Previous SectionIndexHome Page

3.52 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Hon. Members will be familiar with the Government's proposal, which is a device for curtailing debate. However, this motion is an especially bad example, as connoisseurs of such matters among my hon. Friends will agree. This is the mother of Parliaments, and it might be useful if I explained to visitors how the device works and why they should appalled at the way in which the Government want to get their laws and run.

13 Feb 2001 : Column 167

There has been no formal agreement between parties on the decision to complete the Bill's Report stage by 8.15 this evening. We were presented with a fait accompli, and the original deadline was earlier. I cannot believe that a major Bill, the subject of a Labour election manifesto pledge, is to be done and dusted by 9 o'clock tonight so that a second Bill can be considered before 10 pm. That beggars belief, and I hope that visitors to the House will be appalled.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): My hon. Friend is setting out cogently the appalling behaviour of the Government on this Bill, as on so many others. However, there is no time limit on the second Bill to be considered today. Therefore, does she agree that, however much the Government may intend to force things through on a rushed timetable, they may find that things work out very differently?

Mrs. Spelman: I do not think that I need add anything to what my hon. Friend has said. Perhaps his intentions and those of some of my other right hon. and hon. Friends will now be clear.

It was quite unnecessary for the Government to curtail this debate, not least because I believe that the Bill that follows is, on the whole, uncontroversial. However, the haste with which it has been introduced may give my right hon. and hon. Friends a different belief as to its controversial nature.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that many of the amendments that have been tabled, particularly on Friday, show that the Government have been caught by their own great rush. In effect, some 24 hours after denying that they were going to make changes, the Government have tabled amendments. Surely a bit more time would allow the Minister to get her Bill into some sort of order.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He served on the Standing Committee and was particularly affected by the haste with which the Bill was considered. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work. His knowledge of the internet and the way in which the internet service providers are likely to be affected by the Bill was invaluable. We shall come back to that tonight. I think that all right hon. and hon. Members would benefit from hearing what my hon. Friend has to say on the way new technology will be affected, but of course there is a risk. Curtailing the debate on Report by 8.15 means that we may not even reach that important part of the Bill. That is just one of the problems imposed by the guillotine.

I thought that it might be helpful to right hon. and hon. Members who did not serve on the Standing Committee, those who read Hansard, and visitors listening to the debate if I explained the background to the programme motion. Second Reading took place just over three weeks ago, on 22 January. We had only one week before this important Bill, with substantial implications for many groups in the economy and society, went into Committee. The Committee had to finish its consideration of the Bill by 8 February.

The Minister was kind enough to say that the Opposition's role in Committee had on the whole been constructive and helpful. Of course, we set out to be

13 Feb 2001 : Column 168

constructive. However, we had to hurry through some parts of the Bill in Committee and there were casualties, notably new clause 5. It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) is not in the Chamber, as he tabled new clause 5 for debate in Committee. As we began to run tight on time on the last agreed Committee sitting, the hon. Gentleman received an undertaking that his new clause would be brought back on Report. I was privy to the discussions that would make that possible, and the intention on both sides of the Committee was that the hon. Gentleman should have the opportunity to bring back his important new clause.

The new clause proposed establishing a new regulatory authority, recommended by the Royal College of Physicians. That recommendation came originally from the Select Committee on Health, no less, and enjoys cross-party support. So it is unfortunate that the unseemly haste with which we had to deal with the Bill in Committee has led to the removal of the opportunity for the hon. Member for Rother Valley to debate his new clause. I should certainly have liked the opportunity to speak on that important new clause, but that, unfortunately, is not to be today.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I echo my hon. Friend's tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), who is a truly outstanding technology anorak.

Does my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) agree that it would be particularly unfortunate if, as a consequence of the Government's truncation of debate on Report, four Government amendments in the later groups were not even reached?

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend exactly describes the position. We have no flexibility in this matter; it is clear that the Commons will not be able to complete its deliberations before the Bill has to go to another place. No doubt my hon. Friend's close reading of Hansard led to his deliberate joke about my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce). For the benefit of hon. Members who did not attend the Standing Committee, the reference to my hon. Friend as an anorak was in no way derogatory--quite the contrary. My hon. Friend brought an anorak bearing the Silk Cut logo to a meeting of the Standing Committee, in order to make the important point that the logos of well-known brands of tobacco are frequently displayed on items of clothing such as anoraks. As the subtlety of that joke might have been lost, I hope that my sharing it with the House has ensured that hon. Members do not miss its full nuances and that they realise that no derogatory intention attaches to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I declare an interest.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although the Government think that programming this measure is clever because, in their view, getting legislation through fast is what it is all about, they might end up with quick but not better legislation? Our role as Back Benchers is to scrutinise legislation, but the Government are preventing us from doing so.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do not agree with him that the Government

13 Feb 2001 : Column 169

are being clever; it is arrogant to try to race a piece of legislation through the House just because they have a large majority. The Government are simply having their own way.

It is important to point out that the mechanics of opposition cannot be effective if the normal tools that the official Opposition need to do our job are not at our disposal. For example, the Committee stage of the Bill ended at 5 o'clock last Thursday; amendments for Report had to be tabled by 2.30 on Friday, but Hansard was not available in time for us to check exactly what the Government had agreed to reconsider during Report.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend may not have considered a further point that arises from the Government's appalling use of this new programming arrangement. In the past, as my hon. Friend and other hon. Members know, those of us serving on Bill Standing Committees were normally able to get into the meat of the Bill on Report and debate it as soon as Question Time finished, or after discussion of a 10-minute Bill, such as the excellent one introduced today by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior). Under the current arrangements, we spend the whole of the first three- quarters of an hour discussing the evils of programming, and those of us who want to criticise a bad Bill that is unready for the statute book are unable to do so. We can raise only issues on programming. That is yet another negation of democracy by this appalling Government.

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Connoisseurs of debates on programme motions will realise that it must be patently obvious to the Government that such debates are not a good use of parliamentary time. However, we should make it clear to occasional visitors to the House that, almost daily, the Opposition have to fight the same issue over and over again. We have to spend 45 minutes of a restricted period fighting for freedoms that are part of the democracy of this country--the ability properly to scrutinise legislation and to ensure that the best possible job is done--[Interruption.] We have been restricted in so doing. As I pointed out during the debate on the programme motion that followed Second Reading, I sincerely hope that the Leader of the House will review the effectiveness of the Government's decision to change parliamentary procedure in that way--it is seriously flawed.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend may not heard the observation made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) from a sedentary position--that we were not obliged to spend 45 minutes debating the timetable motion, but that we chose to do so. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we did not do so, right hon. and hon. Labour Members would be the first to cite that as proof that we had no legitimate objections to the truncation of debate--when in fact we do, and they are numerous?

Next Section

IndexHome Page