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Sittings of the House

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed,


(1) Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business) shall have effect for this Session with the following modifications, namely:

In paragraph (4) the word ‘eight’ shall be substituted for the word ‘thirteen’ in line 42 and in paragraph (5) the word ‘fifth’ shall be substituted for the word ‘eighth’ in line 44;

(2) Standing Order No. 90 (Second reading committees) shall have effect for this Session with the following modification, namely:

In paragraph (2) the word ‘fifth’ shall be substituted for the word ‘eighth’ in line 21; and

(3) Private Members’ Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 29 January; 5 and 26 February; 5 and 12 March; 23 and 30 April; and 7 May.—(David Wright.)

I beg to move amendment (a), line 1, leave out from ‘That’ to end and add—

‘Private Members’ Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 8, 15, 22 and 29 January; 5 and 26 February; 5, 12, 19 and 26 March; 23 and 30 April; and 7 May.’.

It is a great pleasure, at long last, to get to this debate. I was rather surprised by the abrupt manner in which the Government moved their motion, which it has been clear for a considerable length of time that they do not want to discuss. Now that they have eventually been forced to discuss the matter, it has been moved formally. That is an extraordinary abrogation of their responsibility.

Getting this motion to the Floor of the House has taken an enormous amount of time and effort. It was originally listed on the Order Paper on 23 November 2009. On 30 November 2009, my amendment was on the Order Paper, and since that day the motion has been listed at the end of business every day with no chance of debate; it has been objected to by Members across the House each and every day.

Why on earth have Members had to object every evening to force this lame-duck Government to debate something so important to Parliament? What we have on the Order Paper today is an alteration to Standing Orders, particularly to Standing Order No. 14. I shall briefly remind the House what that Standing Order is about—the allocation of time in the House. Principally, it refers to the time that the Government have to organise business. Paragraph (1) says:

“Save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting.”

So except in relation to the other business referred to by two parts of Standing Order No. 14, the Government always control business in the House. That is why we have not been able to debate this motion before.

Standing Order No. 14(2) relates to Opposition days. That has no particular bearing on private Members’ business except in one respect. It says:

“two Friday sittings shall be deemed equivalent to a single sitting”.

In other words, a Friday is looked on as a half day. In theory, business on Fridays starts at 9.30 am. However, in effect, right at the beginning of the day there is always a motion that the House should sit in private; on occasion I have been responsible for that myself. That involves a Division, which takes up 20 minutes, so we are probably talking about only four and a half hours of business on a Friday. It is that four and a half hours, mentioned in the Government’s motion and in my amendment, that I want to discuss today.

The Standing Order protects Parliament and Members of the House by giving 13 Fridays for private Members’ business. There is no dispute about that; Standing Order No. 14(4) states:

“Private Members’ bills shall have precedence over government business on thirteen Fridays in each session to be appointed by the House.”

There are no ifs, buts or ands: 13 Fridays in each Session are to be appointed for that purpose by the House. The problem is that at the moment the House does not have the power to do that; only the Government can bring those 13 days to this House.

There is no mention of applying a pro rata principle to those 13 days because there may be a general election in a particular Session.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman was elected in 2005, as was I, so he may not remember that it has been standard practice, during parliamentary terms that run to a fifth Session, to pro-rata or reduce the number of days for private Members’ Bills. Motions with a similar effect were agreed by the House in both 1991-92 and 1996-97, having been proposed by the then Conservative Administrations. Does the hon. Gentleman want to comment on the fact that that has historically been the case since that time?

I anticipated that that would be the only reasoned objection put forward by the Government. Of course, to say that precedent is the reason why we should do everything the same is to make a pretty hopeless argument; according to that principle, there would be no point in our turning up at all. The hon. Lady has failed to mention the fact that Parliament’s situation is totally different now from what it was a year or so ago. Parliament has fallen in the esteem of this country, and one of the reasons for that is the all-powerful Executive. The hon. Lady talked about private Members’ business in previous years. I was going to talk about that later, but it seems appropriate to mention it now.

The House of Commons Library has produced a helpful booklet called “The Success of Private Members’ Bills”, which discusses the number of private Members’ Bills that have gone through the House and actually become law. As the House will be aware, in the House of Commons there are three ways in which a private Member may get a Bill into law. One is through the ballot, another is by presentation under Standing Order No. 57, and the last is through the ten-minute rule.

In the period that the hon. Lady referred to, under the last Conservative Government—I am not trying to make a party political point here, but she did refer to it—49 private Members’ Bills became law. So far, according to the Library, just eight have become law in this Parliament. That indicates that the Executive are exerting more and more control to get less and less private Members’ business through the House. In fact, since the 2005-06 Session no presentation Bills and no ten-minute Bills have become law, whereas under the Conservative Government seven presentation Bills and seven ten-minute Bills became law. That shows that over that period there has been a dramatic decline in the level of success of private Members’ Bills in this House.

That is because the Executive have become increasingly powerful, increasingly dominant and increasingly determined to get their own way, which is one of the things that people have objected to. Many people have said that Parliament is not relevant any more because the Executive just steamroller through what they want. Those statistics are a clear indication of that tendency.

One way to redress the balance is to have more time in Parliament for private Members’ business: time has to be provided for it. I have already argued that the Standing Order says that 13 Fridays must be provided per Session for such business, which, as I have also argued, equates to six and a half normal days’ debate. However, the motion before us, quite unnecessarily, reduces the number of days available in this Session for private Members’ Bills. My point is that there is no need to do that.

