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Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman reminds me that Divisions could reduce that time. I am being generous to the Government. I said that it is just possible that there will be as much as one hour for debate, but, of course, it could be 45 minutes or even less.
Mr. Forth: It certainly could be, if the hon. Gentleman's dearest wish were granted and we completed consideration of the Elections Bill before 10 o'clock this evening. Presumably, the hon. Gentleman suggests that we get through 50 amendments before 10 o'clock, so that we can get on to the Election Publications Bill earlier than that.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): In support of my right hon. Friend's argument, has he considered the fact that, earlier, the Home Secretary advised the House that it might be a good idea if, on certain matters, we followed the other place? Has my right hon. Friend considered that Her Majesty's Government apparently anticipate that the other place will consider the Elections Bill for two days--continuing into next week?
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. However, we do not know it officially--it is not public knowledge. In any case, I do not think that should alter our attitude to our consideration of the Bill. The fact that Members in another place saw fit to deal with the Election Publications Bill in a few minutes is a matter for them--properly. However, I see it differently in this place. My hon. Friend's helpful advice does not alter by one iota my view of the motion or of the Bills.
Mr. Don Foster: The right hon. Gentleman might reflect further on the intervention of his hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). Although Members in another place have longer to discuss the Bill, they will not be allowed to discuss matters relating to its financial consequences. They have thus been given a significantly longer time to deal with far less.
Mr. Forth: That is so. What makes it all worse is that, according to the section of the motion headed "Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Elections Bill", the Government suggest that, if their lordships are wise enough to make amendments to the Bill, we shall then be given one hour to consider those amendments
I hope that their lordships scrutinise the measure carefully and amend it--I doubt that we shall have the opportunity to do so. It will then be interesting to see what we do during the one hour that the Government are allocating for our consideration of the Lords amendments that I hope will be made. The viciousness of the motion is compounded the further one looks ahead to future proceedings.
The combination of the comments of my right hon. and hon. Friends and my own modest contribution should surely be enough to persuade the House to reject the motion. I hope that we shall accept the amendment tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, although I do not think that it goes far enough. However, it certainly goes in the right direction, so I am prepared to support it. I hope, too, that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), will at least attempt to answer some of the many questions that have been put. Before we decide how we will vote, he will have one last chance to persuade us--as his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary failed to do--that the motion is appropriate, acceptable and proper.
Mr. Bercow: My right hon. Friend's generosity of spirit invariably gets the better of him--as Members on both sides are well aware. I invite him to consider this rather simple, prosaic but, I hope, valid point: does he not think that it is significant that during this afternoon's debate, one lacuna in the Bill has already been identified and that the Home Secretary has made a mess of matters in respect of gaming legislation? As we have found two Government errors in the space of two and a half hours, is it not reasonable to anticipate that the danger of the procedure recommended by the Government is that several further errors will be discovered--but only when it is too late?
Mr. Forth: I agree with the thrust of what my hon. Friend says; it would certainly be too late in this place, if the House passes the motion--as I fear we must anticipate. The Government will wheel in the terracotta army; they will go through the Lobby--I was going to say "like sheep", but that might be rather an unfortunate description at present--and, no doubt, the motion will be passed. However, I can hold out this hope to my hon. Friend: the more errors, lacunae and cock-ups that are identified in the Bill at present--we have already had a hint of some and, no doubt, more will emerge during the next few hours--the greater will be the incentive for another place to look at length and in depth at the matter, in order to carry out the job that we have been denied the opportunity to do. That is my fervent hope.
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): I am shocked by the motion. The proposed legislation is extremely complicated. My reading of the selection made by the Chairman of Ways and Means is that 50 amendments will be discussed during different stages in the passage of the Bill. It will be completely impossible for the House to give those amendments proper consideration. How can we think otherwise than that politics is in disrepute if the House is treated in that manner?
In this week's edition of The House magazine, I read the thoughts of some Members who will be leaving the House at the next general election and was struck by the fact that all of them said that the House had changed--and changed for the worse--and that Parliament was being treated with contempt. Yesterday, I held a conversation in the Corridor with a Cabinet Minister, who shall be nameless. I said, "I was pleased to see you sitting in the Chamber for a few minutes earlier, because it's good to see Cabinet Ministers supporting their junior Ministers--if only briefly--when legislation is going through the House, but you weren't there for very long". To which the Cabinet Minister replied, "I can't sit in there, we have a country to run".
