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Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. His generosity of spirit invariably gets the better of him as the House is always aware. He will agree that our hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has performed a signal service.

Mr. Forth: As ever.

Mr. Bercow: As ever, as my right hon. Friend poignantly observes. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West has performed a signal service in drawing attention to the tortuous wording of paragraph (3). Has my right hon. Friend noticed that that tortuous construction refers to a scenario in which the opinion of the Speaker is challenged? Surely such a scenario is positively unimaginable.

Mr. Forth: I certainly take my hon. Friend's advice on that--he should know. I must admit that I thought that I would skip over that part of the motion because it raises certain sensitivities. We would probably be better to draw a veil over them and leave the Government to explain why they admit of the possibility of the Speaker being challenged. That is not a matter for my hon. Friend or myself; it is certainly a matter for the Government. I bet that someone will find himself on the carpet when the Speaker is apprised of the words in paragraph (3). We had better leave it as a matter for the Speaker and Government.

Mr. Winterton: Order--[Laughter.] I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am used to listening intently from a different position.

My right hon. Friend is a highly respected Member of the House and the utterances of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) are always fascinating and flowery, but the wording of paragraph (3) is entirely appropriate. When, at the end of the debate, the Speaker decides that the ayes have it, Members on the other side can say "No" and that means that there is a Division. I hope that my right hon. Friend will concede that the Division is the appropriate means by which the House should operate. I am seeking to be helpful.

Mr. Forth: If I can find one other Member to be a Teller, I can virtually guarantee that that will happen.

I am surprised that my hon. Friend thought that he was in Westminster Hall, over which he presides with such distinction, because I have never set foot in the ghastly place and never intend to; I would not darken its doors. I regard it as an excrescence and irrelevance, and the sooner that we do away with it, the better. However, I do not want to digress.

I see that I am reaching the limit of your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker; I do not want to exhaust the patience of the House. I thought that I would skip lightly through some of the salient elements of the motion, and hope that I have interested the House and my hon. Friends enough for them to think that it is worth them asking

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questions. Following my few words, I hope that Ministers will tell us something about those matters, as we have winkled out of the motion a few relevant, important and disturbing facts that require clarification.

4.56 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Our debate has a serious kernel, and we are trying to deal with it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) should not get too excited about returning to the tradition of having a debate until any hour. I suspect that if our debate ran on, and even if perfectly serious points were made, the Government would move a closure motion at about 7.17 pm, three hours after we started at 4.17 pm.

The Government are ruthless about getting their own way and would not allow a situation to develop in which the House of Commons could perform its traditional function at any length. Looking down the Order Paper, I see that the Finance Bill programme motion may continue for up to 45 minutes, as may the programme motion for the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill. The Government always ensure that, whatever happens and whatever the Opposition say, we are sent home at the witching hour of 10 o'clock, as it is not considered right for us to be here trying to scrutinise the Government after that time.

That is my first point. My second is the wider issue of how we are to proceed in the coming days. It is true that the business this Session has been an exceptionally light. It is also true that everybody has known the date of the general election for some time; there has been no mystery about it. Everybody knows that the Government would have liked to hold the election in May, but that was not possible because of the foot and mouth outbreak, so it was delayed.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the motion that we are discussing is the business of the House, not the date of the general election.

Mr. Leigh: I appreciate that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am asking why, when everybody knows when Parliament is to be dissolved, it is not possible for more time to be allowed. After all, these are serious motions and Bills. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the House was given so little warning, and an impossible burden put on the Opposition. Most of the Bills that we will discuss in the next few days are popular and perfectly sensible, and the Opposition do not want to oppose them on principle--[Interruption.] Well, some, but not all, of them.

Mrs. Beckett: Before the hon. Gentleman gets any deeper into the hole that he is digging for himself, I remind him that in the Session of 1982 to 1983, Parliament dealt with 10 Bills; in 1986 to 1987, it dealt with 14; in 1991 to 1992, it dealt with 11; in 1996 to 1997, it dealt with 16. I simply say to him that, contrary to the pointless remarks made by him and his right hon. and hon. Friends, the more that Opposition Members go on, the more apparent they make it that they expect never to be in government again; I sincerely hope that they are right.

Mr. Leigh: All that the right hon. Lady is saying is that we have not conducted our affairs very well in

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the past; we sandwiched an enormous amount of consideration into a short period, which, presumably, did not result in the right sort of scrutiny, so we should carry on as before. I am sure that when our business was conducted as it was previously and the right hon. Lady was sitting on the Opposition Benches, she also objected and felt that her point of view was not taken sufficiently into account, because she was in a minority. Why do we not take legislation seriously? Why do we not have a procedure that ensures that Bills undergo proper consideration?

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. With the greatest respect to the Leader of the House--she knows that I respect her--I could not give a tinker's cuss about what happened in 1983, because at the time I was busily preoccupied with my university studies. Although we are not here to debate the date of the general election--as you poignantly reminded us, Madam Deputy Speaker--the fact that the Government propose to hold the election 327 days before it needs to be called is relevant to our consideration of the motion. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government want to cut and run, there is no reason why we should be accommodating in our attitude? Rather, to adapt the words of our noble Friend Lord Tebbit of Chingford, we should invite Ministers to get on their bicycles and pedal them.

Mr. Leigh: The Government chose to prorogue Parliament earlier than they needed to. We on the Opposition Benches are perfectly entitled to insist that the remaining Bills are not rushed through and that there is proper scrutiny. I am sure that if the right hon. Lady were on these Benches, she would say exactly the same. Contrary to what she said, we have heard much from the Government about the need to modernise our procedures. Only today we heard from various quarters about the declining ability of the House to scrutinise the Executive. Why are we still dealing with our affairs in the same way as we did a few years ago, and not giving proper--

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I once again remind the hon. Gentleman of the motion that we are discussing and how limited it is?

Mr. Leigh: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Discussion of the motion is not simply a matter of the esteem in which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) may hold the Leader of the House or the Government. It is also a matter of the impression created by the motion outside the House and the pressures that it exerts on Parliament. People who are intimately associated with the measures that we are to debate over the next few days will not understand why the House is giving scant consideration to matters that they believe, with some justification, are of paramount importance. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) should not be intimidated by the right hon. Lady quoting historical facts and figures, which go way beyond the experience of the vast majority of hon. Members in the Chamber. I hope that my hon. Friend will continue to fight the cause of his constituents in Gainsborough, mine in South Holland and The Deepings, and the wider public.

Mr. Leigh: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments.

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My second point relates to the extinguishment of private Members' rights. Government business will take precedence over that of private Members. It is regrettable--I see my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst in his place--that it has proved impossible for private Members to enact their Bills during this Parliament. There is no point in Government Members complaining about Opposition Members who have sought to scrutinise such Bills; that is our right. My right hon. Friend is right to come here Friday after Friday, hold private Members to account and subject their Bills to scrutiny.

Despite the fact that everybody knew when Parliament was to be prorogued--presumably the Government have known that for weeks--the Government have produced a business motion that will prevent any private Members' Bills from making progress. Some excellent private Members' Bills have been presented, such as the Christmas Day (Trading) Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), but the Government are entirely ruthless and kill off all such Bills.

With all the notice that we have had, and with everyone knowing for weeks, if not months, when the general election would be held, would it not have been possible for the Government to introduce a business motion that ensured that the rights of private Members were not extinguished? Is that fair? Is that right? Is that the proper way for Parliament to proceed?

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