My amendment would restore the 13 days that the Standing Order says the Government have to provide. It does nothing more than that; it just provides the 13 days, which are all Fridays. It does not adopt the Wright report suggestion of moving some private Members’ days to Wednesdays. I have not suggested that any of the sitting Fridays should be in the spring recess—or, for that matter, in the anticipated Easter recess. Of course the Government have not told us when the Easter recess will be, and I am looking to the Deputy Leader of the House to see whether she wants to intervene and enlighten us.

The Government are deliberately and unnecessarily restricting the voice of individual Members of this House in speaking and getting legislation on to the statute book. As far back as 1949, private Members’ Bills went through this House. In that year ballot Bill No. 21 got on to the statute book. So the situation has not always been what we have become accustomed to in the last few years—that only the first couple of Bills have any chance. In 1949 Major Simon Ramsay got the Slaughter of Animals (Scotland) Bill into law, and he came 21st in the ballot.

I know, however, that this Government believe that everything started in 1997, so let us see whether we can find anything in that era that was low down in the ballot but still got on to the statute book. Interestingly, a Bill in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) got on to the statute book, even though it was No. 19 in the ballot. That cannot be done if the House does not provide time for debate. That was in the 1998-99 Session, so it was in the era since “history” began. In 1999-2000 the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas)—No. 20 in the ballot—got the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Bill on to the statute book.

What we have today is complete chaos, and an unprecedented situation. The Government have refused to announce the days on which private Members’ Bills will be heard. On 16 December, we therefore had the ridiculous spectacle of the Members presenting their Bills having no idea on what dates the Second Reading of their private Members’ Bills would be allowed to take place. That is unprecedented, and a complete rejection of Parliament by this Executive, who think they can always get their way.

The Members who presented their Bills may have had some idea, because they had seen the dates in the motion tabled by the Leader of the House day after day after day. Those dates were, with I think one exception, the ones that they took forward for their Bills.

The hon. Lady is right—and that was the behind-the-scenes skulduggery. That was the Executive exerting power over Members, saying “You will take these dates,” even though this House had not agreed to that.

One Member—the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who is in his place—opted to take the next available date, and he was very sensible to do so. If my amendment is approved, his Bill is printed tonight and he lets the Table Office know that he wants to reinstate it, he will have Friday to debate it. So it is not quite correct for the hon. Lady to give the impression that this was a done deal. Yes, other Members were put under pressure. Through that procedure, which is very unfortunate, Members who have chosen their dates cannot move them back. In other words, if my amendment is accepted, Members who have opted for a later date cannot move back to an earlier one.

I have given some thought to that issue, and it seems clear that under Standing Order. No. 57, on presentation of Bills, it is possible for Members to bring very similar Bills that are already known to this House to the back of the Chair. They could then fill the dates that will become available if my amendment is passed.

My amendment does not remove any of the dates that the Government have provided, so people who are satisfied with the date they have can stick to it. However, those who want an earlier date would have an opportunity to take one.

Just to make the situation clear to those who will read this debate, my hon. Friend is suggesting that three spare Fridays in January—before the first one that the Government have proposed—are available, along with two in March. Is it not fair to say that the Government could easily have tabled a motion to suspend the rule, and taken a vote on it and on my hon. Friend’s amendment, at any stage since Parliament returned for the new Session?

Indeed; I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention.

Let me address this issue in a little depth. It has not been sprung on the Government. They proposed this change in the Standing Orders—the motion before us—on 23 November.

A number of hon. Members, including me, have outlined the problem that the motion causes. On 26 November, I raised the matter in business questions, pointing out that on that very day the ballot for private Members’ Bills was taking place, although nobody knew what dates had been allocated, and that the number of days allocated was set to decrease from 13 to eight. I argued that, in effect, the number had decreased to six because some of the dates that the Government had chosen were so late that clearly the general election would be upon us before they were reached.

On 10 December, the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is in his place, brought up the issue in business questions when he asked why we were not having a debate on it. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who speaks for the Liberals on business of the House matters and who is also in his place, has also raised this question. He has also raised the issue of the Wright Committee report, which has a number of things to say about the allocation of time for private Members’ Bills. I might touch on that issue later, if I have time to do so. At the same business questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) brought that matter to the House’s attention. I must pass on his apologies for not being here today. He would like to be participating in this debate, but the Government have clearly organised the business so that this debate is occurring at the exact time when he is leading a debate on immigration in Westminster Hall. I hope that he will have an opportunity to participate in this debate later.

I have also raised a couple of points of order on this issue; on 16 December, I pointed out that with the exception of that in respect of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, the Second Reading dates that were announced were not confirmed. I asked how Members were to know that they would be able to debate their private Members’ business on the given day. I also took the opportunity—there seemed to be no other way of bringing this to the House’s attention in any form of debate—to raise the matter in the Adjournment debate on 16 December. I was hoping that that would provide the Deputy Leader of the House with the chance to argue the Government’s case on this matter, but again they did not take the opportunity to make a defence of their reason for cutting down the voice of Back Benchers. Today, when they had an opportunity to comment on it at the beginning of this debate, all we heard was “I beg to move”. The situation is ludicrous. There is no defence for it and the Government should be ashamed. They should withdraw their motion, but I doubt whether they will do so.

Some people must be wondering whether I have some hidden motive, whether I am secretly hoping to get a Bill through or whether I am down the list on the ballot—I am not in the top 20. They might be wondering whether this is a political thing and whether the Tory party wants to get something through. That is hardly the case because only three of the first 12 private Members who came up in the ballot are Conservatives. There is nothing political about this; this is about Parliament having the opportunity to discuss private Members’ Bills.

