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Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is certainly straying from the programme motion.

Mr. Gray: You are, of course, right, Mr. Speaker. I apologise, but I was so overcome by the horror of what I saw on the news last night that I deviated from the motion.

The truth is that the Bill deals with difficult and important matters. The issue is complicated and important to hon. Members who represent rural constituencies. I hope that the Government will see sense and, even at this late hour, allow us more time to have a proper discussion of village shops and the diversification of farms. I am particularly concerned about the equestrian industry. Either they should give us more time tonight or, at the very least, the Minister should assure us that they have listened carefully to our concerns. They are reasonably aware of the problems facing the equestrian industry. In the unlikely event that they form a Government after 7 June, I hope that they will say that they will consider these points. The Conservative party has said that, when we are in government, we will impose zero business rates on equestrian industries and other businesses in the countryside.

10.10 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): The point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) needs to be answered, because it is one that Liberal Democrat Members regularly make in these debates. They say that these are important matters and that we should not spend time debating the programme motion because that takes up some of the time that we have available to discuss the Bill. We only have two hours to discuss the remaining stages of the Bill, so the pressure is on us to shut up. Every minute that we take on the programme motion means that less time is available for consideration of the Bill. That is a sort of kowtow version of politics, whereby the Opposition have to give way to Government blackmail and the way in which they ram legislation through Parliament.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend has generously complimented the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome

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(Mr. Heath) on his remarks on the programme motion, but the said hon. Gentleman does not even have the courtesy to listen to the compliment that is being paid to him.

Mr. Leigh: I do not want to get involved in that debate because the hon. Gentleman is having an important discussion elsewhere. [Interruption.]

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): It is disgraceful of Conservative Members to make such comments when my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is talking to Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Leigh: It does not matter who the hon. Gentleman is speaking to. The fact is that he made a point and I was seeking to reply to it. We cannot let that point pass. The Opposition cannot be put under moral pressure not to do what Oppositions have traditionally done, which is to debate programme motions properly. We have a perfect right to do that.

Each time we debate a programme motion, the Government look back through history and quote all the times that Conservative Governments introduced guillotine motions. It is true that, on occasion, Conservative Governments have had to introduce guillotine motions. [Hon. Members: "Ah."] Yes, I accept that we did that. The then Opposition sought, quite rightly from their point of view, to prolong debate because that weapon was available to them. When Labour Members were in opposition, they did that extremely well. I sat through many Standing Committees in which they spoke at length. They were not filibustering and were not out of order, and sometimes we spent many hours in Committee.

The sittings of the Committee on which I served and that considered the Bill that led to the privatisation of British Telecom went on for more than 100 hours, and we considered hardly any of the clauses. It was on occasions such as those that Conservative Governments introduced programme motions. We then had a great set-piece debate on the Floor of the House, which lasted for three hours. Important Front Benchers made speeches and the argument went to and fro across the Floor. It was a big occasion. Now, as a matter of course, the Government introduce programme motions for everything. I know that some Members argue that that is the right way to proceed, but, surely, programme motions should be introduced on the basis of consensus and the House should not be treated with contempt. The Government should not say that matters that are important--they affect the livelihoods of those who run equestrian centres and village shops--will receive only two hours of debate.

The Government say, "If you want to talk about the programme motion, you'll get even less time, mate. It's up to you. Just take it and be stuffed." That is what they are saying and it is simply not good enough. When programme motions are introduced, we shall argue again and again the point that the House must have more time.

I do not understand what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said. In his first breath, he said that this was a modest Bill that had much to be modest about, but in his second sentence he said that it was a very important Bill. He is a Liberal. Is it an important Bill or

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a modest one? Is it a complex Bill or one that does not need much debating? Does it affect people's real lives? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can enlighten us.

Mr. David Heath: I am grateful--

Miss McIntosh: The hon. Gentleman is back.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Lady intervenes on my intervention to say that I am back. She knows perfectly well that I got no further than the Speaker's Chair.

The hon. Gentleman asked how the Bill can simultaneously be important and modest. It is important because it provides some relief, however modest, to the businesses that we represent in rural areas, which desperately need it. It is modest because it does not go nearly far enough, as I made clear in my contributions on Second Reading and in Committee.

Mr. Leigh: That is a fair point; the hon. Gentleman has now explained himself to the House. He has told us why this is an important area of debate and why we need to look at it in depth. There is tremendous suffering and part of the tourism industry, which employs large numbers of people, is not receiving adequate help. The hon. Gentleman made the important point that the measure is too modest, so presumably we could have all sorts of arguments and debates about how to improve the Bill and achieve proper scrutiny to ensure that we deliver more targeted help to businesses that need it.

I have a sneaking suspicion that, although the Bill has modest aims, it deals with a complex and difficult area. It is hard to target help in the right way; it is virtually impossible for the House of Commons to have a serious debate in under two hours and achieve proper scrutiny to ensure that help is properly targeted. We rely on the other place. We have to do so again and again because the Lords do not have a savage guillotine procedure. In this case, however, we know that enormous moral pressure will be put on the other place; Ministers will tell their colleagues in the Lords that the issue is important and the industry is suffering; they will discuss what will happen if they delay the Bill too long and if certain matters are debated. They will say that the Lords have got the expertise, but the Bill could fall.

I do not doubt that, for once, the Bill will be rushed through the other place. Normally, the Lords are good, as they are not bound by party or partisan politics; they are prepared to look at things in a careful and considered way. However, there is a danger that, having received inadequate--indeed, derisory--scrutiny in the Commons tonight, this important Bill will go to the other place and, despite the Lords' best efforts, emerge as flawed legislation.

We must ask ourselves why, when we had so much warning about what was going to be announced this week, it was necessary for the Government to behave as they have. Why do they always have to use their enormous majority as a battering ram and deploy arrogant, overbearing and overweening power to destroy any attempt by the Opposition to debate such matters? All that we are asking for is serious discussion. The Government will get their way today and, in a very short time, the Bill will leave the House of Commons. However, the House will have done itself no credit in the way in which it has discussed those matters.

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10.17 pm

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): I should like to congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill to alleviate some of the problems affecting our rural constituencies. I have been in the House long enough to remember when our industrial communities were ravaged by the previous Conservative Government, of whom the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was a member. There was no sympathy at all for the communities that my hon. Friends and I represented.

The Government have responded to issues concerning the nation at large. They have not introduced sectarian or politically vindictive legislation, but something positive. It is a sad tragedy--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman is retiring soon but, for the sake of even-handedness, I must tell him that he is going beyond the scope of the programme motion. Those are matters on which, perhaps, he can speak when we get to the Bill itself.

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