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6.33 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): I hope that the Minister felt some sense of shame when moving the programme motion. It was an unpleasant thing to have to do and we know that temperamentally he is not that sort of hon. Gentleman. A programme motion is intended to railroad through a measure by taking away from the Opposition the only weapon they have: time. The ability to extend debate in the hope of persuading the Government to change their course is the only weapon available to us. That is why it is crucial that every programme motion be opposed, unless there are exceptional reasons that justify the Government's belief that the Opposition are wasting time.

Let me describe how a Select Committee on an Armed Forces Bill operates. I speak as one who chaired the relevant Select Committees in 1986 and 1996. Eleven Members of Parliament are selected to serve on the Committee. On this occasion, for the first time, no one with any service experience was put on the Committee, which was packed with Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The Committee tends to work in an harmonious fashion--I am sure it did so on this occasion, under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire), whose interest in defence matters is long standing. The members of the Committee work together closely on their task, which is to consider, scrutinise and perhaps amend the pattern of discipline and the structure of the armed forces. As they do that, they take evidence from armed forces personnel. In my experience, they always develop great respect for those who work in the armed forces and the Committee tends to develop an extremely harmonious working relationship.

Mr. Forth: Does my hon. Friend believe that a consensual, harmonious, cosy Committee is necessarily the best way to produce sharp-edged scrutiny of legislation; or does he share my suspicion that, every now and then, cosy consensuality gives rise to sloppy, poor legislation?

Mr. Viggers: My right hon. Friend makes a good debating point, but in the case that I describe it is good that the members of the Committee tend to be harmonious in their desire to do their best for the armed forces and to

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respect the highly taxing circumstances in which forces personnel serve. In this case, harmony promotes good legislation.

That harmony usually extends to agreeing the manner in which the programme of the Committee is to be handled. I am not aware of any previous occasion on which it has been necessary in any way to curtail discussion by a Committee of an Armed Forces Bill. Today therefore marks a first. The Government have stood on its head the practice developed over the years of harmony and agreement between the sides.

In that respect, I mean the two sides of the Committee, but on occasions it can be extremely helpful for the whole Committee to have available to it the weapon of time. I recall that, during the passage of the Armed Forces Act 1996, the Select Committee achieved consensus and harmony in its wish to prevent the then Government from implementing their proposals to change the basis on which Greenwich hospital was dealt with by the Government. The Committee wanted to express to the Government its discontent with the manner in which the Government proposed to deal with the future of that institution. I, as its Chairman, expressed the Committee's view that we were not prepared to accept the proposed legislation. The Government had to change their approach, and what emerged was a better relationship between the Government and the management of Greenwich hospital--one that has ensured both that the fabric and architecture of Greenwich hospital are retained in their present form, and that its traditions are respected by its owners. The weapon of time can be extremely valuable, whether it enables the Opposition to make representations to Government members of the Committee, or enables the Committee as a whole to make representations to the Government.

I profoundly regret the way in which the Government have sought to curtail discussion of the Bill. The current Government are arrogant: the Prime Minister rarely attends the House and Cabinet Ministers rarely attend debates. At the start of the debate on the money resolution, I saw the Secretary of State for Defence sitting in his place on the Treasury Bench. That was welcome to me because I believe that, even if they are not personally responsible for piloting it through, Ministers should be present during the passage of legislation that affects their Department. However, the right hon. Gentleman was present for no more than five minutes before disappearing, and he will probably take no further part in the passage of the Bill. That is, to my regret, typical of the Government's behaviour.

The Armed Forces Bill is, of all Bills, the one on which it should be possible for the usual channels--the Whips representing Front Benchers of all parties--to agree a reasonable pattern of debate that is not inflexible and which allows all Members of Parliament to express their point of view. This programme motion is nasty, silly and unnecessary, and I very much regret that it has been moved.

6.39 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I rise having had a rather unhappy history of trying to take part in affairs on the Bill. I got a chance to speak on Second Reading, but it will not surprise hon. Members to learn that I would have been keen to be on the special Select Committee that

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considered the Bill, given my experience in the armed forces and as a special adviser to Sir Malcolm Rifkind, then Secretary of State for Defence, from 1993 to 1995. I felt that I would have had a deal to contribute to the Bill.

I want to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) that it is unnecessary to have a programme motion at this stage. It was unnecessary to have a programme motion immediately after Second Reading, when I made what I believe to be the shortest speech in the House of about five seconds before the motion ran out of time.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): It was a very good speech.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Some people have remarked that it was the best speech that I have made in the House, but I am not entirely sure that they were being kind.

The point at issue is the way in which the Bill has been handled in the House, which is profoundly unsatisfactory for the armed forces. There is no great controversy between the Government and the Opposition about the detail of issues in the Bill. Excepting the major issue of whether the armed forces should be within the remit of the European convention on human rights--and if it is taken as read that they will be--a lot of what follows in the Bill does not give rise to controversy between the parties.

It is a shame that someone with my background, who wanted to serve on the Select Committee considering the Bill, was not able to do so or give details to it. I then find that the Bill, frankly, is almost a subject for experts in the House; looking round the Chamber this evening, I see the usual suspects on defence issues. It was not necessary for the Government to introduce a programme motion. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has made clear how little scrutiny there would be if we scrutinised the Bill clause by clause. However, I believe that, on Report, we would have had a chance for proper and detailed debates on issues raised by the Bill, driven by hon. Members on both sides of the House who take a keen and informed interest in those affairs.

That is the duty that we owe the armed forces, not driving through legislation on programme motions--both after Second Reading, to limit consideration in Select Committee and to limit the time on Report, which is a key stage for people like me. Indeed, that will be the only opportunity that I shall have to make known my concerns about the Bill. However, I despair of being listened to by the Government in an area in which I can make a positive contribution. I served on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000 and tabled a number of amendments. It has to be said that not a single amendment, from whatever party, was accepted by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence who took the measure through Committee. Having heard the Home Secretary make the point that he was not aware of any Bill that could not be improved by its time in Committee, it is instinctive to object to the fact that the Government see fit to deal on a programme motion with the armed forces, of all things.

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Mr. Viggers: I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that I am not trying to flatter him. I speak the truth when I say that I served with him on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Discipline Act and was greatly impressed by his contributions, which were based on his military experience and his consideration of the measure. I very much regret that he has not been able to contribute to consideration of the Bill, and that the period available for him to do so is now limited.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks.

I conclude by expressing distress at the unnecessary procedure of introducing a programme motion on the Bill. It is clear that the House could have come to a perfectly adequate arrangement about the time needed to debate the issues. The programme motion demonstrates contempt, not only for the House but for the armed forces. Outside the House, people may not be too worried about the Executive treating the House with contempt, but there should be serious cause for concern among hon. Members. The matter should be brought to public attention; when it is, the Executive should pay the price.

Question put:--

The House divided: Ayes 282, Noes 134.

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