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5.47 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): We must surely have reached the depths of parliamentary despair--the slough of parliamentary despond--in the point to which the Government have brought us today. I follow in the spirit of the remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and strongly support his amendment.

We must ask ourselves why we, as the House of Commons and a Parliament, are in this intolerable position. The reason is that we are caught between the

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vacillation of the Prime Minister and the arbitrary date of the Easter recess, which has been decided, essentially, by the Government. The Prime Minister is the Government--no other part of the Government appears to function in any sense--and even he cannot make up his mind. The one thing that the Government have decided on, to which the House has agreed, is the date of the Easter recess.

The Government have said that these two rather grubby Bills must be passed immediately, with no effective scrutiny or consideration. Why? Because of the indecision of the Government, who, nevertheless, have a mysterious ability to decide positively about the date of the Easter recess. We cannot therefore have the proper time normally available for considering a Bill of this kind.

The Home Secretary tried to draw an analogy with the deliberations in another place. I have always thought it proper and good for the two Houses of Parliament to take a completely different view of the way in which they deal with legislation. Therefore, the fact that the members of another place saw fit to allow one of the Bills to go through quickly, without much debate and without amendment, is neither here nor there. It is for this House to decide how it will deal with matters. The fact that the Election Publications Bill was originally on Monday's Order Paper and that the Chairman of Ways and Means kindly accepted and selected my amendment to the Bill--since when another amendment has been tabled and selected--suggests that this House was looking at the Bill in a very different way from the other place. For the Home Secretary to come along and say, "The Lords let it go through very quickly and therefore so should the Commons" is a distressing example of a misunderstanding by the right hon. Gentleman of the way in which Parliament works. I should have thought that he was on top of these things, but it seems that he has slipped of late. He now apparently says that if something happens in another place, it should happen here. I refute that argument.

The Home Secretary tried to suggest that there was a precedent. I asked whether there was a precedent for a Government, under a guillotine, seeking to restrict all stages of a public Bill to one hour. He came up with a precedent that was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) demonstrated, a spurious and unlike example. In other words, there is no precedent. Yet again the Government are breaking new parliamentary ground by having the gall and arrogance to say that the law of the land should be made after one hour's consideration in total by the House of Commons. That is the prospect which we face tonight, and it is surely unacceptable.

Let us take a different approach, again following the spirit of what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said. Why could we not sit later tonight? Presumably, it is because the babes on the Labour Benches do not want to be here too late. They do not feel that it is right to be detained at a late hour to do something as trivial as legislating, scrutinising or holding the Government to account. The delicate babes on the Government Benches feel that it is inappropriate to be delayed overlong in the House of Commons. Surely if it is a matter of emergency--which I doubt--and a matter of panic, which it certainly is for

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the Government, they could say to their babes, "Can't you just stay a bit late for one night to allow us to consider the matter?"

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman is surely aware that that is not the language that we expect to be used in the Chamber in reference to hon. Members.

Mr. Forth: I am sorry if I have offended the delicacy of Labour Members. I shall try to remember that I should address them as honourable but largely absent Members. That perhaps would be a more accurate description of them. I shall try to remember to use it in future.

Mr. Bercow: My right hon. Friend expresses himself in his customarily restrained and understated fashion with which the House is familiar. While I do not in any way dissent from the important point that he has made in his emollient style, may I ask whether he agrees that another reason that the Government do not want substantial debate on this matter any more than on any other is that they know that most of the people who would contribute to the debate from the Back Benches, including their own, would be potent speakers largely critical of the Government? Surely my right hon. Friend accepts that what the Government want is for their Back Benchers to be craven lickspittles of the Patronage Secretary.

Mr. Forth: The Government may already have achieved that objective early in this Parliament. The point is whether those who are still keen on our role of scrutinising and attempting to hold to account should be given a proper opportunity so to do.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has selected a large number of amendments and a new clause which are deemed to be suitable and appropriate for debate and consideration by the House. They cover some important matters, and they have been tabled by members of more than one political party. As Northern Ireland Members have said, the amendments bear substantially on matters that are the proper concern of Northern Ireland.

So we have on the one hand the Government's self-imposed need or desire to deal with the matter in the most peremptory and panicky fashion and on the other the acknowledgement by the Chairman of Ways and Means that legitimate amendments have been tabled, even to the extent that the manuscript amendment tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham has been selected. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, there may be further amendments to come. Against that background, the Government say that the amount of time available to the House is to be arbitrarily and unnecessarily restricted to 10 o'clock this evening, in the case of the Elections Bill. That has been done for no given reason. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why the matter must be dealt with by 10 o'clock this day and why it must be dealt with on this day in any case.

The Elections Bill will have to go to another place. One asks whether the normal period will be allowed to elapse between the end of consideration by the House of Commons and when the other place is asked to pick it up. I should have thought that that was an important consideration. As far as I know, the House of Lords will sit tomorrow. It could sit on Friday, if it is not already

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due to do so. It will almost certainly sit on Monday and Tuesday. There is ample scope for the amendment tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham to be accommodated, or even to go further and allow more time for consideration. No reason has been given in the case of the Elections Bill, never mind an adequate or acceptable one, for the deadline of 10 o'clock this evening, or for allowing only one day's consideration of a Bill to which a large number of amendments and new clauses have already been selected.

When it comes to the Election Publications Bill, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch spoke a moment ago, and to which I am happy to say that my own modest amendment has been selected, the waters get murkier. It is a grubby little Bill introduced with an even grubbier all-party consensus to conceal some all-party cock-ups. What worse motivation could there be for changing the law of the land? I shall hope to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker, and expose the Bill for what it truly is. This is not the time or the place to do so.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): If time is so crucial, why are we wasting three hours in debating the programme motion?

Mr. Forth: What a typical and representative view from a Government Member. They think that the debate is a waste of time, Madam Deputy Speaker. A Government Member who has drifted into the Chamber opines that the debate is all basically a waste of time. Nothing could sum up better the attitude of--I was going to say new Labour, but I will not insult the hon. Gentleman by using that label. I do not think that he would welcome it. A senior member of the Labour party and a generally respected Member of the House gives us his view that the debate is a waste of time. I am sure that if you shared that view, Madam Deputy Speaker, you would have put a stop to it long ago. This is an important debate, and one that I can well see that the Government want to shut down or ideally avoid altogether.

I will not say more on the Election Publications Bill at this stage, and I may not be able to say much later because the Government have allowed only one hour to change the law of the land--one hour in total for the House of Commons to consider a matter of widespread interest. Were I to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would refer briefly to the reasons given for the Bill in its brief passage through another place. They reveal some interesting aspects of it, but this is not the occasion on which to do any such thing. Suffice it to say that there are several reasons why the House should reject the motion, not least that one hour in total for consideration of a Bill is utterly unacceptable and outrageous. It is without precedent because the Home Secretary and all the might of his Department were unable to produce a precedent.

Unless I am contradicted by the Minister, this is new ground. This is something that has not happened before. Law is being made by a Government imposing themselves on the House of Commons and saying that all stages of a Bill must be completed in one hour. Let us understand what that means. Let us say--I was going to say 659 Members of Parliament, but I will exclude the

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payroll--instead, let us say that more than 500 Members of Parliament may wish to speak. They will be given a total of one hour--

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