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10.41 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The very fact that the Conservative spokesman has run into difficulty in trying to avoid rehearsing the arguments on the substance of the Bill shows how ridiculous programme motion debates have become. That, I fear, is largely because of the way in which the Government have handled the business of the House, rather than being the responsibility of the Opposition parties which, obviously, can have only a limited impact on such motions.

I shall stick to the subject of the programme motion itself. Clearly, the way in which the Parliamentary Secretary introduced it was itself rather peculiar. First he said--I cannot precisely repeat his words, but I think that I paraphrase accurately--that he could not envisage circumstances in which the Government would introduce amendments. However, he slipped in the phrase, "at present". I am sure that we shall see that qualification when we read Hansard tomorrow morning. When he was challenged on that point, he made another statement, which was slightly different.

What is so intrinsically absurd about programme motions like this is that, before the Committee of Selection has even appointed the Standing Committee's members or its Chairman and before the Programming Sub-Committee has had an opportunity to analyse the issues raised on Second Reading--let alone to look at any representation made from outside the House since the Bill's consideration in the other place--the Government see fit to put an end date on the Bill's consideration in Committee. That is patently, intrinsically absurd, and it is unnecessary.

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This week, I hope to put some proposals to the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons to discover whether we cannot break the ludicrous logjam of programme motions. I appeal to those on both Front Benches carefully to consider ways in which programme motions can proceed consensually, to give them the real impact that they were intended to have when they were first proposed by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure in the previous Parliament, and by the Modernisation Committee in this Parliament.

I very much hope that Back Benchers on both sides of the House, who must recognise what a silly farce programme motions have become, will exert pressure on those on their Front Benches to discover whether we cannot make progress. Some Members think that we can make no progress on anything until we are the other side of the general election, but I remind them it is possible that, instead of Dissolution taking place in 13 days' time, it could still be 13 months away.

We simply cannot go on for another 13 months with the current absurdities that have been put before us tonight, and night after night, with programme motions. I hope therefore that in considering the proposals, all members of the Modernisation Committee, on both sides of the House, will be prepared to discover whether we cannot find some way through.

There is an additional reason: we cannot wait until the other side of polling day to establish what Sessional Orders may be appropriate to the new Parliament. So it is important to try to achieve a consensus on both sides of the House on how to improve the situation. Certainly, the present arrangement brings no credit on the House. These 45-minute debates have become increasingly sterile--a genuine dialogue of the deaf--and they have not prepared the House for better management of its business.

Effective scrutiny depends on the Opposition parties having an opportunity to say how the detailed issues should be addressed and how much time should be given to the particular parts of a Bill. I accept that the Government have a right to seek to get their business out of Committee by an end date. However, it is totally unnecessary to table the type of motion that is before the House tonight. I very much hope that, in the next few days, we might seek to make progress so that at least in the new Parliament--be that in a month or two or 14 months or so--we can bring credit to the way in which the House does its business.

10.45 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I rise once again to oppose the principle of a programme motion. Those on the Government Front Bench need to understand that there is no consent to the process on which they are embarking. They also need to understand that the lack of consent is perfectly genuine. I have been in this place a long time, so I recognise that Members of Parliament often express views that are, on the whole, superficial. One is entitled to ask, "Do they really mean it?" However, we really do mean it when we say that the current process of timetabling is deeply unacceptable to us.

The process is unacceptable for a variety of reasons that I shall outline shortly. However, the consequence is critically important. If a sizeable portion of the House does not accept

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a process, that process has no legitimacy. The House can proceed only if we have what might be broadly defined as genuine acquiesence. There is no genuine acquiesence in the process of timetabling; and the consequences of such a lack of acquiesence are actions, such as those effected by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), that demonstrate the House's collective disquiet at the process on which the Government are embarking.

This is an important Bill. I shall not discuss it because you would call me to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it will give the Government a wide discretionary power to change or to disapply primary legislation. That is a constitutional innovation. I, for one, find it passing strange that Third Reading should permit but one hour of debate on a measure of such constitutional importance.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made the point that we need to consider whether it might be possible to reach a consensus on timetabling. The answer is that we might be able to do so, but that has to be on the basis that there is genuine time for discussion. I have been in this place a long time and, like others, I know that from time to time Members abuse the processes of the House. When there is a genuine feeling that the House's processes are being abused, the Government will find that they have tacit support for intervention by way of timetabling or closure even though hon. Members may go through the motions of opposition. Members, however, will not accept timetabling in advance before there is abuse. Government Members must accept that we will never, ever accept artificial timetabling, although we will accept timetabling when there is abuse. However, it will always be a matter of judgment as to when there is or is not abuse.

The Government must also understand that the Committee and Report stages are important. It is all very well to say that this is a small Bill, so the House should just accept it. However, the process of scrutinising legislation contains certain distinct elements. First, we have to consider whether the principle is right. I do not think that it is in this case, because of the constitutional implication--but let us assume that I am wrong. We then have to consider the language in which the legislation is couched. One of our functions as Members of Parliament is to try to ensure that we do not pass legislation that is inherently nonsensical or which gives rise to unforeseen problems. We can only understand that by scrutinising it extensively in Committee.

There is an additional matter to consider which arises from such a debate. The Bill is supposed to enable us to remove, by order, the burdens of regulation. Hon. Members will want to identify cases in Committee or on Report of regulations that are biting on their constituents. They will do that by tabling amendments that draw specific attention to a class of abuse or regulation.

Mr. Bercow: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is not merely the number of clauses that counts, but their scope, reach and potential cost? Notwithstanding what the Parliamentary Secretary says about not intending to table amendments, is it not the case that many other people may want to? Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the subordinate provisions

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order in clause 4--on which the Parliamentary Secretary was notably silent--is highly controversial and should be submitted to extensive debate?

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend identifies three major considerations, the second of which is the most important. He draws attention to the fact that the Government have no intention of tabling amendments--as if that were a conclusive argument. I bet they will table amendments. I have been in the House and in government for much longer than the Parliamentary Secretary and the chance of his not tabling amendments is very small. However, I do not care what he does. What concerns me is that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) may want to table an amendment.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Minister for the Cabinet Office has been trying, from a sedentary position, to get him to stop speaking even though she has spoken a great deal herself and we have only 45 minutes in which to discuss the motion?

Mr. Hogg: The right hon. Lady has prattled throughout her time in the House. I heard background noises, but fortunately I am rather deaf. I tried to see who was making the funny little noise and I am glad to learn that it was the Minister, because that means I do not have to worry about what was going on.

My right hon. Friend is right. We are not concerned primarily with whether the Government want to table amendments. What interests us is whether Back Benchers or Front Benchers of different parties want to do that and articulate their constituents' concerns. The Parliamentary Secretary's attitude is: if the Government do not want to table amendments, does it matter that others might want to? Yes, it does. That is why there is no consent in the House.

I have said before that there is an implied bargain in a democracy between Parliament--the legislature--and the electorate. If the electorate are to accept policy and legislation that imposes burdens on them, they do so on the basis that their representatives in Parliament have been given an opportunity, which they have taken up, to scrutinise legislation. If the Government deprive Parliament of that opportunity, they will destroy the bargain and undermine the basis on which the country accepts the burdens that they impose.

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