I am attracted to one or two Bills. I am attracted to the anti-slavery Bill put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and to his work on tackling human trafficking, but that is not the issue here; the issue here is the time available. I am also attracted to a couple of the proposals relating to the Lisbon treaty.

That leads on nicely to why we must have ample time for debate. There are two reasons to introduce a private Member’s Bill. The first is that a Member wishes to change the law. There have been numerous cases where worthy causes have been taken up and put on the statute book, but that can be done only when time is available. Time needs to be available for Second Reading, for the Committee stage and for Third Reading. I am afraid that if this motion is passed today, nobody will get any of their Bills on to the statute book.

As the hon. Gentleman seems to feel so strongly about this allocation of time, can he tell us whether he is implicitly criticising the two previous Conservative Leaders of the House of Commons, who also reduced the number of sitting days in their fifth Sessions? In the 1996-97 Session, the number of sitting days to discuss these matters was also reduced to eight.

I am certainly not criticising any past Executive or any past political party. This is not about whether there is a Labour Leader of the House or a Conservative one; it is about the power of the Executive to stop private Members getting a say and getting their business through—that is the issue here.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell me what the difference is between reducing, on a pro rata basis, the number of days for considering private Members’ Bills to eight in the 1996-97 Session, as proposed by the previous Conservative Leader of the House, and this motion. I see no difference.

I do not wish to criticise people who were in Parliament when I was not if I have no idea about what the situation was at the time. However, as I have said, a lot more private Bills got through under the Conservative Government; the relevant figure is 49. In 1996-97—the period during which the Deputy Leader of the House claims the time available was shortened—14 balloted private Members’ Bills got on to the statute book. Whatever arrangements were in place then, there was plenty of time for private Members to get their business through and for Bills to obtain Royal Assent. That just will not happen under the current arrangement. I have outlined the figures, which show that the situation has been hopeless under this Government—I believe that two private Members’ Bills got through last year.

My hon. Friend has dealt with the Deputy Leader of the House’s point in a very fair way. What we have not heard from those on the Government Front Bench, either in an intervention or in a speech, is that the issue is whether 8, 15 and 22 January and 19 and 26 March could usefully be provided for the consideration of private Members’ Bills. Perhaps it would be worth my observing that having listened to her I find that she is part of a Government—again, I am not being party political—who have claimed that the historic negatives should no longer rule. Most of their claims have not related to something that did not or did happen in the past; they have said that they have looked at new things. What my hon. Friend is suggesting is a new thing and she has not produced a reason why those five days should not be made available.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, with which I agree entirely. The Government would lose nothing by accepting my amendment, which would merely increase the amount of time that private Members would have available to them to bring business to this House. There are two reasons why private Members bring Bills to this House. As I have discussed, one is to get them into law. I am sure that some of the private Members’ Bills that have been proposed by Labour Back Benchers have much merit, but I am worried that those Members will not have enough time to get the Bills into law and that this House will not have an opportunity to discuss them fully.

The other reason why private Members’ Bills come before this House is so that an issue can be debated and the Government must respond on a substantive motion. We hold useful debates in Westminster Hall—I have referred to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering is leading one at this moment—and very useful Adjournment debates, but they are not on motions that could become law. In addition, such debates are short and the half-hour debates tend just to have the relevant Minister and the Back Bencher speaking, so no real debate takes place. By comparison, when a private Member’s Bill is considered there is a proper debate in this Chamber and everybody takes part.

I agree with my hon. Friend wholeheartedly, and he is doing a tremendous job, as ever, of defending the interests of Back-Bench MPs. Would he agree that one such private Member’s Bill that is tabled for discussion in the next few weeks is that promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), the European Union Membership (Referendum) Bill? That is an issue about which many of our constituents are concerned. If the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) does not succeed today, the chances of that important issue being debated will probably be lost.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. I will not be led down the path of arguing the merits or otherwise of being in this horrendous European Union. It would be wrong of me to do that. However, he is quite right to point out the problem about the debate. He talked about the European Union Membership (Referendum) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell). It is listed provisionally for Second Reading on 26 February. There is no problem with that, except for the fact that it is listed as motion 4 on that day and will never be reached.

More interestingly, and to be non-party political, let us take another Bill as an example: the Lisbon Treaty (Referendum) Bill, which also has much merit and is promoted by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds). It is also listed on 26 February; it is motion 3. Again, that will not be debated, or at least is unlikely to be reached.

Many issues are brought up by Members who want a debate rather than necessarily to get the law changed. They need time for the debates and on occasion the debates are embarrassing for those who sit on the Front Benches of the political parties. I dare say that the Lisbon Treaty (Referendum) Bill will certainly be embarrassing for the Government—

It will be very embarrassing for the Liberal Democrats and it will be interesting for those on my Front Bench.

Irrespective of the issue, we could consider in such a way all 20 Bills that have been proposed. The Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill sounds like a pretty important Bill and is listed as the first to be discussed on 26 February. Why not debate that Bill this Friday? Why not allow the time for the arguments to be heard and, if it is the will of the House, for it to get its Second Reading, to go to Committee and to come back to the House for Third Reading? I just do not understand why the Government have taken this view—

I think that the hon. Gentleman is challenging the principle of having some non-sitting Fridays. On this side of the House, we believe that Members need time to discharge their duties in their constituencies as well as in this House. The system of non-sitting Fridays was introduced, I understand, on the recommendation of the former Conservative Chief Whip, Lord Jopling, and has been widely welcomed since its introduction by Members in all parties as they have that time to discharge duties in their constituencies. Given the difficulties that have gripped our constituencies —certainly mine—over the last couple of days due to the extreme weather, it is pretty important that Members should have the chance to get back there.

