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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Is the Minister telling us that, if we agree to the motion, all Members of Parliament--or at least, over 500 of them--will have only an hour and a half to consider these matters and that there will be no further opportunity to do so?

Mr. Tipping: Let me make two points in response. The documents for discussion are the Financial Statement and Budget Report 2000-01, the Economic and Fiscal Strategy Report 2000-01 and the Pre-Budget Report 2000, all of which the House has had an opportunity to discuss. The right hon. Gentleman asks whether only an hour and a half is to be available for the debate. That is so, and it would be so if the debate were held on the Floor of the House. With those remarks, I commend this simple motion to the House.

10.28 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Based on the figures in the documents, will the Minister tell the House how close the Government are to meeting the two tests relating to the deficit criterion and the debt criterion, and in which year they will meet their own five key convergence tests for giving up the pound for the euro? The figures on which the Minister is working go up to 2005-06, but in which year are we likely to meet the convergence criteria set by the Government--or have we already done so?

10.29 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The motion is one of those seemingly innocuous motions which the Government would prefer the House to nod through quietly. It will probably be subject to the ghastly new deferred vote mechanism. Given the number of hon. Members who are present tonight, several hundred hon. Members will magically appear to vote on Wednesday with little or no idea of what has been discussed. However, that is how the Government want to run the House of Commons and the country and, for the time being, that is how it must be. I am delighted to say that the debate has no time limit, and presumably cannot be subject to a closure motion because all the Government Members have gone home. That is another interesting thought which we might wish to ponder and explore on future occasions. These debates literally mean "until any hour", unless Members are brought back to impose a closure.

We are being asked to deliberate on some substantial documents. The Pre-Budget Report alone is a large and expensive document, with a cover price of £40. Here, according to the Government, is £40-worth of material, along with several other documents, which the Minister now tells us will have to be dealt with in an hour and a

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half in a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, in which he says, with great generosity, that all Members of Parliament may participate.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): It may be true that all Members of Parliament may participate, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that not all Members of Parliament can vote?

Mr. Forth: I regret that my right hon. and learned Friend is correct on that matter. Roughly 500 Members who are not on the payroll can turn up in the Committee--I hope that a large Room has been booked for the purpose--and seek to catch the Chairman's eye to debate the Pre-Budget Report, among other documents, for an hour and a half, but, regrettably, at the end of the process, only the members of the Committee will be able to vote on the matter, and that will be the last word that the House has.

The Government are trying, in order to conceal I know not what, to slip some substantial and important material through a Committee which, by its very nature, can hardly be representative of the House. That would be bad enough--I refer to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor)--but section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, referred to in the motion, states:

it says only "for its approval", not "or not", or "for its consideration", which rather prejudges the matter in an undesirable way--

That is presumably what this large amount of material is about. Then the section says:

Presumably, "which report" must and can only in this context refer to all the documentation referred to in the motion. But the section says "shall form the basis". The Committee is presumably being asked to consider all this material in some way, and then to take as a matter of faith the means by which Her Majesty's Government will report it.

Mr. Hogg: Would it not be right for the Government to attach a health warning to any recommendation in the report that they may make to the effect that it has been considered in Committee by a small number of hon. Members, with an even smaller number of hon. Members able to vote?

Mr. Forth: Yes, that would certainly be in the cause of transparency--about which we hear quite a lot from the Government these days--to say nothing of freedom of information. Why on earth we should be reporting anything to the Council and Commission is beyond me, but that is a matter for another day. But given that we are apparently now obliged to make such reports to these bureaucracies, then--as my right hon. and learned Friend

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says--in order that the Council and Commission may assess the value of the report, we should tell them that it has been dealt with in a scanty way by the House.

Things get worse. I pick up here the reference to Standing Order No. 118, which deals with Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation. I am not sure whether what we are talking about is delegated legislation at all. The Standing Order states:

I do not know whether we are considering instruments in the strict sense of the term; we are certainly not considering legislation. It is therefore odd, to say the least, that Standing Order No. 118 has been chosen to deal with those matters.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Do not the seven words

give the game away?

Mr. Forth: They do. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The whole procedure smacks of some sort of shameful sleight of hand. We would be better served if the Government were more straightforward with the House, and gave us many opportunities to consider such matters properly.

We have dealt--but not properly--with motion 6, which is in the name of the Leader of the House. It proposed:

It goes on to name 10 or 11 Fridays in 2001 on which the Government do not want the House of Commons to sit. Why do the Government want to slip the material in motion 9 through in an hour and a half when we could deal with it properly on any of the Fridays on which they have the gall to suggest that the House should not sit?

Mr. Hogg: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the health warning should state that, notwithstanding the fact that we had ample time, the Government chose not to use it, but instead to stick the reports mentioned in the motion upstairs in Committee, where only a small number of hon. Members can speak and vote?

Mr. Forth: My right hon. and learned Friend makes a helpful suggestion. The European bureaucracies apparently insist on receiving a meaningless report after scant or no scrutiny by the House of Commons. It would therefore make a lot of sense if we attached all sorts of warnings to it, saying, "Don't be fooled by this document; it has barely been examined by the House of Commons. It is simply the Government's version of what is going on, and, if I were you, oh bureaucrats of Europe, I should pay little or no attention to it." If nothing else emerges from the open-ended debate with no time limit on which we are embarking, such valuable information may be discerned and passed on to the bureaucrats.

I have expressed brief, preliminary thoughts. I am sure that other hon. Members want to elaborate on them. They have plenty of time to do that because the Government have generously allowed us all night to consider the motion. Subsequently, I must check the procedure for

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what would happen if the debate continued until 2.30 pm tomorrow. It is an intriguing thought that, were we able to discuss the substance of the reports, the Government, in their generosity, might have allowed us sufficient time to do that. I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will watch like a hawk to ensure that I make no attempt to discuss the substance; I shall not do that. I simply speculate that, under some circumstances, such a debate could continue throughout the night because a closure is no longer possible. I should like to ponder that thought and return to it on a subsequent occasion.

I urge the House to vote against the motion because I believe that it is superficial and secretive and suggests that the Government have much more to hide.

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