Previous SectionIndexHome Page

7.16 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I begin on what is, I hope, a harmonious note in what has otherwise been a rather discordant debate. It is rare to see a Member on either Front Bench making a seamless transition from one portfolio to another in the course of a single debate. However, that is the honour that has befallen the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I congratulate her on her appointment as shadow Home Secretary. She brings to that position a comprehensive--indeed, daunting--knowledge of many aspects of the work of the Home Office. I wish her well and look forward to many constructive engagements.

I also offer my good wishes to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who has just retired as shadow Home Secretary. Although we have held many arguments across the Floor of the House, I thank him for the way in which he has conducted those arguments, and for the many private conversations that we have held--as is inevitable and necessary with the work of the Home Office. I also send him my good wishes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made some important points about guillotine motions with which I agree. I accept her point that debate in the House is at its best when it is allowed to flow freely, where there is give and take, and where there is a real dialectical process--I do not use the phrase in a mocking sense--in which propositions are put forward and countered, and progress is made in the thinking of hon. Members on both sides of the House. For that reason, I say--I hope that these remarks will not be taken down, although I accept that they will be--that I have had some reservations about the limit on speeches that has been instituted. The best part of a debate is when one is challenged--either by one's own side or by opponents. That is what makes debate in the House so different from debate almost anywhere else.

15 Jun 1999 : Column 215

That said, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich is right in another respect: on occasion, all Governments have to resort to guillotine motions. The Labour Government are no exception to that rule--any more than the previous Conservative Government were.

Mr. Fabricant: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I shall do so in a second.

Governments resort to guillotine motions when it is not possible to reach agreement through the usual channels on the broad timetable for debates.

I give way to the hon. Member for Lichfield, but I ask him to be brief because time is limited.

Mr. Fabricant: Why did the Government have to up stumps so early last night; and, if that had to be done, why did it have to be done at 10 o'clock? Why not midnight, 1 o'clock or 2 o'clock, which would have allowed us to debate more amendments?

Mr. Straw: I shall come to that point, but let me first finish my more general point.

All Governments have to resort to guillotines when it is not possible to reach a sensible agreement with the Opposition. In the early stages of a 17-year period on the Opposition Front Bench, I, like my colleagues, thought that it would impress the electorate if we filibustered debates. We used the same and well-tried technique as the Opposition used last night, in which colleagues support each other--it is actually quite entertaining and we impress each other, if no one else. I was a party to the use of those techniques and, for quite some time, thought that it would convince our constituents that we were doing the business for them. We used to use similarly high-flown phrases about the end of parliamentary democracy as we knew it and words like "arrogance" when the Government tried to stop us. However, after a while, I discovered that the good people of Blackburn were not terribly impressed.

Miss Widdecombe: The right hon. Gentleman speaks of the failure to reach a sensible agreement, but any failure in respect of any Bill was confined to the Health Bill. Why has he imposed a guillotine on the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which had not been tested in debate on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Straw: Let me come to that point later, along with the point raised by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant).

As I was saying, I remember the Duke of York activities and our discovery that they were less impressive than we had thought. Towards the end of my sojourn on the Opposition Front Bench, I strove hard and usually successfully, even on very contentious Bills, to reach agreement with people renowned outside the House and even among their own junior Ministers--I should point out that I did not share the view--for not being entirely reasonable. I endeavoured to reach agreement on the conduct of debates, and the debates were the better for that and far more impressive than the Opposition running debates through the night.

15 Jun 1999 : Column 216

That brings me to the question of why both Bills have been included in one guillotine motion. Anyone who was in the House last night, as I was, listening to and observing the debate, and anyone who missed that great delight and has had to read the Official Report, will have noted that there was a most serious filibuster. There is no dispute about that--

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): There was not.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman, whom I greatly admire and who is also an Essex man, protests too much--of course there was a filibuster going on and there is no point in getting into a terrible lather about it.

The Opposition had been told on three occasions, without protesting once, that there would be one day for Report and Third Reading of the Health Bill, yet the whole of yesterday was used up debating only a tiny part of that Bill, with no prospect of agreement with the usual channels on the remainder of the Bill. Despite continuing discussions, no undertakings had been forthcoming, and it was becoming palpably clear that, even if we had gone through the night, which would not have impressed anyone, there was no prospect of finishing the Health Bill before the end of the week--still less commencing and finishing proceedings on the Immigration and Asylum Bill. That is why we regretfully had to adopt the procedure of guillotining two Bills in one motion.