Fridays are important for constituency work, but I do constituency work every day of the week. We are talking about 13 Fridays a Session, and, basically, only the mornings of those days. I do not think that the hon. Lady’s argument washes. She failed to say that on a Friday it is only Members who are interested in a particular Bill who turn up, and not the whole House. If the hon. Lady can guarantee that the whole House will turn up on the eight days that she has suggested, so it would be her motion that would give them the other Fridays off, I might be inclined to think again about the motion. Of course, that is not at all what the motion is about. The motion is about restricting the voice of this House.

The hon. Lady’s helpful intervention leads me to “Rebuilding the House”, the first report of the 2008-09 Session by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons. It talks about the timing of private Members’ Bills and states:

“The House should be responsible for ensuring that merely procedural devices cannot obstruct Private Members’ Bills, and that they are brought to a decision.”

The Government are using the procedural device of suspending Standing Orders to obstruct private Members’ Bills.

The shadow Leader of the House also argued that there is a problem with Fridays. “Rebuilding the House” suggests in paragraph 193 that Wednesday evenings could be used for private Members’ Bills. I have not sought to go that far, but it would overcome entirely the hon. Lady’s objection that too many Fridays will be used up. If I could have a guarantee from the shadow Leader of the House before the end of the debate that instead of using the Fridays that are free, they will put the extra five days’ business on Wednesdays, I would more than happily withdraw my amendment and accept the shadow Leader of the House’s words—

I apologise. Because of her ability, I just assumed that she was Leader. As Deputy Leader of the House, she might want to take some advice before responding. I hope that at some stage we will hear the Government’s view on the motion. To say that they have been silent is not quite correct, but “I beg to move” is hardly a good enough argument for a motion that has been on the Order Paper since 23 November and has been objected to by Members of the House on every single evening since.

I have not gone as far as the Committee, but have accepted the current situation, because for some reason the Committee’s report has not been debated by the House.

Let me move on to my amendment. It is straightforward and restores the 13 days. It says that

“Private Members’ Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 8, 15, 22 and 29 January; 5 and 26 February”—

that suggests that I have not called for debate on every single Friday, as the hon. Lady suggested. In fact, I was very careful not to interfere with the spring recess. I also selected

“5, 12, 19 and 26 March”

and I have not suggested another private Members’ Bills day until 23 April. Although I do not know the dates for the Easter recess, I know when Easter is so I have allowed for those Fridays, too. I think the hon. Lady was being slightly harsh on me in suggesting that I had picked on every Friday.

I have not heard the argument, but perhaps it will be made at some stage, that there is not enough time for Bills to be printed and prepared for a debate on 8 January—this Friday. However, we already know that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome could get his Bill then and he could probably have a whole sitting on it, so it is possible. The reason that the Bills have not been printed is that the Government failed under Standing Order No. 14 to provide the dates that they said they would provide and which they are required to do by Standing Orders.

I take what might be an old-fashioned view that Standing Orders exist to protect Parliament—I am sure that is correct—and particularly to protect Back-Bench Members of Parliament and Opposition Members of Parliament against the power of the Executive. Year after year we have seen the Government—the Executive—take more and more power, no matter which party has been in control. This year is a turning point. Parliament has been brought into disrepute by what happened last year. People are demanding that Parliament assert itself and become more independent of the Executive. It is amazing that in a year when people are saying that, the Government propose to cut the time for Back-Bench debate.

The Government would lose nothing by providing those extra Fridays. All it would mean is that a Minister would have to turn up on a Friday five more times than is suggested by the Government. Although this is a small piece of the overall reform of Parliament, it is exceptionally important that the Government realise that cutting off difficult debate is not in their interest. They have made that mistake time and again since I have been in Parliament. By reducing the amount of time allowed through programme motions, debate has not carried on and parts of Bills have not even been scrutinised. That is a failure of the Government. The more an item is debated, the more the Government can put their point of view.

I come back to the question that I have already put to the hon. Gentleman. Are members of his Front-Bench team in agreement with the points that he is making? He keeps speaking about cutting off debate and denying Back-Bench Members the chance for debate, but we have allocated private Members’ Bill days pro rata in a short Session, exactly as was done in 1996-97 and 1991-92, under a Conservative Administration. If he chooses to condemn an Administration for that, I invite him to condemn earlier ones too, and to tell the House whether members of his Front-Bench team agree with what he is doing today.

If I stood up and said that my Front-Bench team agreed with me and that I had the approval of the Whips Office, with my reputation no one would believe me. It would be wholly wrong. I have no idea what members of my Front-Bench team will say on the matter. I hope my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire will have an opportunity to speak. He has made it clear in the House that he was amazed and dismayed at the failure of the Government to bring the motion before the House before Christmas so that we could have a debate.

In answer to the hon. Lady, I refer to Standing Orders. I have the 2009 edition, which has not changed in relation to Standing Order No. 14. It says that the House must allocate 13 days in each Session for private Members’ Bills on Fridays. I shall read Standing Order No. 14(4), which in my booklet is on page 16. It states:

“Private Members’ bills shall have precedence over government business on thirteen Fridays in each session to be appointed by the House.”

