HC Deb 04 June 1997 vol 295 cc500-18

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee of fifteen Members be appointed to consider how the practices and procedures of the House should be modernised, and to make recommendations thereon; That the Committee shall seek to make a first report to the House before the summer adjournment with its initial conclusions on ways in which the procedure for examining legislative proposals could be improved; That five be the Quorum of the Committee; That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records; to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House; to report from time to time; and to appoint specialist advisers; That Mr. Joe Ashton, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mr. Huw Edwards, Sir Peter Emery, Mr. Alastair Goodlad, Mr. Mike Hall, Helen Jackson, Mr. Peter L. Pike, Mr. Clive Soley, Rachel Squire, Dr. Phyllis Starkey, Mr. Andrew Stunell, Mrs. Ann Taylor, Mr. Paul Tyler and Mr. Nicholas Winterton be members of the Committee; That this Order be a Standing Order of the House until the end of the present Parliament.—[Mrs. Ann Taylor.]

10.16 pm
Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury)

Madam Speaker—[Laughter.] I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When you played in the back row of the Cambridge university scrum, you looked rather different. I did not recognise you with your rugger jersey off.

When the House discussed the subject of the motion, I made it clear that the Opposition welcomed the Government's decision to give priority to discussions on parliamentary procedure. The Leader of the House will remember from our debate two weeks ago that we undertook to offer constructive comment on the Government's proposals in that area.

I begin with the Government's suggestion that the first responsibility of the new Committee should be to produce a report on improving procedures for examining legislative proposals. Clearly that is a helpful subject for the Committee to address, and I hope that we can agree that all Members should seek to improve the quality of legislation—[Interruption.]—even those who seek to conduct their discussions in the House from a sedentary position.

The wording of the motion, however, is somewhat imprecise, implying that the new Committee will need to report on every aspect of the content, drafting and debating of legislation. If that is indeed what the right hon. Lady has in mind, I fear that the Committee might be in danger of becoming bogged down in consideration of aspects of the legislative process in which the House would think that there was no need for change.

In dischargingits responsibilities, it is important that the new Committee should have the benefit of proper evidence and specialist advice, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will be in his place. The new Committee should have the powers listed in the motion.

I am glad that we are making speedy progress in establishing this Committee, not least because the House will be aware that the context for our discussions on the new Committee has changed rather since our amicable debate two weeks ago. It has become clear that to the Government, modernisation may mean changes to the House's procedures in the interests of government. I know that the hon. Member for Bolsover does not regard the interests of government as being his.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Do not go so fast.

Mr. Goodlad

Am I going too fast for the hon. Gentleman?

It has become clear that to the Government, modernisation may mean changes to the House's procedures in the interests of government and the small, secretive and unelected group of political appointees at their heart, rather than the interests of this House and our constituents. [Interruption.] Our constituents are far from the mind of the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is growling from a sedentary position. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Perhaps he was not growling—perhaps his tummy was rumbling. I would almost prefer not to think about it, and I hope we shall not be hearing it again.

I remind the Leader of the House of her words in our debate two weeks ago. She said: We need to consider what alternatives there might be to the guillotine imposed by the Government with a majority and the voluntary understandings that have been tried in the past. Sometimes they have worked, sometimes not, but there is scope to see what other mechanisms could be available to achieve better planning of legislation."—[Official Report, 22 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 907.] I could not have put it better myself. Those words have additional resonance given her decision earlier this week to guillotine the debate before the commencement of the Committee stage of a major constitutional Bill, leaving grossly inadequate time for debate while the usual channels were excluded from the normal negotiations.

The Leader of the House also will be aware that the House has been concerned at the lack of consultation on important changes to the format of Prime Minister's Question Time and at the habit of Ministers of making policy announcements outside this House. The number of political appointments made by the new Government—clearly a surprise to the Lobby fodder—also has direct implications for the work of this House, but has not been debated by this House. The Lobby fodder perhaps do not wish to participate in debates in this House. They will not be allowed to, and one wonders why they came here. Despite their reluctance to engage in debate, they will, no doubt, be accepting the remuneration due to them.

I hope that the Leader of the House will not succumb to any temptation or further pressure from her ministerial colleagues to use the new Committee as a means for the Government to entrench the abuses of their large majority. She has got off to a start in her relationships with this House which varies in the perceptions of hon. Members and outside observers between indifferent, disastrous and catastrophic. Her behaviour and that of the Government over the deliberations before us will be carefully studied.

10.24 pm
Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I welcome the setting up of the Select Committee and I hope that it will consider not only minor adjustments to our procedures but the whole way in which we operate. Our Prime Minister has promised to have a radical Government. He can start by being radical in the way in which he decides to change the House itself. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is determined that that is the route that she will take.

We are overburdened with business here and do things in terms of legislation that we simply should not be doing; they should be done at another level of government altogether and in the most appropriate area in terms of where they impinge on the public. We have started that process with devolution.

Everyone thinks about devolution for Scotland and Wales in terms of what it will do for those countries, but in fact it will benefit Parliament, because we will free up time that is currently taken up with legislating on Scottish and Welsh matters and we will be able to devote that time to giving proper scrutiny to other matters. That is a good start, but it is only a start: we must also look at how we devolve power elsewhere in our society so that we begin to ensure that we free this place to give proper scrutiny to government.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made an interesting speech a fortnight ago, but he suggested that, when we modernise, changing the forms and the style will not much matter, and I disagree with that. If we are to have a modern, efficient Parliament that works democratically, we must get rid of many of the symbols of an 18th-century Parliament that are well out of date and make us look quaint and so old-fashioned that it is almost unbelievable.

