Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I very much enjoyed my two years on the Modernisation Committee. Our discussions were largely constructive and good humoured, and we were agreeably chaired by the Leader of the House. To say that I led for the Opposition would be to overstate the case, as my hon. Friends on the Committee were impossible to lead, but I am grateful to them for their support in my minority report.
I say to the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) that the Conservatives on that Committee during the past three and a half years accepted quite a lot in the interests of unanimity and making progress, and we accepted recommendations that did not always find favour with our right hon. and hon. Friends. I regret that on this occasion, for the first time in the Committee's life, we were not able to produce an agreed report.
The report is wrong for three reasons. First, set in the context of the broader debate about the powers of the House versus the powers of the Executive, the report takes a decisive step in the wrong direction by giving more powers to the Executive. Secondly, in seeking to tackle late-night sittings--no one will be happier than I to see them go--the report ignores the real problem behind the congestion in the legislative programme. Thirdly, the proposal to defer votes is more likely to enhance cynicism than confidence in the political process.
Two debates are taking place this afternoon--one about modernisation and one about strengthening. I regard them as two circles which overlap in part. Where they overlap, all-party agreement can be obtained on measures which modernise and strengthen. Some of the recommendations already implemented fall into that shaded area--voluntary programming of Bills rather than guillotines, shorter speeches so that more hon. Members are called, and the carry-over of Bills from one Session to the next by agreement. All that was done by agreement, as has been the tradition when changing the rules.
Then there is a slightly separate agenda for strengthening, which is outside the modernisation circle. The report of the Liaison Committee, "Tilting the Balance", much of the Norton commission report which we debated before the recess, the work of the Hansard Society on accountability to be published next spring--those are all essentially about strengthening, rather than modernising.
Then there is the modernisation agenda, which is not primarily about strengthening, but simply bringing us up to date, much of which I agree with--the ability to buy fax paper and batteries as well as whisky and cigarettes in the Palace of Westminster, and finding a computer on my desk as well as a telephone. That is all part of the modernisation debate.
What we have today however is a proposal that, in the name of modernisation, actually weakens Parliament. The Opposition do not have many weapons, and the report invites us to put some of them beyond use, while the Government sit on their substantial arsenal.
The first proposal contains no recognition that the Government have a role to play in enabling more user-friendly hours by drafting their legislation better and by exercising some self-restraint in the legislative programme. Despite all the evidence in pages 31 to 36, the verdict is that the Opposition are guilty, not the Government. The report then extends to all Bills a
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procedure that has not been properly tested and which has a number of defects. For example, if the Opposition parties agree a programme motion in good faith with the Government to focus debate on certain key issues, it is possible for Members to frustrate that intention by making longer contributions than they would if the Bill was not guillotined, or to focus on earlier groups of amendments so that later ones are not reached. As the report makes clear, that has already happened in the Northern Ireland legislation.
The proposed consultation in the report takes place only after, not before, the Queen's Speech is published. By that time, we may already have another over-programmed Session. The meaningful dialogue that the Government want may simply be impossible because the Opposition cannot validate an unacceptable timetable dictated by an over-ambitious legislative programme.
At the moment, we spend quite a lot of time after 10 o'clock dealing with Report and Third Reading. Where will the time come from if all discussion stops at 10? There are no answers in the report to that. The notion that once we pass these resolutions the Government will produce a series of perfectly drafted Bills is simply for the birds.
What made it impossible for me and my colleagues to go along with this section of the report was simply that the Government brought nothing to the negotiating table, as I made clear during our lengthy discussions. There is to be no discipline on the Government, just on the rest of us. For that reason, the section is unbalanced, inequitable and indefensible.
On the second proposal, I simply say that it takes the spontaneity out of the Chamber and will be widely seen as a cynical move, divorcing decision from discussion and promoting an even more mechanistic approach to decision making. On a practical note, I am happy to say that it will be a nightmare for the Government Whips to monitor. They will have to hang around the Lobbies like tipsters at a point-to-point, offering Members a marked card so that they can correctly place their bets.
In retrospect, it may have been inevitable that something like this should come out of the Modernisation Committee as currently configured. The Chairman of the Modernisation Committee is the Leader of the House, whose task as a member of the Cabinet is to deliver the Queen's Speech--she is its midwife. She winds up the debate on the Loyal Address and, every Thursday, she announces the business, which is inevitably dominated by the political imperative of getting the Bills through.
Is it right to entrust to a Committee under the chairmanship of the Leader of the House the responsibility for changing our rules? Has not the House traditionally done that? Does not the concept of a Select Committee chaired by a Cabinet Minister sit uneasily with the rationale of establishing Select Committees: to strengthen the House's ability to hold the Government to account?
The proposals are flawed and unbalanced and they derive from a flawed process. In the next Parliament, whoever wins, the House must change that process so that it can engage the Government on more equal terms.