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20 Mar 2001 : Column 290

Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] (Programme)

10.14 pm

Jacqui Smith: I beg to move,

The programme motion proposes that the Standing Committee be brought to a conclusion on 5 April. We consider that to be a reasonable time, and we hope that the motion meets the Opposition's reasonable expectations. Although the exact time in Committee will of course depend on the Programming Sub-Committee, I can say that the Government do not intend to table further amendments to the Bill. Even Conservative Members will agree that the programme proposed should give ample time to consider a Bill of this size--43 clauses and eight schedules.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Jacqui Smith: There will be ample time for debate after I have spoken to the motion.

Hon. Members: Give way!

Mr. Speaker: Order. I would appreciate it if hon. Members did not shout at the Minister; that is an instruction.

Jacqui Smith: The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) has shown no interest in the Bill up until now.

Mr. Hogg: Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is not going to give way.

Jacqui Smith: The right hon. and learned Gentleman will have ample opportunity to make his points after I have finished.

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We believe that the motion proposes ample time to consider a Bill of this size, whose principles are generally supported by Members on all sides of the House--even if some vote against them--and by voluntary organisations.

I commend the motion to the House.

10.16 pm

Mr. Boswell: My immediate reaction to that speech was, frankly, "Oh dear." I must confess a certain liking for the late Frankie Howerd, a fine comedian--particularly on television. Some of the more mature of our colleagues may remember him appearing in what might loosely be called the Roman follies. He always built up the case in the forum and then, at a certain point, he would turn aside, remember himself and say, "And now, the prologue." Tonight, it was, "And now, the programme motion."

Frankly, this would all be a farce--it has been treated as such by the Under-Secretary--if it were not so serious.

Mr. Hogg: I am grateful that my hon. Friend gives way, when the Minister did not. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary that this House should be asked to approve a programme motion on the basis that there will be enough time to consider the Bill in Committee, when we have not been told when the Committee will meet, how often it will meet or the total length of time for which it will meet?

Mr. Boswell: Not for the first time, I find myself entirely in sympathy with my right hon. and learned Friend. He may not have been able to attend the whole of the previous debate--I understand the reasons for that--so I remind him that I made an offer. I said that we might consider withdrawing our opposition on the reasoned amendment if the Government took away their absurd programme motion tonight.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way, as it was obvious that the Minister was not prepared to do so. Will there be enough time to clarify one aspect of the Bill? In part 3, clause 43(12) says:

By inference, one would suspect that part 1 does, yet I understood education to be a devolved matter in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Boswell: As I am no longer a Minister, I am not sure that I can give the hon. Member an authoritative and ministerial reply; the Minister clearly cannot. That point exemplifies the need for proper discussion of the Bill in a full Committee stage. That has nothing to do with subverting the Government, let alone subverting the intentions of the Bill, which may be admirable.

Mr. Clive Betts (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury): They are.

Mr. Boswell: Lots of people have fine intentions. The Government Whip alarms me by suggesting that his intentions are entirely honourable.

Even if the intentions are good, there are still points to be raised. Sadly, tonight's motion--moved so peremptorily by the Under-Secretary--suggests that the

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Government are exactly like the Bourbons; they have neither learned anything nor forgotten anything from recent events. Instead of adopting a wise course of action and taking on board the genuine sense of anger and grievance aroused by the Criminal Justice and Police Bill last week--it was almost a disaster--the Government have come back to the House all fresh faced as if nothing had happened. They pop up again as insouciant recidivists.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): My hon. Friend said that the Criminal Justice and Police Bill was almost a disaster, but I am sorry that I must take issue with him. It was not almost a disaster, it was a disaster. There were 50 clauses that were not examined in Committee. If that is not a disaster for the people of this country, I do not know what is.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful for that reproof. My characteristic moderation got the better of me, as ever.

The Government offer no time for debate because, in their book, only soundbites matter. The Bill does not matter to them. I may be old fashioned--and I am mortified that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is not here tonight, as he would probably clash swords with me on the matter--but I think Bills are the core business of the House. We should debate them and get them right, but the Government persist in their belief that the Opposition are a nuisance to be crushed and not persuaded.

At all events, the only defence offered by the Government is that they will table no amendments in Committee. That is the triumph of hope over experience: I have never come across a Government who did not table amendments in Committee. If the Government have closed their mind to tabling amendments, it suggests that they will not take seriously what the Opposition have to say. I am sure that they will say that, although they understand the objective behind half of the amendments that we put forward, the wording is defective or not in order. However, it is not sufficient for them to say in advance, "Sorry, no dice: we're not going to change a thing, whatever you say."

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The Government have said that they will not table any amendments. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if it turns out that they do table amendments, it would be logical for the Government to extend the period covered by the programme motion?

Mr. Boswell: I agree. I cannot speculate on the conduct of the Committee, but we could find ourselves in a real dilemma. We would not want the Government to break one of their pledges. If they produced an amendment--even if it were a good one that I might wish I had devised myself--the Committee would have to decide whether to vote against it so as to fulfil the Government's pledge not to introduce any amendments.

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that precedent suggests that to suppose that the Government will not table amendments to the Bill would represent a triumph of optimism over reality and a victory for complacency over common sense? Even if the apologists for mediocrity that pepper the Government Benches choose not to table amendments to the Bill, Conservative Members and other

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hon. Members might choose to do so. Should not those amendments be deliberated on comprehensively, enthusiastically, in detail and, if necessary, at length?

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