Many of the electorate think that much of what we do is absurd, and we must consider that. I am sorry to say it with the Serjeant at Arms sitting here, but we must get rid of the uniforms, the swords and the wigs, and change the way in which we appear to the public, our electorate.

I have heard people say that our strange customs make us a good tourist attraction, but that is not what I was elected for, however attractive I might be; I was elected to represent my constituents and do the best possible job for them, scrutinising the Government of the day—of whichever party they are formed—and ensuring that we do so efficiently. We cannot do that in a Parliament with the current style, and that is the first thing that we must change.

The very large majority at present has made the way in which we vote seem even more absurd than it did in the past, when numbers were fairly equal on either side. Going through the Lobby these days is a long-drawn-out and unnecessary process. We should devise a system of electronic voting to ensure that we can vote quickly and efficiently, with the votes and the outcome seen straight away, and we do not take half an hour of our time doing it.

We should consider proxy voting. I hope that we never return to the days of ambulances parked outside in New Palace yard with people lying in them while someone nods them through to vote. Their votes should be recorded without their having to be present.

Most of my new hon. Friends are accustomed to working in an environment with an office, secretaries and computers that are connected to the Internet. Here, some of them are still waiting to get an office. It is absurd.

I live in Hamilton, which has a population of 60,000. It was cabled in six months by a company that dug up the roads and laid the cables. People who want cable can have it their homes. It will take 10 years to complete the cabling of this building and its outbuildings and ensure that every Member who wishes it has access to the increasing number of electronic devices that should be available to a Member who wishes to do his job efficiently.

We have a Government who want us to think the unthinkable. It is time that we thought the unthinkable about this place; it is time that we moved somewhere else. It is time that we built a modern, efficient, new Parliament outside London altogether so that we can operate, and represent our constituents, properly in a modern democratic manner.

10.30 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) for his reference to my previous speech, but he may have slightly misunderstood. I did not say that there was not a good case for removing some of the antiquity of this place that gets in the way of making it a businesslike assembly. However, that should not be our main, or only, objective. Many things that need to be done to this place are nothing to do with wigs and swords. He instanced the way in which we vote, which is antique to an extreme. There is no reason why we could not still go through Division Lobbies, but with swipe cards to make the operation much speedier. As a Government Back Bencher, he will agree that having the opportunity to pin a Minister against the wall regularly, in a place where there are no civil servants to protect him, is very useful.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the obsession with wigs and swords might become a distraction? Doing away with such things might become a compensation for the lack of real radicalism. It might be better to stay with the wigs and swords, and make some radical changes to the way in which we work.

Mr. Tyler

I have some sympathy with that view. If the new Committee is merely going to modernise the dress of the servants of the House, it will be a terrible wasted opportunity. I am sure that that will not be the case. The Leader of the House and other members of the Government have shown that they have much more serious matters in hand.

It is equally important that we move by evolution and consultation, with special attention to Parliament's role as the scrutineer of the Executive. I think that Labour Members will agree that if all that we are asked to do is to speed Government business, we will fail in the real duty of Parliament, which is to ensure that the Government's business is handled better than it would have been if Parliament had not been sitting. It is a question not only of the speed of the operation but of the quality of the product.

I shall not again cover all the issues that were raised in the debate a fortnight ago, but we have not yet addressed sufficiently the anxieties of Back Benchers of all parties, especially on initiation of debates in respect of motions and private Members' Bills. Under all Governments in recent years, the Executive have had far too much influence over timing and over the extent to which such business has been taken seriously.

My principal concern is to make sure that the very proper priority that has been given to the Committee of dealing with legislation does not lead to neglect of the fact that Parliament has other important concerns.

With the help of the Library—it took about five minutes; it is amazing what it can produce—I compared the figures for the general election of 1951 with those for 1 May this year. In 1951, 96.8 per cent. of those who voted, voted for the duopoly. They voted either Conservative or Labour. A vast majority—79.2 per cent.—of the total electorate, voted for one or other of those parties. There was a legitimate two-party system in operation in the country, and it was represented here by the opposing banks of Members who sat on either side of the House.

On 1 May 1997, 73.9 per cent. of the electorate voted for the two-party system duopoly.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Of those who voted.

Mr. Tyler

My hon. Friend is right; it was 73.9 per cent. of those who voted. Only 52.8 per cent. of those who were entitled to vote voted for a two-party system. In that sense, this place is now an anachronism. It institutes a duopoly of Government and Opposition, which is not the reality out in the real world.

Many hon. Members from all parties have come to this place with considerable and long experience in local government. No local government would operate on the basis of automatic confrontation.

We have seen in the past 48 hours what absurdity automatic opposition leads us into. We spent almost four and a half hours debating a motion on whether we could find more time to debate the substance of the issue. The statement and vote on the timetable motion took up so much time that four and a half hours was taken out of the real business of scrutinising the Government's legislation. All hon. Members should be concerned about that.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

The hon. Gentleman will know that in most local authorities there is provision for voting by show of hands and that only important votes are recorded. Is he aware that Standing Order No. 40 makes provision for us to vote by standing in our places? Does he agree with the early-day motion that will appear on the Order Paper tomorrow, which urges the greater use of that provision, especially when there is a series of votes in one evening, and that we should record the important votes, which would be the first ones?

