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Mr. Tyler: The hon. Gentleman was not a Member of the previous Parliament, so he has no experience of Conservative Governments, but I can assure him that they made exactly the same assumption. They assumed that, if they had a majority in the House, they had a right to
The Opposition parties have a perfect right to decide what are the principal concerns that they believe should be addressed in the debate and by Division. It is also true that Back Benchers on both sides have a right to expect that that scrutiny will take place in a managed and sensible way. That was the original principle of programme motions, as suggested by the right hon. Member for East Devon in his previous capacity of Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure. I hope that we shall make some progress. We could be here for another 12 months. I do not say that that is likely, but it is possible, and we certainly cannot continue with programme motions in their current form.
The Minister, in winding up the debate on Second Reading and in moving the programme motion, said that there is widespread support in the House, throughout all parties, for the objectives in the Bill, but he also said, very fairly, that much of its detail will require careful consideration to get right. The problem that we face is clearly gigantic. In that context and, I hope, with the support of the House, this programme motion may not be objectionable, but I still believe that it is completely ludicrous in principle that we should decide how a Committee should conduct its business even before it is appointed. I hope very much that, before many days are out, we shall improve the procedure.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say before deciding whether to speak in the debate, but something that he said made it important for me to do so. If I heard him correctly, he said that eight sittings ought to be enough "to knock off" the Bill. The assumption that we are here only to knock things off for the Minister's convenience and that what we might think, say or do really does not matter shows almost breathtaking arrogance and a contempt for democracy. With that slip of the tongue, the right hon. Gentleman showed that, although this is the first time that he has introduced a programme motion, he instinctively understands the nature of the beast. When he reflects in the morning on the attitude that he has taken, I hope that he will feel ashamed of himself.
When the Minister said that the civil servants had briefed him, he explained to the House that he did not need a briefing because he was a Member of Parliament. If he were a real parliamentarian who believed in the House and all that it stands for, and if he were a democrat who believed in the democracy that this country enjoys, he would have kept out of this debate on the programme motion. He should not be proud of the fact that it is the first time that he has introduced such a motion; had he been a real parliamentarian, he would have retired from the House never having moved one. He would have said to himself, "This is an affront to Parliament and the way in which we run our democracy."
The right hon. Gentleman faces a problem even though he boasted to us that he had heard it all before. He said that he had been told what to expect. Unfortunately, however good his civil servants are, they did not brief him
The Minister may have thought that he would get off lightly tonight. He looked around and said something about the usual suspects. It should not be a case of the usual suspects; all 659 Members of the House should be affronted by programme motions. Everyone who believes in democracy should be one of the usual suspects.
Mr. Redwood: Is my hon. Friend surprised that Ministers show such contempt for the House by introducing programme motions, given that they are led by a Prime Minister who hardly ever votes in the House and who has the worst voting record by a long way of any Prime Minister that any of us can remember? Does not such complete contempt for the parliamentary and democratic process come from the top?
Mr. Wilshire: My right hon. Friend is correct. I am sure that the Minister has read the briefings that he has been given and he will have seen that many Members consider the Prime Minister's treatment of us and of parliamentary democracy to be a disgrace. The Minister will have read that, and I hope that he has taken that point to heart. I suspect that, if he were being frank, he would say that he agreed, because in many respects he is a genuine parliamentarian who believes in this place--or, at least, he did until he took the Queen's shilling and came here to spout out such undemocratic nonsense.
Mr. Wilshire: Yes, of course I will, Madam Deputy Speaker. By way of introduction, I was responding to the Minister's comments. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was talking about the motion or about other things, but I accept what you say and I shall move on.
The Minister said that, as far as he could see, the Committee might want to sit on Maundy Thursday. I do not think that it will, but it is possible that the Prime Minister might put the country and not his party interest first and deal with the things that matter. Even if he did that, we would probably still not be here on Maundy Thursday, given the way in which the House has organised its business in the past. It would be helpful, therefore, if the Minister could tell us what he proposes to do replace the sitting that could take place on 12 April--or does he expect members of the Committee to attend even though the House is in recess? We should know.
I accept that, in some respects, in providing eight sittings for a Bill such as this, the motion is not as mean and nasty as some previous programme motions have been. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) said, one has to ask why. If the Bill can be knocked off quickly because it has been considered in the other place and is relatively non-controversial, why do we need eight sittings?
We must ask ourselves why, if the Bill is not controversial, we have been given eight sittings. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said that it did not matter, and the Government could have given us 800 sittings because after next week we will not be here to worry about it. That is probably the explanation, but I guess that the Minister knows no more than we do because the Prime Minister runs these matters in a dictatorial fashion and probably will not consult him. Nevertheless, it is possible that we will be here after next week--a Government who cared about the nation might see their term through.
Let us assume for the moment that we will be here after next week. I wonder whether my hon. Friend is absolutely right and the Government have something up their sleeves. If we cannot work out why eight sittings are necessary, perhaps the Government are concealing something from us and at the very last minute they will table a large number of amendments. When I was listening to my hon. Friend's explanation, it crossed my mind that several Labour Back Benchers may have worked out which of their Front-Bench colleagues will shortly lose their seats and want to use the Committee to make a bid for an Opposition spokesman's job. That might explain why the Minister of State moved the programme motion--it is a chance for him to strut the stage and to point out that, in opposition, he could do a useful job.
Another possibility that occurred to me is that by setting a limit, even a generous one of eight sittings, the Government are saying that they will look only for as much fraud as they can fit into a convenient time before they treat Parliament as a rubber stamp. It does not matter how many good suggestions are made, how many reasonable amendments are tabled or how many people think up new ways of bringing even more fraudsters to book if those factors cannot be tackled in the number of sittings suggested by the Minister. They could not care less about fraud if it does not fit.
The Minister explained why having eight sittings was a particularly good idea, but he did not even mention Report. If I understand the Order Paper correctly, it suggests that the Report stage will be brought to an end at 9 o'clock on the day on which it starts. Presumably, if we do not have the general election that the Labour party seems to want for its own selfish ends--[Laughter.] The laughter tells us a great deal. Labour Members will be laughing on the other side of their face after they have called an election--I will tell you that for free, Madam Deputy Speaker.
If we get to the Report stage, it is likely to be in mid-April, although it is difficult to say because we have not been given a date. We will have a maximum of five hours for it, but if my guess about the date is correct, the shambolic way in which the Government have failed to tackle foot and mouth disease means that we will have
Let us assume that we have another statement on the day on which the Report stage is taken. I noticed this afternoon that we were still wending our weary way through statements after 5 o'clock. That means that it does not matter how many amendments or new clauses are tabled on Report, because by the time the Minister has opened the debate and waffled on for ages, about an hour will have gone by, which will leave Back Benchers about an hour in which to say something before the winding-up speeches. That would be an undemocratic Report stage. It is pointless for hon. Members to give any thought to it if it can run for just three hours and Front-Bench spokesmen want to take time over it.
This is the Minister's first outing in a programme motion debate and he should be ashamed. It is a pity that he has not been given the opportunity to leave the House without getting his hands mucky in an undemocratic and unreasonable process. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said, the right hon. Gentleman could have gone home earlier had it not been for his Government colleagues.
Programme motions are part of the great modernisation process to allow hon. Members to go home earlier, because if they stayed too long they might have to take this place seriously. The Government have bungled that process. Not only does the Minister have to come here and dirty his hands, but he has to suffer the Government's incompetence. Instead of modernising, they make matters worse. I am sorry for the Minister, who could have left Parliament at the election without joining in an undemocratic procedure and adding his four pennyworth to this incompetent Government, whom we shall shortly remove.