Sir George speaks out against Government curtailment of debate
6 Nov 2003
This is the full text of the speech Sir George made in the House of Commons:

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who is the shop steward of Parliament First, an organisation that draws support from Members on both sides of the House, is seeking to improve the terms of trade between Parliament and the Executive and has sponsored a number of exciting publications and ideas. I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
In the spirit of our debate, I want to subject my speech to a tight programme motion and make a short contribution on two general matters. First, however, I should like to pick up a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the circularity of the matters under discussion. The front page of the report shows that the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee is the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain). Paragraph 29 makes recommendations about late amendments, and states:

"The Government should support such proposals."
The recommendations are aimed at the Government, particularly its business managers, and the chief business manager is the Leader of the House, who is also the Chairman of the Committee. We need to repatriate the Modernisation Committee, and perhaps change its name to the "Strengthening of Parliament Committee". The House would then be in charge of setting the agenda, rather than ceding it to the Leader of the House, who is increasingly becoming like the character in "The Mikado" who wore a number of different hats and spent a large chunk of the opera talking to himself in his various roles.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) for his amendment, and we look forward to his speech, as he has been a doughty defender of the rights of the House in this area. Two factors influence the shape of our proceedings in the House. One is defined and tangible and consists of Standing Orders, rules and Sessional Orders. The other is less defined and consists of the relationships between the usual channels, personalities and the mood of the House. If the second factor is all right, the rules are less important. If it is wrong, the rules become very important. In the last Parliament, relationships became difficult. In my view, a few of my colleagues were too diligent in subjecting the business of the House to detailed scrutiny, and deals were no longer possible. The Government used their majority unilaterally to change the rules and, in my view, overreacted slightly. The rules that we are debating today were therefore introduced, but they are not satisfactory. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that they are obstructing the House in its efforts to deal with its business better.
The mood of the House has changed and is different from what it was at the beginning of the last Parliament. We now have an opportunity to do what the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and others have suggested—look at the advice of the Chairman of Ways and Means at Ev 2 in the report, which states:

"A programme for a standing committee should prescribe an out-date only. It is the experience of Chairmen that the use of internal knives is frequently unhelpful."
I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House that in the next Session we should try with a number of Bills to go back to a system that can work perfectly well with good will. We should leave to the good sense of the Committee, the usual channels and the Front-Bench spokesmen the decision on how to use the available time, thus avoiding the inflexibility of a programme motion. If we try that and it does not work, fine. However, there is an appetite for making that alternative approach work, and it would be an improvement on current arrangements.
At the heart of the problem, as has been said, is the size of the Government's legislative programme. Peers are on their last legs, and are up all night dealing with the remaining stages of a number of Bills, many of which left the Commons with a large number of clauses unconsidered. The evidence is in the Modernisation Committee report. I served on two Standing Committees in this Session—one considered the Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Act 2003 and the other the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill. In both cases, we did not debate key clauses. We were not fooling around wasting time—we genuinely did not have time to address some of the key issues. No wonder that the other place is having to focus on such provisions. The position on Government amendments has got worse, rather than better in recent years.
Mr. Hain: May I make an observation about the other place? If the right hon. Gentleman makes a detailed comparison of the extent of scrutiny of Bills in the other place and our own experience in the Commons, he will find that the Lords are not scrutinising Bills as effectively as us. In addition, the House of Lords does not have a proper procedure for timetabling business, which is one reason why it is getting into a mess and effectively defying the will of the Commons.
Sir George Young: I would draw a different conclusion from the Leader of the House. If the Lords are to avoid the problems that we have been discussing this afternoon, it is important that the Government do not have the facility to introduce guillotines and programme motions in the upper House, as there would then be a risk of legislation going through both Houses with inadequate consideration.
The root of the problem that we are discussing this afternoon is the fact that we are trying get a quart into a pint pot. Until the Government exercise self-discipline on the volume of Bills that are introduced, we shall continue to have arguments about the way in which we programme legislation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was generous about paragraph 11 of the report, in which the Committee outlined four basic criteria that a reformed legislative system should be able to meet. Three of the four criteria have not been met. The Opposition do not have a full opportunity to discuss and seek to change provisions to which they attach importance; all parts of a Bill are not properly considered; and Bills are not prepared properly in many cases and require a mass of new Government amendments. By the Committee's own criteria, the present regime is missing three of the four targets.
I have nothing against draft Bills, but I am slightly worried about paragraph 15, which looks at such Bills. Of the 10 draft Bills introduced in this Session, six were considered by departmental Select Committees whose members, in a sense, are the best folk to do that job. However, there is a risk of their agenda being captured by a hyperactive Government Department, and the Committee's other work being squeezed out. I can therefore see some advantage in establishing more Joint Committees so that the other place can help to deal with the legislative burden.
Finally, there is a risk that deferred Divisions will bring the House into disrepute and encourage cynicism outside about how we conduct our business. I think that there is something almost cynical about voting on a proposal five or six days after it has been debated. The hon. Member for North Cornwall sought to justify such an arrangement by saying that, in debating Bills, there were circumstances in which we voted on an amendment on the day after it had been debated. However, that occurs because of where an amendment falls in considering a Bill and I do not think it is a true parallel with what the Government are now doing. I shall certainly vote against the recommendations on deferred Divisions.
Like the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, I have nothing against programming in principle, as it can represent a good opportunity to make better use of time, but we are certainly not there yet. I shall need persuading before I accept that the current Sessional Orders are the same ones that we should live with in the next Session. I urge the Modernisation Committee to revisit the matter and to see whether it can propose a better remedy for the problems that we have addressed this afternoon.

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