Mr. Tyler

There are two major problems with that. First, if all Labour Members were to attempt to stand in their places, it would be self-evidently impossible to find such places. So the hon. Gentleman can recognise that there are difficulties. Secondly, our constituents are entitled to know how we have voted. It is patently obvious that we could not record our vote in person if we voted by standing in our places. Nevertheless, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that there may be ways in which, in certain circumstances, we could speed up the voting procedure and enable more issues to be put to the vote.

Mr. Flynn


Mr. Tyler

I will not give way again because other hon. Members want to speak.

There are other ways in which the voting procedure could be considerably accelerated. The Procedure Committee considered them. It is absurd that when we have a sequence of votes we have to wait each time for Tellers to be appointed, Clerks to get to their places and so on. There must be ways of speeding that up.

It is clear that we shall have to reform radically the way in which the House operates. It is not necessary to move our whole Assembly to Glasgow, but if we do not modernise the way in which it operates, if we do not make it a true reflection of what is happening in the country, the centre of gravity in the body politic will move, in terms of devolution, to other parts of the United Kingdom and perhaps to the European Parliament. We will become increasingly irrelevant if we do not make our procedures more relevant to the real life of the wider public.

One issue is of real concern. This House, in contrast to the other place, does not recognise the fact that we no longer have a two-party system. The other place automatically recognises that there are three major parties, in terms of speeches, time, the selection of reasoned amendments and so on. The other place recognises that the third party is the third of three major parties, not simply a larger minority party. We have only one or perhaps two references in our Standing Orders to that. We shall have to look again at the Standing Orders. It is urgent.

Hon. Members old and new, especially those who have had extensive experience of local government, are surprised at the way in which we operate this place—the confrontational jousting match, which we saw again, I am sorry to say, in Prime Minister's questions this afternoon. I accept that improvements have been made, but we are still seeing absurd confrontation, often where confrontation does not exist. It is largely a bit of play-acting. It is the Punch and Judy show. That may be of great interest to the Dutch and American television audiences, although they may get rather bored with half an hour—it is long for any cabaret—but it does not do justice to the real function of Parliament.

Those who have come here from local government will also recognise that the potential true value of Committees in this place is not met. I hope that we will also be able to consider that. In particular, I hope that the Select Committees will be given a greater role in the pre-legislative development of ideas. I know that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have done detailed work on that. I know that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) is particularly anxious that that should happen.

All too often we display to the public a confrontational duopoly, but they are looking for true pluralism in their politics. The Prime Minister has given a lead in this respect, but soon we will want to see actions rather than words to ensure that that commitment was not just one given for the benefit of the general election. It must be put into practice after that election success.

10.39 pm
Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

I followed with great interest the remarks by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), but, once again, he is making a push for his party. Confrontation and careerism bedevil the House.

Let us be honest. Things get bogged down in Committee because that is the place to make a reputation by tabling 1,000 amendments. I have spent nearly 30 long weary years in the House at night, so I will not detain it for too long now. We have all been through this before. Individual ambition and careerism will demand that certain hon. Members will table 50 amendments. The Government Whips will say to their boys, "Stay quiet. Fill the crossword in, do your mail or whatever you like." After two or three weeks, everyone gets fed up and the word goes round the Whips, "They'll let us have the Bill a week on Tuesday morning if you don't say anything and just nod it through."

The Opposition educate the Government. One can see the civil servants' ears prick up when an Opposition Member moves a probing amendment and asks whether something means X or Y. That Member reveals a dual meaning behind a phrase in a Bill and argues that it would not stand up in court. The civil servants then tell Ministers that the Opposition are right, and they then table about 125 Government amendments on Report to correct mistakes that should have been sorted out when the Bill was read the First time.

Surely we could get together and sort out such problems well before a Bill begins its proceedings. That is just not done because of the careerist ambitions of younger Members in particular. There is nothing wrong with that. It is the ladder or the limelight. One can become an instant media star on television by showing off, being sent off or acting the goat. Alternatively, Members can climb the ladder like Mrs. Thatcher—no one had ever heard of her until she got into the Cabinet—and hope to get a Cabinet job. That is the nature of politics.

Surely with our majority we could avoid such confrontation for the next four years. The hon. Member for North Cornwall spoke about voting. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I were in the Whips Office when the Labour party started off with a majority of one in 1974 and finished up with a minority of 17. The Whips Office killed six people—I say that with deep sympathy. Some of them had to have their operations at 10 o'clock in the morning and come in here to vote at 10 o'clock at night. Others had to postpone their operations until the recess. Alex Wilson, Millie Miller and Frank Hatton all died because of that. Alex Lyon, the husband of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), died years afterwards as a result of the traumas that went on then.

It was a wonderful macho time. We actually enjoyed not knowing what the vote would be until 10 o'clock at night. It was better than any cliff-hanger football match or whatever. It certainly did not represent government. For all we talked about getting rid of those procedures, we never did. Helene Hayman had a baby and came in, and I remember the headline in the Daily Mail, which ran, "Government hangs by a nappy pin". That was absolutely true. Perhaps people would like the House to stagger along like that, but it is certainly not government. I wrote a play about it, but no one believed it because it was such black farce.

We used to have a bog trotter. When the Division bell rang, we had a top and bottom bog trotter whose job it was to run around all the toilets to see if anyone was locked in. We had to look under the door for feet and, if seen, we looked over the top. If that person was one of theirs we left him, if it was one of ours, we got him out—if necessary with a screwdriver to unlock the door from the outside. That was the sort of nonsense that occurred when the House divided.

