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Parliamentary Scrutiny

Volume 497: debated on Thursday 15 October 2009

16. What recent representations she has received on increasing the time available on the Floor of the House and in Committee for hon. Members to scrutinise legislation. (293083)

20. What recent representations she has received on increasing the time available on the Floor of the House and in Committee for hon. Members to scrutinise legislation. (293087)

Order. May I interrupt the hon. Lady momentarily? I think that the question is to be grouped—am I right?

I will start again. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House receives representations on this issue from time to time. The Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons and the Procedure Committee are currently considering the timetabling of business.

Does the Minister realise that many people are sick to the back teeth of many important decisions being taken in this House without any proper debate or consideration? Given that the decisions of this place affect people’s lives and livelihoods, does she not agree that the timetable for debates should be there to facilitate comprehensive scrutiny of legislation, not for the convenience of her and her Back Benchers?

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will answer both these questions together. [Interruption.] I am answering the first question.

Order. If there is confusion, let it be dispelled once and for all. This question is grouped with Question 20.

There have been a number of measures to increase the quality of scrutiny, but we are clearly interested in following up any new recommendations that come forward from the two Committees that are looking into the matter. In terms of measures that have made a big difference, pre-legislative scrutiny has taken place on, for instance, the Constitutional Renewal Bill and the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. Evidence taking in Public Bill Committees has greatly improved Bills such as the Equality Bill. However, there is always a balance between the scrutiny of Government Bills and debates on other Bills. We are awaiting recommendations from the Committees, and we will consider any ideas that come forward with great interest.

I am very grateful for the Minister’s reply. However, can we not have at least a minimum time for Report stage and Third Reading—perhaps by using these effectively empty Thursdays after lunch, for example?

I have to say that in the current environment a defence debate is not an empty debate to be holding on a Thursday afternoon. There are vital issues involved, and when the usual channels—the business managers—consider those issues there is never any suggestion of moving defence debates or swapping them round with anything else, which is quite right in the current environment. That is not a fair comment from the hon. Gentleman at all. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the issue is under considerable review—hon. Members are contributing to the discussion and debate—and we are only a few weeks away from having recommendations in a report.

May I suggest that it is not necessarily a case of making more time available but of making better use of the time earmarked for debate? In my 12 and a half years on these Benches and nine years on the Chairmen’s Panel, it has seemed to me that during proceedings in Committee or on the Floor of the House there has been an increasing tendency for Front-Bench speakers on both sides to filibuster to fill the time available instead of letting Back Benchers in. Can we give more powers to those on the Chairmen’s Panel, and indeed encourage the Speaker himself, who has made a brilliant start in this respect, to clamp down on filibustering to allow more time for debate?

I will answer that question very briefly, as is only fair regarding somebody who was Back Bencher of the year. I would not want to stray into issues of chairing sittings, but Front-Bench speakers will have heard what has been said. It is perhaps up to you, Mr. Speaker, to remind Front Benchers of that duty.

Over the past 18 months, numerous Bills have passed through Committee and Report stage without any debate on selected amendments or, as is often the case, with new clauses put forward by the Government at the last minute. As we have just heard, there is deep concern on both sides of the House that important legislation such as the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, the Planning Act 2008 and the Coroners and Justice Bill has gone through without proper scrutiny. Such practice simply leads to bad laws, so will the hon. Lady undertake to review the automatic use of programme motions, which is so crucial to this whole debate and therefore allow proper scrutiny of important legislation?

I have to say that the programming is agreed on all sides. [Interruption.] Yes, it is. I can only refer back to my previous answer and say that I understand that Members are impatient on this issue, but it is being considered at the moment. We will have recommendations from the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons in a few weeks’ time, and we will consider them when they come forward.