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Mr. Kevin Hughes: Does the hon. Lady agree that we are debating these motions, which I think are unnecessary and inappropriate, not for the sake of proper scrutiny, but because of the time-wasting tactics used by the provisional wing of the Tory party, led by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and others?
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) to claim that there was time wasting in the Committee that considered the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, given that the Chairman of that Committee made a specific ruling to the effect that there had been no time wasting? In fact, that is the scandal of what occurred.
Mrs. Browning: I am happy to say that the Hansard Committee record shows that both Chairmen confirmed that there was not time wasting. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) agreed with that. That is mentioned in the memorandum that is attached to the first report of the Modernisation Committee.
Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend's recollection is a precise and damning indictment of the Government's handling of this sorry saga. Does she recall that the Leader of the House, in one of his attempted purple passages, sought to justify programme motions on the grounds of candour, openness and transparency? Will she confirm that that claim is flatly contradicted by the practice of the Programming Sub-Committees, which do not meet in public, which do not provide a verbatim transcript of their proceedings, and which do not even have the courtesy to provide Members with a minute of their deliberations?
Mrs. Browning: That is right. It is one of my on-going complaints, which I shall reiterate. Such Committees, especially as they have voting rights, should record their deliberations, including voting records.
The hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) suggested that it was the time wasting of some Conservative Back Benchers that caused the Modernisation Committee to recommend, and the new Leader of the House to agree, as on the Order Paper, that no longer should the House discuss a programme motion for 45 minutes before it goes to the Programming Sub-Committee. That is a serious misjudgment, for two reasons.
If Back Benchers hear the answers to their questions in the Minister's response, they will have signs of the sort of issues that will be raised in Committee and the time that will be needed, especially in terms of apportionment between certain parts of the Bill. Some parts will be long in print, but they will not take up too much time in Committee. It is often as a result of detail coming forward from Ministers that many amendments need to be tabled. If the House is to be denied the opportunity of a 45-minute debate--a member of the Committee will not necessarily be a member of the Programming Sub-Committee--Back Benchers on both sides of the House will be denied the opportunity to make their contribution to an important part of the deliberations in Committee.
I feel that someone must come to the defence of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). Does the hon. Lady agree that it is true that he, by his antics over the past year or so, has done far more for the modernisation of this place than serious-minded reformers like myself managed in 14 years or more?
Mrs. Browning: We have a dichotomy. What do we mean by modernisation? We know what the Leader of the House--along with many Labour Back Benchers, I suspect--means by it. He means getting away from here at 10 o'clock. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there is a balance to be struck between getting away from here at a reasonable time and discharging our duties as Members. That is why I referred to the dual role of a Member. It suits the Government increasingly to regard the role of Members on both sides of the House as being confined to looking after their constituency interests. Important as that is, the role of a Member is that of scrutiny and challenge. We must have ample opportunity, for example, to table amendments at the various stages of a Bill's consideration, and to speak to them if Mr. Speaker has been gracious enough to select them for debate. I am worried that so-called modernisation does not enhance that process. It does not strengthen the ability of Back Benchers to participate. Instead, it restricts it.
We are getting rid of the 45-minute debate following Second Reading, and there is concern about the way in which the guillotine will fall, when only outstanding Government amendments will be dealt with. Where does a Back Bencher on either side of the House go to express what may be a deeply held belief about important issues within the context of a Bill?
Unless Back Benchers can see in our procedures a reasonable opportunity to table and speak to amendments on matters of importance and often of principle to them, the only alternative will be for more Members to take action such as that taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald or--I hope that this does not happen--action similar to that taken in earlier Parliaments by hon. Members on both sides of the House, who felt that the only way to demonstrate their frustration was to wave the Mace about. Let us not go down that route. That is not modernisation. Such action reflects the sheer frustration of Members at the fact that their will is being subsumed by a Government who are unwilling and ungenerous enough not to strengthen the rights of Back Benchers and instead curtail and usurp them through the deliberations of a Committee that is in the palm of government.
The Leader of the House ain't seen nothing yet if he thinks that what he saw in the previous Parliament will be acceptable in this Parliament, with badly drafted legislation being guillotined at every stage of its consideration as it passes through the House, and possibly in the upper Chamber, if that is what the Government plan to do. That is not modernisation by anybody's definition.
The motion is not about proper scrutiny. It is about getting away from the House by 10 o'clock. That is the benchmark that has been set. The Leader of the House touched on the matter briefly in his remarks last night, when he said:
If the House and its proceedings are not to be professional in the definition to which I have referred and if we are to clock off before the job is finished or before it has been properly done, it is not only hon. Members but the country who will be the poorer. There are many hon. Members, including myself, who did not come to this place just to clock off. If that is what the Leader of the House means by modernisation, he should be only too well aware that future generations will spend a great deal of time trying to put right the legislation that the Labour Government, both in the previous Parliament and in this one, bequeathed to the nation, because it will be bad legislation. That will be the hallmark of what the right hon. Gentleman and the Labour Government pass on to future generations.
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): The danger of our debate is that it provides a false choice for the House between programme motions--which undoubtedly will restrict time, one of the weapons of Parliament and the Opposition--and the status quo prior
As Sir Edward Heath, the former Prime Minister and Conservative leader, said in his final speech to the House before the election, Parliament's ability to hold the Government to account and scrutinise them has been getting weaker for a long time--about 50 years, he estimated. Unlike one of his predecessors, Winston Churchill, Sir Edward was never a great historian; in fact that weakness goes back to the Reform Act 1884 and the Parnell debates. Parnell obstructed the work of the House so much that both Front Benches got together and augmented the four Standing Orders that the House had with a great raft of further orders, on which every Government since have built. As has been said by many speakers in our preliminary debate on the business of the House and in this debate, all those changes to scrutiny in the House have had the effect of strengthening the Government and weakening Parliament's ability to hold them to account.
In seeking, quite properly and sensibly, more orderly debate, programme motions are strangling time--the one weapon left to the House. However, it is the weakest, crudest and least interesting weapon that we could possibly have, and my hon. Friends are right to say that the abuse of time does not help anybody at all; it does not help scrutiny or debate, does not help us to achieve better conclusions and is the most idiotic of weapons. However, it is the only one that Parliament has left. After 150 years, there are far too few weapons in the armoury of Parliament or the Opposition.