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2.19 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I support the thrust of the argument of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison). When the Programming Committee met yesterday, we had an interesting situation, because the representatives of both the main Opposition parties were arguing against the Government, saying that the Government were probably allowing too much time for debate. There may be one or two Back Benchers, such as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who would object to such a statement—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Yes.

Mr. Davey: Indeed, given his seemingly very passionate speech on Second Reading, I should have thought that the right hon. Member for Wokingham

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(Mr. Redwood) would object to it, too. However, having examined the Bill and listened to the debate on Second Reading, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff)—the Conservative Whip—and I felt that the time being allowed today was sufficient for proceedings both in Committee and on Third Reading.

The fact that there are no amendments would suggest that that interpretation was correct. So the important issue of parliamentary time being well used arises. In the Programming Committee, when we asked why so much time had been allowed to debate the Bill, we received no answer. We found it rather odd that the request from Opposition parties to reduce the time allocated to the Bill was not met with agreement. Given that the Minister has had more than 24 hours to muse on that, I hope that she will explain why it has been given so much time. Given the current problems in the Conservative party—

Mr. Forth: What problems?

Mr. Davey: The fact that its next leader might be a pro-European, although his Back Benchers are anti-European—

Mr. Forth: That is indeed a problem.

Mr. Davey: It is not often that the right hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement, but on this occasion it appears that we are.

Perhaps the Government want to start as they mean to continue if the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) becomes the leader of the Conservative party, and promote as many debates and votes as possible on European issues in order to give the splits in the Conservative party a public airing—but I may be ascribing too many machiavellian tendencies to the Government.

I do not want to insult the Minister or the Whip, but I believe that parliamentary time is precious. As we are given only three days in the parliamentary year to debate the estimates, and are told that we are not allowed to debate our country's expenditure at greater length, it is bizarre that we have been given an extra day to debate a relatively small sum of money, when the Opposition parties have requested that the debate be allocated less time.

I hope that the Minister will either give us a good reason why we should vote for the motion, or say that she is prepared to allow a Third Reading debate today.

2.22 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): All that raises the question of whether we need a programme motion in respect of this Bill at all, as it is becoming increasingly obvious that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench are in an indecent hurry to get the Bill through, and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) seems to think that the Government did not know what they were doing, which is quite an indictment, coming from a friend of the Government. The fact that yesterday in Committee the Minister was unable to give an answer was no surprise to me, and it should have been no surprise to the hon. Gentleman—but perhaps our patience will be rewarded now, and the Minister will grace us with an explanation beyond what she has said so far.

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The truth is depressingly familiar. These programme motions are turning out to be an embarrassment and an affront to the House. In this case, in the very few words that the Minister was prepared to utter in some sort of defence of the motion, she said that in her view it would allow adequate time for debate. That exemplifies the attitude that is now being repeated over and over again in relation to programme motions: Ministers are to judge how much time should be available for the House to conduct its proceedings. It is now quite blatantly becoming a matter of routine. The Minister said, "I think that I know how much time will be required for the debate." In most cases we tend to argue that almost certainly the time will be inadequate, but on this occasion—perhaps we should note the day and the date—my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton seem to be saying that far too much time is being offered.

Mr. Clappison: The question that the Government need to address is: why should we exclude the possibility of a Third Reading today if consideration in Committee finishes unexpectedly early? Important issues that have to be discussed may occupy all the available time, and that would be well and good—but what is to be gained by excluding the possibility of a Third Reading debate today if consideration in Committee does not occupy all the allotted time?

Mr. Forth: As a pale and inadequate substitute for the Minister, let me try to answer my hon. Friend and offer a possible explanation. The Government presumably want us to get on to the Northern Ireland business, and then perhaps deal with further business. Had they taken the approach that my hon. Friend has helpfully and inventively suggested, it might have put at risk an adequate Third Reading debate—or, if the Government had not put an end to the whole proceedings, we might even, heaven forbid, have had to sit after 7 o'clock this evening. That is perhaps a clue to the Government's thinking. They are so afraid of keeping the House—and for "the House" I can probably substitute "the babes", as it is usually they who are behind these things—and asking the delicate flowers on the Labour Benches to stay after 7 o'clock on a Thursday, that the whole business has to be structured in order to avoid that horrendous prospect.