I remember the famous case of Leslie Spriggs, the then Member for St. Helens. We had a tied vote and he was brought to the House in an ambulance having suffered a severe heart attack. The two Whips went out to look in the ambulance and there was Leslie Spriggs laid there as though he was dead. I believe that John Stradling Thomas said to Joe Harper, "How do we know that he is alive?" So he leaned forward, turned the knob on the heart machine, the green light went around, and he said, "There, you've lost—it's 311." That is an absolutely true story. It is the sort of nonsense that used to happen. No one believes it, but it is true.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) regularly used to have a row with the Speaker at about 3.30 pm. I used to hold his shoulders down, saying, "Don't get expelled, you're the majority." It was unbelievable, especially compared with the huge majority that we have in this Parliament. My hon. Friend made the best suggestion when he said that there should be three counters at the end of the Chamber so that we could get through the vote 50 per cent. faster. That could be done simply, without involving major changes.

The Order Paper is a disgrace. If it were the programme for a football match or even an amateur dramatic production, it would say, "The leading players at 3.30 pm will be Mr. Blair, answering questions, with Mr. Howard replying for the Opposition. There will then be a ten-minute Bill", and so on. It would explain what was happening. People in the Public Gallery are bewildered by the Order Paper. They do not have a clue what is going on. There is not even a commentator on television like Freddie Truman or Brian Johnston at a cricket match, who could explain what is happening—for example, "This man has been called by the Speaker because he is chairman of the Anglo-Middle East group." He could give the background.

When Parliament was first broadcast, for the first three days the BBC broadcast everything that came through the loudspeakers. It was libellous, it was unbelievably crude, but it was hilarious. The BBC panicked and said, "Somebody will sue us for libel. If it is in Hansard it is okay, but if it is not in Hansard we will be done for libel." So the BBC stopped broadcasting everything; now, it jams the broadcast so all people hear is, "Hear, hear, hear." It is terrified of being sued for libel.

The Chamber sounds like animals in a zoo, but for the people in the arena who can hear, it is often witty and sometimes caustic and destructive of careers—but that is politics. It is a rough old trade. We have to find some way of getting that across so that the public can get a taste of what is happening without it denigrating Parliament.

The system for Gallery tickets is a farce—hon. Members get two every 18 days. It is a farce to have to go into a ballot for Prime Minister's questions. We could spend a year entering the ballot in the hope of coming within the first six questions, but in fact getting nowhere near the top. Constituents want to know why we do not ask the Prime Minister about such and such a hospital, a factory, a bypass, and so on. We cannot, and we get frustrated. Everybody is bobbing up and down. People want to know why we are jumping up and down, but they are not given any explanation about the Speaker trying to be impartial. Our constituency parties do not understand why we have not been able to ask our questions.

It would be better to have a rota for Prime Minister's questions, like the rota for tickets for the Public Gallery. I could then say that, for example, on 27 June it is my turn for the Prime Minister and try and get my constituents tickets for the Gallery. At least the constituency would have the opportunity for one of its problems to be put to the Prime Minister, whereas under the present ballot system we could go on trying for ever.

This place was set up 100 years ago for people who lived in London and never went to their constituencies—except when the stink from the River Thames became so bad in August that they went to their country houses and waited for the harvest. They never bothered about their constituencies. Most of them worked in the City or were lawyers who earned a guinea a word at the Old Bailey. They came in at 4.30 with a red bag on their backs which they hung up in the cloakroom. They came to have a drink and relax. Everything was fitted around their day.

It cannot go on. Everybody in the world thinks that we are crazy. They ask, why can we not start at 9 o'clock like they do at the town hall, or at some reasonable time; and why can we not finish at a reasonable time? I feel tremendously sorry for the women who have come into this Parliament. Even we men know the problems of bringing up families. The divorce rate in the House is horrendous, because of the breakdowns in marriages. I can remember when, 20-odd years ago, my wife had a youngster at 20 minutes to 9 and I was here voting on a three-line Whip. I told the Chief Whip and he said, "Good lad—get through the Lobby and don't forget the three-liner tomorrow at half-past 3." It was two days before I got up north to see my youngster. It is crazy. People do not give us medals for doing that—they think that we are absolutely stupid. There is no reason why we could not work normal hours. With modern trains, people could get down here for half-past 10, go home after a vote to see their kids at 10 o'clock at night and then come down again the next day.

Let us face it, the most important thing in politics now is the pressure from our constituents. The members of the parent-teacher association really believe that their Member of Parliament meeting them is more important than his speaking on an amendment to the Budget. Whether we like it or not, that is what they think. The public and the voters will call the tune and, if we do not respond to them, we shall see other elections in which the turnout goes down to 65 per cent., 60 per cent., or 58 per cent. as it was in the American elections when Bill Clinton was elected. At the end of the century, we have to grasp the nettle: change is going to come and we had better make a start on it.

10.50 pm
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate on the reform of the House of Commons. It is important that as a new Member I have been given this chance to express some of the views shared by many new Members coming into the Chamber.

Many of us are quite astounded by some of the things that we have discovered since coming here and we are now learning to get to grips with them. Although it may appear arrogant for a new Member, so early in his parliamentary career, to want to make suggestions about reform, it is important that new Members should have a say in some of the procedures to be considered by the Committee. It is important that new people, seeing all this afresh, can express their views. Of course, we must also respect those individuals who have been in this place for many years and who are aware of the traditions and know far more than I do about the need for reform in certain areas.