That Standing Order could go on and say, as the Deputy Leader of the House would like it to say, that that should be pro rata if there is to be a general election in that Session. Standing Orders do not say that. If the Government wanted to change Standing Orders to say that, they would have to provide that in the following Session, which would be a longer Session, more than 13 Fridays would be allowed. But that is not what the Standing Order says. Why not? It is because of the ballot. I have put in for the ballot every year since I entered the House and come nowhere near the top 20. If one is in that top 20, one expects to have an opportunity to get one’s voice heard. That is what the Standing Orders are about, and that is what the Government just do not get.

I apologise to my hon. Friend and to the House for having been at a Transport Committee sitting, but I have watched the annunciator screen with some admiration, thinking of the pearls of wisdom that my hon. Friend will have been delivering while I have not been in the Chamber. He rightly said that Standing Orders say that there shall be 13 sitting Fridays—not that if the Session is longer, there should be more than 13. They say exactly 13. I have been a Member for 20-plus years and have, therefore, sat through long Sessions and short Sessions. On every occasion that I have ever known a Session to go beyond its length of time, there never have been more than 13 such sittings. Not only do the Standing Orders not say that there must be more, there have not been any more. Is my hon. Friend aware of any occasion when there have been more than 13? That is the most powerful part of the argument: if it has to be 13, it has to be 13.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, and that is exactly the point. Standing Orders are absolutely clear: 13 Fridays are set aside for private Members’ business in each Session. They do not talk about reducing the number in a short Session or extending the number in a long Session. We cannot extend the number of Fridays for private Members’ business unless we suspend Standing Orders, and I return to my original argument that Standing Orders exist to protect this Parliament and this House against the power of the Executive. I have yet to hear from the Deputy Leader of the House why the surplus Fridays that we are not using before a general election can be held cannot be used. She has been keen to pop up and down to intervene, but she has never answered that question.

I have said that our having had to wait until today to debate this motion is ridiculous, and that private Members have presented their Bills without knowing the date of their Second Reading. The elephant in the House, however, is that we know that there will be a general election, although not when that general election will be called.

If Standing Orders say that 13 Fridays should be set aside, it is surely logical, in a year when there will be a general election, to take the first Friday available and run things on from there. That would give more Members the chance of a Second Reading at which their Bills might be debated, and it would give their Bills more chance of going into and coming out of Committee. The hon. Lady keeps referring to previous Executives, saying, “They cut the number of sittings down,” but if we look at the statistics we find that many more Bills got through: 49 in the final Parliament of the Conservative Government, against eight under this control-freak Executive.

I do not want to take up a lot of time on what I believe to be an exceptionally important matter, because I know about the adverse weather conditions.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for not having been present at the beginning of his contribution; I was at a sitting of the Procedure Committee. I have the privilege of being a co-signatory to his amendment, however, and not having listened to the whole debate, I wondered whether he would be minded to put his proposed change to the vote. If he were so minded, I would be very supportive of it.

I am certainly not going to go over what I have said, because that would be to unfair on other hon. Members who want to speak. However, the issue is very simple: my amendment would restore the 13 Fridays. The trouble is that Standing Orders provide us with a problem, because they say that the House must bring forward 13 days. However, one cannot bring anything forward in this House; the Executive do so.

It may be that in future the reforms proposed in “Rebuilding the House” bring about a House business committee, and I sincerely hope that there will be such a committee and that this problem will never happen again. We have had to wait until today, however, and I think it was only the fact that the Government eventually realised that somebody would turn up at the end of every day’s business to object that forced them to have a debate. If Standing Orders are to be changed or suspended on a matter so important as restricting the amount of time for private Members’ Bills, we must have a little debate on it. We cannot just allow that to get through on the nod.

Here lies the failure of this Executive. This would never have happened under a different Executive. It would probably not have happened even with a different Prime Minister of the same party. It seems to me that we are making a grave mistake if we allow this motion to go through today.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), I do seek to put my amendment to the vote. Before closing, I just want to make it clear again to all hon. Members that supporting my amendment will comply with the Standing Orders and restore 13 Fridays for private Members’ Bills, while in no way affecting Members who have already selected the days for their Second Reading, as all the days that they have selected are covered by my amendment. The amendment would add and free up five more days for ordinary Members to have a chance to instigate legislation and either hear the arguments debated or get the matter raised and eventually introduced into law.

I am very pleased to hear that my hon. Friend wants to put the matter to a vote. In reply to an intervention by the Minister, he quite properly said that he was a Back Bencher and did not wish to best-guess what any Front Benchers might think. If I understand it correctly, however, all three main parties have said that they hope to see more power for Parliament and more power and responsibility for Back Benchers in future. It is quite safe to say that all the parties’ Front Benchers also think that. By putting his amendment to the vote, is not my hon. Friend offering the House an opportunity for Back Benchers to indicate that they support the view of their Front Benchers? In voting for the amendment, one is voting for more power for Back Benchers to have the time to which they are entitled. The vote is crucial; it provides a chance to see who agrees with their own Front-Bench team.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, in which he makes a valid point. All the Front-Bench teams signed up to “Rebuilding the House”, the Wright report, and it was the Government who drew up a motion for that report to come into being. What they have unfortunately not done is debate the report. That again is an amazing situation. A vote would be a little test, would it not, for the House today. I am sure that all parties are going to allow a free vote; I cannot believe that any party political matter is attached to the vote. It seems quite reasonable for MPs to say that they are going to restore the power of Parliament in a small way by having the voice of Back Benchers heard. As I said, the House needs to be aware of that point in considering my amendment.

One of the problems we currently have with Fridays is the abysmal attendance. I am not quite sure how I am going to vote on my hon. Friend’s amendment, but his answer to this question may well be the deciding factor. If his amendment is accepted, will he give an undertaking that he will be here personally on each of the Fridays listed in it?

