|Sir George speaks on procedural changes
26 Oct 2004
Speaking in the House of Commons, Sir George supported some opposed changes in House of Commons procedure, but opposed others.
This is the text of what Sir George said:
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) who spoke briefly and without notes—a model to us all. I propose to make the briefest speech in the debate.
The right hon. Member for the triple-barrelled constituency of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) said that he hoped that pre-legislative scrutiny might reduce the amount of time spent in Committee. If he examines the record, he will realise that the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 was subjected to a joint Committee of both Houses but subsequently spent an inordinate time in Committee. I wonder whether the fact that the Gambling Bill has been to a joint Committee will reduce the time that it needs in Standing Committee. The jury is out on whether pre-legislative scrutiny reduces the time that is needed for the Standing Committee stage.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am a member of Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which examined the draft Animal Welfare Bill. There have been an enormous number of sittings on the draft Bill and I firmly believe that the quality of the measure that reaches the statute book will be significantly improved by the prodigious efforts of those involved.
Sir George Young: I do not doubt that, but it was not my point. Will that scrutiny reduce the amount of time that the Standing Committee spends on the draft Bill?
David Taylor: It may not.
Sir George Young: Indeed, but that was the argument that the Leader of the House adduced and that I question.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) for producing a readable report that those of us who are not experts on procedure found easy to follow. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, the Procedure Committee and its report set the framework in which we conduct our debates and hold the Government to account. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield has assisted us in that task by shining a procedural torch in some dark constitutional corners.
I preface my remarks by pointing out that two Select Committees produce reports on procedure—the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee. Is it the best use of scarce resources for two Select Committees to produce reports on procedure?
Mrs. Dunwoody: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: At the risk of contradicting my commitment to make the shortest speech, I shall give way.
Mrs. Dunwoody: Has not the right hon. Gentleman missed the point? A Cabinet Minister chairs one of the Committees.
Sir George Young: That is exactly the point that I was about to make. I make no apologies for repeating a view that I have expressed previously. The Leader of the House should not chair the Modernisation Committee because there is a clear conflict of interest. The Leader of the House is in the Cabinet, with the mandate of getting the Government's legislative programme through the House of Commons. The Modernisation Committee has produced recommendations that are different from those of the Procedure Committee. That underlines the fact that they come from different viewpoints.
The role of the House is different from that of the Leader of the House. Our job is to scrutinise the Government's legislative programme and hold the Government to account. Our system is short-circuited if the Leader of the House is also Chairman of the Select Committee that makes recommendations about the rules for processing that programme. It is the only Select Committee that is chaired by a Minister. Without being personal about the current Leader of the House, he should stop leading that Committee. We should have one Select Committee instead of two, it should be called "the strengthening of Parliament Committee" and someone who is not a member of the Government should chair it.
Let me consider the reports. The mood today is different from the mood in the previous Parliament. With respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the mood is perhaps different from that of a year ago. It makes sense to adopt a less confrontational approach to programming Bills. From the Government's point of view, it makes sense to keep in their locker ammunition that they may need to secure the passage of their programme. However, they do not have to deploy it the whole time. We should experiment with a less restrictive regime in the interests of better scrutiny.
For example, the Companies (Audit, Investigations and Community Enterprise) Bill went through the House without a procedural shot being fired. In the next Session, we should experiment with having more Bills without programming, thus going back to the pre-1997 regime, which worked perfectly well for many of us. If it is abused, the Government have the resources that they need to get their Bills through. En passant, I point out that we can examine Bills properly if the Government produce a digestible legislative programme. This is the right point at which to ask the Leader of the House, as he draws up the Loyal Address, not to overburden the House. That lies behind some of the problems that we have seen in recent years. I know that when my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) draws up the Loyal Address in six months' time, he will ensure that a Conservative Administration have a digestible programme to be delivered without the programme motions of which we have seen too much in recent years.
