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House of Commons

Friday 9 March 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]



9.33 am

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): I present a petition that has been signed by more than 20,000 rail workers and rail users throughout the United Kingdom. It supports early-day motion 69 on railway safety. It is supported by the General Secretary of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen and the Assistant General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. It criticises the privatisation of British Rail, which despite large injections of taxpayers' money has led directly to the present continuing crisis suffered by rail workers and rail users. It regrets that many people are reverting to car use, which has an adverse impact on the environment and consequent increases in death and injury. The petition ends in the proper way.

To lie upon the Table.

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Points of Order

9.35 am

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which you have been given notice. It is my unpleasant duty to inform the House that, at the sitting of Standing Committee F yesterday evening, I drew attention to the presence of the right hon. Ann Widdecombe, the Member for Maidstone and the Weald, Mr. Patrick McLoughlin, the hon. Member for West Derbyshire, Mr. James Cran, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness and Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the hon. Member for Cotswold, not being members of the Committee, in the part of the Committee Room reserved for members of the Committee.

The right hon. and hon. Members having declined to withdraw, the Committee ordered:

The right hon. and hon. Members continued to decline to withdraw, so I adjourned the Committee for grave disorder, without putting any Question. The Committee therefore did not complete its consideration of the Criminal Justice and Police Bill yesterday, as it had been instructed to do by the order of the House on 29 January.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let me reply to the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale).

I strongly deprecate any defiance of the Chair in a Standing Committee, whatever the alleged justification for such conduct. I am most grateful to the Chairman of the Committee for dealing so calmly with the deliberate disruption of the Committee, in what must have been a difficult situation.

Mr. Forth: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It appears that the Committee in question is left in a rather odd position. You will know that the House, through the peculiar and, I think, increasingly unacceptable procedure of programme motions, required the Committee to complete its deliberations by 7 o'clock yesterday evening. We know, because the Chairman has been kind enough to tell us, that the Committee was unable so to do.

I think that the House needs your advice on where we go from here. We seem to be in limbo. The Committee has been unable to comply with the requirements of the House through its programme motion, the only motion of which I am aware to determine the Committee's proceedings. Therefore, the House needs your guidance on how we can best tackle the situation.

Perhaps I might ask a further question. If a further programme motion has to be introduced, will it be amendable? Will proper notice be given of it?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I will not allow the right hon. Gentleman to ask me a series of questions at this stage. He raised a point of order and asked where we go from here. The answer is that we will consider the Orders of the Day. This is a problem for the Government, and they

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will sort it out. The Chairman has reported, the Government have heard him and, as I have said, they will sort things out.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the member of the Committee who, on the advice of the Chair, moved the motion that the right hon. and hon. Members in question should be reported to the House, I should be grateful if you would confirm that consideration on Report and on Third Reading of the Criminal Justice and Police Bill will be able to proceed next week, and that procedures can be introduced for that. Will you also confirm that the principal effect of the action will be to ensure that debate on other matters important to the House is not held?

Will you, Mr. Speaker, say whether, when considering what action to take in relation to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and her hon. Friends, you can take into account the fact that her action was deliberate and premeditated? As she stated in the Financial Times, it was a protest that was to have the effect that the Bill could not be reported and to delay

I ask you to take into account her statement to the Mirror that this

Does not that show that she and her colleagues are not fit even to be in opposition, let alone in government?

Mr. Speaker: The answer lies with the Government themselves. Unfortunately, the Chairman was unable to complete the business that the House gave the Committee, and the Chairman then did the proper thing. The Government will have to table a special motion before we can consider Third Reading and the other matters that the Minister raised.

I disapprove of the conduct of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), but it is for the House to make a decision on her conduct. That is the answer to that question.

Mr. Clarke: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I confirm that the Government will be tabling a motion on Monday to the effect that has been indicated for the House to consider at that time.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are the guardian of the rights of Back Benchers and the guardian of effective scrutiny of parliamentary legislation. We were confronted yesterday with a situation in which 56 clauses, six schedules, 42 Opposition amendments--

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Lady refers to Back Benchers, but she is not a Back Bencher. What is her point of order? I do want to hear a rerun of what

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happened in the Committee. Its Chairman has reported and told me all that I want to know. Does she have a proper point of order, because that was not one?

Miss Widdecombe: My point of order was that, as the guardian of parliamentary scrutiny, be it by Back Benchers or the official Opposition, is it your view that the situation such as one that arose yesterday--

Mr. Clarke: That is not a point of order.

Miss Widdecombe: Yes, it is. Fifty-six clauses, six schedules, 42 Opposition amendments and 10 Government amendments--some of which had huge implications for civil liberties--were all to be considered in a matter of hours. Is that a satisfactory situation?

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not a matter for me. However, it is a matter for me to say to the right hon. Lady that she should not have been in that Committee.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would be grateful if you could advise the House on the proper procedure to be followed, given that the disgraceful conduct of right hon. and hon. Members in the Committee last night appears not only to have been premeditated, but undertaken with the active support and preparation of members of the Committee--the hon. Members for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I would be grateful if you could advise the House whether it is in order for hon. Members to be party to a conspiracy to disrupt the proceedings of the Committee and to have prepared for and supported that disruption.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not want to hear a rerun of last night's proceedings. I say again: this is a matter for the House. If any right hon. or hon. Member is unhappy with the conduct of any other Members, it is up him or her to table a motion and it can be debated. The Chairman of the Committee did the correct thing and he has reported to me.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I share the concerns of many Members about the progress of the Bill and the difficulties that lie behind it. Given the issues that arose last night, I examined "Erskine May" to determine what an ordinary Back Bencher like me would be able to do if he or she felt that massive civil liberties issues such as can be found in this Bill had not been properly debated. I can find nothing in "Erskine May" to tell me how an ordinary Back Bencher can amend the time allocated to a Bill. Can you, Mr. Speaker, give me guidance on how an ordinary Back Bencher can alter the procedures so as to ensure proper debate?

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