|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): It is rare for an hon. Member to have the privilege of following such an outstanding maiden speech. I congratulate my friend and hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on a superb speech that provided a fascinating and witty discourse on the qualities of the Witney constituency, which we have not heard so eloquently expressed previously.
I am bound to say, and as my hon. Friend may know, I regard him as a wonderful replacement for his predecessor, and I have no hesitation in saying that. He not only kept to the conventions of the House in his witty description of the circumstances of his arrival in Witney, but made extremely apposite points about the debate. We look forward with great pleasure to hearing more of him in the House, because he is a splendid addition to our Conservative ranks. In him, I see a conviction politician who will fight for the interests of his constituents and of our party and Parliament.
I have only two minutes in which to address the House on these important matters, so, having had the pleasure of entertaining hon. Members at rather greater length in the previous Parliament, I shall be brief. I oppose what the Government propose, because the debate, like the discussion on the programme motion, has shown the contempt in which the Government hold Parliament.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) described deferred Divisions as the visitors' book. It may be signed at 3.30 pm on Wednesdays, immediately after Prime Minister's questions, which has been moved from Tuesdays and Thursdays. There is minimum inconvenience for hon. Members, and right hon. Members in particular, who can sign the visitors' book at 3.30 pm. The introduction of that visitors's book is greatly to the disadvantage of the House and our procedures and, like my right hon. and learned Friend, I shall not sign it throughout this Parliament, because it is an affront.
As for the programming motion, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) mentioned how many times the present Government, in comparison with the previous one, had tabled guillotine motions. Moreover, the time allowed for debates on such motions has been reduced from three hours to 45 minutes, and then to no time at all, with the Question being put forthwith. That demonstrates the contempt in which the House has been held by this Government--this Labour party.
We should not see this development in isolation, for the Leader of the other place has made clear his plans for extensive changes there as well. We are witnessing an assault not just on the procedures of the House of Commons but on those of the other place, where it is proposed--not yet formally proposed, but the idea has been floated--that there be no votes during Committee stages.
It is to the great credit of the upper House that it has engaged in some of the more extensive debates on important issues that are of concern to our constituents, and that matters have been subjected to greater scrutiny there than has been possible here. The measure introduced today does the Government no credit whatever.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): This has been a good debate. It struck me as much more measured than the debate in which we first discussed the question of motions of this type, and perhaps rather sombre in tone. I shall return to that in a moment.
One reason why this debate has been more good- humoured than the last may be the maiden speeches that we have heard this afternoon. I especially enjoyed those of the hon. Members for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) and for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke), and, of course, of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), whose constituency I know well. He succeeded in depicting it in short words but with a great deal of feeling.
All those new Members are welcome. It is, perhaps, especially apposite that they should have made maiden speeches this afternoon when we are debating issues that touch our future, our existence and our relevance. For what concerns us today is not just the programming motion in itself: as has been said, it is linked with the overall direction in which the House is going.
Hon. Members speak of modernisation and the need for it. I am second to none in saying that there are numerous areas in which the practices of the House, and its efficiency, could do with review; but the key issue for us to consider is whether we are going down the right path in carrying out that task, or whether we are simply passing an ad hoc measure whose purpose seems largely to be to suit the needs of the Executive rather than those of the House.
I hope this is not an omen, but one thing about the Labour speakers today struck me as noteworthy. Let me for the moment leave aside the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who made an interesting speech with much of which I had little difficulty in agreeing. As far as I could see, not one Labour member of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons--apart from the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), who contributed briefly to the earlier debate on the guillotine motion--spoke today, although the Committee's recommendation is being presented to the House. Yet this is supposed to be a debate initiated by the House itself.
My impression is that Labour Members who have made valuable contributions today have been very guarded in their reception of the proposals. I shall say more about those contributions shortly. No one expressed great enthusiasm except the hon. Member for Cambridge, and even she had some reservations. We saw a succession of critics on both sides of the House, the only two enthusiasts being the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who was a member of the Committee. I am sorry that he is not present now.