On length of speeches, many speeches are far too long, particularly Front-Bench speeches. The longer Front-Bench speeches go on, the more Back Benchers realise that they will not be called, so the more interventions they make to get their views on the record, thereby aggravating the original problem. For written material for the Minister, 20 minutes is too long; 15 minutes is perfectly adequate, with five minutes for interventions. Yesterday, we had a fairly typical series of half-day debates. We had an hour and a half for the three Front-Bench speeches on university admissions, which is disproportionate.
There is a proposal that the Speaker should exempt additional Members from any time limit on speeches. I view that with a little suspicion—the size of the cake will remain the same for everyone else, and the slices will get a little smaller. I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire that the Chairmen of Select Committees need time and space to speak to their report, but in one sense the House already knows their views as they are capsulated in the report: it is everyone else who has not had the opportunity to say anything about the subject. The debate on the Floor of the House is the first chance that the rest of us have to contribute.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: I feel challenged by my right hon. Friend. Would he speculate on how many hon. Members read every Select Committee report? I would have said that the number was very small.
Sir George Young: I would hope that Members who sought to catch Mr. Speaker's eye in a debate on a Select Committee report would have done the House the courtesy of reading it. I am prepared to support my hon. Friend's recommendation on approval, as it were, not for the reason that he gave but because, over the past few years, the House has tried to develop an alternative structure so that the Government do not hoover up all the talent, and we have started to pay some Select Committee Chairmen. That proposal is part of re-balancing the power in the House by enhancing the role of Select Committee Chairmen. On that basis, I am prepared to support it, but I hope that it will not be abused.
A recommendation in one of the reports, which has not been mentioned, is that attention should be paid to the number of signatures on early-day motions in deciding what subjects should be selected for debate in Westminster Hall. I confess that I am not a fan of early-day motions; they have become a greatly devalued currency, and I do not sign them. If my constituents want me to make my views known to the Government, I prefer to write a letter to the Minister. If the recommendation were adopted, it would add to the pressure on all of us to add our names to early-day motions. I question whether that is a sensible way forward.
I have nothing against carry-over. I regard the legislative programme as being like a motorway—what we want to avoid is rush hours, and at the moment we have a rush hour at the beginning of the Session with all the Second Readings. We would make better use of the legislative process if we more evenly distributed Bills throughout the year.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: Yes, actually I was supporting the Deputy Leader of the House.
Mr. Woolas: My reason for requesting an intervention was to emphasise that support, for which I am grateful. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that the London bus syndrome, as it has been described, does not just affect us in Parliament but parliamentary counsel? One of the advantages of carry-over is that parliamentary counsel's resources are, in effect, increased. In my limited experience, that means that better legislation is enacted.
Sir George Young: Yes, I would be tempted to go down the route of saying that we should privatise parliamentary counsel, and not be restricted to the use of the ones that we have at the moment.
The Committee makes it absolutely clear that carry-over should only be done with cross-party consent— I intervened on the Leader of the House, as did my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, to seek an assurance that the Government would not use carry-over without cross-party consent. The Standing Order changes allow them to do that. The assurance that I received was not 100 per cent. If the Deputy Leader of the House can assure me further on that in his reply, I would be grateful. I also think that the Government should identify carry-over Bills at their inception rather than deciding halfway through a Session, when they get into trouble, that a Bill needs to be carried over.
I was against deferred Divisions when they were introduced, and, like my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, I am against them now. I consider them to be one of the factors that help to bring this institution into disrepute. I do not think that there should be too big a gap between a debate and a Division, and I shall vote against deferred Divisions.
We have not spent too much time arguing about the term "strangers" as applied to visitors, which I think is a good thing. The more time we spend arguing about what we should call people, the more detached from the real world our constituents will believe us to be. I cannot get frightfully excited about it—it hits me right on my indifference curve—but it is worth noting that the only mention of today's debate in the press has related to it.
My final exhortation is this: let us make up our minds quickly and move on, because there are more important matters for the House to discuss.