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Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Stunell: I shall, but the hon. Gentleman will have to be brief.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman and I both served on the Committee that considered the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. Does he not agree that one of the features of the Committee stage of the Bill in the Commons was that there was a complete spirit of co-operation? In the course of that discussion, numerous instances of this kind emerged, were discussed and were resolved simply because they came up for scrutiny, could be examined and could be dealt with. It is the failure to do that which shames the House and the way in which we operate our procedures.

Mr. Stunell: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman on his interpretation of the procedures in Committee. Indeed, elsewhere, I have thanked the Minister and the Secretary of State for the Home Department for their approach to that legislation. That makes it all the more tedious and all the sadder that we have to revisit the matter tonight.

The Liberal Democrats will support this Bill, but there is an amendment standing in my name. I was hoping that the Minister might give way when he was speaking, so that he could answer the point. I hope that he might seek to intervene now to answer it because it is important.

The legislation that we are being invited to adopt tonight meets the immediate needs of the political parties and the political process, but clause 2 contains the bland wording:

It is that re-implementation process with which my amendment sought to deal. We will not reach that this evening but I would like to hear clearly from the Minister the process that the Government are prepared to write into Hansard as being the way forward, so that we know that we will not be at the behest of some future Secretary of State with less good manners and perhaps less good intentions than the current Home Secretary when it comes to re-implementation.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I am happy to indicate how the Government would intend to proceed. This legislation, if Parliament agrees to it, will be able to stand the test of another year, I would have thought. In the meantime and certainly in the months to come, we would want to enter into serious discussions with each of the political parties, not just the three main ones, to get a view about how that particular provision and, indeed, other provisions of the legislation, should be dealt with.

I anticipate that we could allow several months for that to occur. I hope that, towards the end of the year, we will be in a position to say how we intend to proceed, having completed consultations. Then, no doubt following

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discussions through the usual channels, we will be able to decide whether we need legislation and, if so, the precise terms of the instrument. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman. I will be happy to answer any other questions that he has.

Mr. Stunell: I am grateful. The Minister referred in his speech to the electoral commissioners. It is extremely important that, having established the commission, we do not allow clause 2 to bypass it and the objective input that it was supposed to have in the management of the political process. We have been fortunate that, although the ownership of the electoral process has been in the hands of the Home Secretary, it has been so in a judicial rather than a political sense. We do not want the commissioners to be bypassed in a fudge.

Mr. O'Brien: I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government would want to consult the commissioners fully. Indeed, they were able to have advance sight of the clause. I understand that it went into the Bill in October but was drafted back in July.

Mr. Stunell: I am grateful. I hope that the record will show that we have had some reassurances that this necessary legislation has some of the safeguards around it that some of us seek. I welcome the Minister's offer of further consultation on wider matters, and I hope that all the parties, including the official Opposition, will take it up. It is clearly important to our democratic system to have widespread ownership of the electoral processes that we use.

Mr. Leigh: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am minded to table a manuscript amendment to give effect to some of the assurances that the Minister has given. Would such a manuscript amendment be acceptable to you, and how could it be debated in the eight minutes remaining, given that we have not finished Second Reading and five more hon. Members want to speak?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that that is a hypothetical question, because we have not yet reached Committee stage.

Mr. Stunell: Bearing in mind the time, I simply say that I support the Bill and that I am grateful for such assurances as we have had.

10.52 pm

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): The Bill addresses a problem that could have been foreseen if there had been adequate scrutiny. We are patching up matters with retrospective legislation, which is something of which we should always be wary. Indeed, I am not convinced that the Bill is needed at all. Why on earth cannot the Government simply instruct the Director of Public Prosecutions, through the Attorney-General, not to bring any prosecutions? If a private prosecution is brought, there is a well-established practice that the DPP can take it over and offer no evidence.

10.53 pm

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): We all support what the Bill is intended to achieve, but I am concerned that, in a few days' time, we may have to come back to

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it because we find a further lacuna, simply because there has not been adequate scrutiny. We do not have adequate time even for Second Reading, and we will have no Committee stage or Third Reading. We have only six minutes left.

On 11 April 2000, I wrote to the Home Secretary about how imprints ought to be applied to parliamentary websites. He replied on 18 May:

Although the Home Secretary went on to give some helpful guidance, it was merely guidance. If there had been more time to debate the Bill adequately, I would have tabled amendments--although I am surprised that the Bill does not already contain such provision--based on the Home Secretary's recommendations, so that people could be quite clear on the legality of websites appertaining to hon. Members and candidates in the forthcoming general election, whenever that is held. Currently, there is no clarity.

We have only five minutes left to consider the Bill, and other hon. Members wish to speak.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: On the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and to ensure that there is clarity, my advice would be to use the new provision in section 110. All three categories--the printer, the publisher and the promoter--will be covered by that, so it is all there and all clear. Subsequently, when we implement the provisions, as I trust we will, the websites can be used. I hope that that provides some clarity. What we did not want to do was to catch out someone who still had some of the old material.

Mr. Fabricant: I thank the Minister for that intervention. I know that it was intended to be helpful, but, sadly, it was not. The Bill does not, for example, deal with archival material or the use of the term MP in a uniform resource locator. They are dealt with in a letter, but not in the Bill. The Bill could have dealt with them if we had had adequate time to table amendments to it. Sadly, there is not time to do that. Sadly, yet again we see that the Government wish to deem legislation.

My fear is that we shall again have to consider this legislation in a week or two, when we discover that it is defective. Neither this Bill nor the original legislation would have been defective if we had had adequate time to scrutinise them. Time and again, however, the Government seem not to be prepared to learn that lesson.

10.57 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): This is a grubby, seamy little measure and we really should not be giving it House room at all. It has arisen, of course, because this arrogant Government legislated without proper parliamentary process. A deal has apparently been done among political parties which cannot get their act together. Now we, the legislators, are supposed to cover up for that and change a law that we had been told was necessary. Originally, the Government said that the current arrangements were unnecessary and that the new arrangement was absolutely necessary. Now, they are saying that that was not the situation at all and that it has to be sorted out.

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This is truly not the way in which we should use parliamentary process. It is not appropriate for legislation. What makes the situation worse is that, on Monday, we had an opportunity properly to debate, to scrutinise and possibly to amend the legislation. Then, the Government casually set aside that opportunity. Now, they have brought us here, under yet another guillotine, with 45 minutes in total to change the law of the land. That is utterly unacceptable and I hope that we will throw out the Bill.

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