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Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. Is he aware that the vast majority of private Members' Bills are killed off by the Government Whip objecting to them? The Christmas Day (Trading) Bill, which would have been on the Order Paper for this Friday, is not supported and may even be opposed by the Government. That may explain what is going on.
Mr. Leigh: Yes. Regrettably, we often conduct our affairs with a lack of honesty. The Government cried crocodile tears and said to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, "We're terribly sorry. It's an excellent and worthwhile Bill, but there wasn't time." Presumably the Government are delighted that it will be killed off--perhaps they have friends in big business who dropped them a word. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich should have been allowed to proceed with her Bill, which had broad support in the House. How could anyone want people to work on Christmas day? The Government are not being honest. Surely, with their majority, their authority and their ability to plan--they make the rules and control this place--they could have ensured that one of their own distinguished Members was given a chance to bring her private Member's Bill to a conclusion. Why this ruthless haste? Why has no consideration been given to the rights of private Members?
I hope that when we next consider these matters--perhaps in the Modernisation Committee--it will not be beyond the wit of Parliament to devise a means that allows us to plan a little, work out how many Bills need to go through and ensure that there is not the unseemly rush that we have had this time and, I accept, on previous occasions. We should ensure proper consideration of legislation right up to the end of the Parliament. Why else are we timetabling Bills? Why else is the Leader of the House telling us that the conduct of affairs in the past has not been adequate?
It is true that Oppositions have used the weapon of time, but that is the only weapon available to us. Should we be criticised for that? Should a small minority be criticised for trying to hold the Government to account by using the weapon of time? Did not the Labour party do precisely that? The right hon. Lady said that times have changed.
Mrs. Beckett: I want to correct the error that the hon. Gentleman is making. I do not criticise the Opposition for using time to discuss issues before the House. I would not do that, as that is their role. I criticise them for wasting time talking about how much time they are going to take.
Mr. Leigh: That was a patronising remark from the Leader of the House, wielding as she does enormous authority over our affairs. This is crucial--it is not a little, quibbling, debating point. It is vital in a democracy that the Government decide on the business and on what gets passed, whereas the Opposition decide what gets debated. That is our right, and it is how Oppositions hold Governments to account.
I accept the right hon. Lady's point that this is how we have always dealt with these matters in the past, but if she wants to go down in history as a modernising Leader of the House and to sweep away the nonsense of Oppositions filibustering and time wasting, and if she wants serious debate on the issues so that every amendment is reached, every part of every Bill is scrutinised and we provide our constituents with a proper service, she should introduce some worthwhile reform if she remains in her office.
Mr. Leigh: If the Conservative party is returned, as I sincerely hope it will be, it is vital that it reforms our procedures in the first six months. All Oppositions have good intentions--the Leader of the House had good intentions--but once that window of opportunity passes and a party has been in power for a few months, those good intentions about holding the Executive to account fall to pieces. How much progress have we made on reforming Select Committees and giving them real power? How much progress have we made on the matters that I have been discussing? Very little.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues reduced the amount of verbosity, we might have a chance later to debate motion 8 on estimates, which gives the Government permission to spend £149 billion. That is the sort of motion that the House should be debating, rather than spending too long discussing what is, as the Leader of the House has pointed out, a traditional motion.
Mr. Leigh: That is an example of what Oppositions are told. We are told that it is all our fault that the House cannot debate--in this instance--motion 8, which involves a huge amount of money, because certain Members have done what they are paid to do, and held
Will my hon. Friend consider for a moment the deep irony contained in the intervention of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey)? He says that we should have more time in which to debate a matter that appears later on the Order Paper, yet makes no complaint about the way in which the current Parliament is being ended--about the fact that we are not being given more time over the next few days, perhaps weeks, to debate all these matters at greater length. If we were given more time, could we not engage in a fuller debate on both this motion and the matters that the hon. Gentleman seems so keen to discuss?
Mr. Leigh: It is indeed ironic that a member of an Opposition party, and many of his colleagues, should take every opportunity not to do their duty, hold the Government to account and attack them in connection with this or any other motion, but to attack the official Opposition, as though we were responsible--as though it were all our fault, and we had drafted the Order Paper in this way. We had no control over the Order Paper: no one consulted us. The business is simply being rammed through Parliament.
Mr. Davey: I was making a deeper point about the way in which we conduct our business. Under successive Governments of both blue and red persuasions, we have not debated public finance properly. We need to hold the Government to account, and the recommendations of the hon. Gentleman's party to the Norton Commission do not do that. That is why we should change the priorities of the House, so that we can scrutinise the way in which taxpayers' money is spent.
Mr. Leigh: That is a serious point, which I am happy to take on board. I agree that the reason why we have this Parliament at all--the reason why we are here, and the reason why our authority has grown so much since the 17th century--is that the general public placed confidence in us, and our ability to scrutinise the Executive in regard to the spending of public money. It is extraordinary that this evening we shall spend so little time--conceivably, no time at all--performing our primary function, and holding the Government to account on motion 8, entitled "Estimates, 2001-02".
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Let me begin by commenting on the two interventions from the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). In his second intervention he said that the House does not scrutinise expenditure properly: I agree with him, and will deal with his point shortly.
The hon. Gentleman's first intervention, however, provides a useful starting point for consideration of the issues arising from the narrow motion that we are discussing. He said that, if the official Opposition were to spend less time scrutinising what the Labour Government were trying to do with democracy in this House, it would be possible to reach item 8 sooner, but that is not correct. If my arithmetic is any good, it will not be possible, whatever happens this afternoon, to get to item 8 before 10 o'clock. That tells us a great deal about the contempt in which the Labour Government hold democracy and the way in which the House exercises it.
If there had been no personal statement and no ten-minute Bill, we would have started with the statement for tomorrow's business and moved to this motion. Even if the motion had gone through on the nod, as the Leader of the House seemed to want, we would still have faced two programme motions of three quarters of an hour each: a total of an hour and a half. We would then have had a guillotined debate lasting three hours and another guillotined debate lasting two hours, which amounts to six and a half hours. If we had started on all that at half-past 3 and not had any of the debate that we have had this afternoon, and if there had been no Divisions--presumably, the Labour Government do not believe that we have a right to vote on anything any more; it is rather inconvenient for their view of democracy--it would have been 10 o'clock before we reached item 8. If we look at the programme motion, the Order Paper and the Standing Orders, we discover that we cannot debate any estimate matter after 10 o'clock, so the reality is not as the hon. Gentleman believed it to be.
When the Government argue that if we had not debated this motion we could have reached the estimates debate, they are talking rubbish. We would not have got on to the debate on the estimates. We would have again been required to act as a rubber-stamp for a Labour dictatorship who have no regard for the House.