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Mr. Heald: The Opposition find this procedure unacceptable. Before Second Reading, the Government tabled a motion setting out how much time there would be for debate in Committee. At that point, we had heard neither the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) nor any of the range of views expressed in almost 20 other speeches made today.
The Bill clearly throws up a range of issues, including the practical issues about the way in which fixed-penalty notices will work, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) brought his knowledge. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) proved an expert on curfews and told the House how good they would be, despite the fact that not one has been granted under the present regime, which he introduced. A range of issues on civil rights, among other matters, was also raised.
What makes this programme motion even worse than the others that have gone before it is that, this time, the Government are seeking in advance to programme consideration and Third Reading. That has never been done before in a programme motion, and it should not happen. The idea that a Standing Committee's proceedings can be programmed without hon. Members' having heard the Second Reading debate is laughable. The idea that we can say how much time will be needed for consideration and Third Reading, when we do not have a clue what the Committee will throw up, is even worse. It is time for those who understand the procedures of the House in detail, and the usual channels, to reconsider the matter. How can it be right to programme proceedings when we do not know the ambit of debate? That is nonsense.
We know that a significant number of amendments to the Bill will be tabled on the range of issues outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon--issues relating to the scientists being persecuted at Huntingdon Life Sciences, and to other scientists referred to tonight. It seems daft to say, "Oh well, we haven't seen the amendments, but we know that we need 16 sittings." More than 16 sittings are provided for us to consider the Finance Bill, which is usually about the same length as this Bill, even though the range of issues considered by a Finance Bill Committee is in some ways narrower.
The Government are wrong to have tabled the motion. If consideration is taken on a day on which there is a statement, it may begin at five o'clock but it will still have to finish by 8.30 pm--even though the Bill deals with a range of issues such as civil rights, fixed-penalty notices, curfews and evidential requirements involved with disclosure of information. That is unrealistic and I ask the Minister to think again. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Vehicles (Crime) Bill--as he will remember, I complained loudly about the programme motion--and said, "Actually, you were right because we had to change the timetable mid-way through the proceedings." That represents a concession that the procedure is flawed.
This big Bill deals with many issues and it will take a long time to consider them thoroughly. As the Minister said, I am not one for filibustering, although I like to take him to task on the provisions in detail, but we simply cannot say at this stage that 16 sittings are enough; nor can we say that it is adequate--and I am sure it is not right--for consideration and Third Reading to take place on one curtailed day.
A considerable number of new clauses will be tabled on matters other than Huntingdon Life Sciences and its problems--on prisoners who have been released early, for example. [Interruption.] The Minister laughs, but that is a serious point. Large numbers of police officers are being assaulted and the people going to prison for such assaults are being released having served less than half their time. That is an insult to the police, who feel that early releases are bad for morale. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) originally agreed with the Minister on that matter but has been converted. It is time that the Minister also came round. Police morale is a serious issue and letting people who have assaulted officers out of prison early is an insult. The Minister can be fairly sure that there will be a new clause on that, because I have just tabled one. Similarly, he can be pretty sure that there will be a new clause on the important issue of the early release of child sex offenders, because I have just tabled one. There is a range of new clauses that will require debate.
We ought to reflect on the issue of modernisation. Is it progress to say that the Opposition cannot have the time they need to debate important issues? What could be more important than how we deal with the persecution of people in their own homes and how we tackle violence in our streets? Confidentiality and the Inland Revenue, documents that may help in huge investigations, and importing pornography are big issues; and it is not right for the Minister to guillotine proceedings, particularly as he always appears to enjoy engaging in debate. Why be so sparing with time?
Mr. Clarke: I do not know whether it would help the hon. Gentleman if I gave him the assurance that I gave the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) in connection with the Vehicles (Crime Bill); but in the event of serious debate of serious issues in Committee, if there is no attempt to filibuster and if we seem to be running short of time, I am prepared to commit myself to discussing with Opposition parties the possibility of reconvening the Programming Sub-Committee to establish how we can make time available.
Mr. Heald: I realise that the Minister feels he has made a great concession. That is marvellous for him, but we should not have to request time for debate from him; the Opposition should have a right to the time that they need to scrutinise the Government's legislation. It should indeed be a right, not a privilege. I made the same point when we discussed the Vehicles (Crime) Bill. "Modernisation" is a backward step if it means inadequate time for scrutiny.
In a way, it is typical of Labour to describe something so retrogressive as modernisation. If anything, it means returning to an era when there was no true democracy, and a Member could not argue his case. The whole principle is wrong. There is likely to be an election and the Bill may well not make the statute book, but we could at least do it the justice of debating each and every clause in detail.
Mr. Clarke: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can refresh our memories. Was there any occasion in the 18 years during which his party was in government when it guillotined consideration of these matters, in Committee or at any other stage?
Mr. Heald: There were guillotines--no one would argue with that--and Labour Members often objected. It is rather sad when a Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and says "Oh, you were absolute shockers, and we are going to be worse." That is no way in which to govern the country sensibly.
The Government are developing a bad reputation. There were 118 amendments to the Bill that became the Freedom of Information Act 2000, 77 of which were not debated here. There were 268 amendments to what became the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, 47 of which were not debated here. There were 666 amendments to what became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, 522 of which were not debated here. Those amendments were debated more extensively in the House of Lords, where people are not elected to represent the interests of electors, than here in the House of Commons, where we are all elected to come and do this job. Is it right for Labour Members, in the interests of finishing early or having an easy ride in debate, to deprive the Opposition of the time that is needed?
Let me make two more points. First, the Minister has made an offer regarding the Standing Committee, but what about Report and Third Reading? Not everyone can be on the Committee, but issues involving civil rights and the like are of great interest to members of all parties. It seems wrong that the debate on Report--when members of the Committee give the House their views, and others can consider what happened in Committee and present their own opinions--should be so curtailed. What account is being taken of all the Members who cannot be on the Committee?
Secondly, what about Back Benchers? True, the Minister and I, and doubtless a Whip from each side--perhaps more--will go into a huddle, and there will be no record of the proceedings. In Committee I may unburden myself a little, so that other Committee members know something of what happened. But the fact is that we shall be there making judgments on how long Back Benchers want to discuss particular issues in Committee, which is not an easy exercise.
When I was a silent one, I did quite a lot of trying to timetable debates involving the whole House--on, for instance, the Bills that became the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 1998. We often found, with the best will in the world--having worked hard to decide how long was needed--that a Member from Scotland or Wales would have a perfectly legitimate point to make about a particular aspect of the legislation, and others would not be able to make their points. In a number of
I therefore ask the Minister whether it is not time to reconsider, to withdraw the programme motion and to allow matters to proceed as they used to in the good old days--when time was allowed seriously to debate the issues for as long as was warranted. Is not the motion a backward step, and should not the Government think again?