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5 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I am sorry to have to begin my remarks on a note of discord with the Government, but I am afraid that the position is simply stated. The tone of the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), is mellifluous, but his message is sadly one of menace. I am bound to say that he has a brass neck to hold Conservative Members--he referred specifically my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) and I--responsible for the tantrum in which the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) engaged towards the end of the Committee's proceedings.

I was saddened by the inability of the hon. Member for Colchester to speak for any significant time on an important occasion when there was material business to discuss, but Conservative Members were not responsible for that. Indeed, the record shows that we spoke for only six or seven minutes. The Minister of State should check his records if he doubts the veracity of my remarks. The inability of the hon. Member for Colchester to speak is attributable rather to the fact that the Government provided a wholly inadequate time scale within which we struggled, through our best endeavours, to satisfy our responsibility and the interests of our constituents.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that I did not use the word "tantrum", which is his word? When I described the behaviour of the hon. Member for Colchester, I said that I considered his position to be justified. I should like it to be clarified that the word "tantrum" is the hon. Gentleman's word and not mine.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister is notoriously sensitive about being misrepresented in any way, as we saw in Committee. Of course I am happy to confirm that he used the word "ire" and that, in accordance with the principles of the Lib-Lab pact, he said that the hon. Member for Colchester was justified in his outburst. He also said that the remarks of Opposition Members were not justified, although he rightly said that constructive debate occurred in Committee. I am happy to concede that he and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), have tabled a number of amendments that reflect the spirit and intention of those that the Opposition originally recommended.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend is right to commend the Government for drafting amendments to reflect some of the aspects that the Opposition said were missing from the Bill. However, does he agree that although the amendments reflect our suggestions in principle, their detail is not precise and that we must oppose some of it?

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is right. He will have an opportunity to develop that argument further later in our proceedings.

The fact remains that it was palpably inadequate for the Bill to be considered for a time that fell just short of 23 hours. If I remember rightly, the deliberations occurred

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between 9 and 23 January, in only 10 Standing Committee sittings, in which time the Committee had to consider no fewer than 45 clauses, 84 amendments and nine new clauses. If my arithmetic serves me correctly--for all his other failings, the Minister of State is a distinguished mathematician--that works out at roughly 10 minutes per issue; in other words, there were 10 minutes for each amendment, new clause and clause. That was unsatisfactory, but the current circumstances are even worse. With no fewer than 61 new clauses and amendments to consider, the Government now suggest that hon. Members should be expected to wrap up business before Third Reading commences at 8.30 pm. Frankly, that is unsatisfactory.

The argument has a number of strands that I want to develop. It is important that it should not be regarded as a dry, arid and irrelevant constitutional argument that is of no interest or relevance to the people whom hon. Members are elected to serve. On the contrary, it is profoundly significant, as it tells us much about the way in which the Government treat Parliament and the methods by which the Executive seek to downgrade and relegate the role of the legislature. Ultimately, it affects the capacity of the House to discharge its obligations effectively.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if time is limited, it is vital to maximise it to good effect?

Mr. Bercow: I agree, but that argument is sometimes used to justify not having a proper debate on a programme motion. The hon. Gentleman's argument is honourable but mistaken, and it plays into the Government's hands. It is important to set out exactly what is wrong with the procedure.

First, I want to point to a sign of, at the very least, Government discourtesy. Paragraph 4 of the motion states:

As I was not familiar with that aspect of the Sessional Orders, I made inquiries about it and discussed the matter with the Clerks. The Sessional Orders do not merely provide for, but are supposed to insist on, the creation of a Programming Committee, which comprises several individuals almost as of right and meets explicitly and exclusively to determine the allocation of time when considering a Bill on Report and on Third Reading.

The Government are inviting the House to disapply the Sessional Order and to substitute for a Committee and proper cross-party discussion a brief motion, which the Government intend to ram through on the payroll vote. If the Minister was sincere in being open minded about how the new procedure works, it is extraordinary that he, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope)--who, as a Whip, is currently silent, as he should be--made no attempt to communicate with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who was the Opposition Whip on the Standing Committee, with me or with any of my hon. Friends who served on the Committee about the time allocation for Report. Instead, they ignore the Sessional Orders and

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devise a cheeky ruse whereby they can insist, through the payroll vote, on only a day's consideration of the remainder of the Bill.

We are witnessing as clear a demonstration as we could wish for of the arrogance, temerity and wilful disregard of the rights of the House, which are the hallmark of this overweening Labour Government. It is unacceptable to behave in that way and then to expect us to provide results.

Secondly, as the Minister knows, the Secretary of State for Health made an important statement today. I do not detract from its significance or underestimate hon. Members' interest in its contents. I accept that it was important. However, the Minister and the Government Whip knew that we were due to consider 61 new clauses and amendments today, yet the Government decided to make the statement, thus deliberately and calculatedly limiting the time available for debate on Report. I therefore appeal to hon. Members--even those who might be described as part-time opponents of the Government, namely Liberal Democrat Members--to recognise that such behaviour is unfair and militates against the effective discharge by the House of its duty as the proper body for scrutinising Bills.

I have mentioned the 61 new clauses and amendments. I emphasise that number so that hon. Members and those listening to our proceedings are aware that they have not all been tabled by the Opposition. Partly in response to our representations in Committee, and partly through initiatives taken on their own account, the Government have tabled no fewer than 39 of the 61 new clauses and amendments. A large proportion of the new proposals has, therefore, come from the Government.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would formally concede that many of the amendments and new clauses directly respond to matters raised in Committee, in pursuit of commitments that I and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions my hon. Friend the member for Steatham (Mr. Hill) made to the Committee following the good, constructive points raised in debates there.

Mr. Bercow: I certainly accept that the amendments and new clauses have been tabled in response to concerns that we have expressed, but I fear what the Minister seems to regard as the corollary of his own point. He seems to think that the corollary of the fact that the Government's intentions in tabling the new clauses and amendments are good is that it is somehow less incumbent on the rest of the House to make a judgment on the validity of those new clauses and amendments.

I hope that I shall not hear such a response from the Minister's lips, but I recall a number of debates on Report in which a Minister has had the audacity to say to an interested Back Bencher seeking to intervene, "No, I shall not give way to the hon. Member because he"--or she--"did not serve on the Standing Committee." It is incumbent on Ministers to recognise that the purpose of this exercise is for the Standing Committee's deliberations to be reported to, and subjected to the assessment of, this House. That is what it is all about.

Of course, the Minister is justified in tabling new clauses and amendments and he has done so at least partly in response to the representations and advocacy of the

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Opposition in Committee. However, that does not divest us of our responsibility fully to consider their contents. Although the Minister's intentions are good, it is not clear that the precise wording, form and likely effect of the new clauses and amendments will necessarily commend themselves to all hon. Members.

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