Surely, the place for elected Members of Parliament and Ministers is in the House, if they can find the time to be here. It is shocking that the Government routinely introduce timetable motions on significant issues that should be debated at some length.
Sometimes, we are accused of creating artificial obstacles and of seeing artificial problems when we urge that legislation should be given more time. However, on many occasions during my long period of membership of the House, constituents and others have written to me at, perhaps, Third Reading stage or even when legislation has been passed, pointing out that they had not appreciated the significance of the measure and asking us to do something about it. Quite often, the answer is, "No, we can't do anything about it, because it has already been passed."
The individual Members of Parliament who contribute to debates on measures are not the only people who should be part of the discussion process. There should be a decent interval between the introduction of a Bill, its consideration on Second Reading, in Committee, on Report and Third Reading, so that people outside the House who may be affected by the legislation have a decent opportunity to consider it, discuss it with others who are concerned and to make representations through their Members of Parliament. My experience is that legislation is often improved by the representations made by trade associations, by individuals and by bodies such as the Hansard Society, who are concerned about our democracy.
I am not aware that any of my colleagues has urged that we should rise for the Easter recess on Tuesday. Like other hon. Members, I receive criticism about the long Easter break--I see no reason for such a long break. I see no reason, either, for legislation to be pushed through in such a precipitate manner. It is bad government and the Government should be ashamed of pushing the measure through so hurriedly. In my experience, that will lead to mistakes that we shall regret. The Government should be ashamed that they have introduced the motion.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): In winding up for the official Opposition on this important debate on the Government's extraordinary guillotine, I should like to start by looking back at what has led them to introduce such a panic guillotine motion. I go back just a couple of weeks to 21 March, when, at Prime Minister's questions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) asked:
When the Home Secretary moved the guillotine motion he gave a discursive and long preamble, which revealed only too clearly to all Opposition Members how embarrassed he is. We know perfectly well that he was one, in common with almost all the Cabinet, who said that he did not want to delay the local elections. There is no doubt that his reluctance to deal with the specific guillotine and the fact that he spent the vast bulk of his speech talking about other guillotines in earlier Parliaments--as the Official Report will confirm--reveals, once again, how uncomfortable he is at having to move a guillotine that he never wanted to introduce.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) pointed out all the inconsistencies in the Government's position. She rightly said that there is no justification whatever for this outrageous and absurd guillotine motion. As she said, it will hinder the interests of democracy and those of our constituents, who sent us here in the first place 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.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, supports the official Opposition and shares our concerns. The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) raised particular concerns about how the truncated debate on the Bill will affect Northern Ireland.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), in moving his amendment, which we on the official Opposition Front Bench support, wanted to ensure that this constitutional measure receives proper debate and scrutiny. He made an extremely powerful and, in intellectual terms, an unanswerable case, as he does so often.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) referred to the opportunities that there should be to debate matters properly on Second Reading, as well as managing to catch out the Home Secretary on one of several errors in some gaming legislation, for which the right hon. Gentleman gave the wrong date.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said in a powerful intervention, two errors have emerged during this short debate--one in the drafting of the measure, which refers to a non-existent Act, and the other when the Home Secretary referred to the wrong legislation in the wrong year. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said in his usual powerful contribution, there are particular dangers in the guillotine. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) referred to the need for decent intervals between the stages of any Bill, so that those outside the House can contribute their thoughts and reactions.
I was considering which factor of the Government's attitude to this guillotined Bill was particularly relevant to the debate. I was reminded that so many Opposition Members have regarded this Government's version of elective dictatorship, their bypassing of all democratic scrutiny and their contempt for the House as Orwellian. It is perhaps especially important to remember one of George Orwell's greatest works. It is sadly redolent of a debate on the introduction of emergency legislation under a tight guillotine because of a foot and mouth epidemic affecting animals. It is, of course, "Animal Farm".
All hon. Members will remember that Napoleon, the leader of the pigs, changed the rules under which the others operated. Instead of "two legs bad, four legs good", as the pigs became more human, the slogan became "two legs better". That is precisely what the Government are doing in their guillotine. They interpret words in the way that suits them. They have a complete contempt for Parliament and all democratic scrutiny, and they change the rules as they go along. Truly, this is an Orwellian Government and this is an appalling guillotine, of which any Government should be ashamed.