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Mr. Mike O'Brien: Perhaps I can gently tease the hon. Gentleman with the fact that sitting with him on the Front Bench is one Whip and sitting behind him are three Opposition Back Benchers who are obviously very worked up about the Bill. It seems that among the assembled ranks of the Conservative Opposition there is not, as he suggests, great interest in either the programme motion or the Bill itself. Moreover, he supports the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: I do support the Bill, and I am not overly embarrassed about that. I am, however, grateful for small mercies. It is the most enormous relief to me--it will save me the loss of sleep that I otherwise would have incurred--that I have not had to go through the Lobby with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). That is obviously very satisfying from my point of view.

Nevertheless, the Under-Secretary is right that I support the Bill. However, I think that he is unwise--indeed, rash--to make the observation that he has just made. The first point is that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have been strenuously devoting themselves to the terms of the Bill since we began debate shortly after 3.30 pm. Consequently, although we all know the fearsome constitution of the Under-Secretary, some of my hon. Friends have repaired for cups of tea.

My second observation--or prediction, and only time will tell whether I am right or the Minister is correct--is that when we consider the Bill in a Committee of the whole House, there will be far more than merely three of my hon. Friends behind me. Several hon. Members will be wanting conscientiously and in detail to consider and to speak in support of or in opposition to not only the Bill's clauses, but the amendments that have been tabled.

Mr. O'Brien: How many hon. Members?

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman challenges me, rather vulgarly, to say precisely how many hon. Members will attend the debate. I am not psychic; that is not among my qualities. I do not know and I cannot be sure, but I say confidently that it will be more than three. I also say that, just as size is not everything--I have very good reason for regularly making that point--numbers are not everything either. Despite our disagreement on this issue, I would sooner have one of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) than six dozen of the right hon. and hon. Members who pepper the Government Benches.

Mr. Stunell: May I give the hon. Gentleman one very small sliver of comfort? Liberal Democrats Members also

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support the Bill and oppose the programme motion, for many of the reasons that he is outlining. We also believe that size is not everything.

Mr. Bercow: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I respect his good intentions. However, I am bound to say--I hope that he will not take it the wrong way--that I do not know whether that intervention and that assurance of Liberal Democrat support for the official Opposition's position is intended to make me feel better or worse. We shall have to see. It is rare indeed to have a Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance in this House.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that I for one feel extremely strongly about the Bill. I have nothing against Catholics; if the Catholic Church wants its ordained members to stand for Parliament, that is fine by me. In the debate on Second Reading I explained why I take issue with my own Church, the Church of England. I did not call for a vote at the end of that debate as I wanted to spare my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) the personal humiliation of having to go into the Lobby with Labour Members, instead of joining me, as he so often does.

Mr. Bercow: I am indebted to my hon. Friend. His natural kindliness and his conscientious regard for my preservation are greatly appreciated. However, I know that the Minister is not at all embarrassed about the Government's draconian behaviour and that he will want me to return to the point that I was making about timing.

The key part of the motion states:

For the edification of people outside the House listening to our proceedings, I must explain that that means that if there is a statement after 3.30 pm--which is commonplace, especially when the Government are keen to truncate consideration of a Bill--it is possible that we would not start consideration of the Bill until 4.30.

If the Government were inconsiderate and malicious enough to hold two statements on that day--and those statements might be followed by a Bill under the ten-minute rule--it is entirely conceivable that consideration would not begin until 5.30. The House would therefore have two and a half hours to digest, consider and pronounce a verdict on a Bill that is a crucial constitutional measure and to which an unknown number of amendments might have been tabled.

The Minister must not underestimate the Bill's significance. He said that it was small but important. He is right; it is not a megameasure, but it is important, with potentially important ramifications. We should have adequate time in which to debate it.

The motion suggests that, if Committee consideration of the Bill falls on a Thursday, we should finish by 5 o'clock. However, it is entirely conceivable that any statements on a Thursday might run until 2 o'clock or even 2.30, so that proposal is, frankly, alarming.

The Government display an overall disdain for the House--habitually, unselfconsciously, and almost unknowingly. That is what so distresses Opposition

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Members. Even those of us who consider, as I do, that the Bill is sound in principle, believe that the House ought to be able to look at the detail and that the Government should be willing to entertain any amendments that might be tabled.

I am very confident that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will table a number of amendments to the Bill, and I should not be surprised if other Conservative Members also have proposals in mind to improve it. We need proper time to consider such proposals but, so far, it is not clear that that time will be made available.

The Minister is usually fairly candid in his public utterances, but he is being a little shifty about the Government's intentions. My right hon. Fried the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst challenged him in characteristically robust fashion about whether the Government intended and expected to get the Bill through both Houses of Parliament before the general election. There was a slight twinkle in the Minister's eye and what bordered on a smirk on his face when he said that he did not know and that we would have to wait and see.

To judge by the Government's enthusiasm for the rights of the prospective Labour candidate for Greenock and Inverclyde--and I do not cavil at that enthusiasm--they will break a leg to ensure that the Bill is rammed through Parliament in time for the general election. They will do that with no regard for the reservations that some of my colleagues feel about the Bill.

It is a great pity that the Government should display such haste in this matter, and such indifference to the rights of the Opposition.

Mr. O'Brien: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that he would prefer that the Bill were not put through the House before the general election, as the Government hope to do? If so, is he suggesting that the law as it stands should be allowed to prevent David Cairns from standing for Parliament?

Mr. Bercow: The answer is simple. Speaking for myself, I do not suggest for a moment that a deliberate attempt should be made to prevent the passage of the Bill in order to frustrate the legitimate political ambitions of the prospective parliamentary candidate for Greenock and Inverclyde. However, getting the Bill right is the paramount--indeed, the only--consideration in my mind, as it should be in the Minister's mind.

I do not know Mr. David Cairns, who may or may not be an estimable fellow. I have no strong feelings about him either way. I defend his rights, as I would those of other people, but Parliaments's overriding responsibility is to pass good law and to prevent the passage of bad law. To ensure that we achieve that, we need adequate time. My concern is that we do not have that.

The Government should have been prepared to consult on the matter. Instead, they indulged in their usual hole-and-corner and devious manoeuvres. Had they not done so, we might have reached a better outcome than the motion before the House this evening.

8.6 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I find myself in uncharacteristic agreement with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). As my hon. Friend the

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Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said, we support the Bill and want it to reach the statute book. We appreciate that there are good reasons why the Minister should want to press it through the House with a degree of urgency, but the timetable on which the Government are insisting has not been debated or discussed. They are trying to railroad it through the House--an attitude that Liberal Democrat Members find deplorable.

As we have said, we will be happy to vote against the motion, if it comes to a vote. We do not believe that the House's business should be conducted in that way. No amendment has been tabled yet, and we do not know how much consideration will be required by those hon. Members with an interest in the Bill, yet the Government have insisted on this programme motion. We oppose it for that reason, and urge the Government to think again.

I do not think that the Government's action is hole-and-corner or deceitful. It is a quite flagrant abuse of the House to use programme motions on every Bill, yet that is what the Government have done since this Session began. However, it is perverse for Opposition Members to stand up and complain at great length about lack of time on programme motions.

I shall not detain the House, beyond making it clear that we do not believe that this is the right way for business to be conducted.

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