The right hon. Members for Maidstone and The Weald and for Sutton Coldfield are not suffering from total amnesia: they have some vague recollection of the period before 1 May 1997, when they were members of a Government. They have had to admit that, every so often and always with regret, the previous Government introduced guillotine motions, and that, because they were adornments on the Treasury Bench for much of that time, they had to vote for them.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said that the Conservatives did not guillotine the sort of Bills that we are guillotining. He said--I paraphrase, but not completely--that they guillotined only really nasty Bills that everyone opposed, and that they did not guillotine soft and cuddly Bills--like the Immigration and Asylum Bill, I suppose. I am sorry to have to disabuse the right hon. Gentleman, but one of the Bills that was guillotined by his Government was one for which there was serious all-party support and which has, on the whole, stood the test of time: on 26 November 1989, the Children Bill was guillotined. There have been few less controversial Bills than that, but it was guillotined.

That brings us to the central charge levelled by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. As a supporter of and then a member of the Conservative Government, she has form and previous convictions for having, time and again, traipsed through the Lobby to vote for a guillotine motion. To try to distinguish her previous convictions from the form that the Labour Government are clocking up, she says that there is a difference between a guillotine motion that guillotines only one Bill and one that guillotines two. She asked, not once, not twice, but three times: when did the previous Government go for a double guillotine? Well, I can tell her when they did that.

To spare the right hon. Lady's blushes, I have not gone back over the full 18 years of Conservative rule; I have taken my evidence only from the middle of 1987,

15 Jun 1999 : Column 217

when she became a Member of Parliament. On 11 November 1988, the School Boards (Scotland) Bill and the Housing Bill were guillotined in a double motion. On 26 November 1989, the Children Bill was guillotined with the Companies Bill. I should point out to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) that, at 167 clauses, there were more clauses in the Companies Bill, which was a single part of that double bill, than are contained in the Health Bill and the Immigration and Asylum Bill combined.

Barely was the ink dry on the double guillotine motion of 26 November 1989 than, two weeks later, November, the Local Government and Housing Bill and the Employment Bill were guillotined together. Finally, to confirm that double guillotines were a serious habit of the Conservative Government, on 13 March 1992, the Finance Bill and the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill were guillotined together.

I have checked the record, in recognition of the possibility that on each of those occasions--November 1988, October 1989, November 1989 and March 1992--the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald might have been absent from the House. After all, she might have been sent on a trip by her right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the then Home Secretary. However, I have to inform her that she is plainly suffering from the most profound amnesia, for on every single occasion that the House was invited by the Conservative Government of which she was a member to vote for a double guillotine, she went into the Lobby to do so. She did not miss a single occasion, so strong was her support for the concept of the double guillotine. [Interruption.] One of my colleagues suggests that the right hon. Lady is a recidivist.

As a Home Office Minister, the right hon. Lady introduced courses in Her Majesty's establishments to address offending behaviour. Before one can address such behaviour, one must admit one's guilt. If people are in denial so complete that they have no knowledge of committing an offence, they cannot go on courses to address their offending behaviour. In her ministerial capacity, the right hon. Lady stressed that, if prisoners did not participate in courses to address their offending behaviour, they could not earn parole and early release. I regret that the right hon. Lady and her right hon. and hon. Friends will have a slow release from the labours of Opposition if they continue in this way.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich that 18 years of opposition was a hard school. There are two ways to oppose the Government. The first is to run at the wall. We tried that method for quite a long time--for too long--and wondered why we had a sore head and why no one was terribly impressed. The second is to debate matters properly, agreeing sensible timetable motions with the Government of the day. That is what we decided to do and, as a result, the then Government achieved its business program and the conduct of parliamentary business improved.

Both of the Bills before us have been the subject of thorough discussion, and the Immigration and Asylum Bill has been considered in a Special Standing Committee. I believe that this motion is entirely justified.

Question put:--

The House divided: Ayes 325, Noes 145.

15 Jun 1999 : Column 218

Next Section

IndexHome Page