I do not know whether this will encourage my right hon. Friend to vote for my amendment, but I would be here on each of those Fridays.

I thought that my right hon. Friend might be about to mention the suggestion in the “Rebuilding the House” report that we should have sittings to discuss private Members’ Bills on Wednesdays. I have already said that I would not press my amendment to a vote if the Deputy Leader of the House, who has now had time to consider that offer, were to suggest that we should keep the Fridays listed in the Government motion and add five Wednesdays, which would bring more people to the debates. I would be more than happy not to press my amendment to a vote in those circumstances, and I wonder whether she would like to intervene to give me her view on that. So far, the Government have said only, “I beg to move”.

Again, I apologise for not having been here at the beginning of the debate. Has my hon. Friend received any indication from the Government on whether, in the most unlikely event of their being re-elected in the general election, they would be minded to allow more than 13 Fridays for private Members’ Bills in what would be the long first Session of that new Parliament?

My hon. Friend raises an issue that I touched on earlier, although in a slightly different way, when I said that Standing Orders do not allow for more than 13 such sittings per Session. The next Session will, however, be much longer than usual. If the general election is in June, the next Session could run until the November of next year. In a Session lasting a normal calendar year, one would have 13 such sittings, but one would expect more in a longer Session. I know, however, that Standing Orders would not permit that. It would therefore be necessary to table another Government motion to extend the number of sittings for private Members’ Bills in the next Session to—

Indeed. My hon. Friend is slightly quicker at maths than I am.

I would certainly consider withdrawing my amendment if the Deputy Leader of the House were to pop up and say that the Government would table another motion on the timing of private Members’ Bills, so that there could be 18 such sittings in the next Session. Again, however, there is a deathly silence—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is repeating himself. He has done so twice while I have been in the Chair, and, on his own admission, he has also repeated something that he said earlier. We are not like a cinema in continuous performance for the benefit of people arriving late. I suggest that he speak strictly to the terms of his amendment, which he has now done for some considerable time.

Will my hon. Friend confirm what he was saying earlier about his willingness to withdraw his amendment if the Government responded positively? He mentioned taking private Members’ Bills on a Wednesday. I assume that he means that those debates would take place after the moment of interruption on a Wednesday, and not as part of the main business—

Order. I hope that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) will not be distracted by the distinguished Chairman of the Procedure Committee on matters of that kind. We are not talking about Wednesdays in this amendment; we are talking about Fridays.

I want to be very clear that my amendment does not seek to change the precedent of discussing private Members’ Bills on Fridays. I have deliberately not gone down that route, because it would involve a change to Standing Orders. My amendment simply seeks to make the House do what it says that it should do, which is to have 13 sittings for private Members’ Bills. I have a problem, however, in that we have not heard the Government’s arguments at all. The only words we have heard from them are, “I beg to move”, and a few interventions. I am therefore trying to anticipate what they might have said in putting forward an alternative argument.

I am mindful of what you said about Wednesdays, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which is quite right, but can my hon. Friend tell us why he chose the Fridays in his amendment? What is the significance of those particular Fridays?

Order. The hon. Gentleman, by his own admission, was unable to be here for a large part of the debate. Those points have been covered, and I shall have to invoke Standing Orders on repetition against the hon. Member for Wellingborough if he is tempted down that line.

I am certainly not tempted down that line, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My amendment does not break Standing Orders in any way. The Government could have chosen the Fridays that I have chosen. None of them will be in a recess, including the anticipated Easter recess. Between each, enough days are provided for the presentation and publication of Bills, and there are enough days for the House to consider them. That is why 18 January could and should have been used.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not being in the Chamber earlier in the debate. Constituency work kept me away, as I sat here throughout yesterday.

In his commentaries on the amendment, has the hon. Gentleman been able to point out the comparison between this House and the US Congress? Congressmen make a very great merit with their constituents of legislation that they have personally got on to the statute book. Does not that emphasise the importance of the amendment, and of maximising the number of days available in the remainder of the time of this Parliament?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his point and that is on the record, but I do not want to be drawn into making comparisons with the US Senate. Clearly, the US Executive are outside Congress and the Executive here are in the House.

It is very good news that the Government Chief Whip has turned up to listen to and encourage debate in the House on more time for parliamentary business. I am really pleased to see him here and I hope he has an opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a little later.

Other hon. Members may wish to speak in the debate, and I shall take this opportunity to conclude my remarks. By supporting my amendment, the House would not demur from anything in the Government motion and it would not affect any Member who has already selected a day.

The motion in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House provides for private Members’ Bills to be considered on eight Fridays, rather than the 13 provided for in Standing Order No. 14(4), and appoints the days.

As I indicated earlier, we are, for the first time since 1997, in the fifth Session of a Parliament. That is key in the context of the motion. We know that the current Session must end no later than 10 May this year. That means that there could be a maximum of only 82 sitting days, including the eight Fridays proposed in the motion, which compares with an average of 158 sitting days per Session since 2001. The motion therefore reduces the number of sitting Fridays pro rata to match the length of the Session. As I have indicated a number of times in interventions, in 1991-92 and 1996-97, motions with a similar effect were proposed by the then Conservative Administrations and agreed by the House.

The remaining provisions of the motion are consequential on the change in the number of days. They bring forward from the eighth to the fifth Friday the earliest date on which a Bill may be referred to a Second Reading Committee, and the date on which Bills start to take precedence according to how much progress they have made rather than simply according to the order in which they were introduced.

