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Mrs. Browning: I shall come to that in a moment when I will be happy to quote--I am sure that the hon. Lady will be interested to hear it--the letter that I received at the beginning of the year from the then Leader of the House acknowledging that the motions on programming before the House in November, for which, as I recall, the hon. Lady voted enthusiastically, had not worked and that there were great problems. It is only because that went on record that the Modernisation Committee addressed those great problems.
If the hon. Lady really wants to get to the heart of the matter, let us do so. This is not about the rights of Members of Parliament and scrutiny of legislation. We know the Government's view on scrutinising legislation. Owing to their majority, they are prepared to allow Back Benchers constituency weeks away from this place. It is clear that, according to the Government's philosophy, an MP's role is not, as we have always understood it to be, two-fold--to represent one's constituents and ensure that constituency issues are dealt with, and to scrutinise legislation and hold the Executive to account. The Government are enthusiastically changing that role. They did so in the previous Parliament and they are clearly encouraging it in this one. They want to turn everybody into glorified social workers while they dictate how the country will be run.
David Winnick (Walsall, North): In response to what the hon. Lady said about Chairs of Select Committees, does she recall the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) being Chairman of the Health Committee? To his credit, the Government of the day considered him unreliable and he was replaced by another Conservative Member, Sir John Wheeler, who was considered totally safe.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. In the past few minutes, we have been moving away from the substance of the motion to historical tales. I realise that there are connected matters, but we must try to concentrate on the motion before the House.
Without going through everything that I said when we dealt with deferred Divisions and programme motions in November, as that is on the record, I shall reiterate my key objections to them. First, deferred Divisions divorce the debate from the vote. It is critical that the vote follows the debate. The ballot paper that can be handed in between 3.30 pm and 5 pm could be filled in by any third party anywhere. [Hon. Members: "No."] The fact that Labour Members do not think that that is a matter of concern shows clearly that they do not understand the way in which the procedures of the House have developed over many years. They may think that the procedures are old-fashioned and anachronistic, but Members have always been able to go through the Lobby following the debate unencumbered by the influence of any external third party.
I am talking about the sort of third-party influence that was seen in the 19th century--that is going back a bit--which affected the way in which Members voted. [Interruption.] We have procedures in this House as a result of which Members are unencumbered when they vote at the sound of the Division Bell immediately following the debate.
Mrs. Browning: The hon. Lady is clearly one of those who thinks that it does not matter if a third party has access to a Member when voting. Ballot papers that are available in the morning could be filled in by anybody.
Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend comes to an issue that has done more than any other to lower the House in the country's esteem--the fact that Members of Parliament no longer speak their mind or vote according to their opinion. What she is really saying is that we should diminish the control of party over this place--we should try to diminish the control of the Whips over the party. Does my hon. Friend not agree that we should assert the independence of Back Benchers and the freedom from party control?
Let me share with the House the results of an experiment that I carried out a little while ago with one of the deferred Divisions. I simply looked at the questions on the paper, filled it in as I thought fit and waited to see what would happen. I am pleased to say that nothing did. The point is that it represents a departure from an important principle--although it might not be important to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who is trying to intervene--which is that we discharge our duties in the Division following a debate.
Mrs. Anne Campbell: The hon. Lady is making a wholly spurious point. Every Member of Parliament who goes into the Lobby with a piece of paper is responsible for what is written on that paper. She is trying to pretend otherwise, but her argument has no basis in reality.
Mrs. Browning: There is a distinction to be drawn. Members of Parliament can be faced with multiple votes on a piece of paper, some of which deal with highly emotive issues that attract especially active lobby groups or constituency activists who want to influence the way in which that Member of Parliament votes. It is quite possible that the day will dawn when the public, having finally realised the way in which our voting system has been changed, will demand to see the hon. Lady fill in her ballot paper, and might even stand over while she does it. [Hon. Members: "No!"] Government Members dismiss that scenario, but if they are never subject to third-party influence when they vote, we must all assume that the little notes that they read out so politely during Prime Ministers questions and on every other occasion are not, in fact, written for them by people at Millbank tower. Perhaps the Minister who winds up the debate will tell us whether Millbank tower or the Whips ever issue any direction on how ballot papers are to be filled in.
In some ways, programme motions cause me greater concern. When they were introduced, it was suggested that they would benefit the Opposition--that, provided that a final date was agreed for the Bill to complete its passage, the Opposition and any Labour Back Bencher who was sufficiently strong minded to challenge the Government would have the opportunity in the preceding stages to ensure that proper scrutiny and time were given to challenge the detail of the Bill. However, that is not
I have now done so. In particular, I have stressed that . . . it was agreed that in return for the Government securing each Bill by a particular date, the Opposition parties and other non-Government interests would have the major say in how"--
As a result of that, the Modernisation Committee met to recommend further changes. One might have thought that the changes would be designed to make procedures more flexible and to give the House, Back Benchers and the Opposition greater opportunity to challenge and scrutinise. Instead, the Modernisation Committee, chaired by the Leader of the House, produced its first report. As the House will be aware, it contained a memorandum submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge- Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and myself, because neither of us were content with the so-called "repairing" job that that Committee had attempted in order to correct the clear deficiencies in the Orders to which the House agreed in November last year.
I shall not read out the whole memorandum, but I shall repeat some of the points made therein. I should point out that the reason why it was a memorandum and not a minority report was that such are the procedures of the Modernisation Committee that I was prevented from tabling such a report. Because of the shambles resulting from the fact that the rules of that Committee appear to be made up as they go along, I, a member of the official Opposition, was not permitted to table a minority report as I had asked to be allowed to do. Only after my hon. Friend and I insisted were we able to get even a memorandum appended to the report of the Committee. The House will not be surprised to hear me repeat that the Modernisation Committee is a tool of government: it has no interest at all in dissenting views or the views of the official Opposition.
On Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, the Minister had stated how many sittings of the Standing Committee he thought would be required, but he reneged on that promise when the Programming Sub-Committee met to discuss the matter. The Standing