PROGRAMMING OF BILLS (SUSPENSION)

- Wednesday, 17th June 2009

 

 

I beg to move,"That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the suspension or restriction of programming of Bills when the House of Commons is scheduled to meet for fewer than a prescribed number of days in any specified period; and for connected purposes."

The only possible justification for guillotining debate and preventing thorough scrutiny of legislation by this House is a shortage of parliamentary time. The Government have decided that Parliament will sit for fewer days this year than in any year since 1945, but they are still using powers, once reserved for exceptional cases, to restrict the time available for debate on every Bill. As a result, large swathes of legislation leave this place without ever having been scrutinised at all. My Bill will mean that in future no Government could restrict the time available for debate on Bills if Parliament is scheduled to sit for fewer days than the average of recent years, for example. That will set Parliament free to do what it is supposed to do: scrutinise legislation thoroughly and hold the Government to account.

I regularly invite everyone on the electoral register in a cluster of streets in my constituency to visit Parliament, and they come in their hundreds. One question that they often ask is, "Isn't Parliament just a talking shop and a waste of time?". They are right that it is a talking shop-the word "Parliament" comes from the French word "parler", which means "to talk"; that is what we do-but they are wrong to say that it is a waste of time. There are only two ways to govern a country. One is when the Government say, "These are the laws, obey them. These are the taxes, pay them. You have got no say in the matter." The second way, which we have developed in this place over 1,000 years, is by having a system whereby no law may be introduced and no tax imposed until it has been discussed and debated in this House and a majority of the representatives of the British people have given it their assent. That is what this place is for: to debate and discuss exhaustively whether each Bill is right in principle and whether it will work in practice, in the light of all the submissions we receive from our constituents and others affected by it.

That process takes time, so the idea of curtailing debate has always been alien to this House; it is an alien thing, given an alien name-the guillotine-that was introduced when Parliament accepted the need, in extremis, to put a time limit on debate. The guillotine has since been invoked very sparingly; the previous Conservative Government guillotined only between four and five Bills every year. This Government decided early on that all Bills should be guillotined, and that was renamed "programming" in new Labour newspeak. Programming was supposed to ensure that every Bill would receive full consideration, but that has not happened.

All too many Bills leave this House with sizeable chunks never debated in Committee and with grotesquely inadequate consideration by the whole House on Report. In the case of three quarters of Bills last year, this Chamber was not allowed to debate all the groups of amendments selected for debate by the Speaker. For example, the Government deliberately restricted the time for debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill so that dozens of new clauses were not debated; on the Counter-Terrorism Bill Members had only three hours to discuss 16 new clauses and 60 amendments covering crucial issues such as post-charge questioning and control orders; and on the Climate Change Bill we were not allowed to debate the crucial amendment increasing the carbon reduction target from 60 to 80 per cent., which doubled the Bill's cost and which many supporters felt did not go far enough.

Moreover, the time saved on debating primary legislation has not been used to scrutinise secondary legislation, which increasingly accounts for the substance of our laws. The proportion of statutory instruments requiring the affirmative procedure considered by the House has fallen from one third in the last three years of the Major Government to just 6 per cent. now and, of the thousands of statutory instruments subject to the negative procedure, the number put to the vote in the Chamber declined from one in 200 under the previous Government-that figure is bad enough-to only one in 1,000 now.

In the present climate, people assume that that proves that Members of Parliament are lazy as well as greedy. I shall say nothing of greed, other than that many hon. Members backed my last ten-minute Bill, even though it sought to cut MPs' pay whenever we give away powers to Europe or the courts. Far from being lazy, most MPs are eager to scrutinise legislation, to hold Ministers to account and to debate the Opposition's policies too-we would willingly do so for longer. It is Ministers, not Back Benchers, who prefer to send Parliament away for as long as possible, because all Governments, not just this one, find it is disagreeable to be scrutinised, criticised and held to account. There is a myth, which has been given a new lease of life by the recent crisis of confidence in Parliament, that debates no longer matter and that MPs are Lobby fodder controlled by ever more powerful Whips. Commentators hark back to the "golden age", when MPs were supposedly more independent-minded, Whips had less power and the Government could get legislation through only by genuinely convincing their own supporters or by winning over some Opposition MPs.

In fact, Professor Cowley's evidence to the Modernisation Committee demonstrates that things have been moving in exactly the opposite direction. When Lord Hailsham described the British constitution as an elective dictatorship, there was a lot of truth in his description. Between 1945 and 1970, there was not a single Government defeat in the House of Commons as a result of Back-Bench dissent. There were two whole Sessions in the 1950s during which not a single Government Member defied their Whip, but since then Back Benchers have become increasingly independent minded in each successive Parliament.

More than 4,300 votes were cast against the Conservative Whip during Margaret Thatcher's Government, and no fewer than 6,500 votes cast against the Labour Whip under this Government. Despite new Labour's passion for discipline and its big majorities, it has faced the largest rebellions this House has seen since the corn laws. Time and again, Labour has only been able to get legislation through by making concessions to critics on its own side, by winning the support of minor parties or by relying on the Opposition. On issues such as 42 days, it had to back down ultimately, as it did recently on the Gurkhas. It may also have to back down on the Post Office, just as John Major's Cabinet did.

One reason MPs are more independent nowadays is that we are in continual dialogue with our constituents in ways that did not happen in the past. They write to us, question us and e-mail back to us. They will not be fobbed off with the official party brief and so we are forced to look at controversial issues in depth. On occasion, in trying to convince our electors that our party's line is correct, we end up convincing ourselves that it needs to change. I believe that that is a good thing. It means that debate matters, scrutiny matters and Parliament matters. But that requires time. I remember a former Labour Chief Whip, the late Lord Cocks, telling me during a late-night sitting, "Peter, time is the only weapon the Opposition have. We can't win the votes, but given time we can win the argument. Given time, we can drum those arguments in until your Ministers lose confidence in their own policies, you lose confidence in them and the public lose confidence in the lot of you." My Bill will give future Oppositions that time, so I know that I can count on the support of all those Labour Members who recognise that they may be sitting on these Benches before too long.

By contrast, some of my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench may have their doubts. Scrutiny is uncomfortable. The first instinct of every Whip is to curtail it if they cannot prevent it entirely. But scrutiny is good for good government. Governments with good policies and confidence in those policies-and with the humility to respond positively to constructive criticism of them-have nothing to fear and much to gain from full and thorough scrutiny in this place. I ask leave to bring in this Bill and set Parliament free to do its job.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr. Peter Lilley, Anne Main, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mr. Christopher Chope, Philip Davies, Mark Fisher, Mr. John Gummer, Dr. Evan Harris, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. Chris Mullin and Mr. Charles Walker present the Bill.

Mr. Peter Lilley accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 July and to be printed (Bill 113).

 

 

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