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11.9 pm

Mr. Gummer: I thank the Minister for introducing the guillotine motion. Last night, a motion was produced with no introduction of any kind. I also thank the Minister for his courtesy in responding to questions. I hope that he will not think that we raise the issue in any personal spirit of contradiction--the issue is difficult. We have no timetable motion, which is why I call this a guillotine motion. A motion cannot be a timetable motion unless there is a timetable--unless we know to what the end date refers. We do not know that. We do not know what the sitting arrangements will be. We do not know how many hours will be available. We do not know what the procedure will be that will enable the type of investigation that a Select Committee should have.

It is not now that we should discuss the Select Committee's membership--that is for a later discussion--but a quick look at it suggests that it is an unusual Select Committee. I can, for example, see no rebellious Opposition Member on the Committee. I make no comment about the Labour Members on the Committee. I can see no one who is likely to ask the difficult and awkward questions that should be asked on a Select Committee. That gives me some concern because of the nature of what we are discussing in this debate. It is not a timetable motion as we have only an end date.

Historically, guillotine motions have been different because they have been properly negotiated by the two sides in the House. Both sides had something to give. The Government were able to say, "If you are prepared to allow this business to go through in a reasonable way, we will be prepared to accept one or two of the sensible suggestions that you have put forward." The Opposition were able to say, "On that ground, we are prepared to have an informal arrangement." That ensured that the Bill was properly debated, but concluded at a reasonable hour and on a reasonable date.

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That is not what we have been asked to do tonight. Instead, we have been asked to agree an end date with no knowledge of how many sittings there will be and what arrangements will be made, and without any ability to take into account the debate earlier today. That is not part of the arrangement. The motion was tabled before anyone had heard that debate.

The Minister courteously replied to my question about what would happen if the MOD discovered that, as a result of the discussions of the Select Committee, it needed to make significant changes to what is a significant measure. He kindly said that, in those circumstances, he would have to make some other arrangements. He cannot do that under the arrangement in the motion; he can do it only by overturning that arrangement. There is no way in which the Government can agree with the Opposition that a few more days might be appropriate. He will have to come back to the House and the House will then have to have a debate of this sort to give him an extension.

You, Mr. Speaker, know from your experience that on those occasions Governments are in the hands of the Leader of the House and various authorities, all of whom will tell the Minister that he cannot have any more time for debate on the Floor of the House. There is not another 45 minutes available because there are all sorts of other things to be done. Therefore, even if he is--and I believe him to be--honourable in his belief that, if there were the need, he would come back to the House, as a Minister of 16 years standing I must tell him from bitter experience that he will not win.

The Leader of the House is a powerful lady in those circumstances. She will say to the Minister, "You may be right, but you will not get the time." She might put it more directly than that, if I know the right hon. Lady, but that is what she will say.

Mr. Leigh: It is worse than that. Can my right hon. Friend imagine any Select Committee--for example, the Select Committee on Defence, which is now considering Westland--having to finish its inquiries by 15 March? Can he imagine the Committee having a Whip and wanting to have more meetings and call more witnesses? It would have to sit late into the night. That would not happen. Exhaustion would set in. The number of witnesses and the inquiry would be curtailed because the Committee would have to finish by 15 March. Parliamentarians are busy and there are only so many hours in the working week; therefore, it would not be a proper Select Committee looking at the issues in real depth.

Mr. Gummer: I am afraid that my hon. Friend is not right; it is worse than he has suggested. If this were a normal Select Committee, it could be trusted to insist upon having enough time, even with an end date, to do its job properly. The problem is that it is not a normal Select Committee, so it will not demand enough time. It will be the patsy of the Whip and the Government. For the British armed forces to be in the hands of a Committee which has an end date upon which it can depend in order not to do its job properly is extremely serious.

I understand what the Government are about and I know who has been pressing them. It happened to me on many occasions. Civil servants would say to me, "Secretary of State, why do we have to go on with these

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Committees that sit for so long? We have to listen to all the arguments, all sorts of people come and speak for a long time and we have to go on and on with it. Would it not be more convenient to have some sort of guillotine motion early in the procedure so that we could do this in a modern and sensible way?" I used to say, "It would be more convenient and I would like to go to bed, but this is what is called democracy." It is about allowing everybody every opportunity, which you defend so well, Mr. Speaker, to put his or her point of view.

It is not just a matter of democracy in the House--it is what makes people outside believe in the House. It is not just a matter of us defending our rights--it is about us defending our ability to meet the requirements of our constituents and ensure that they feel that the democratic system represents them and that they do not have to go outside that system to get the responses that they want.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) pointed to a series of issues, many of which have arisen unexpectedly. Nobody expected the issue of depleted uranium to arise. Two sites in my constituency are affected by that problem and I have been defending the Ministry of Defence and the Minister. I have told people not to worry, that it seemed to me that proper measures were being taken, and that we would have direct and specific answers for them. However, they will feel safe about that only if the Select Committee is able, where necessary, to discuss those issues in the context of the Bill. After all, it will be another five years before there is another opportunity and it is not unreasonable for people to expect there to be plenty of time available.

Imagine if, some time in the future, it was discovered that something ought to have been done. What would people say? They would say that issues were not raised because the Government did not provide enough time. That is the hook that could be used. I am afraid that I know Oppositions well enough to know that they would use that hook and blame the Government even if it were their own fault. Therefore, the Government have an interest in ensuring that, wherever possible, they have an agreement--not a forced agreement--between those on a Committee to fix the time to meet the needs and not to fix the time and then restrict the needs. That is the difference between what we are being asked to do and what ought to be done.

The Minister should accept that there are some serious constitutional issues in the Bill. Like the Homes Bill yesterday, this is not a Bill to which we are generally opposed and it does not divide us in a serious way. We want to make it work. There are issues on which we disagree, but it is fundamentally a Bill that we want the Government to have because it is the basis upon which the armed forces proceed. Yesterday, there were many elements in the Homes Bill that we wanted to have, but in that Bill and this there are serious and significant questions about the powers given to Ministers to act outside the real power of Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury used the phrase "carte blanche" to describe the powers given to Ministers to act outside the supervision of the House. Many people are worried about that. I do not believe that it is proper that we should restrict the time available for debate.

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Finally, this motion would be reasonable if the history of Bills of this sort featured Oppositions--Labour and Conservative--who had made it impossible for Governments to organise the armed forces. However, I know of no occasion since the war when a Government have been unable to secure their armed forces legislation because of filibustering and procrastination by the Opposition.

The Minister is known for his courtesy, so why can he not be courteous enough to allow the House to come to a common mind in a traditional way? That is achieved not by enforcing an end date, but by agreeing a proper procedure for a Select Committee, which ought to be able to behave in an adult and courteous manner. What have Members of Parliament of all parties done to deserve this? Why are we considered to be unworthy of proper, human and courteous treatment?

I suspect that those of us who are modernisers are not always wise or knowledgeable. They have decided that they want what in theory they think that they need, instead of recognising that this procedure undermines the democratic accountability of the House and that it will render our democracy less and less respected.

This Bill is not unique. It is another example of hon. Members conspiring together in this House to give up the powers for which our ancestors fought. This is the moment to say, "No more." Until the Government learn that part of their heritage is to ensure that those without a voice can speak, we must make a stand and be determined to prevent guillotines such as this.

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