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Mr. Hogg: Of you, Ann.

Miss Widdecombe: Well, he said the Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman received neither embraces nor kisses on that occasion, and he will certainly not receive any from Opposition Members today. There is no justification whatsoever for what can be described only as an outrageous and absurd guillotine motion, tabled by the Home Secretary and the Leader of the House. The motion will hinder the interests of democracy and of our constituents, who send us here to hold the Government to account and to ensure that the laws passed by Parliament are in good order, well thought through and properly scrutinised.

It is only a couple of weeks since three Members of the Conservative Whips Office and I were sufficiently incensed by the lack of true accountability by the Government to try to bring the issue to wider public attention. Today, we have two more justifications for that sit-in.

Later, in one hour flat, we shall put a Bill through all its stages in the House--a Bill that would never have been necessary if the House had been allowed to scrutinise the original Bill properly. The amendment that it seeks to correct was never put to the House for debate and was introduced at a late stage in the other place. Yet, undeterred by having created such a mess that an emergency Bill is now necessary, the Government still push it through without any attempt at serious scrutiny.

I challenge the right hon. Gentleman--I have challenged him before and I challenge him again--to tell me of any other occasion, under any Government, when a Bill on the constitution was taken through Second Reading, Committee, Report and Third Reading in 60 minutes flat at the behest of a Government on an imposed guillotine.

Mr. Hogg: Not only that, but the Bill was published yesterday without any pre-publication discussion or consultation.

Miss Widdecombe: My right hon. and learned Friend is right: that only makes the situation vastly worse.

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Does the Home Secretary acknowledge that he is insulting this House and the British people? They are being governed by tranches of law that have never been debated by the House, much less voted on.

Mr. Forth: The matter is even worse than my right hon. Friend suggests. As it happens, an amendment that I tabled to the Elections Publications Bill has been selected. It was known to have been selected, yet the Government tabled this vicious guillotine, allocating one hour for all stages, in the knowledge that the Chairman of Ways and Means had selected an amendment. Since then, another amendment tabled in the name of an hon. Member from another party has been selected. Does not that compound the matter beyond all endurance?

Miss Widdecombe: It certainly does. Large numbers of amendments to both Bills will not be debated tonight. We have already seen the consequence of such an approach. We would not have had to debate the Election Publications Bill today if there had been proper scrutiny of the original Bill.

I remind the Home Secretary of his words to the House on 4 April last year, of which today's debate may be considered to be the anniversary:


On 29 November last year, the Home Secretary said:


Yet it is that important part of the constitutional process, which has resulted in the improvement of every Bill with which the Home Secretary has been involved, that the right hon. Gentleman is dispensing with this evening.

What is the justification for the guillotine motion? It is not as though the Opposition are trying to delay or frustrate the Elections Bill. As I made clear in response to the Home Secretary's statement on Monday afternoon, the Opposition welcome the fact that the Government have decided--albeit belatedly--to provide for a postponement of the local elections, which were due to take place on 3 May. Indeed, it was the Opposition who first called, more than two weeks ago, for such a measure to be introduced.

The Election Publications Bill is also the subject of cross-party consensus, as the Home Secretary has acknowledged, and as he knows full well. There is not a shred of evidence to support the contention that, without a guillotine, the Opposition would attempt to delay or frustrate the Bill, yet these days the House cannot expect much more from a Home Secretary and a Leader of the House who had the audacity only a few weeks ago to deem that the Committee stage of a major Bill had been completed, despite the fact that more than half its text had never been considered.

So what is the real reason for the motion? The House, and especially my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), will recall the attitude of Labour Members during the Committee stage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill--and of one Labour Member in

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particular. During that Committee, which also sat on the Floor of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend, together with my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who at the time graced the Opposition Front Bench, made some extremely powerful points about the Government's proposals on referendum rules. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), refused to respond to the debate. In justification, he said:


The Minister made those remarks at midnight. One can therefore understand perfectly well why the guillotine motion will cut short debate this evening at 11 pm: Labour Members will want to go home, rather than stay here and ensure that the legislation being considered by the House, which goes to the very heart of our democracy, is in good order.

The right hon. Gentleman is again moving a guillotine motion on constitutional legislation, which shows exactly what the Government think about both these important constitutional measures and about the need for consensus and agreement on them.

What happened to the right hon. Gentleman? He said in February 1995:


When the House considers the Elections Publications Bill later tonight, right hon. and hon. Members will see exactly how the right hon. Gentleman failed to get things right in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) will have more to say on that subject when the time comes.

The guillotine motion means that the House will have very little time, if any, in which to consider the important amendments that have been tabled on a range of crucial electoral issues. Indeed, when the Government amendments are made in Committee and the House proceeds to consideration on Report, the farcical procedure that applied to the Football (Disorder) Bill in the previous Session will apply again. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) must be calm. [Interruption.] Order. The right hon. Lady will withdraw that remark. [Interruption.] Order. The right hon. Lady will get to her feet and withdraw that remark.

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): I was simply saying--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I heard the right hon. Lady talk about misleading the House.

Ms Armstrong: I said that I was concerned that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was not going to mislead the House. I withdraw everything.

Miss Widdecombe: Does the Home Secretary recall the proceedings on the Football (Disorder) Bill, when the

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House was forced to consider amendments on Report that had not been printed to a Bill that had not been reprinted? Furthermore, although my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) wanted to retable his Committee amendments, which had not been discussed in Committee because of the guillotine, he was not able to do so because in waiting to discuss them in Committee he missed the deadline for Report.

I described the procedure as a farce, and that is exactly what it was. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) commented:


Even the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said:


Yet, despite that experience and the Minister's comments, the guillotine motion before the House today takes no account of those criticisms and no account of the experience on that Bill.


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