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Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Does not my hon. Friend agree that the subject under discussion this evening is too important for us to restrict the debate? Why do Labour Members not want to discuss something about which the House in general agrees? Should we not spend more time, rather than less, on such an important subject?
Mr. Streeter: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. It is interesting to note that when Labour Members do not want to hear important arguments from Opposition Members, they simply talk among themselves and do not pay attention. They really are an unholy rabble.
Mr. Rogers: The hon. Gentleman wonders why there is some noise from Labour Members. Some of us remember when the previous Government guillotined Bills and rammed them through the House time after time. When Conservative Members complain about this Government, it does more than smack of hypocrisy: it smells of it.
Mr. Streeter: I am rather sorry that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. He does not seem to understand that we are talking about an entirely new procedure. We are talking about the programme motions imposed by the Government on the House of Commons, against its better judgment.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Has my hon. Friend noted that a new precedent has been set in the House tonight? Like me, he will remember when gagging motions such as this were introduced by the Leader of the House. That changed, and such motions were proposed by the Secretary of State of the relevant Department. Even the Under-Secretary disdains the House so much that he did not explain the reasons for this gagging motion.
All around the world people are cherishing their new-found democracy. Is it not ironic that here, in the mother of all Parliaments, the Government are placing our democracy under threat by treating the House of Commons with contempt?
How could the Government decide, even before Second Reading, how long we should spend considering the Bill in Committee? Who will speak in Committee? What arguments will be put? The Government have no idea how long will be necessary for us to scrutinise this important Bill.
Mr. Gummer: Did my hon. Friend hear the Minister say from a seated position that we agreed with the Bill? Is that not an opportunity for us to discuss it properly and not to hold it up, but to be useful? Are the Government frightened that somehow they cannot give vent to normal discussions, as the House has always done down the years of history?
Mr. Streeter: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful case. Many constructive contributions from Conservative Members have been made in this debate and many constructive contributions from Conservative Members will be made in Committee--if there is enough time. Yet the programme motion says--it is almost beyond belief--that the Bill must have finished its Committee proceedings by Thursday 15 March.
Next Monday is 12 March. The Bill was first printed on 15 February. It was presented to the House of Commons out of the blue. No one was expecting it. This morning I met the non-governmental organisations and charities that are expert in this field, and they were not expecting such a Bill. The Government gave no signals that it was coming. It has been introduced for party political pre-election purposes, and has come out of the blue.
Mr. Streeter: In a second. Amendments must be tabled by Friday lunchtime if they are to be considered by the start of Committee proceedings next Tuesday. Tomorrow is Budget day; Second Reading has taken place today. We have precious little time in which to seek expert opinion on some important matters, which I shall cover shortly. What a shocking example of a Government railroading legislation through Parliament and not giving the Opposition an opportunity to scrutinise and improve it. I will now give way to the Minister and I hope that he will explain what Standing Order No. 50 is all about.
Mr. Streeter: For at least the second time today, the Minister is misinformed. We oppose these programme motions on a point of principle as well as practicality. In no way has the programme motion been agreed through the usual channels.
What are we to take from this motion? A Bill that has had its Second Reading today starts its Committee proceedings next Tuesday and must be finished by next Thursday. There is no time to take expert advice or to consider matters properly, yet important issues have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House in today's debate.
The Bill intends to place at the heart of international development policy-making procedures a focus on poverty reduction. We have asked many probing questions about what poverty reduction entails. Does it preclude the Government from supporting democracy- building measures, or from focusing on good governance? Does it preclude the Government from supporting action against human trafficking? We need to know what poverty reduction means, and we shall need plenty of time in Committee to study that question in depth.
We have discussed the collision course on which the Bill will place the Government as regards European Union aid. The Bill says that international development must all be about poverty reduction, but 30 per cent. of DFID funding goes through the EU. From recent experience, we know that the EU is doing anything but focusing funding on poverty reduction. How will the Government square that circle? How will they reconcile their focus on poverty reduction with their treaty obligation to put 30 per cent. of DFID's budget through the EU? We shall need plenty of time to consider that point in detail. I should like to take legal advice, but it seems that there will be no time.
We oppose the programme motion on principle, but also for reasons of practicality. It does not give us enough time to do a proper job. I have no doubt that the Government will approach us in a few weeks' time once the Bill has passed through this House; it is unlikely to complete its passage through the other place in time for the almost-certain election on 3 May. They will ask us whether the Bill can be fast-tracked with our support before the House is dissolved for the general election. I want to put down a substantial marker today.
Mr. Tom Clarke: Before the hon. Gentleman says anything rash, will he reflect on two points made on Second Reading? First, the Overseas Development and Co-operation Act 1980, which the Bill seeks to bring up
Mr. Streeter: The right hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. The Bill contains many complex issues and we have asked many complicated questions and legal questions that the Government have failed to answer. I asked the Secretary of State--when she was still here--what difference the Bill will make to the way in which she conducts international development, but I had no answer. That is exactly the kind of point that we need to get to the bottom of in Committee.
Mr. Forth: Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that if a premature election meant that the Bill failed to be properly considered or to reach the statute book, it would be the Government's fault for calling an election at a time that truncated the Bill's progress? I hope that my hon. Friend will feel under no pressure or obligation to fall in with an artificial timetable imposed by the Government.
Mr. Streeter: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. No doubt the Government will tiptoe up to us towards the end of March to ask for help in getting the Bill on to the statute book before the election, which, as my right hon. Friend said, is about to be called 12 months before it is necessary. I must put down a marker for the Minister. Unless the Bill is amended in Committee to place at centre stage our strong belief that we must get behind developing countries on good governance, which must be the main focus of our assistance, and a crackdown on corruption, we shall not support fast-tracking of the Bill. Unless we are satisfied in Committee that the Government have thought matters through and have dealt with the inevitable conflict between EU aid provision of 30 per cent. and the poverty focus that the Bill is intended to introduce, there is no way in which we shall be able to support the Bill on a fast-track procedure. I hope the Minister is listening. That is one of the reasons why the Government are so mistaken in trying to railroad the Bill through the House.