I do not want to spend too much time on deferred votes. I agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who rightly said that it was the lesser of the two issues that we are considering. I regret the fact that we brought the deferred votes procedure into operation, because it shows that the House is approaching its problems wrongly. It may be inconvenient to vote after 10 pm, and that may be a reflection of bad programming. However, rather than addressing how we could better programme or modernise our procedures so as to
There may not be many hon. Members present in the Chamber during debates, but at least there is a centrality to those activities, which is maintained when votes follow debates. The previous exceptions to the rule that we vote after debates were few. It has now been turned into a rubber-stamping exercise carried out on a Wednesday afternoon, and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that for some people it is a relatively painless way of improving their voting record.
If we lose the centrality of the Chamber and its activities, we will lose something precious. We are not social workers in our constituencies--that may be a role that we have taken on, but it was not the role that we were elected to undertake. Our role is in the process of debate in Parliament, and even the gossip in the Tea Room is important in that exchange of political views because it brings us together. If we compartmentalise ourselves--as the deferred voting process tends to do--we do ourselves and the country a great disservice. I hope that we will revisit deferred voting, and that when we do, we will have the courage to tackle the problem that it was designed to address in a different way.
The proposal on programme motions goes much further than the system that we had last year. I was particularly struck by the contributions of the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and for Cambridge, who acknowledged that much more needed to be done than merely tinkering with programme motions. I shall not run through a list of all my hon. Friends who made telling contributions, but my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who is a great exponent of our parliamentary tradition, should be listened to with care when he says that we are paddling ourselves into irrelevance and oblivion. That is how this will be perceived.
It is all very well having programme motions. I welcome them, and I have sat on Standing Committees that have been subject to programme motions. I acknowledge to the Leader of the House that if the system of Programming Sub-Committees that he is establishing works, it could be a great improvement. However, I am bound to flag up my anxieties.
First, the secrecy surrounding the process is all very well, but how can we learn from it if we are denied access to the Sub-Committees' operations and deliberations? After all, most parliamentarians learn from their mistakes, as do most people in their daily lives, yet those excluded from a Sub-Committee's deliberations will have no idea whether it got it right or not, except anecdotally. It is scandalous that we are setting up such a structure with no transparency.
Whole areas will be of no concern to the Committees and their Programming Sub-Committees, because much of this programming business relates to matters dealt with after the business has returned to the Floor of the House or when it comes back from the other place. In the last Parliament, the Government extensively used the House of Lords to rewrite and amend legislation. I see Labour Members shaking their heads. I sat on the Committee that considered the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. That Bill commanded support from both sides of the House and was acknowledged when it
The guillotine that was imposed then was identical to what we will have if we pass the programming motion under consideration. I cannot see the difference. In both cases a ministerial decision determines how long should be allowed for debate and the programming takes place accordingly. There is no indication as to whether there will be an opportunity for input or consultation of any kind. I fail to understand how that can be an improvement on the existing system or how it will be to the House's credit. During today's debate, one hon. Member after another has highlighted the central point that it is wrong to pass legislation that has not been scrutinised.
We have heard a great deal about filibustering and about hon. Members who hold up proceedings. We have to face the fact that with hundreds of Members of Parliament and, thank goodness, with some who will not slavishly follow the Whips, there will be people with bees in their bonnets. Some of them may be unreasonable, as may be those who have lobbied them, but they are entitled to a hearing if this place is to have any relevance.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central rightly pointed out that from about 1866 onwards power started to ebb away from this place to the Executive. It is at least worth remembering that in the 19th century considerable tolerance was accorded to windbag Members of Parliament who droned into the night about their pet subjects. Ultimately, that was a matter of forbearance by the Executive, whom the Leader of the House represents just as I hope that he will represent our interests across the Chamber. That forbearance was based on the principle that it was necessary to have exhaustive discussion because if we do not, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) so rightly said, people may start to resort to extra-parliamentary methods to achieve their ends.
We should remember what happened as recently as last autumn when large numbers of people took part in a protest that paralysed this country and brought about a change in the Government's taxation policy. It may be thought that that was to the advantage of my party, but it frightened me. It seemed to be a classic example of a breakdown of parliamentary democracy. I speak as someone with a half-French background; there, I am afraid that the notions of parliamentary democracy are not well developed. In that country, such action is an institutionalised phenomenon and is seen as the only way to bring home to the Executive and the elite who govern the country the people's dissatisfaction at the way in which the country is being run. Mercifully, we have been free of that, but when I look at what is being proposed today, I am left with the feeling that this is another nail in the coffin.