in question and without any proper consultation with the Opposition? In fact, they are a disgraceful treatment of Parliament.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the matter is not one that should be debated on a party basis? The quality of the scrutiny that legislation receives ought to be important for the House of Commons. Is it not a sad commentary that the cumulative effect of many changes has been to remove better scrutiny? The suggestion that somehow programme motions should be debated without talking about programming shows a sad want of understanding of what happens in the House.
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend has from the beginning expressed opposition to the experiment. She is right that different points of view exist on both sides of the House. However, I simply repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). Therewas support from all parties for the Modernisation Committee's most recent report. It is by no means insignificant that the present and past Chairs of the Select Committee on Procedure, both of whom are experienced, supported it.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): While supporting the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) in her desire to achieve better scrutiny in the House, may I ask the Leader of the House whether she will guarantee that the recommendations of the recently issued first report of the Modernisation Committee--which she chairs--will be implemented? She will be aware that there was some cross-party support for the report, not least from me, because the way in which we introduce programming is not working, as she knows. It is vital that the recommendations and guidance
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the fact that, to a certain extent, there is an understanding. Although I would not venture to agree with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), I accept that we have all been learning from the initial experiment and that improvements can be made to achieve genuinely better opportunities for scrutiny. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) will be the first to remind me that it is not for me to say what the House will decide, but I take his point that the House should have an opportunity to pronounce on the recommendations of the most recent report of the Modernisation Committee and that, as always, that should be done on a free vote.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The Modernisation Committee has already instigated radical experiments with Westminster Hall, programming and deferred Divisions. I expect the Committee's major task to be monitoring those experiments, although we continue to discuss other issues, such as the use of electronic voting.
Mr. Swayne: That is regrettable. The right hon. Lady will be aware that many Labour Members are exhausted by the pace of reform, particularly the late night sittings to which, perversely, it has given rise. Can we not all have a rest from that business?
Mrs. Beckett: I think that the notion that the reforms have created greater difficulties instead of easing some of them is not wholly shared. Of course, I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, although I note that he, like other Members, has taken advantage of the new opportunities in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many Labour Members thoroughly welcome the modernisation process? Those of us who were first elected in 1997 still find it bemusing that, while it would be an act of treason if the IRA or the Ulster Volunteer Force put a drug in the water supply of the House of Commons to ensure that Ministers were tired,
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I merely say to him what I have often said in other debates in this House: people are rarely more eloquent in the early hours of the morning, although unfortunately, all too often, they think they are.
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): May I put it to the Leader of the House that one thing that should not be modernised is the opportunity for individual Members of Parliament to raise individual cases in this House and with Ministers in other ways? As an example, I hope that we will maintain the opportunity for me to raise the case of a constituent who has been asked to wait 15 months for an appointment at a hospital. For all the legislation that we have, for all the glitz and the glamour, each Member of Parliament must fight to ensure that our national health service is not a national waiting service.
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman uses the opportunity skilfully to raise a slightly different point. Of course he is right that individual Members of Parliament must always have the facility to raise cases of the kind to which he refers. Indeed, many of us raised them frequently--much more frequently than is necessary today--during the years in which his party was in power.