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Mr. Bercow: Does my right hon. and learned Friend consider that, when the Government decided the adequacy of the motion, they may have been influenced by the expectation--or even intention--that no Labour Member would seek to speak during this three-hour debate? Only one of their Back Benchers--the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac)--has eventually had the courtesy even to attend.
Mr. Hogg: I suspect that my hon. Friend is right, to the extent that the Government Whips are trying to keep their Benches clear. He has, however, done a slight injustice to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who expressed earlier her grave anxiety about procedure such as that with which the motion deals. The House will know that the hon. Lady is deservedly of high reputation and is jealous of the reputation of the House. Her views carry weight, and it was clear that she did not like the process that we are considering. I should point out that I now see another Labour Member in the Chamber, although I do not immediately recognise him.
Having made it clear that we are engaged in a thoroughly undesirable exercise, I should like to speak in more detail. I observed that 10 groups of amendments appeared in the preliminary selection. As I have taken advice, I know that more amendments are being added to those groups, probably even as I speak. More amendments will appear on Second Reading, and perhaps in Committee. There is an ever-expanding number of
The plain truth is, however, that we shall consider none of those amendments. By 9 o'clock, we will barely have finished even a partial Second Reading, let alone a detailed discussion. Important amendments that Mr. Speaker has selected for consideration in relation to a Bill of constitutional importance will remain untouched. We cannot take representations or consult outside interests on the technicalities. Furthermore, my constituents cannot express a view through me to the House. I am bound to say that that is not only remarkable, but scandalous. If the legislation were absolutely essential, then all right, we could accept the need for urgency, but it is not absolutely essential.
I have provided a solution, albeit a partial one: a two-day debate. That time scale would enable us to debate Second Reading until the ordinary time--10 o'clock tonight--and take time for reflection. Perhaps the e-mail system, faxes and so on would then communicate representations of one sort or another. A more informed debate would then follow tomorrow. What on earth is wrong with that? God knows that it would be a truncated debate, but it would be a lot better than what we are now talking about.
It is nice to see the Home Secretary back in his place. He has his correspondence, so no doubt he will be signing away and looking through all the documents from the last general election which he has fished out of his attic. I shall certainly give way to him, although he found it difficult to give way to me. I note that he does not want me to give way to him. So be it; I will not do so for the moment. In any event, I expect a proper response from a Minister at the close of this debate, explaining why we cannot consider the Elections Bill over two days, and I look forward to that. If the House adopts the solution that I have recommended--a two-day debate--that will leave adequate time in this place and the other place to finish consideration of the Bill in time to allow local elections to take place on 7 June, if that is what is resolved.
I move now from the particular to the general, and I want to make five points. Most importantly, the House does not need to be treated in the way we are tonight being treated. If the Government had heeded the wise words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), an enabling Bill would have been introduced some two or three weeks ago, and the deferment of the local elections would have been triggered by a statutory instrument provided for in that legislation. If the Government had adopted my right hon. Friend's wise suggestion, we would not have been in the jam that they tell us we are in today. The truth is that the Prime Minister dithered, talked to his political advisers, considered what was in his party's interests and made a rapid, urgent and unmeritorious decision.
Assuming that the Government could not have been persuaded to do what was so manifestly sensible and enact an enabling Bill, they could at least have published a draft Bill some two or three weeks ago, so that interested parties could have considered it and expressed their opinions and it could have been improved if necessary. The Government chose not to do that either.
I am not particularly in favour of late nights, but God knows I have been in this place long enough: some would say too long--[Hon. Members: "No!"] That was the reaction that I expected from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst but not from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald. We are perfectly capable of sitting late when necessary, and if we must, we should. We have done so on many occasions during this Parliament, albeit when it has suited the Government.
I remember, for example, the proceedings on the Football (Disorder) Bill, fathered by the Home Secretary. It may have been a great Bill, but I thought it was lousy. I have a lot to say about it, but I said it at 11, 12 and 1 o'clock, which was a perfectly sensible time to say it. We could sit late if we really wanted to. The fact that we are not doing so raises serious questions about the propriety of what we are doing.
I have also tabled another manuscript amendment. It has not been selected, but I can make my point none the less. The Bill--I refer to the Elections Bill, not the Election Publications Bill--refers to England, Wales and Northern Ireland; it does not refer to Scotland, so why should Members who represent Scottish constituencies vote on the Bill? It is no conceivable business of theirs. It is the business of Northern Ireland Members and Welsh Members, although I do not see one here, and it is certainly our business.
Mr. Straw: Did the right hon. and learned Gentleman take a similar view, even privately, when the Bill to establish a poll tax in Scotland alone came before the House? Did he say that the Bill should be voted on only by Scottish Members?
Mr. Hogg: The right hon. Gentleman is missing the essential consequences of devolution. Before devolution, ours was a unitary state, whereas since devolution, affairs in Scotland have been explicitly and exclusively the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. I shall not proceed with this line of argument, Madam Speaker. Even the Home Secretary will understand the folly of his intervention.
My amendment to prevent Scottish MPs from voting on the Bill has not been accepted. However, it is within the Home Secretary's competence to advise those of his colleagues who come from Scottish constituencies that it would not be inappropriate for them to vote, and I hope that he will do so.
Mr. Bercow: I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is right in supposing that the reason why the Government do not want to sit late is that most Ministers and Labour Members cannot wait to scurry home to consume their Ovaltine and tuck themselves up as early as possible. Does he acknowledge that one of the main bases of Government objection to his tabled amendment is that if debate took place over two days, and so continued
There is a legitimate discussion about whether local government elections should be held on 7 June or at some other date. I believe that they should be held at a later date: probably in the middle or latter part of October, by which time foot and mouth will certainly be under control. It is doubtful that the disease will be under control by June. It is absolutely clear that if--with the exception of Northern Ireland--local government elections are to be deferred because of foot and mouth, we should be able to receive representations from our constituents and other interested groups before fixing on the date of 7 June.
The guillotine and the procedure that we are adopting prevent us from hearing the technical and other arguments about an appropriate date. I may be right or wrong in saying that the appropriate date is October, not June, but I would feel much happier if the House had had proper time to receive representations from constituents who are most affected by these matters.
I am against the motion, and if it is pushed to a Division I shall vote against it. In any event, I am strongly in favour of my amendment, which would enable the House to consider the Elections Bill over two days. If you will permit me, Madam Deputy Speaker, and if I am so enabled, I shall call a Division on that amendment.