The motion is not about restricting Members in any way. The Leader of the House tabled a motion, which announces dates pro rata to the length of the Session. The opposition of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) has so far prevented the dates from being set. We are considering a routine House motion, which is necessary to adapt the House’s private Member’s Bill procedures to the shorter fifth Session.

The motion will allow the private Members’ Bill process to continue in an orderly and predictable manner for hon. Members who have been fortunate enough in the ballot to make progress with their measures. I commend it to the House.

I am glad that the Government have finally allowed us to debate this matter—the motion and the amendment have been on the Order Paper since 23 November. I have raised the failure to resolve the matter in business questions, as have other hon. Members. Until today, there has been no certainty about the dates for discussing private Members’ Bills. Again, the Government seemed to expect that they could assume Members’ support when they timetabled House business. When opposition was expressed in the form of an amendment, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) tabled, the Government assumed that they could get the motion through on the nod at the end of the day’s business rather than allowing proper discussion, which we are now having. That is not right and it has been raised in the report, which my hon. Friend mentioned, about allowing the House more control over its business. Under the Wright scenario, I suspect that we would not have had the problems that my hon. Friend described.

However, that is a debate for another day, together with whether we move private Members’ Bills from Fridays to Wednesdays. I commend my hon. Friend’s defence of private Members’ Bills, which was made with no self-interest because I am afraid that he was not successful in the ballot. It is important that the House jealously protects private Members’ time. I say that as someone who was successful in the ballot in 1997, when my main problem was not time, but Eric Forth. Getting the Bill round him was the major task, and, indeed, we did that.

Of course, I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s desire to maximise the number of days for private Members’ Bills. However, the Government’s proposal to act pro rata and move to a lower number to reflect the shorter Session is right. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, it is in line with previous practice.

My hon. Friend made several compelling points, some more compelling than others. However, one of his more compelling points was that in a shorter Session, the number of days decreases, but in a longer Session, the number does not increase. The House may want to revert to that in the context of the Wright debate and allocating the future business of the House.

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Can he, on behalf of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, say that if a Conservative Government were elected later this year, they would take account of the extra length of the Session and allow more private Members’ Fridays?

The short answer is no and the longer answer is probably also no, because the House has yet to debate the Wright report, whether we should have a business committee and how time should be allocated in future. I approach that with an open mind. I served on the Wright Committee and I have much sympathy with it, but I cannot today commit any future Administration to an increase in the pro rata number from 13 to 18 or a higher number, which my hon. Friend ingeniously tries to tempt me to do.

On this occasion, I propose to support the Government’s motion.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) had no personal interest in the matter. However, I have enormous personal interest, having been successful in the ballot, albeit in a lowly position this year—not that one’s position in the ballot makes much difference to making progress with private Members’ legislation, because some Government Whip need only shout “Object” for a measure to fall, as I found out in the previous Session. Nevertheless, were the amendment accepted, it would allow time to enable my important School Transport Bill, which would provide for a yellow bus system in this country—greatly to the advantage of children throughout the country and, indeed, the environment—to progress, or at least be debated.

However, the difficulty is typified by the debate. The Executive, not the House, prioritise the House’s time for debate. The Executive decide what will happen and put that before the House, and only the Executive are allowed to do so. Answering on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, the right hon. Gentleman says he is unable to commit his party to taking a different position if it were to form the Executive in future, so the Executive would still have control of the business of the House. Back Benchers of all parties do not have as much control of the House’s business as I think they should have.

All of that would be corrected if we could make progress on the proposals in the Wright Committee report. I do not intend to debate them today, because they are not the substance of the issue before us, but making progress on that would have the following two results: first, we would never in future have before us another such motion in the name of a Minister; secondly, we would no longer have rationing of days by the Executive. Instead, that would be determined by a committee of the House. It would consider the rationale of all of this and whether it is appropriate to make the abatement which is the substance of the motion, and we would have the option to consider whether Wednesdays are a better day than Fridays for the consideration of private Members’ business.

So much is wrong with the current procedures for private Members’ business. So many obstacles are put in the way of making rational progress on what may be very commendable Bills, and it appears to me that the will of the House is the last thing to be considered in respect of both the time made available for Bills and whether a Bill goes ahead. It is too simple to scupper something from a sedentary position, rather than debating matters and allowing the House to determine the result.

Order. I have to say to the hon. Member that although he said he did not wish to have a wider debate, he seems now to be indulging in just that. He must come back to the amendment before the House today.

The amendment and the motion, I think, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course, the motion sets out the Fridays on which private Member’s Bills can be considered, and I was considering the procedure that would be applied on those Fridays were the House to agree to them. My contention is simply that the procedure is in desperate need of reform. That is one of the key reforms put forward in the proposals, but it is typical of this Government that we have these proposals and they never get debated. Week after week, we ask at business questions for them to be debated.

Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not being deliberately difficult, but he is now talking about the wider issue. He is perfectly correct to say that we are talking about the Fridays listed in the motion and the alternative Fridays in the amendment, but we should not be talking about the wider issues that may come out of the investigations of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee.

