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Rev. Ian Paisley: One of the Bills before us contains a reference to schedule 1 of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 2001. There is no such Act. As a good parliamentarian, I asked to see all the Acts, and I was told that there is no such Act. The Bill provides for the amendment of an Act that does not exist.

Miss Widdecombe: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his close scrutiny. The point of having a debate is that the House can provide close scrutiny, but it will be denied to us today. Before the Government produce a flawed Bill, perhaps they will very hastily consider the hon. Gentleman's important contribution.

There is not even a provision for a five-minute delay in which to allow right hon. and hon. Members to table amendments for Report or to allow the Bill to be reprinted. In a few hours, the House will be faced with the same unacceptable situation. Indeed, it will be even more unacceptable, because only one hour will be allowed for Report and Third Reading, so there will almost certainly be no Third Reading debate.

It is all the more important for the House to have adequate time to consider the Elections Bill, above all in view of the hasty way in which it has been put together. I believe that it has been even more hastily drafted than the Football (Disorder) Bill, which was considered and consulted on for almost a week, if I remember correctly, yet a large number of improvements were subsequently made to it, several of which resulted from matters first raised in Opposition amendments.

The Elections Bill has been cobbled together in what must have been a matter of hours. Throughout last month, the Government, mostly through the Prime Minister's official spokesman, made it clear not only that they had no proposals to introduce legislation of this nature but that they were not even working on contingency plans--so we all know how much notice the Cabinet, above all the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, had of the reversal of that decision.

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Hon. Members from all parties have already identified parts of the Bill that could be improved, and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has identified where the Bill is just plain nonsense. It is important that the House has time to consider the points that have been made, but even if the debate on the guillotine motion does not run for three hours, which is what the Government have allowed, the House will not get far past the Second Reading debate and, if it is extremely lucky, a couple of groups of amendments, before the guillotine falls. Important issues such as limiting the compensation scheme to independent candidates, as we have proposed, will not be debated. Nor will we debate the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) on compensation for the expenditure incurred by the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland.

Other important amendments tabled by hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies will not be discussed, including those on combining polling cards for the local and national elections and those tabled by Ulster Unionist and Democratic Unionist Members on whether counting agents should be allowed to be present when ballot papers placed in the wrong box are sorted out.

The Home Secretary will recall the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), who spoke for the Opposition on the guillotine motion that the Home Secretary moved on 29 November. He said:

My right hon. Friend then commented that the Home Secretary was tarnishing that reputation by moving the guillotine on that occasion. Today, the Home Secretary has no reputation for taking this place seriously. In the past, his guillotines have produced chaos in the Chamber and, as the House will see later when it considers the Election Publications Bill, botched legislation that need not have been a mess had this arrogant and dictatorial Government had any respect for the usual democratic processes.

The motion is an affront to the House and to the people who sent us here, who expect us to spend more than a few minutes on important proposals: that we will not do so is testament to the arrogance of the Government--an arrogance that will not be forgotten in the coming weeks as the guillotine falls on this contemptuous, arrogant, incompetent, out-of-touch, control-freak Government when the election comes, if it does come, on 7 June.

4.33 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): Like the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats broadly support both the Bills that are the subject of the guillotine motion. The Government, having weighed the matter up carefully, have decided that the local government elections should be deferred from 3 May to 7 June, and my party supports them. Equally, the issue of the imprints and the introduction of the new regulations is an important one for the political parties. The Home Secretary is right to point to the fact that all three political parties were in favour of that change, and indeed urged that it should be made.

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As far as I can understand it, all three major political parties in the House agree that the legislation is fit and proper for the House to consider and that it ought to be passed without unreasonable delay.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that large sections of the Elections Bill that refer to Northern Ireland have nothing to do with such supervening factors as foot and mouth, which bring the three major parties into agreement to support the principle of the Bill?

Mr. Stunell: I fully understand the hon. and learned Gentleman's views on that matter. I was careful to make it clear that I was speaking on behalf only of the Liberal Democrats--I have made clear my views on that point. Several issues of detail in both Bills attracted the attention of my colleagues and me. Were the debate to be of sufficient length and thoroughness, we would want those matters to be included.

Given the broad consensus in the House and the willingness on both sides that progress be made with reasonable speed, the guillotine is out of place, unnecessary and probably counter-productive. Apart from any other consideration, even if such a guillotine were thought appropriate, the time allocated is ridiculously short for debate on such serious issues.

The House and one of its Committees--the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, on which I serve--have spent a great deal of time working out how the House could be more effective in the examination and rectification of legislation. In pursuit of that aim, I put questions to the Leader of the House. She assured me that one characteristic of the Labour Government was that they were improving the first drafts of Bills--the quality of measures when they are first put before the House is so much better that she wants to claim some credit for that.

I tabled a parliamentary question to establish the ratio of clauses, as introduced, to subsequent Government amendments in legislation under the previous Conservative Government and under the Labour Government. I thought it appropriate to set up some quality control to judge whether the claim made by the Leader of the House was soundly based. The answer was that the cost of working out the figures would be disproportionate. That is a circumlocutory way of saying that there is no evidence whatever to support the claim that the quality of legislation is better--or, indeed, worse--under the Labour Government than under the Conservative Government.

Mr. Hogg: Is not the truth that the quality of legislation improves only to the extent that there is discussion and consultation before publication? In cases such as these Bills--by definition--there is neither.