I suspect that the Government work back from the convenience of certain Members who do not want to tarry here too long, and then fit the business in accordingly. So this has nothing to do with the nature of the business, the extent of interest in the House or anything of that kind, but everything to do with fitting the business of the House in for the convenience of Members who obviously do not want to spend much time here. That is probably the explanation—but no doubt we will get a much fuller explanation from the Minister when she replies to the debate.

Yet again, Ministers have taken it upon themselves to make a judgment about how much time the House will require, and that is the end of the matter. The House then has to fit in with the Minister's judgment and the convenience of Ministers, regardless of how much we may want to say or how much scrutiny we may want to give a measure.

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My next point is well illustrated by what has happened today. Even Ministers do not necessarily know what business may come up. Normally we would expect to get to the main business on a Thursday at roughly 1.15 pm. We have departmental questions from 11.30 to 12.30. We then have business questions, which Mr. Speaker, with his normal generosity and open-handedness, normally allows to run its natural distance, which is normally until about 1.15 pm. Today, however, we had a very important statement in which many hon. Members were rightly interested, so we did not get to this business until about 2.15.

In other words, there was an hour less than would normally be available. That is not in any way allowed for in the approach that the Government are now taking with this heavy-handed, automatic, rigid, inflexible programming that we are now required to have laid upon us, which takes no account of what may happen in the House in the way of statements, private notice questions or whatever. Today provided a good example of that. That is another argument against programming, and against the Government's approach.

There is also the rather odd phenomenon that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere touched on. The Government have stated their intention that, slightly unusually, the Third Reading of this measure will be detached by a period of about three months from the Committee stage. That would suggest that there can be no urgency or importance whatever about the Bill—personally, I welcome that—and that any number of events could intrude between now and then which could affect the attitude of the House to the Third Reading debate.

It is one thing if we can anticipate having a Third Reading debate fairly quickly after the Committee stage, but it is quite another if there is to be an intervening period of three months. Anything could happen—who knows? The United Kingdom could leave the European Union—although for some of us that is but a dream. Any number of things could happen between now and then that could have a material effect on the Bill. So the confidence of the Government in asking us today to approve a measure that will determine the length of the Third Reading debate three months hence is even more bizarre than would usually be the case. I could just about understand the Government arguing that if we were to have Third Reading next week, they could reasonably anticipate how much time we were likely to need, but this is entirely different.

The Minister has some explaining to do to persuade us that the motion is appropriate in the circumstances. Self-evidently, the Bill is not urgent and the time needed for the rest of our business today cannot be foreseen. I am delighted to see that the business motion, item 5 on the Order Paper, has the magic words "Until any hour" attached to it. That must mean that it is a matter of some importance that will require very lengthy consideration. We should be grovellingly grateful to the Government for their generosity in allowing such a debate.

What follows may be relevant to the approach that we may take to this motion and whether we feel it appropriate for our business to be truncated as the Government are suggesting.

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This is an unusual programme motion. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere and the Liberals are taking the odd approach that they want to hurry on, take Third Reading and get the whole matter dispatched rather quickly. I, who favour a more leisurely approach, am positively stunned and delighted by the fact that we are to have a three-month period of reflection between Committee stage and Third Reading. However, the product of that protracted reflection might have some relevance to the amount of time that the motion should allow for Third Reading.

We are in unusual circumstances. I am sure that the Minister will feel an urge to explain at some length why she cannot rush the Bill through as fast as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere seems to want, and why we are to be given this period of reflection.

Needless to say, I am unhappy with the motion. Unless the Minister gives an adequate explanation, I will certainly want to resist it, as we generally do, not routinely but taking each case on its merits. I know that she will do her best. I can see her straining at the leash, desperate to let us have it in great detail and at great length, but unless she comes up with a satisfactory explanation, I am afraid that we will have to oppose the motion.

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