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The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The right hon. Gentleman has spoken on business motions through most of the Session. Why is he surprised at today's motion, given that similar motions have been taken formally at this stage of the House's proceedings for the past 30 years?
Mr. Forth: I can imagine that that happened because for most of that time, we had a lousy Opposition who did not do their job properly. In opposition, the right hon. Lady's party clearly neglected its parliamentary duties and let everything go through on the nod. Things have changed.
Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman's concern is even more surprising because, in what is known as the wash-up period in the previous Parliament, some 16 pieces of legislation were put on the statute book. One of them was an education Bill, on which the right hon. Gentleman was leading for the then Government.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): My right hon. Friend does not normally need defending, but the gravamen of the criticism from the Leader of the House on these occasions always seems to be that he was in the past an unquestioning, compliant, ambitious and possibly even sycophantic Member of Conservative Governments. Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that even if he did commit those sins, everything that he has done in this Parliament has completely made up for his errors of commission in the past?
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as ever. However, something of a metamorphosis often takes place among Members of Parliament, depending on whether they are in opposition or in government. I say in the most kindly way to the Leader of the House that the same might even be said to have happened to her.
Whether or not we are in what the Leader of the House quaintly called a wash-up period, we are doing parliamentary business and we are legislating. It seems to have become fashionable, certainly on the Government Benches and, regrettably, among some of my colleagues as well, that legislation is a matter of formality. The idea is that we all operate, if possible, in a horrible consensual way, agree on what is generally good, but do not get around to good old-fashioned scrutiny or good old-fashioned opposition.
I may be a lone voice in this matter, but as long as I am a Member of this House--which I will be until Monday--I will stick to the old-fashioned view that almost everything done by any Government should be viewed with the greatest suspicion, and that the job of the Opposition is to scrutinise, delay, harry and make a nuisance of themselves until they are satisfied that they have done everything they can to make legislation what it should be for the people of this country. It is a simple and unsophisticated view, but then, that is the sort of chap I am.
I approach this motion in the same spirit of simple, unsophisticated criticism. First, however, I should like to welcome an aspect of the motion. Now there is a turn-up for the books, and I hope that it will make the right hon. Lady's day. Paragraph (2) of the motion says:
That is my word of welcome to the Government and the Leader of the House for uncharacteristically generously allowing a proper amount of time for our proceedings. In a way, it answers the question that I put to the right hon. Lady a short while ago. Given the structure and flow of business that we anticipate over the next two
I want to clarify several points. First, am I to take that paragraph literally as it reads--that any Bill shall be brought in and read the First time and proceeded with as though we had had the Second Reading anyway? So now we are doing away with Second Readings. I thought that the Government had gone far enough already--they have done away with nearly everything else in the House. This must be the ultimate--the ultimate put-on, the ultimate sin, the ultimate act of arrogance. We shall not even have
I suspect, if I know anything, and if I know the Government at all, that this could involve quite a large sum of money. In fact, if we turn the page, we can see that it probably does involve a large sum of money, not unadjacent to--it could not be £144 billion, could it, by any chance? We could not be being asked, could we, Mr. Speaker, to nod through £144 billion and loose change without even a Second Reading?
I hope that the Treasury Ministers who are sitting in the Chamber looking very pleased with themselves at the moment will do the House the courtesy of seeking to catch your eye at some stage, Mr. Speaker, and explain why 144 billion quid of taxpayers' money should be nodded through without even a Second Reading.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Is my right hon. Friend aware of any precedents--apart from the deeming, which we debated at great length and with great consternation in this place? Are there precedents for dispensing with Second Readings, and if so, does my right hon. Friend believe that the judiciary might find that of some note when considering the interpretation of statute in due course?
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that very interesting and useful point. I hope that the motion does not create or provide a precedent, because I could just imagine that in some future Parliament, were there to be another Labour Government of this kind, they might well seek to introduce a measure such as this and then quote this precedent and say, "But it was done before, and that was okay."
Is not the sole point of a motion like this--which, I am glad to say, can be debated until any hour, which is very reassuring to me, at least--to bring out matters such as this and at least to place on the record the fact that some Members of Parliament are unhappy about this; that some Members of Parliament do care, even at this stage of this Session of this Parliament; and that nodding through £144 billion is not our idea of parliamentary scrutiny? There is something for my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench to think about. Perhaps they do not think that £144 billion is very much, but I do, so it is another question that we must answer for ourselves.