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5.19 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I support the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and his amendment. I want to confine my remarks to the implications of having only one hour in which to discuss the Election Publications Bill. At least the Elections Bill will be discussed in the other place. I hope that the other place will be more intent on scrutinising it than it was on scrutinising the Election Publications Bill.

The Home Secretary used that fact against us. He said that the other place spent only 23 minutes discussing the Election Publications Bill. I doubt very much that the other place would have spent only 23 minutes discussing the Bill had it known that the House of Commons would be allowed only one hour in which to discuss all its stages. That arrangement is without precedent: it is constitutionally outrageous, and it shows that we have an increasingly tyrannical Government.

The fact that the Home Secretary had to use a wholly specious precedent in a lame attempt to prop up his case reveals how desperate he is. He cited the precedent--as he described it--of the 1989 Gaming (Amendment) Bill. Because I do not take everything that the Home Secretary says at face value, I then slipped out of the Chamber and went to the Library to look up the history of that Bill. In fact it is the Gaming (Amendment) Act 1990, which was introduced in the House of Lords as a private Member's Bill in 1990.

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The Bill was debated in the House of Lords, where its Second Reading took place on 15 February. It was introduced by Lord Allen of Abbeydale. The Committee stage took place in the House of Lords on 1 March; there was a formal Report stage on 22 March, and Third Reading took place on 2 April in the House of Lords. The Bill then came to the House of Commons, where it was given a formal Second Reading on 8 June. It is true that it was not debated; there was a vote, and it was allowed a Second Reading. Significantly, however, there was then time for Members of the House of Commons to decide whether they wanted to table amendments, because the Bill was considered again on 6 July. As no amendments had been tabled and there was no discontent with the Bill, it passed into law. That is a very different proposition from what we are discussing now.

In a throwaway line, the Home Secretary--again, perhaps badly briefed--said he assumed that the Gaming (Amendment) Act must have been of much greater concern to many more people than the Election Publications Bill. The Gaming (Amendment) Act, however, refers only to the narrow issue of applications for casino licences. I submit that many more people are interested in the imprints of election literature than are interested in that subject.

Mr. Straw: I too will go to the Library, but I have been informed that the 1990 Gaming (Amendment) Bill was different from the 1989 Bill.

Mr. Chope: Indeed, because the 1989 Bill does not exist. Taking what the Home Secretary had said at face value, I asked the Librarian to look up the 1989 Bill. When he could not find it, I said "I am sure it must be there, because the Home Secretary has said it is there." We looked at the books and there was nothing, so we then thought that the date must be wrong--and indeed the date is 1990. I do not know what disciplinary action the Home Secretary wishes to take against those who advised him. Perhaps he will take full responsibility: in fact, I am sure that he will.

There is a serious point here. If we have only an hour in which to debate the Bill from beginning to end, how will we have a chance to conduct research and investigate the accuracy of arguments deployed by the Government in support of their legislation--and how will those outside have a chance to discuss the issues and verify what Ministers say?

I am sure that the Home Secretary spoke in good faith, but he is man enough to admit that he made a fundamental error in referring to the 1989 Gaming (Amendment) Bill. I hope that it will not be used again as a specious precedent for even more draconian curtailments of debate.

In any event, the Election Publications Bill is unusual because clause 2 is effectively a Henry VIII clause giving the Home Secretary absolute power to amend primary legislation in the form of section 110 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. [Interruption.]

Mr. Bercow: It is important that the sedentary chunterings of the Home Secretary should be placed

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firmly on the record. Did I hear the Home Secretary correctly when he said a moment ago that the Bill was "scarcely draconian"?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Will the hon. Gentleman please address the Chair?

Mr. Bercow: I apologise profusely. There was no intentional discourtesy. Did my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) hear, as I did, the Home Secretary say that the measure was "scarcely draconian"? If he did--my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is signalling that he heard it--can he tell me what exactly the Home Secretary would regard as draconian?

Mr. Chope: Once we have got to the stage of saying that we can deal with Government legislation in the House by forcing it through within one hour, without any chance to debate it further, that is draconian.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) for raising the matter. He is right: I did say that the Bill was scarcely draconian. I was also muttering that Draco was the chief magistrate in Athens in the 7th century BC. The reason why he is remembered is because he introduced capital punishment for virtually every criminal offence.

Mr. Forth: An excellent man.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman says that Draco was an excellent man. That is not a tradition that I have sought to follow in any particular whatever. Nor do I believe that one can in any sense describe the Bill, which is about election publications, as within the compass of what Draco had in mind when he gave his name to an immortal adjective.

Mr. Chope: The Home Secretary is desperately trying to argue the point. He says that the Bill is scarcely draconian. What he is saying is that it is not very draconian--not by his standards. We will see what sort of punishment regime is in operation when some of his hon. Friends seek to try to divide the House or vote against the legislation, particularly the timetable motion. We will see whether he wishes to impose the equivalent of capital punishment on their parliamentary careers. I suspect that that is exactly what he and his friends have in mind.

The Bill, the debate on which is to be limited to one hour, is unusual not just because it has a Henry VIII clause, but because it seeks to keep on the statute book two sets of laws. The helpful note produced by the Library says:

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is now debating the content of the Bill, rather than the motion that is before us.

Mr. Chope: I am seeking not to debate the content of the Bill, but to explain why we should have the chance to

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debate the content of the Bill. It is an unusual Bill. It is without precedent and deserves proper scrutiny. If I had been attempting at this stage to read the whole of the Election Publications Bill briefing from the Library, obviously, I would be out of order. All I am saying is that the Bill, on which the Government are trying to curtail debate, is very unusual. We should have proper scrutiny.

I am very worried by the Home Secretary's remark that it would not have been necessary to curtail debate on the Election Publications Bill if it had not been made clear that there was some opposition to it among Conservative Members. I think that he meant that someone--my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)--had had the temerity to table an amendment.

The Bill was on the Order Paper for debate on Monday, and there was ample time to scrutinise it then. There is no reason to suspect that the Chair would not have allowed a closure motion at a reasonable time if it seemed that the debate was being prolonged unnecessarily. I came to the House on Monday prepared to debate the substance of the Bill, and now we will have only a very short time to raise matters of concern.

It is wholly unnecessary to treat us in this way. The Home Secretary seems to take the view that the whole purpose of Parliament is for Front Benchers to come to agreements and push everyone else out of the equation. What future role do Back Benchers have if debate is so curtailed that there is time only for speeches from the Front Benches before the guillotine falls? We are getting to that stage, and it is very serious indeed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has been assiduous in ensuring that private Members' legislation is properly scrutinised. If one were to apply to such legislation the precedent that the Government are now setting, we might have six or 10 one-hour Second Reading debates on a Friday. The Government might find that rather uncomfortable, because it could give Back Benchers more power to introduce legislation. Fridays might then become rather more burdensome for them.

If it is reasonable for a Second Reading debate on a Bill covering quite a narrow issue to run from 9.30 to 2.30 on a Friday, why is it necessary to restrict to one hour the debate on a significant Bill that is retrospective, contains a Henry VIII clause and sets the intriguing precedent of putting two contradictory pieces of legislation on the statute book at the same time? This is appalling, and I strongly oppose it.

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