One of those traditions is that in a maiden speech it is normal for the new Member to praise his or her predecessor. Some hon. Members on both sides might recognise that, as the new Member of Parliament for Winchester, that tradition presents me with a slight dilemma. To praise my predecessor might be perceived as insulting him, because it is clear that he has yet to admit that he is my predecessor. What should a new Member do in these circumstances? I can certainly say that the former Member of Parliament for Winchester is an individual who never gives up. In his time as a Health Minister, he brought a great deal of intellectual debate to the Conservative party; and he should be credited for having helped the Conservative Government to stabilise their health policy during the past couple of years.

When elected, as I was, by a majority of only two, one starts to realise the importance of democracy and of the tradition of voting. I am amazed by the number of people who have come up to me in the past month and laid claim to those two votes. Many of the police in the House have told me of a relative of theirs living in Winchester, someone who organised a postal vote, or someone who dashed to the polling station just before 10 o'clock. I go to great lengths to inform them that I know where those two votes came from: they are obviously the votes of myself and my wife, so we are responsible for my election.

The message for hon. Members in that tale is the importance of living in one's constituency. I am delighted to be able to live in the constituency of Winchester. It is a constituency with a great history; unfortunately, that history has recently been added to by the longest count ever and the smallest majority in 80 years, but it is nevertheless a most beautiful area in which to live. It stretches to the north to the borders of Basingstoke and vastly to the south, so that one can look out to sea from the outskirts of Portsmouth.

Winchester is a very rural constituency, with a proud tradition, which goes back a long way. I am pleased that I have been called in tonight's debate about the House of Commons because, very many years ago, the Commons did sit in the capital of Wessex, at a time when it was a tradition for Parliament to move around the regions. That would be a radical choice for the Committee to consider, but there may be merit in looking at ways in which we can move some of our debates around the country, to engage the public in what we are doing and to allow them to see our procedures and debates at first hand in their region.

The constituency's history of democracy is strong. That is demonstrated by the fact that in two years' time we shall elect the 700th mayor of Winchester. Most recently, the city has become established as a centre of excellence in education, not only with the college of Winchester but with King Alfred's college, the art college, Peter Symmonds sixth-form college and the agricultural college at Sparsholt, which helps serve the very rural and agricultural tradition of the constituency that I am proud to live in.

Because I love living in Winchester and am proud to live there, I want to spend more time there and less time in the House in the evenings. I do not want to spend my time—as many new Members have had to—voting at 10 o'clock and realising that a 10 o'clock vote means that we end up leaving the House at 11.30, have a mad scramble to catch a cab and must spend the night in a hotel, when I realise, and must explain to my wife, that I could have pressed a button at 10 o'clock and at least got home to see her at the end of the evening.

I believe that many new Members I have spoken to feel very strongly about that issue, and I hope that they have a chance to express those views later. I also hope that new Members will not succumb to this place and in a year's time start saying "Oh well, that is how it works. Let's not move on." Let us remember how we feel now about being obliged to vote late at night and not forget that when—perhaps in a year's time—we have a chance to vote positively to change that.

I ask the Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), please to look very hard at moving the Committee reports through as soon as she possibly can, while the impetus for change is there, and to be radical about it. While preserving the best traditions of this building, let us be radical about the shape and size of the Chamber and the way in which the Lobbies work, and let us be radical and consider as far as we can reforming this building.

I would also ask the Committee, where possible, to look beyond the reform of the Chamber, because part of the public's perception of the Chamber is not only how we work in it and the procedures that we work by, but the role of Members, and the way in which they operate in the Chamber. Radical reform is needed. We need to consider ways to improve our accountability as individuals to the people who elected us, linking ourselves to them. Members should have much more responsibility for reporting back on their appearance in and representation of constituents' views in the Chamber.

To some extent we can achieve that aim by improving the hours that we work and the voting mechanisms, but more radical solutions may be needed. In the run-up to the general election, I gave a clear commitment to the residents of Winchester that I would abide by several principles. One principle was that I would report back much more fully than many of my predecessors in that constituency had done.

In nearly all forms of public life, Parliament has imposed citizens charters on organisations, and it has required companies and public bodies to produce annual reports. However, when it comes to our own role, which is very much in the public eye, our only form of accountability is to appear at general elections every four or five years. We need to strengthen that accountability. There should be a principle that hon. Members be obliged to produce an annual report to their constituency. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) may laugh, because he would not like what would be in it.

The report would list the way in which the Member voted and the type of meetings that he or she had attended, and it would publicly list the Member's earnings. I believe that that would be a proper form of accountability, much more accessible than constituents having to collect together a year's worth of Hansard. The principle of an annual report from Members is very hard for anyone to argue against.

If hon. Members wanted to be much more radical, we would set down standards for the time within which we answer letters. We require many Government Departments to do that, so why should we be different? If we wanted to be radical, we would set down standards for the number of surgeries that hon. Members must hold and for the number of times that they should be seen in their constituencies. Why should hon. Members object to that suggestion? If they want to be good Members of Parliament, they should sign up to it.

Is it not interesting that Conservative Members choose to ridicule such ideas? Perhaps they should note the result of the general election and realise that if they had introduced such policies, they may not have lost so many seats.

