Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Charles Clarke: I said nothing of the kind. The Chairman and the Clerk gave information to that effect. It was a matter for the Chairman and the authorities of the House rather than for the Government.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister. I would certainly never accuse him of anything other than frankness and candour. However, my recollection was that he assented to the proposition that there was nothing in writing. [Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering his disapproval and disagreement, but the problem is that there is no minute of the meeting yesterday, still less a verbatim text. That precisely underlines the unsatisfactory nature of a Programming Sub-Committee meeting with no subsequent record of its deliberations. There is now scope for continuing the argument about exactly what was said.

Mr. Clarke: My chuntering was to the effect that I assented to the ruling of the Chair. More than that, I said that the Government would vote with the Chair—as is the convention of the House—in order to carry the ruling. I was assenting not dissenting to the hon. Gentleman's remark. Earlier, I said that it was not my judgment on Sessional Orders, but that the Government should—as we did—support and share the judgments made.

10.45 am

Mr. Bercow: That is correct, but it is also correct that the hon. Gentleman implied that he was relaxed about whether the meeting took place public or in private, following the model of a Select Committee without a witness. Indeed, he seemed ready to entertain the prospect of its meeting in public. I therefore, quite naturally, proposed that we meet in public, but you advised me, Mr. O'Brien that there was no scope for you to allow such a motion. It is entirely unclear to us where the absence of scope is declared in the Sessional Orders. We are in uncharted water.

I will develop the point about the character of the Sub-Committee which determines the basis on which our proceedings are conducted. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk and I strongly believe that the model is not that of a Select Committee. Yesterday's Programming Sub-Committee contained the Minister and me. Although the Minister has many merits, I believe that the reason that he was on that Sub-Committee was nothing to do with his innate kindliness or his potential to be a Labour Prime Minister, but that he is the Minister responsible for piloting this legislation through the House. I was included not on the basis that I would wind up the Minister or pay him gratuitous compliments, but on the strength of the fact that I am the Opposition spokesman with responsibility for leading on the subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, under whose beady eye and continuing supervision my hon. Friends and I are obliged to operate, is a fine fellow and a formidable figure in more ways than one. He was selected for the Sub-Committee not for those reasons but because he is a member of Her Majesty's Opposition Whips Office. The hon. Member for Hyndburn sits on this Committee and on the Programming Sub-Committee by virtue of his being a Government Whip.

The Sessional Order C paragraph (3)(b) states that the Sub-Committee shall consist of members of this Committee. It shall consist of but not embrace all members of this Committee, because it is only a Sub-Committee. How can a Sub-Committee of a Standing Committee suddenly become a Select Committee? That is beyond the realm of imagination. Why is it thought to be a Select Committee? Why did the Minister suggest that we would have a greater prospect of reaching agreement if members of the public were not present? The notion that the presence of members of the public or members of interest groups is either conducive to or militates against the achievement of consensus is not only wrong but constitutionally obnoxious, for it suggests the intent on the part of outside parties to influence our deliberations. That would be a serious thing for a member of the public to do, and a serious charge for a member of this Committee to level at a member of the public. I hope that the Minster will reconsider that dastardly doctrine that he advanced.

Yesterday, I suggested that we should have a record of the proceedings of the Sub-Committee, and at one point my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk and I were moved to switch on a tape recorder. The Minister was veritably incandescent. He sought a guarantee that I would not seek to inform members of the media of the contents of our discussions.

Mr. Clarke: If the hon. Gentleman thought that I was incandescent last night, despite his flattery, he has not seen me incandescent.

Mr. Bercow: I do not change my views lightly—I am not a chameleon representative of new Labour. I make no bones about it; I have long admired the Minister and know the scope of his talents. I am aware of the extent of his ambitions and, at least as far as the Opposition are concerned, I hope that he will be a leader. I shall not be distracted or put off my compliments to him, which are justified, just because he is nasty to me from time to time. I shall rise above the nastiness.

I wanted to tape record the proceedings, but you advised me that I could not do so, Mr. O'Brien. There is, of course, a precedent for attempting to tape record proceedings. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) wanted to tape record the deliberations of the Privileges Committee in the 1994-95 Session. As you will remember, Mr. O'Brien—you were a Member of the House, although I was not—eventually, the right hon. Gentleman was excluded from the Committee because he issued his own report of the deliberations.

