Charles Walker moves motion to encourage better informed debate

In his role of Chairman of the Procedure Committee, Charles Walker moves a motion to permit explanatory statements to amendments to Bills, as a short explanation will enable better informed debate.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House approves the recommendation contained in paragraph 21 of the Procedure Committee’s Fourth Report of Session 2012-13, Explanatory statements on amendments, HC 979, noting that the Public Bill Office will assist Members as required in the preparation of such statements.

The motion stands in my name and that of my right hon. Friends the Leader of the House of Commons and the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and my predecessor as Chair of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight).

I note that I may detain the House into the small hours of tomorrow morning if I so wish. That is a tempting proposition, as I have lots of scores to settle with many colleagues. However, as I quite like getting elected to things I will not, on this occasion, detain the House for long and will make a very short speech. I hope that colleagues will make very short speeches too, and that we can wend our way into the night for an evening of fun, frolicking and frivolity.

The report “Explanatory statements on amendments” is a serious piece of work undertaken, in the main, by my predecessor, and I was lucky enough to inherit it in October last year. The Committee is saying that explanatory statements to amendments are an extremely good thing: they allow for informed debate, and for people to have an understanding of what those tabling amendments are trying to achieve. We have, however, taken a permissive, rather than a prescriptive, view. We believe that the Government, if given the opportunity to do so, will want to do the right thing, and that the right thing is to put forward explanatory statements to amendments. I look at the Chief Whip and the Deputy Leader of the House and see two people totally committed to doing the right thing. They have done the right thing throughout their parliamentary careers—one of those careers has lasted for more than 40 years—and I am certain that that will continue to be the case for what remains of their illustrious parliamentary careers. I note that the Chief Whip is not smiling too much, so I will move on.

Sir Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that when considering changes to our procedures we should never do anything that might discourage scrutiny? Does he share my concerns that the amendment to the motion, if passed, could act as a deterrent to some amendments being tabled?

Mr Walker: One reason for not taking a prescriptive approach is that a disorderly explanatory statement attached to a reasonable amendment—perhaps one tabled in a short amount of time—might lead to it not getting on to the Order Paper, thus restricting debate.

To return to my central point, I believe that Members of Parliament, the Government and the Opposition should want to do the right thing, and I am hopeful that they will do the right thing. If they do not do the right thing, it would be reasonable for the House and the Procedure Committee to revisit the issue in the not-too-distant future.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I am disappointed by the weakness of the hon. Gentleman’s argument so far. I hope it is going to get a bit better. How can explaining one’s amendment possibly be a deterrent to debate? His confidence in his colleagues’ willingness to do the right thing is somewhat undermined by the fact that they did not do that when there was a pilot. If, as he says, he wants people to do this, why does he not make it mandatory, rather than just hoping they will do it despite evidence that they will not?

Mr Walker: I think the hon. Lady has indicated that it was not the case that the Government tabled amendments in the pilot, but at the Committee stage of the Small Charitable Donations Bill 42 amendments were tabled by Back Benchers, the Government and the Opposition, and 40 of them had explanatory statements. On Report, all 37 amendments had explanatory statements. If I am misreading that, I apologise.

I have more faith in this place than the hon. Lady. I have faith in my colleagues and believe that, given the opportunity to do the right thing, they will do the right thing. The fantastic thing about the Procedure Committee and about bringing reports to the Floor of the House is that it is open to the House to amend them. This is a vehicle for change. I note that she and colleagues have tabled an amendment, and it will be for the House to decide the way forward, not me, as Chairman of the Committee, or its other members. I will not detain the House much longer. I am sorry that the Committee’s report comes as such a disappointment to a number of colleagues, but I repeat that it is within their gift to amend it, and I hope that they do.

In conclusion, I would simply add that a team of Clerks are champing at the bit to help Back-Bench colleagues attach explanatory statements to their amendments. They are ready, waiting and willing to do these things. I also hope that there is an army of Whitehall civil servants wanting to seize the day and impress their Ministers with their diligence and brilliance. I look, too, at the Opposition, in all their glory, and know that, despite our living in straitened times with limited resources, they will turn to their researchers and their special advisers—they are not really special advisers, but that is what they are called—and will demand that they step up to the plate and provide explanatory statements. I appreciate that it will not be possible on all occasions, but let us make this a new beginning for the way we conduct business in this place. If the House does not take this opportunity, however, the Committee will revisit the matter and bring forward more prescriptive recommendations.

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