I ask the Leader of the House to consider these broader principles, to examine the role of Members and to try to improve accountability.

There is a further way in which we could improve the Chamber and our debates. I refer to the length at which hon. Members speak. We must have shorter speeches. I shall take my own advice and draw to a close, but I call on hon. Members to be as radical as they can, while preserving the best traditions of the Chamber.

11 pm

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

It is a great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on a fine and lucid maiden speech. In a debate such as this, which challenges the way in which Parliament usually conducts its business, it was interesting to hear him break with the parliamentary tradition that maiden speeches are non-controversial.

I was particularly interested to hear a Liberal Democrat Member singing the praises of the first-past-the-post electoral system, but I understand why, with a two-vote majority, the hon. Gentleman does that. I hope that he will come over to my way of thinking and back electoral reform when the House gets round to discussing that subject.

The hon. Gentleman dealt skilfully with the tricky matter of paying tribute to Gerry Malone, his predecessor, to whom many hon. Members on both sides of the House would wish to pay tribute.

I have one piece of advice for the hon. Gentleman. He indeed secured a two-vote majority in Winchester, but those were not his vote and his wife's. Those were the votes of two Tory party members who decided that Winchester was so safe for the Tory party that they used their votes in their holiday home constituency in Scotland to try to retain a Scottish seat for the Conservatives.

I would not go so far as to describe the House as a house of ill repute, but it has a low reputation in the minds of many members of the public. There is an onus on us in a new Parliament to reorganise our affairs in a way that gives the House greater respect among those who vote for us and send us here to represent them.

We could do a great deal to make the House and the Palace more welcoming to the public. I once had a party of disabled visitors coming to see me in the House. I wanted to know how they could get access to the Central Lobby, and the Serjeant at Arms suggested a route that involved using the lift round the back of the post office and passages that led through to the Central Lobby. The passages that I was advised to use were too narrow for an electric wheelchair to go through. It is intolerable that the House should exclude people with disabilities from seeing what goes on and from lobbying Members of Parliament.

There are no refreshment facilities for the public who come to the House. We need an overflow Gallery. Naturally, the Strangers Gallery is not full at this time of night, but during Question Time it is, and with the television link, there could easily be a small cinema or theatre so that people who do not get into Gallery but who come to London to find out what happens in the House of Commons could listen to debates. It could be used in the morning to put on educational shows for schoolchildren and other visitors to the House to explain how Parliament works.

When I was first elected, I told myself that I would never get involved in debates about parliamentary procedure. My constituents ask me to do something about the local hospital, about unemployment, about the school that their child goes to and so on, but no one has come up to me and said, "And another thing, Mr. Bayley—there is a little parliamentary procedure that you ought to change." However, having been here for a short time—five years—I think that it is imperative for us to modernise the House so that we can more effectively do the job that we should be doing for our constituents. Page 115 of "Erskine May" deals with contempts, one of which is long overdue for abolition: Strangers have been punished for contempt for disorderly conduct … for refusing to stop taking notes of proceedings when requested to do so by an officer of the House. This came to my attention because one of my constituents was told to stop taking notes. He was sitting in the Strangers Gallery during an esoteric debate on a Friday morning about the Medicines Information Bill, brought in by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice). There was virtually no one in the Chamber or the Gallery at the time, and because my constituent had a particular interest in the pharmaceutical industry he was following the debate and taking notes of what was said. He was told to put his pen and notepad away because that was a contempt of the House.

What an idiotic way to carry on. If we want to restore our reputation in the eyes of the public, we should encourage them to come in and understand what we are doing. That naturally involves following our debates. Nowadays it is possible, after all, to switch on cable television and take notes of our debates from the comfort of one's own home. Why, then, do we regard note-taking as a contempt of Parliament? It is indicative of the sort of barriers that this place builds between the institution and the public whom we should be serving.

I hope that the new Committee, as well as looking at procedures of the House and its Committees, will look at how we relate to the public.

This House must do more in future to set a good example. I had to make a special request that the stationery cupboard in Norman Shaw North be stocked with recycled notepaper. I find it extraordinary that we still print stationery on unrecycled notepaper. Why do we?

Today the Government launched a good initiative to encourage people to cycle to work. As it happens, I cycle from my flat to the House of Commons every day. Because I come down Millbank I used to cut in through Chancellor's Gate. It has now been closed, so I cut in through the new entrance, the gates at the House of Lords end of the Palace. It is a wonderful new entrance which has been beautifully cobbled. It is very convenient for cars, but it is very bumpy for those riding bicycles. No one thought of putting through a small path with a smooth surface to encourage people to come here on bikes.

Achieving change of any sort in this place is enormously difficult—

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I cycle as well, but the hon. Gentleman cannot expect everything to be organised for his own convenience. If he cannot take one or two bumps, he should not be in the job.

Mr. Bayley

The hon. Gentleman may enjoy the feeling of a bumpy saddle beneath him when he cycles in. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is a public school boy."] He is indeed. My point is simply that when the House spends money on its own infrastructure, it costs no more to get it right than to get it wrong. It costs no more to serve the needs of pedestrians and cyclists as well as those of motorists. It simply involves thinking through the problem.

What this House desperately needs is a chief executive to manage the place efficiently, so that we do not need to spend months bringing about minor changes such as cycle paths. It took me, as a new Member, three months to find out which Committee was responsible for the note-taking in the Gallery problem, and a further three months for the House to decide that, for an experimental period, it would see whether our parliamentary democracy was robust enough to allow the public to take notes in the Gallery. That is not good enough. If we want change, we need a mechanism that allows the House to achieve it quickly.

