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Mr. Clarke: I am loth to give a formal interpretation on the hoof to a man of such legal distinction. I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Bill has been debated fully in the other place. It would be different if the Bill had been introduced in this place and became part of the tit for tat that can arise. However, I will take advice and clarify the matter if I can.
As for the dates mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), in case there is any doubt, we have in mind 10 April, 17 April, 24 April and 26 April--1 May is a stand-by date if we do not sit on 17 April.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I am afraid that I am not as distinguished as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). I should be grateful if the Minister explained in simple language, so that I can understand, what paragraph 7 means.
Mr. Bercow: Given that the Government published their White Paper on the subject in March 1999--exactly two years ago--and signalled their intention to legislate, will the Minister confirm that the Government have an idea of the intended regulations to give effect to parts of the Bill? If not, why not? If they do, why can we not have sight of the draft regulations?
The issue has been fully discussed and we have followed the same process, which I believe is correct, for other Bills. Before formally drafting regulations, it is appropriate for Parliament to consider the Bill, decide the framework of secondary legislation and consult across the industry. The hon. Gentleman, in his usual courteous way, is right to say that we have a good idea what we are talking about because substantial consultation has taken
Mr. Clarke: I can give the hon. Gentleman the same commitment that I gave the hon. Member for Buckingham. I will do my best to ensure that draft regulations are available as early as possible. I am happy to do that because it is appropriate.
I understand that paragraph 7 uses the standard form of wording. The process is established. However, hon. Members on both sides of the House are aware of the issues that surround the way in which it operates and the concerns of the Programming Sub-Committee. I think we all agree that the Modernisation Committee will need to consider how it has worked. There are issues of principle concerning the idea of a guillotine and practical issues about whether it is used in the right way. I can say firmly on behalf of the Government that we are ready to listen to suggestions.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): The Minister is extremely courteous in giving way. In the same spirit, I say to him that there is no deep, fundamental argument about the Bill. It has been extremely well discussed in the other place. Is it not exactly the kind of Bill for which, in reasonable circumstances, the Government would not need to use a guillotine but would allow the House to take the necessary time? It is obviously not a Bill on which anybody would create difficulties, but there are points that hon. Members want to work on. Is this not precisely the occasion when the Government might have said to the House that they will not impose a guillotine?
Mr. Clarke: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, but he knows very well the difficulty that the Government have had over the past few months. I do not seek to make an adversarial point, but we lack confidence in the Opposition's ability to undertake the rational consideration of Bills to which he referred. I think that such consideration is the right way to go about things, but some hon. Members have not been prepared to do that. They want to use the procedures of the House for reasons that have nothing to do with the substance of any particular Bill, but because of the overall process, to make general arguments about the allegedly dictatorial Government.
I am not making a point now about the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, about which there was some toing and froing earlier. [Interruption.] No, I will not dilate on that. I am often asked by the hon. Member for Buckingham to do things that I do not particularly want to do, but he will be glad to hear that I am strong-minded enough to resist his blandishments. I am sure that my very good friend, Mark Seddon, the editor of Tribune, will also be able to withstand his blandishments when he takes him on in any general election that is to come. He will knock the hon. Gentleman into a substantial cocked hat in Buckingham.
I think that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) is wrong in his assessment; I think that paragraph 7 refers only to the guillotine, or timetable motion, on Lords messages, and not the debate on the Lords messages themselves. Will the Minister confirm that it means only that any Question on a timetable motion for Lords messages will be put forthwith, and that then there will be a debate on those messages?
Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman has understood the situation correctly. I must plead guilty to some extent here because I had assumed, and was subsequently advised correctly, that that is the standard form of wording and it means exactly what he said. Earlier interventions led me down a path that I should perhaps not have taken.
Mr. Hawkins: When my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was responding to an earlier programme motion tabled by the Government, on Monday, she commenced her excellent remarks with a comment about the sense of unreality with which the House was approaching programme motions in these circumstances. I would go further and say that we are in an "Alice in Wonderland" world tonight, where a word means what the Minister says it means, and does not have its ordinary and natural meaning. Given the fevered speculation about the Government's general election plans, it seems somewhat bizarre to be discussing debates in April and May for the programme motion.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has just said, there is no justification for any guillotining or programming of such a Bill. Much earlier this afternoon, at the beginning of the Second Reading debate, the Minister gave the game away in answer to an intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), when he dropped the heaviest of hints that there was very little prospect of the Bill's reaching the statute book because of what he knows the Prime Minister is likely to do.
Mr. Hawkins: Before I give way to the Minister, let me say that if these were normal times and we were dealing with a normal Government and normal Ministers who believed in democracy, scrutiny and debate and who did not want to programme and guillotine every single measure, we might be able to accept the Minister's assurances; but I am afraid that, in the light of our recent experiences on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, when the Minister made statements at the Dispatch Box about when motions would be progressed and how many
Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is, of course, entitled to say that. However, I want to place on the record the fact that I did not drop the heaviest of hints about the election date. I do not know the Prime Minister's mind. I responded directly to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), and any Opposition politician will know that, however senior they may have been, they did not know their Prime Minister's mind about election dates any better than anyone else. It would be good of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) to withdraw the suggestion that I dropped a hint about the election date, or that I know the Prime Minister's mind.