Mr. Stunell: I strongly support the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument--indeed, I am probably ahead of him, because I have deployed such an argument in the Modernisation Committee, although not all his hon. Friends felt as confident of it as me.

That brings us to the question of whether the time allowed under the guillotine is anything like sufficient to accommodate the issues raised by the Bills. I did not hear the Home Secretary suggest that he believes for a moment

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that the range of amendments submitted--nor those selected by either the Speaker or the Chairman of the Committee--is outrageous, perverse or out of order. A total of 50 amendments to the Elections Bill have been selected for debate. Approximately 50 others were not selected--I have not made an exact count. That is a large number of amendments covering substantial and important issues. Even after the latest list was printed, a further seven manuscript amendments were submitted but, of course, the House will not really have an opportunity to evaluate their importance.

Some of the issues for debate might be dismissed quite quickly by the House. It might decide that they are matters solely for debate, not for serious consideration, but one or two issues are clearly above the threshold of being available merely for debate. Compensation for candidates, which is dealt with in the Bill, is a matter on which my right hon. and hon. Friends have commented very unfavourably. Will there be an opportunity to debate that and to take a decision on it?

The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) raised with me the issue of Northern Ireland. In fact, a substantial proportion of the Elections Bill relates to Northern Ireland, and issues have been raised about the difficulties that might be caused by holding the local elections and the general election simultaneously and about the fact that--at least, at present--we can give thanks that there is no foot and mouth in Northern Ireland, and so on. Will there be time for those issues to be discussed?

I understand that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has proposed in some amendments that the elections might be deferred to different dates in different areas. Those important issues might be dealt with quickly, but they certainly merit debate.

The Bill contains errors. For example, in deferring the annual meetings of councils as a consequence of deferring the local elections, police and joint fire authorities were overlooked, so we find that the dates of their annual meetings are not in synchronisation with the new timetable. Surely that needs to be discussed and rectified.

I noticed, by the new magic medium of e-mail, that the Home Office has today had to reissue its circular to returning officers, drawing their attention to an error in the timetable that it had included in the circular that it issued yesterday. Yet again, that shows not just the haste and speed--all of which is desirable, as we want all these things to be done--but the fact that there are issues before the House that even the Home Office has not squared and got ready to go.

Surely the right way forward is to allow not only reasonable time to debate those issues, but reasonable time to elapse for people to get their thinking caps on, so that they can anticipate and steer around the difficulties that may be thrown up. To advocate doing that is not to say that the Bill should not be passed, nor that it should be delayed, but simply to say that the Bill should receive proper scrutiny in the first place, so that we get it right first time.

I shall comment for a moment or two on the Election Publications Bill, with which the House will also deal tonight as a result of the guillotine. I served on the Standing Committee that considered the original Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, and I spoke on

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behalf of the Liberal Democrats at each stage of the debate. The Committee was unusual. My experience of such matters is that Standing Committees are sometimes blessed with a few experts in the particular topic, but seldom is 100 per cent. of the membership made up of experts--yet every hon. Member on that Standing Committee was an expert. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), will remember that we crawled over the detail of that Bill perhaps almost to excess, but such matters were not at the forefront of our consideration.

I understand that the Bill is intended to ensure that third-party endorsements of particular candidates--or, more likely, third-party attacks on them--are properly attributed in future. Clearly, all political parties would understand the need for, and the desirability of, that proposal, but they would also understand that is not practical to introduce it now, given the very compressed timetable that is proposed.

I remind the Home Secretary and the Minister that one of the questions that was persistently asked of the Home Office team in Committee was whether they thought that electoral commissioners could be put in place and produce their rulings and guidance in time for a general election that, even then, was widely expected to take place about now. Home Office Ministers were sure that everything would be put in place and that we would be satisfied. However, that has not been possible.

We will have only an hour to debate the Election Publications Bill. That may be sufficient, because only two amendments have been tabled. They cover exactly the same point even though they propose slightly different mechanisms to deal with it. In due course, I hope that we shall have an opportunity to debate them. However, the amendments refer to the Home Secretary's capacity--alone and unaided--to reintroduce the proposals that I mentioned entirely without consultation. Therefore, it is important to the House that we debate that issue, so that either the amendments are accepted or we receive cast-iron assurances from the Government and the Home Secretary about their future behaviour. It is one thing to suspend the provisions almost without notice, but it might be another to introduce them--or perhaps deliberately to fail to introduce them--when it is appropriate to do so entirely on the fiat of the Home Secretary.

Liberal Democrats believe that the Government should lift the guillotine and withdraw the motion. They should let the debate take its course, because they would be pleasantly surprised at the outcome that that would produce. If a vote takes place when expected, we shall have only a little over two hours to debate the Second Reading and Committee stages of the Elections Bill and we shall have one hour to debate the Election Publications Bill.

The first debate is the most serious and we shall have only two minutes to debate each amendment, and that assumes that we have no votes. The guillotine, as imposed out of the blue in an unnecessary and counterproductive fashion, is wrong in principle, but I hope that even the Government can see that it is wholly inadequate in practice. I ask the Minister to make a concession on the issue of time. I hope very much that we can have a comparatively short debate on this motion, so that we can use the maximum amount of time on real scrutiny of the Bills.

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We have been jammed into an uncomfortable and wholly unsatisfactory and unnecessary position. The solution lies with Ministers, and we look very much to them to provide us with that solution.

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