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Business of the House

3.41 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): I beg to move,

(1) at the sitting on 2nd May the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on any Motion in the name of Margaret Beckett relating to Regulatory Reform not later than Seven o'clock, and such Questions shall include the Questions on any amendment selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; and
(2) if proceedings on any such Motion have not been completed before Seven o'clock, the Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means for consideration at that hour may be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours after it has been entered upon.

The motion is self-explanatory and provides that the draft Standing Orders cannot be talked out by requiring that the Question be put at seven o'clock. It protects the rights of the House by ensuring that amendments selected by the Speaker can be put at the end of debate and that if Divisions occur after 7 pm, the time for private business is not reduced.

Such business motions have been standard under this Administration and the previous one. The debate on the first Standing Orders on deregulation orders was similarly limited to their concluding

by the previous Administration in 1994. The fact that the business will be followed by private business, which should start at 7 pm, or shortly after, makes such a formulation inappropriate on this occasion.

3.42 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): First, so far as I am aware, there was no ostensible reason for Ministers to resort to the necessity of constraining debate tomorrow on that basis.

Tomorrow's debate is important and I shall not prejudge any issues that may arise then. However, as the Minister knows perfectly well, the comparison with orders made under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 is not comprehensive, as that Act dealt with exceptional powers, and the super-affirmative procedure was intended for a particular purpose. By contrast, the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, as we can already see--and as we shall no doubt discuss tomorrow--provides a power that has a much wider application and that can be used in a far greater range of circumstances. Clearly, Ministers are seeking to use that legislative procedure in a range of circumstances, as shown by the consultation papers that have already been issued.

It is important that the House should examine the procedure under which such orders are to be scrutinised. I must confess that I am surprised by the Minister's contention that the motion is necessary to avoid such debate being talked out. I share entirely the Minister's view that it is important to protect the subsequent private business tomorrow, but I have no reason to suppose that my hon. Friends in the Opposition do not intend to see it through.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that if the motion had

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not been moved, we would have the debate on regulatory reform, which would be interrupted at 7 o'clock. Private business would take place from 7 o'clock to 10 o'clock, and we would then resume debate on regulatory reform. There is no question of that debate being at risk; as I understand it, it is protected by the existing procedures of the House.

Mr. Lansley: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. As always, I should have deferred to him in such matters of parliamentary procedure, and I am sure that he is right. There is no question of the subsequent private business being imperilled. However, it may prove necessary for debate to continue in order to scrutinise the procedure, which is different from that which applies to orders made under the 1994 Act, and a range of additional factors will have to be taken into account by the relevant Committee.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lansley: Yes, but then I must make my remaining one or two points.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because he is, I imagine, being his usual restrained and gentlemanly self. Will he nevertheless confirm that the Government's intended circumscription of debate on the orders represents nothing more than a fig-leaf to cover their embarrassment about the fact that they were woefully short of Back Benchers who were ready to speak on the Bill?

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As many hon. Members will recall, he was an assiduous attender in the House during consideration of the 2001 Act on Report and Third Reading. He knows that there was a signal lack of support expressed in speeches from the Government side, although I suspect that, in at least one example, the amendments that we tabled would have been widely supported by Labour Members had they had the chance and the discretion to provide such support.

As we are so close to consideration of tomorrow's business, I am surprised that the Minister did not take the opportunity to assure the House that the time specified on the Order Paper will not be further reduced by the making of ministerial statements, which would have a bearing on the time available for discussing the orders. Therefore, we are considering the motion despite being ignorant of the extent to which time will genuinely be available, and I regret that the Minister did not further inform us on that point.

3.47 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I rise to express my concern about the motion, which, as I understand it, will have two consequences: first, debate on the motion in the name of the Leader of the House must be concluded by 7 o'clock and, secondly, debate on the private business will be limited to three hours. I regret that the motion will impose such restrictions on both items of business.

I begin by discussing the Deregulation Committee, which is the matter that the Leader of the House will deal with tomorrow. We must deal with whether the motion before us provides the House with sufficient time to discuss that business. I do not believe that it does.

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My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) made an important point about business statements and other interruptions. If the Question has to be put at 7 o'clock, as I understand it has, and if there are one or more statements, as there may well be, time will be taken up and the period available for debate will be extraordinarily limited. In some examples, that does not matter, but in the example of the business to be discussed tomorrow, it does, because we are to set up a Select Committee.

It is a good thing that we are establishing a Select Committee. However, whenever one is involved in such a matter, questions both particular and general have to be addressed, and it is right that there should be proper time available in which to address them. First, who will be responsible for selecting its members? It could take a long time properly to debate that matter, because my hon. and right hon. Friends may want to point out that Members of the House more generally should be involved in that selection.

There is absolutely no merit in choosing members of a Select Committee if the exercise of that choice is confined to the usual channels. While the hands may be safe, they may not reflect majority opinion, and we need ample time in which to express our anxieties about the way in which Select Committee members are chosen. There will be an opportunity for us to do so tomorrow, so I am extremely sorry that we are confining the debate and that hon. Members from all parties will have only a limited opportunity to express their anxieties about the way in which Select Committees are chosen.

The chairmanship of Select Committees is also a concern. I want them to be as free as possible of party manipulation, so that they can enhance the independence of the House. I think that we need ample time tomorrow to discuss in detail how we can choose Chairmen who fully and properly reflect the House, who are not to be regarded by the Government as safe pairs of hands and who will supervise the Executive.

The Select Committee reports are a further issue. The motion to be discussed tomorrow sets out requirements on such reports, but I cannot find in it any obligation for the Government to provide time in the House to discuss them. I suspect that that is a matter of concern not only to me, but to other hon. Members who want to ensure that the reports are fully and properly debated. Tomorrow's motion provides an opportunity to raise and ventilate those matters, so I very much regret that time is to be constricted.

The private business is protected in the sense that three hours will be devoted to it. That is good news as far as it goes, but that is not very far. The City of London (Ward Elections) Bill is a private Bill that has been brought before the House on many occasions, and its progress has been frustrated many times by Labour Members. I do not complain about that, as hon. Members are perfectly entitled to express their opposition to such Bills. I have done so myself and I make no complaint about it. However, if we confine a debate on a Bill that is of considerable importance to the City of London, we must bear in mind that that will prevent it from ever being enacted.

I think that the House needs a greater opportunity to discuss and consider private business. The motion should provide more than three hours of debate. I regret that it

1 May 2001 : Column 756

does not do so, because that time is not nearly long enough. If we confine the debate, the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill will never make progress. Let us be clear: its passage will have been frustrated by Labour Members. I do not object to the process, provided that we know that it is happening and that no hypocrisy is involved.

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