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Mrs. Browning: The record of business questions on 1 March shows that, when I first raised the issue, the right

12 Mar 2001 : Column 741

hon. Lady did not, as she usually does--she is usually very particular in responding to each of my points--respond specifically to the point that I made about the Bill. She responded to a point about another Bill--the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill--to which she referred, but she did not mention this Bill at all.

Mrs. Beckett: I can clarify that for the hon. Lady. At that point in time, I did not precisely recall what the explanation was. I did recall it later. As she says, when she raised the issue on the last occasion, I made it plain to her that the Government had offered extra time, which is the clear answer to the basic point that she has made, as she rightly says, on number of occasions.

Mrs. Browning: The problem when we run into difficulties with programming is that there is no record of what has been discussed in the Programming Sub- Committees. However, we know that, in this case, the Government voted down the Opposition's proposals. It was my clear understanding, not only from the right hon. Lady but from Labour Members in general, when we discussed the issue in November that unless we made an outrageous and cavalier request the Government would consider our opinion and help to accommodate us. I believe that my hon. Friends' requests were reasonable, which is supported by the fact that we have felt it necessary not to conclude the Bill. Had the Government acted as they said they would, we would have had more time to scrutinise the Bill and they would have got their end date. It was all achievable.

Mr. Bercow: The Government are clearly being deliberately obtuse. Does my hon. Friend recall the 1997-98 Session, when the Crime and Disorder Bill, which was 152 pages long, had 22 Committee sittings and 54 hours of debate? Does she also recall that the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) said that that was a good example of how a Committee stage should operate? Is it not obviously absurd that a Bill of comparable length-- 150 pages--should have only 15 Committee sittings and 38 hours of debate? Surely that is so obvious that only the most extraordinarily clever person could fail to see it.

Mrs. Browning: It is obvious, and this Bill is comparable in terms of the work involved.

The motion states that we shall be deemed to have concluded our proceedings on the Bill. If we deem ourselves to have passed legislation that has not been scrutinised either on the Floor of the House or in Committee, we will set a precedent that could well be used in praying in aid the outcome of court cases. Hon. Members will be familiar with Pepper v. Hart, which decided that a Minister's interpretation was important in determining Parliament's will when the House considered legislation. How could any court determine our will if we deem ourselves to pass great chunks of legislation--

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: No, I am sorry, but I shall not give way again.

If Parliament passes great chunks of legislation that have not been scrutinised or debated at all, how can the courts determine our will? We must be very careful.

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However annoyed the Minister may be that his Bill has come to the surface as an example of why programming is not only a mistake but damaging to our democratic process, it would be wrong if, in a fit of pique, his antics tonight were accepted by the House--[Hon. Members: "Antics?"] Antics was the word I used, and antics was the word I meant. If the hon. Gentleman's antics were seen as being accepted by the House, there would be a read-across for this and many other Bills.

Maria Eagle: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: No, I am sorry, but I am really not giving way. [Interruption.] The Minister says that the antics of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) have brought us to this state of affairs. It might have been different had we been able to accept the Government's word that programming motions would be negotiated and that there would be compromise between the parties. However, this Bill got off to the wrong start. The Minister knows that the whole House had the opportunity to negotiate the programme motion on the basis of information that was not even accurate.

It is no good the Government praying in aid the fact that somebody had a personal appointment or saying that the half-term holiday reduced the time for which the Committee could sit. It was evident to my colleagues on the Committee that more time was needed for discussion, yet it had to be drawn out of the Government hour by hour, and even then it was not enough. If the Bill had been properly drafted and the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department had not wasted at least half a day of the Committee's time on clauses that he withdrew, we would clearly have been in a much better position tonight.

We are focusing on a particular Bill, and an important one at that, but it has demonstrated that the current experiment in programming is not only an abysmal failure but an affront to the democratic process.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): Everybody, especially many Labour Members who spent 18 years in opposition, understands that opposition is frustrating, and there will be many occasions on which the Opposition do not get their way on programme motions or guillotines. We could name plenty of occasions when much less time has been allocated to Bills more controversial than this.

I want to be clear about the answer given by the hon. Lady, who is the shadow Leader of the House and aspires to be Leader of the House, to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). Is she saying that it is now the official Opposition's policy that where they object to the time allocated to a Bill, they believe that the generation of "grave disorder"--those are the words of the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale)--by Front-Bench Opposition Members is entirely justifiable?

Mrs. Browning: The right hon. Gentleman completely misrepresents the case because the actions of my--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) is very noisy this evening. I do not want to hear him.

Mrs. Browning: The actions of my right hon. and hon. Friends last Thursday were in answer to the negative

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response that we had received not only in Committee but on the Floor of the House. As shadow Leader of the House, I personally did everything in my power to try to resolve that on-going problem before the Committee reached its final stage. The Home Secretary will be aware that, in the words of the Leader of the House, this procedure is an experiment. I hope that, as a result of what has happened with this Bill, he will realise that the experiment needs to be halted or radically changed. I am sure that, as a radical himself in days gone by, he will recognise the thrust of what I am saying.

Mr. Straw: As I said, we all understand the concerns of the Opposition about whether enough time has been made available, but the hon. Lady has just said, from the Front Bench, that she can justify the generation of grave disorder by Front-Bench Members as part of a protest. As the grave disorder was directed not at the Government but at the Chairman of the Committee and, by implication, the Chair of the House, may we take it that the hon. Lady is endorsing, as an official Opposition policy, grave disorder undermining the authority of the Chair?

Mrs. Browning: No. What undermines the authority of the House, whether in the Chamber or a Committee, is the fact that the official Opposition can no longer take the word of members of the Government. When they come to the House and say 16 sittings, they should mean 16 sittings. The Government say that the changes are an experiment, and that they will be co-operative and flexible, but they are not. We have assessed the situation and used every opportunity possible. We are not making a complaint or trying to insult the Chair of any Committee of this House. We are standing up for the democratic rights of the people of this country, and we will continue to do so even if they are not held in respect by the Government of the day. The sooner the people of this country change the Government of the day, the sooner we can get back to democracy as we have known it in this Chamber and the country.

Mrs. Beckett rose--

Mrs. Browning: I give way for the final time because I want to conclude my remarks.

Mrs. Beckett: I understand that the hon. Lady wants to make progress, and I understand also that she finds herself in a very unfortunate position. I say to her in her role as shadow Leader of the House that many of us--[Interruption.] I do not need advice from Conservative Members, thank you very much. When we were on the Opposition Benches, many of us found ourselves sympathising with actions taken by Members in objection--not normally by the shadow Home Secretary, but we will not go into that--but we simply understood that this House cannot work unless Members, and particularly Front Benchers, sustain the authority of the Chair. Even if we think that the Chairman's ruling is mistaken, we must sustain the authority of the Chair in this House. I hope that the hon. Lady will indicate that she understands that.

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