11.9 pm

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am pleased to be able to make a brief contribution, and I have been interested to hear the observations that have been made about how the House should be reformed.

I start from the premise that the House is here to represent democracy, and that any modernisation should lead to better legislation. I do not start from the premise that the House is here for the convenience of Members of Parliament, and I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree with me on that point. I say that because I am—I hope—privileged to have been appointed to the Select Committee as one of four representatives of the Conservative party.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), as always, made an entertaining speech and he mentioned certain matters that he considered important. I believe he said that he had been in opposition for 18 years. There are some who say to me, "Mr. Winterton, you have been in the House for nearly 26 years and you have been in opposition for all that time."

I think that the precedents and procedures of the House have been established over the years for a good purpose, and on the basis of experience. Although I want our procedures to be improved and our structures modernised, I want that to happen so that we can achieve more for our constituents, improve democratic accountability and ensure that the legislation that is put on the statute book is better considered by Members of all parties.

I appreciate the concern expressed by the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley) for his constituents. His constituency is probably as far from London as my constituency of Macclesfield, but I encourage my constituents to visit the House and I encourage schools and other organisations in my constituency to send parties here. Over nearly 26 years, many thousands of my constituents have come here, and apart from one or two criticisms of the way in which we behave at Prime Minister's Question Time there has been very little criticism of the House; it is held in great respect, and the reasons for our structures are appreciated.

I believe, however, that much of the legislation that comes before the House should be considered by a specialist Standing Committee or, when that is inappropriate, by a Select Committee. I have been privileged to serve on Select Committees for nearly 18 years, and for a limited time—until my own party prevented my being reappointed—I chaired the Health Committee. Perhaps I did too good a job on behalf of the people of this country and the House in doing the job that Select Committees are there to do: holding the Government of the day—the Executive of the day—to account. Once the House appoints a Member in that way, whether Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour, that Member is there as a servant of the House, not of his or her political party. I believe fervently in that tradition. In my view, the Select Committees of the House represent the most effective way of holding the Executive of the day—now the Labour party, and until a little while ago, the Conservative party—to account.

Much of the legislation that comes before the House—often hastily drafted and often, sadly, as we have experienced in recent hours, considered under a guillotine—would be much easier to consider if it had been considered either by a Select Committee, if it concerned a particular Department of State, or by a Special Standing Committee, which could take evidence and produce papers which could then be published.

One of the unsatisfactory features of Standing Committees is that many organisations, many interest groups in Britain, send members of Standing Committees important documents that are referred to but which cannot be published as part of the Committee's report. That is wrong.

That is one of the areas in which we can do a great deal to help the House pass well considered, well detailed and well thought out legislation. We need the greater use of Special Standing Committees. In addition, Select Committees should consider legislation that falls within the remit of a particular Department of State.

The House has an exciting opportunity to modernise without revolutionising itself—to provide the House with the necessary facilities and structures to do a better job in the interests of democracy. As—I hope—a member of the Committee, I shall seek to do my best to bring that about.

11.15 pm
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

There are a huge number of issues that I should like to raise and many anecdotes that I should like to recount—such as how it took three years as a member of the Finance and Services Committee to get water in the Committee Rooms—but time is short, so I shall be brief.

The most important thing that I want to say is that the Committee has before it the most wonderful opportunity to modernise the way in which we do our work—how we go about our business here in the mother of all democracies. When the Committee considers ways of reforming the procedures of the House, I hope that it will particularly consider the timetabling of business and the hours that we work here.

If we are truly to be a Parliament for all the people, where Members of Parliament are in touch with those whom we represent, we must spend time in our constituencies. That has nothing to do with working a shorter week; it is about being in touch, being able to make visits to organisations, community groups and people so that when we do come here we know what matters to those who elected us.

Above all else, I hope that the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who I know will do an excellent job in chairing the Committee, will consider the working week. I hope that the Committee will consider other European Parliaments and how we can so organise our business here that we can encapsulate what we do, perhaps with two, three or four issues going on at the same time, so that in the middle of the week we can concentrate our work in the House and have, say, a fixture list for a full year ahead so that we know when we can be in our constituencies and when we can make commitments to attend meetings. That would be to the benefit of the House. If we can meet that challenge, we shall see the benefits of a Parliament for all the British people.

11.18 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

This has been an interesting and worthwhile debate. We have heard enough from both sides of the House to justify the establishment of a Committee on modernisation of our procedures and the working of the House of Commons. We have had positive contributions from both sides which should be welcomed because they will stand us in good stead when the Committee meets.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who made his maiden speech this evening. He mentioned that he had a majority of two—I doubt whether he can go anywhere without mentioning that fact—and that he had had the longest count ever. I thought that he would get an offer from my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) to write another play, this time called "A Majority of Two". I can certainly recommend the first contribution that my hon. Friend made: his play about the workings of the Whips Office was, I am afraid, incredibly accurate, as were most of the stories he told this evening. There is scope for change—everyone can agree on that.

When we had the debate on modernisation a couple of weeks ago, I came into the Chamber hoping that we would get a greater attendance than usual for a debate on procedure. I was hoping that instead of the normal five, six, seven or eight attenders, we might have got into the teens. I was absolutely staggered and incredibly pleased to see that at 7.30 pm there were 78 Labour Members in the Chamber when there was no vote and the next day was a recess. Many Opposition Members were also present. That showed just how much interest there is in the changes that need to take place.

