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Mrs. Browning: I am sorry that I took the Minister's intervention. A few weeks ago, I was doing a phone-in on the Ed Doolan show. I talked to a pensioner and then a mother with a young child. Suddenly we had a phone call from Mike of Warwickshire. He was apparently a constituent from Warwickshire who phoned in to ask my views on the Hunting Bill and how I intended to vote. I do not know who Mike from Warwickshire was, but when the Minister rose to make his intervention the word "prat", which went through my mind at the time, occurred to me again. I shall take no more interventions from the hon. Gentleman. He knows who he was.

Mr. Leigh: Does my hon. Friend accept that the issue is no longer the rights or wrongs of the Bill but the fact

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that, now that the Minister has sat down having opened the Second Reading debate, we have only 28 minutes for the remainder of Second Reading, Committee and Third Reading? That is unheard of, and--as if that were not enough--when the Opposition question the Minister, he says that all deals are off and that they are not allowed to criticise the Government. Neither time nor criticism is allowed. Are we the Supreme Soviet or the British Parliament?

Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a disgrace that, although the Bill has all-party support, it arises from an Act of Parliament that was guillotined through the House. The very section that we are discussing was introduced in the House of Lords, and was never considered by the Commons on Second Reading or in Committee. It came back to the House and was guillotined through. It never had proper scrutiny in the first place.

It is a disgrace for the Minister to praise the draftsmen. He should take responsibility for the Government's failure to allow proper scrutiny of the original Bill before it became an Act of Parliament, and not keep bringing back dregs to the House of Commons so that we can put right the mess that the Government have created. Yes, the Bill has all-party support, but these proceedings are typical of this new Labour Government--all spin, no substance and no acknowledgement of their mistakes.

When this matter was discussed during proceedings on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, the Government tabled no fewer than 665 amendments in the House of Lords. The Minister mentioned July, but in fact this matter came before the other place on 18 October. Lord Bach spoke for the Government, but it was not even explained then. The detail of what the Government are now having to defer was never explained to the House of Commons, and nor was it the subject of detailed consultation with other parties.

In an earlier debate, the Home Secretary kindly gave me a copy of a letter dated December, which was sent to other parties. It did not deal with consultation on the substance of the Bill, but was about implementation. This part of the Bill has never been subject to consultation with political parties. [Interruption.] Labour Members are saying from a sedentary position that it is about implementation. Had the substance of this part of the Bill ever been seen or discussed by this place, perhaps even a Labour Member would have noticed that it was flawed, and we would not have had to go through this charade tonight.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) rose--

Mrs. Browning: I will not give way to allow any more silly comments to be made by Labour Members. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will catch your eye during the 20 minutes that remain for all stages of the Bill to be completed, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I must tell the Minister that it is a disgrace that we are having to deal with this matter. It is also a disgrace that Ministers have implied tonight that there was a lack of consultation, or an unwillingness on the part of the Conservative party--[Interruption.] I invite the Minister to tell me precisely where the letter is that indicates that

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the Conservative party was not prepared to consult on this part of the Bill. Where is the response that he received from the party saying that we did not wish to discuss the substance of the issues before the House? That was never offered to us. All that we received was a letter which--as the Labour party itself noted, because it failed itself to point out the Bill's inadequacies--contained no reference to what the Government intended by the change in regulations governing imprints in election material. That was never spelt out--not in another place, not here, and not even in the notices that the Government sent out seeking to advise people that they intended to implement the change.

The explanatory notes containing the details were not published until March. That is why political parties on both sides of the House failed to register exactly what the Government intended to do.

Mr. Mike O'Brien rose--

Mrs. Browning: I shall be happy to give way to the Minister. I hope that he will justify the cheap allegations that he has been making about why the Conservative party did not respond. We were never asked to respond to the substance of the changes.

Mr. O'Brien: Let me say first that, obviously--as a Member of Parliament--I was invited to engage in debate with the hon. Lady on the Ed Doolan show. I am not sure why she made those silly points, but there we are. Those listening to the debate can decide for themselves.

Let me now deal with the substance. When my noble Friend Lord Bach raised these issues, Lord Cope said in reply:

Let me add that throughout the debate on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, and in Committee, it was clear that we were prepared to discuss all aspects of the Bill with the Conservative party. I cannot recall one occasion during the whole process on which the Conservatives entered into serious consultation with us on any part of the Bill. That is why I say now that we would welcome the Conservative party's engaging in serious consultation from now on, so that we can be sure we have a Bill that gets it right and has consensus behind it. I want that, and I want it to be taken seriously in future.

Mrs. Browning: If the Minister is serious about taking debate in the Chamber seriously, he and his Government should allow adequate time for debate and scrutiny. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill was not given adequate time, and the result is the mess that we are having to tidy up tonight.

There was no filibustering in another place--[Hon. Members: "There was no filibustering here."] There was no filibustering here either; but the Government tabled no fewer than 665 amendments in another place. When those amendments came to the House of Commons, unseen by Members, debate was guillotined. That included the part of the legislation that we are dealing with tonight.

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There is much more that I could say--

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): The hon. Lady has not talked about the substance.

Mrs. Browning: I could talk for another 15 minutes, if the hon. Gentleman wanted me to. I will end, however, by saying that if Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish had lived--he was the Conservative Front Bencher who originally took the Bill through the House of Lords--he would have laughed long and hard at the situation in which this House finds itself tonight. He worked hard to improve the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, just as he worked tirelessly in support of many other measures. Throughout his political career he has contributed to many Bills, and in another place he attempted to contribute to that Bill. If it does nothing else, this legislation reflects very clearly his last remarks about it. He observed that

I suspect that this is not the last time that the House will have to deal with the defects, flaws and lack of scrutiny of the original Bill, which is now an Act of Parliament.

The House having been advised that it would have sufficient time to debate all stages of the Bill on Monday night, it is an absolute disgrace that we are faced with just three quarters of an hour to deal with a Bill of such importance. [Hon. Members: "You don't disagree with it."] No, we do not, but even if we do agree with a Bill, the suggestion that we should pass it through the House without scrutiny shows the lack of understanding among Labour Members of what the job of Parliament--

Mr. Miller: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. Other hon. Members have more sensible things to say in the short time that is left.

I am sure that there is a lot more detail and many more devils to come out of that legislation, which the House will have to sort out. This Bill will have our support because it is in everyone's interests that the mess be cleared up, but it is an affront to democracy and to the House that the Government have allowed just three quarters of an hour for us to deal with this important matter.

10.46 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I do not quite share the total outrage of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), but this is very much the "Carry on Corporal Jones Bill." We have blundered into an error which--let us be frank, although this is not usually the place where one is frank--no one saw coming: not in this House, not in the other place, not in the political party headquarters.

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When the interpretation of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act by the Electoral Commission filtered through to the parties, we realised that the meaning of the provision was going to place a heavy imposition on the political process.

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