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being inadvertently obtuse by not responding more promptly to your very clear instruction. I was attempting to say that such behaviour is typical of the Government in respect of the motion before us, as it has some of the key features: it is a motion, take it or leave it, and it has not been debated by the House until now. We have asked week after week for it to be debated. On each and every occasion that it has been listed for debate, the hon. Member for Wellingborough or one of his hon. Friends has shouted “Object”, and therefore it has not been debated. Had the Government wished to do so, they could have brought forward this debate at any stage in the last few weeks. It would have been in order for them to have done so. It would have been proper for them to have done so before the First Reading of private Members’ Bills shortly before Christmas, but they did not do so. That is one reason why the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

When I was asked for the date of the Second Reading of my own private Member’s Bill, I said, “Tomorrow,” rather than name a specific date, none of which we knew at that stage because the House had not agreed to the timetable that is the substance of the Deputy Leader of the House’s proposal. Because the House had not agreed that, I did not feel that I could assume either that the House would agree to the motion or that the hon. Gentleman’s amendment would not be agreed to. I found myself in some difficulty, therefore, which is why I said, “Tomorrow,” when asked about the date for the Second Reading of my Bill.

Will the hon. Gentleman briefly remind me of the Bill for which he thinks it so important to provide time for discussion in the House?

At the risk of repeating myself and incurring the wrath of Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is the School Transport Bill, which in my opinion is a very important Bill, because it deals with matters affecting every schoolchild in this country, road-user safety and the inappropriate use of many vehicles on the morning school run. I am keen, therefore, that the Bill be given an opportunity, on one of these Fridays, to be debated, but I honestly do not believe that it will be if the motion is passed. But that is my misfortune. I should have arranged to be drawn No. 1 in the ballot, rather than No. 19. That way I would at least have ensured a Second Reading. However, it does not alter my view that private Members’ business is important, that we should find proper opportunities to debate it and that we need to reform procedures of the House so that we do not get motions of the sort presented by the hon. Lady today.

I agree with an interesting point that the hon. Member for Wellingborough made. I do not think that Standing Orders currently provide for the procedure that appears to be accepted by everyone and which has been used previously. I do not think that the change proposed by the hon. Lady is provided for. Now, perhaps it should be. Perhaps there should be a provision in Standing Orders relating the number of days devoted to private Members’ business to the length of the Session. That would be perfectly logical and is probably a view shared by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. There is logic in saying that there should be more days for a long Session and fewer for a short Session, and I do not think that any of us would disagree with that. However, if that is the intention, the House should decide and Standing Orders should provide for it, not for what on the face of it is the absolute opposite, which is an absolute number of days to be provided by the House—not Ministers—for the consideration of private Members’ legislation.

I am glad that we have finally had an opportunity to debate this matter. I have no idea why it had to be delayed for so long, other than the normal cloth-eared intransigence of the Conservative Front Bench—[Interruption.] I mean the Government Front Bench. I am sure that the Conservatives will be just as cloth-eared and intransigent when, and if, they ever form a Government, but we shall see—let us give them the benefit of the doubt, for the moment. However, we should have debated the matter earlier, and I certainly shall advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to make their own decisions on whether to support the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Wellingborough, because this is a House matter, not one to be determined by Front Benchers of whatever complexion.

I am grateful to the Liberal Democrat spokesman for anticipating a possible result of the certain general election. The problem here is caused by the expiry of Parliament in May. The Government, who must have known that this was coming, ought to have suggested that there be two private Members’ days in each sitting month. That would have solved the problem. It would give us roughly the 13 days that we want by working out the number of private Members’ days in proportion to the number of weeks on which we are sitting.

That does not mean that all private Members’ Bills would be either discussed or necessarily passed. In memory of Eric Forth, there is what I call the Chope-Dismore choke. Any private Member’s Bill has to get through this little parliamentary interest. Many of the concerns of those who promote these Bills are not about the people who object sitting down but about those who discuss the merits of the Bills and their possibilities on their feet—clearing their throats, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) did with some distinction and effect this afternoon.

My hon. Friend is not suggesting, is he, that he does not think it a good idea that such Bills should be properly debated in the House?

I certainly think it right that such Bills should be discussed, and I admire the way in which my hon. Friend manages to do that so effectively and, often, so extensively.

If the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) were passed today, one of its inadvertent consequences would be that most of those days would be devoted to consideration of the nine Bills presented by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) earlier today.

I will not deviate from what I intended to say, which is not as extensive as it would be if I followed every remark that the hon. Gentleman felt he ought to have made in his speech and that he has decided to put into mine.

The reason for supporting the amendment is a simple one. Liberty and responsibility are things that people take; they are not things that are given. We should be saying to the establishment, which is represented at the moment by the Deputy Leader of the House and rather elegantly by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the shadow Leader of the House, who can see all the proper considerations, that if this House—that basically means those who are free to vote as they wish—votes as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough suggests, we will be taking responsibility for our affairs and using the liberty of our votes to say that we want those days for ourselves. I believe that we should do exactly that.

I finish by making an observation that was made yesterday as well. It is rare that a Government motion, whether it be a motion on a Bill or a motion such as that which we are debating now, is discussed in the House—not put through on the nod, but discussed—and not a single Government Back Bencher speaks in favour of it.

Very briefly, I should like to put on record my admiration for my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), who ensured that we got this debate by persistently blocking the motion on the Order Paper and not allowing it to go through on the nod. His amendment is first class. I am delighted that I was able to support it, and I look forward to voting for it soon.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Main Question put and agreed to.



(1) Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business) shall have effect for this Session with the following modifications, namely:

In paragraph (4) the word ‘eight’ shall be substituted for the word ‘thirteen’ in line 42 and in paragraph (5) the word ‘fifth’ shall be substituted for the word ‘eighth’ in line 44;

(2) Standing Order No. 90 (Second reading committees) shall have effect for this Session with the following modification, namely:

In paragraph (2) the word ‘fifth’ shall be substituted for the word ‘eighth’ in line 21; and

(3) Private Members’ Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 29 January; 5 and 26 February; 5 and 12 March; 23 and 30 April; and 7 May.