The question that I and my hon. Friends, and, I believe, at least in part, the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell), are asking is why these matters should not be debated publicly. If observers of our proceedings consider that merely an arcane question and ask why it matters, the answer is that the means by which a Bill progresses from Second Reading to the statute book, including the timetable, the order of business, the priorities of Government and Opposition in terms of the procedure to be followed and the order of consideration of the Bill, is a matter of the highest importance. No one should try to hide it from the magnifying glass of publicity.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I thought that we were debating a resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee, which I have read with great care. Having listened to the hon. Gentleman's semantics, I should like to ask him a question. Would anything that he proposes in the context of the timetabling motion materially alter the order of debate or provide extra time for a particular clause? Will he confirm that he made those points at yesterday's meeting?

The Chairman: Before the hon. Member for Buckingham replies, I should like him to note that the hon. Member for Colchester, representing the Liberal Democrats, wants to speak in the debate.

Mr. Bercow: I most certainly will, and I am grateful to you, Mr. O'Brien, for that reminder.

My response to the hon. Gentleman's question is that that is one of the problems relating to the fact that only some members of the Standing Committee—I am grateful to him for highlighting the defect—are members of the Programming Sub-Committee. Through no fault of his own, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was not present. He could not sit on yesterday's Committee—although as it transpired, as was evidenced by the attendance of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) in the background of the Committee, he would have been free to attend, although he could not have spoken. However, if he had been present, he would have known that I made it absolutely clear that, as I said this morning, more time should be made available for the consideration of particular clauses and parts of the Bill.

Mr. Miller: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow: No. I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman again. He will have to bear with that response to the question that he just posed. I proposed a further nine hours of debate because many important matters need to be considered. We have received representations from the Association of British Insurers, the Local Government Association, the British Motorcyclists Federation, and several others to boot. Those organisations suggested that the Bill contained substantial defects, and expressed reservations about its content and a desire to ensure that it was significantly amended.

I also suggested that the Minister's understanding of the Second Reading debate was wrong and that it would be better to consider the matter in the normal way—to examine clauses 1 to 15 first, and then move on to clauses 16 to 30. I did not believe that his understanding of the Second Reading debate was accurate. He will have to bear with me to find out whether I am right, but I believe that that anxiety will be reflected in the nature and number of amendments tabled on other parts of the Bill. The Minister's understanding of what constituted the most fraught and contentious part of the Bill, occasioning the largest number of amendments and the greatest scope for controversial debate, is mistaken. He made an honourable judgment, but he was not right to make it.

Yesterday, we were invited to examine the order of consideration, and we were told that alternatives could be considered, as detailed in point 6 of the brief guide issued by the Public Bill Office. That brief guide was dated 21 December, and was helpfully circulated, but only on the afternoon of the Programming Sub-Committee, by the Clerk acting on your behalf, Mr. O'Brien. What if other, Back-Bench Members who sit on the Standing Committee but are not so privileged or august as to sit on the Programming Sub-Committee had wanted to propose a different order of consideration and suggest an alternative draft resolution? They would not have had the opportunity to do so, as alternatives had to be proposed there and then, not least in light of the debate that took place on the matter that afternoon.

I am bound to say that that is a significant problem, as is the fact that the timetable for the overall consideration of the Bill is fixed by the earlier programme motion. Factually and helpfully, Mr. O'Brien, you reminded me yesterday that the end date of 23 January was set in concrete. We could argue the toss about parts of the Bill and how much time there was for consideration thereof, but we could not change the final date because the House passed the timetable motion after Second Reading.

There is no real chance to extend the number of hours available, especially in the light of the Minister's truculent attitude yesterday afternoon, even if a panoply of new clauses and amendments is subsequently tabled. We have had no suggestion of a self-denying ordinance or self-discipline on the part of Ministers. If Ministers were to say that they would absolutely undertake not to table any new clauses or amendments, the situation would be marginally less unsatisfactory, but they may issue them, and they propose to proceed in a hole-and-corner fashion in a private sitting to escape the magnifying glass or transmission belt of the mass media, on which a free and pluralistic society depends.

The timetable proposed is inadequate. The constitutional vandalism is unjust. What is demonstrated above all is that, deep down, the Government simply do not care about the traditions of the House or the entitlements of Members of Parliament. They are concerned exclusively with the operation of their business and the pursuit of their goals. They use every administrative fiat and caprice available to them to achieve their objectives. We believe that that is wrong, and we strongly object. We urge the Committee to consider instead the alternative extra nine hours that we proposed yesterday. That proposal would be right, as it would be in the interests of the consideration of the Bill and a service to those concerned about it. I will sit down, because I look forward with interest and respect to what the hon. Member for Colchester has to say.

 
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