It was important that we should move quickly to establish the Committee. I express my gratitude to the right hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad), the shadow Leader of House, and also to the minority parties, for their co-operation in getting the names selected and getting the Committee up and running quickly.

We have suggested that the Committee should have wide terms of reference. All the points that have been raised this evening can be considered by the Committee because of the way in which we have suggested the terms of reference. However, we must look at the priorities for the Committee; that is why I agreed very much with what the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) said about making sure that we got our priorities right and did not think that by one or two superficial or cosmetic changes we could make any radical reforms to the workings of the House.

We have suggested that the priority should be how we deal with our legislative procedures. I am glad to say that that proposal has been agreed to by Opposition Members. We have had constructive suggestions. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) mentioned Special Standing Committees, which we suggested on several occasions in opposition. I hope that we can suggest such Committees again in government. The whole framework in which we examine legislation must be looked at and I hope that we can come up with some initial conclusions relatively quickly in these vital areas because it is important that the House should change as quickly as possible. The Government want to help, perhaps by having piloting of different procedures if that seems appropriate. We should all work together to achieve that.

The motion gives the Select Committee the usual powers to have a special adviser and things of that kind. I hope that the right hon. Member for Eddisbury, who was somewhat worried about the remit, will acknowledge that given the range of issues that have been raised this evening, we are right to make sure that it is as wide as possible. We should indicate some priorities to the Committee, but I think that the Committee may wish to ask Members of the House for evidence or ideas and at that stage, we shall have to decide what the priorities are.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I did not speak earlier in the debate so that we could get to the end of these proceedings. I have two or three suggestions which should be dealt with. The Committee should look at the possibility, at long last, of providing more time for private Members' Bills. It should also deal with the Order Paper. Many suggestions have been made over many years about changing our antediluvian Order Paper.

There is also the question of voting, which is pretty chronic. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) made a point on my behalf about deaths. The two minutes that we lose at the beginning of Divisions should also be considered.

If there is any attempt to go to a 9 to 5 parliamentary day, the House should bear this point in mind. What we need is to cut out all the moonlighting. One Member of Parliament should do one job, which means that we can do the thing at a stroke.

Mrs. Taylor

I am not quite so optimistic as my hon. Friend about modernising at a stroke. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) said, we can at this stage only make a start, but make a start we must.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has come up with some suggestions. Although I would not agree with all of them, it is right that the Committee should consider all such things—certainly private Members' Bills and the Order Paper. As has been said, anybody—especially a new Member or a visitor—is extremely puzzled by the Order Paper. I am sure that more can be done in that area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover has suggested having three desks in the Lobby. He made that suggestion two weeks ago. I understand that it has been tried in the past, but that does not mean that it should not be considered again. When he talks about the House sitting from 9 to 5, in a sense I return to what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) said. I agree with her that we need a sort of concentrated week so that hon. Members with non-London constituencies can spend guaranteed time outside Westminster being in touch with and representing their constituents. We must ensure that we get the balance right so that we can protect interests there.

I hope that the new Committee will meet as soon as possible, work quickly and look at the four areas that I indicated were our priorities: legislation, accountability of Ministers, best use of Ministers' time and customs and practices. The Government have already announced that they intend to publish a record number of draft Bills. That presents us with extra opportunities to explore possibilities and see how the Bills would work in practice.

Mr. Tyler

I think that the Leader of the House made a slip of the tongue just now, which is very important to correct. I think that she referred to the best use of Ministers' time, but she probably meant the best use of hon. Members' time. That is a very important distinction. Since we are very concerned in this debate not simply to expedite Government business but to improve it, perhaps she would like to correct that impression.

Mrs. Taylor

If I said "Ministers' time" I certainly did not mean it. Ministers have to spend more time in London, so getting to their constituencies is an extra problem. If we concentrate the parliamentary week, we shall allow Ministers—those who are also hon. Members—to do their constituency work as well. However, I was thinking primarily of hon. Members and not Ministers in that context.

There seems to be a great deal of good will towards the whole idea of modernising our procedures. We have a different type of opportunity from any ever before—certainly in all the years that I have been in the House. I therefore hope that the Committee will undertake its task as speedily as possible and ensure that we make this Parliament as efficient and as effective as we possibly can. I am sure—at least, I hope—that the Committee will meet the expectations of the House since there is now more interest in change than ever before. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the change that we adopt is practical, workable and will improve our parliamentary democracy.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That a Select Committee of fifteen Members be appointed to consider how the practices and procedures of the House should be modernised, and to make recommendations thereon; That the Committee shall seek to make a first report to the House before the summer adjournment with its initial conclusions on ways in which the procedure for examining legislative proposals could be improved; That five be the Quorum of the Committee; That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records; to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House; to report from time to time; and to appoint specialist advisers; That Mr. Joe Ashton, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mr. Huw Edwards, Sir Peter Emery, Mr. Alastair Goodlad, Mr. Mike Hall, Helen Jackson, Mr. Peter L. Pike, Mr. Clive Soley, Rachel Squire, Dr. Phyllis Starkey, Mr. Andrew Stunell, Mrs. Ann Taylor, Mr. Paul Tyler and Mr. Nicholas Winterton be members of the Committee; That this Order be a Standing Order of the House until the end of the present Parliament.