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Mr. Boswell: I am fond of my hon. Friend, not least because he is a constituency neighbour, and we share the same newspapers. His intervention was a triumph of clarity and alliteration. I regard him as a one-person walking amendment himself. If we were to fail in Committee, I am sure that he would be able to remedy any deficiencies in the Bill when it returns to the House for further consideration. However, I know other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall make progress.
We need to remember the genesis of the Bill. It was promised in the Gracious Speech of 1999. The Bill is a promise from the last century that only now the Government are seeking to honour. Earlier, the Bill was, sadly, dropped from the legislative process, allegedly because of delays in consultation. One wonders what occasioned those delays in consultation. A draft Bill was promised last summer, but we never saw it; then this Bill was introduced in another place.
The Government seem to foster the no doubt agreeable myth that because the Bill is not party politically contentious, it contains nothing to talk about. They seem to believe that the Bill is absolutely straightforward, designed by central casting and that it should immediately be accepted and nominated for an Oscar. However, the Bill needed detailed analysis in another place, and unless the Prime Minister decides to alter the timetable--no doubt for purposes other than saving the Bill or the embarrassment of his Ministers--I strongly believe that it requires proper consideration in this place. The two Houses are complementary, not alternative.
The proposal that we heard tonight from the Under-Secretary, albeit briefly, is entirely of a piece with earlier events. The first of many Bills that I have considered in Committee during this Parliament was the very first Finance Bill. Indeed, the hon. Lady also served on that Committee. The sentence in those days was five days on the trot, guillotined to midnight every night. That was not a very good way of doing business, but the Government have learned nothing from it.
We are being offered, in practice, four days of sittings. The Whip will seek to establish reasonableness, but first let me remind him about the Learning and Skills Bill, which was not without its contentious aspects. That Bill was introduced in another place. Conservative Members tabled a reasoned amendment on Second Reading in this place, and we then spent two months and more than 20 sittings considering the Bill. It was a longer Bill than this one. If the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), would like to make me a pro rata offer on the time required for this Bill, it would take us up to around 5 May, but I have not heard that offered so far.
A compressed timetable makes it impossible for organisations to consider the debates and the arguments put by Ministers and to lobby for changes. Indeed, in my experience, it is difficult for Ministers to brief themselves. I have always found that the most constructive dialogue on Bills is the one that no one ever hears--the part of the iceberg below the surface where Ministers are briefed by officials. They say, "What is he rabbiting on about that for?", or "Does he have a point about this?" All that will go by the board because the timetable will make this a simple exercise in speeding the Bill through the House.
It will be difficult for Back Benchers, and even Front Benchers, to meet any timetable of consecutive sittings. For example, I have certain obligations to my constituents, who are tearing their hair about the foot and mouth epidemic. I deal with a number of constituency cases every day. Frankly, even if we went into purdah for a fortnight, we would still have great difficulty in giving the Bill the consideration that the subject matter and its complexity require.
The situation is a perfect parable of new Labour. They care more for the soundbite than for sound sense. They would rather pursue another initiative than consider legislation sensibly. To them, dissent is the ultimate sin, yet we believe that democracy is about debate and debate will, from time to time, require consent.
In conclusion, the chances are that before too long--possibly even in conformity with the entirely inadequate timetable that the Government have set--democracy will speak, and I cannot wait. Those on the Treasury Bench may find that the boot is on the other foot. When we are in government, we will have to make sure that we do not abuse the trust that has been put in us.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Once again, I rise to oppose a timetable motion, as I found myself doing last night. It is about the eighth or ninth time that I have spoken in such debates, and I shall carry on intervening in them for as long as we have to consider these timetable motions.
The motion is wholly inappropriate for the Bill. It is substantial: 57 pages, 43 clauses and nine schedules. The idea that such a Bill can be rattled through in four consecutive sittings is for the birds--the proposition is absurd. Apparently, we are to have the Bill out of Committee by 5 April. There will be five hours maximum for Report--perhaps much less--and one hour for Third Reading. That is complete nonsense, of course.
The House really must understand that in considering a Bill, it needs to perform at least two purposes. The first relates to policy and the second relates to the language in which that policy is framed. Both are equally important. I do not pretend to have followed the Bill with great particularity, so it may be that there is general agreement about the policy. That, however, is not conclusive of the issue.
We are, after all, talking about legislation. When we do that, we talk about burdens, obligations and penalties. We must ask what the authorities and the courts will make of legislation. The House must address those questions in the Standing Committee--that means proper scrutiny of the Bill.
The Committee has to undertake a further function which is not always recognised--the redress of grievances. In the context of any Bill--this one is no exception--particular cases, known to right hon. and hon. Members, may be highlighted. One of the ways hon. Members can do that is by tabling amendments directed at a particular grievance or abuse. If the Committee stage is so timetabled as to provide only four sittings, or whatever, hon. Members are prevented from pursuing their historical task--the redress of grievances.
In any event, the idea that just because the hon. Lady does not want to table amendments the matter is concluded is arrogance of a high order. Many hon. Members may want to table amendments. Are we really to be told, on the say-so of some Under-Secretary, that we are to be shut out from that?
Mr. Boswell: My right hon. and learned Friend is a distinguished lawyer--I am not. Will he clarify, for my information, the importance of holding debates in Standing Committee? Since Pepper v. Hart, such debates may be taken into account by the courts in the interpretation of the intentions of legislation. Does that not presuppose that nice points and difficulties--for example, the application of section 316, or of 316A, on the provision of finance to independent special schools--need proper elucidation in Committee? That requires a Committee stage.
Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Under the ruling in Pepper v. Hart, the courts consider what is said in the House as an interpretation of a Bill's purpose. So it is important that in addressing the construction and interpretation of clauses, Ministers give themselves adequate time properly to explain what they mean, because those explanations are relevant to the interpretation subsequently put on the legislation. It is wrong artificially to compress the debate so that such interpretation cannot be given if requested.
All those are arguments against artificially compressing the debate in Committee, but the arguments against compressing the debate on Report are even more potent. We all know that but three or four Opposition Members will serve on the Committee; thus some of my right hon. and hon. Friends who wish to make a contribution will be unable to do so. Incidentally, it should be noted that the Opposition Benches are pretty densely populated tonight.
The first occasion when the whole House will have an opportunity to consider the Bill in detail is on Report. We have been told that five hours of debate will be sufficient, but there may be 30, 40 or 50 amendments in six, seven or eight groups. In the past few months during this Session, there have been countless occasions when Bills have passed that have been but partly discussed on Report. It is wrong that the debate on Report is so constructed that, in reality, Bills go undiscussed. We give those in the other place a role that they should not have.