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Deferred Divisions

12.11 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): I beg to move,

I think that it would be helpful and appropriate, even at this late hour, to explain the effect of the motion. I shall be brief because it is straightforward. It simply shifts the time for taking deferred Divisions on Budget day, Wednesday 7 March, from 3.30 pm to 5 pm to 5.30 pm to 7 pm. I believe that this will be for the convenience of the House, as it will enable Members to listen to the Budget statement in its entirety, provided that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer speaks with the brevity that is traditional on such occasions. I have no knowledge either of the length of the speech or its content. I hope that the House will agree to making this minor and convenient change.

12.12 am

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I was sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office did not include in his remarks the time that will be allocated to the Opposition to respond to the Budget statement. We would wish to hear that speech in its entirety too. That appears not to have come into the Government's consideration.

I understand why the Minister has brought the matter to the House--

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): It is not only the Conservative Opposition who are involved. I suppose that some people might want to hear what the Liberal Democrats have to say.

Mrs. Browning: It is not often that I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend, but I think that his supposition is questionable.

When the House debated deferred Divisions on 7 November, it was a rather hurried affair. It was the night of the American presidential elections; Labour Members had other matters to consider. However, the Opposition flagged up our discontent with the length of time that the House had to consider the matter that night, and our principled opposition to deferred Divisions per se. That opposition, having seen such Divisions in practice, is no less now than it was then. Deferred Divisions are an abomination and we shall scrap them when we come to office later this year, or possibly next year, depending on events.

The fact that the Minister has had to come to the House to vary the Sessional Orders for one date only shows the lack of consideration and preparation that was given to and made for them when they were put before the House and debated on 7 November.

Can the Minister indicate what other parliamentary occasions might take place on a Wednesday that would require him to come before the House with such a motion again? Clearly, he will not be able to tell us the day of

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the Queen's Speech, but in the time that remains to this Parliament it is unsatisfactory to have deferred Divisions that have not been properly thought through in practice--quite apart from the fact that we oppose them in principle.

I appreciate that the Minister is trying to be helpful, but the motion simply shows the weakness of the system. We are all busy, and Wednesday afternoon is a busy time even when there is no Budget statement. Hon. Members have just about got used to the time allotted for the papers to be handed in, but now it is to be varied. If that keeps happening, the chances are that people will miss Divisions. Nor will Members focus on the important matters debated in the previous week. That can only diminish Members' understanding and appreciation of the work done in the previous week on matters that they themselves may not have considered, but which other Members have dealt with.

I appreciate that the Minister is trying to be helpful, but deferred Divisions are an abomination. The sooner they are finished with, the better.

12.16 am

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). The point of deferred Divisions, which, like her, I opposed, was that we should hold them when everyone was here. Yet the motion asks us to defer them further because everyone might be here. I do not understand.

Originally, we were meant to have Divisions on Wednesdays because everyone turned up that day and it would be convenient for them to vote. Now we are to have them at another time because everyone has turned up. Somehow, it seems, people cannot stagger round to the No Lobby to vote. That seems to negate the purpose of deferred Divisions. If everyone will be here on Budget day, it will presumably be possible during the two hours allocated by the Minister for the Budget for hon. Members to walk from the Chamber to the No Lobby.

Given that the votes take place in the No Lobby, let me assure the Minister that we Conservatives will be in our places in the Chamber, listening as the shadow Chancellor makes his reply. There will be no inconvenience for Ministers or Labour Members who want to walk past us to vote at that time. We shall be rivetted to the shadow Chancellor's speech because we shall want to know what tax rates and spending decisions will apply from April, May or whenever it is. There will be no question of Conservative Members getting in the way while the Government's Back Benchers seek to troop from their side of the House to vote in the Lobby behind us.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has lost faith in his leader, who, I believe, usually replies to the Budget. My substantive point is that I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, as a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, does not support a motion that will allow the whole House to listen to the Budget statement. Is he against that idea?

Mr. Fallon: We have had no indication from the Minister that the Budget statement will last the full two hours that he has allocated. If it is anything like the previous Budget statements to which we have all had to

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listen, I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunity, while the Chancellor drones on about the latest research and development tax credit, or whatever wheeze he may have dreamt up to appease some lobby group, to slip out to vote.

Mr. Hogg: In all probability, the Budget will be leaked in advance anyway.

Mr. Fallon: That possibility had occurred to all of us, and may afford us more time to vote.

My third reservation about the procedure is that the Minister assumes that the Budget will consume a full two hours. The previous Budgets introduced by the Chancellor have not consumed two hours, so I am a little puzzled about why the Minister is allowing us from 5.30 until 7 pm to vote. He may want to detain or divert his troops into voting in the Lobby so that they do not have time to plough through the press releases attached to the Budget. Who knows? He may not want them to focus entirely on the Budget message.

The fourth and final reason why I am suspicious about the motion is that yet again we are changing the Standing Orders of the House to please the Prime Minister. It is he who has not been turning up to vote in Divisions. We have arranged Divisions specially on a Wednesday so that he can be present and vote on all the various matters on which he has missed voting at 10 pm. The Minister now wants to change the Orders of the House yet again.

The Budget has had to be moved from the Tuesday to the Wednesday because the Prime Minister cannot come to the House on the Tuesday. Notwithstanding his duty to the House, he will be making some speech on the environment on the Tuesday. The changes are all because the Prime Minister cannot be here on the Tuesday and he must be here on the Wednesday. Once again, we must change the hour of voting to accommodate him.

We have been messed about enough. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, deferred Divisions are an abomination. If Divisions are to be deferred, they should be deferred to the day after the debate has taken place. If there is a problem with hon. Members attending at 1, 2 or 3 am, why cannot they turn up the next day?

To move the entire procedure to a Wednesday--as one of my hon. Friends once said, just to allow hon. Members to turn up to sign the visitors book--is an abomination. Now, because there is some special event on the Wednesday--there will be other special events and speeches on Wednesdays--we are told that voting will have to be shifted yet again. To time the voting for the entire previous week to a particular hour and a half to suit the Government of the day is an abomination piled on an abomination. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose it.

12.22 am

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I echo the remarks of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). Let us be clear about what has caused the proposed change. We have seen many examples recently of the Government's casual and arrogant attitude to the House and its traditions and procedures.

27 Feb 2001 : Column 850

It is bad enough that we have the ghastly deferred Division nonsense on a Wednesday--I hope that when the Library starts to produce the Division lists, that will be shown as the sham and the mockery that it is--but it is compounded by the fact that the Government have decided that the Budget will be on a Wednesday this year, for reasons that are not clear to any of us. That has caused the Government to get themselves into what they perceive as a difficulty. There is a conflict between the nonsense of the deferred Divisions and the Budget statement. Why does that conflict arise?

I question the assumption that underlies the motion. The assumption is that at 3.30 on Wednesday 7 March the Chancellor will start to deliver his Budget speech, and of course, 3.30 is the time specified in Sessional Orders for the deferred Divisions. But how do we know that that will be the case? Is it not possible that a private notice question could be granted on that day by the Speaker? We live in times of crisis. Crises surround us daily--almost hourly. I saw on my television this evening that there was a crisis Cabinet meeting this very day. How do we know that there will not be further crises? Regrettably, the existing one may still be with us on 7 March, which is not so far distant. It is entirely procedurally possible that Mr. Speaker may see fit to grant a private notice question for that day.

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