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Mr. Bercow: I do not cavil at anything that my right hon. and learned Friend says, but does he agree that the proposed truncation of debate is especially inappropriate and, I would go so far as to say, tasteless, as we have just had an Easter recess, as we are about to take Monday off for ourselves and as another event is likely to intercede before long? Should not hon. Members be prepared to do a little work?

Mr. Hogg: That is a telling intervention, but I am entitled to make another comment: this Parliament could run for another year. We could take all the time in the world to discuss the business, but for particular reasons--I am bound to say that I think that they have nothing to do with national interests--the Prime Minister has decided to call a general election 12 months early. We are entitled to ask why. I strongly suspect that he thinks that his electoral lead--if he has one--will be frittered away. That does him no credit and it tells us an awful lot about the way in which the Government operate.

I know that the motion is not earth shattering, but by confining the debate the Government are shutting out the House from an ability properly to discuss important questions about Select Committees, both in particular--I refer to the Select Committee on Deregulation--and in general, and are ensuring that important private business will not make progress. I regret both of those things.

3.54 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I echo the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). As the debate progresses, the motion appears increasingly otiose. As I said in my intervention, in the normal course of events, we would first discuss the motion. If our discussion did not conclude, it would be interrupted at 7 pm. Private business would be tackled between 7 pm and 10 pm, and we would resume the debate on the motion after 10 pm. That gives us an inkling of what the Government are up to and what they fear.

The Government are paranoid about the House of Commons doing anything after 10 pm. I understand that; the delicate babes on the Labour Benches do not want to be here late. They find it difficult to concentrate for long and objectionable to be here after 10 pm. A debate on that should properly be held at another time. By tabling the motion, the Government aim for the usual regrettable combination of truncating debate and dismissing hon. Members as early as possible, thus minimising Government embarrassment. As long as we recognise that, we can take a proper view of the matter.

By restricting time for the debate on the Standing Orders to the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, we will not only limit the possibility of debating my modest amendments, if they are selected. Such action has wider implications. For example, should we simply endorse the existence of a Select Committee, albeit in a slightly different form? Is not it time to debate whether the number of Select Committees is already excessive?

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There are far too many Committees, and the number only increases. I cannot remember when we last did away with a Select Committee. In our eagerness to create more chairmanships and travelling opportunities for colleagues, we miss the point of Select Committees, which are supposed to be focused, serious and serve some parliamentary or wider purpose. The Government, as ever nowadays, are trying to restrict the amount of time for debate. You, Mr. Speaker, and other occupants of the Chair would not deny us the opportunity to make the odd passing reference to the number of Committees and whether they are appropriate. I appreciate that the motion does not increase that number, but endorses and slightly changes the number.

The motion states that you, Mr. Speaker,

I do not know whether that is a broad hint that the Leader of the House might slip a few more motions on to the Order Paper between now and tomorrow. The motion allows for that. If that happens, we are being asked to endorse limited debating time without knowing the total business before us. That is disturbing.

Is the Parliamentary Secretary prepared to guarantee that no further motions in the name of the Leader of the House will be tabled for tomorrow? I cannot understand the reason for the wording unless it is to allow some dubious business to be surreptitiously slipped in at the last minute and encompassed by the restricted time that has been allowed for the business.

The motion bears the hallmarks of the Government and their attitude to the House. It is necessary only if one accepts two propositions, which I shall outline. First, it is desirable, nay, essential to restrict debate on all matters so that the Government are embarrassed as little as possible and their delicate supporters get to go home early. Secondly, good, long-standing arrangements that are well understood in the House must be disturbed. The Parliamentary Secretary has not explained the reason for that.

We are left with a dilemma: do we accept unnecessary nonsense and roll over yet again?

Mr. Bercow: In the absence of any helpful response from the Parliamentary Secretary on the Government's intentions tomorrow, would not it be instructive for the House to hear either from its Deputy Leader, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, or from the Deputy Chief Whip, either of whom would be in an ideal position to advise the House as to exactly what the Government have got up their sleeve?

Mr. Forth: If this debate were to allow the Government Deputy Chief Whip the opportunity to come and enlighten us as to the darkest innermost thoughts of the Government, that would be a breakthrough indeed. I am not overly optimistic that that will happen, although the right hon. Gentleman looks remarkably relaxed and cheerful about the prospects surrounding the motion. He obviously feels that he has the situation under control, as well he might.

The difficulty here--as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), with his usual perception, readily identified--is that the Government are tightening

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their grip on the House and on parliamentary procedure in such a way as to make meaningful debate, meaningful opposition and meaningful holding of the Government to account and questioning of their actions next to impossible. This is yet another small but significant example of that phenomenon.

All in all, this is another sad little moment for the House and for Parliament. I somewhat regret that my hon. Friends on the Conservative Front Bench do not seem inclined to oppose the motion or divide the House on it. At this stage, there is probably not much point in doing that, although I regret to say that. As we seem to be heading towards an unnecessarily early general election, it would appear that fewer and fewer people are concerned about what happens here. However, those of us who continue to be concerned will continue to have our tuppence worth whenever possible, and await events.

4.2 pm

Mr. Stringer: I shall be extremely brief, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) took the debate much wider than the terms on the Order Paper.

Mr. Bercow: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I think that I know what the hon. Gentleman's point of order will be, but I shall let him speak.

Mr. Bercow: I just want to be sure. I might have misheard what the Parliamentary Secretary said, but I understood him distinctly, at the start of his oration, to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham had gone well beyond the terms of the motion. That, of course, is impossible, is it not, Mr. Speaker? Had they done so, you would have been on your feet rebuking them.

Mr. Speaker: I think that the Minister was expressing an opinion. The best thing to say about the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham is that they were borderline cases.

Mr. Stringer: Thank you for that, Mr. Speaker.

I was surprised when the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said that there would be insufficient time to deal with the change from a Deregulation Committee to a Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee. He will remember from the many debates that we had during the passage of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 that we recognised that the debate on the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 had been very contentious and highly emotional. It was opposed by the Labour party on three-line Whips. At the end of that process, when a similar debate to today's arose in the House, Conservative Members, who then formed the Government, allowed a full two hours debate for a brand new procedure--the super-affirmative procedure--which has now become accepted by both sides of the House as a procedure that works on consensus.

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The Government are proposing that the terms of reference for the Select Committee be changed along the lines originally given for the Deregulation Committee, to take account of the fact that we now have a Regulatory Reform Act. That is changing something in detail. Indeed, there is a wider power in that Act, but there are also greater hurdles to be overcome before a regulatory reform order is passed.

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