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Mr. Deputy Speaker: The Minister and his colleagues on the Treasury Bench will have heard what has been said about copies being made available. Before we continue, perhaps it would help if I again read out the manuscript amendment, which states that the order of consideration be amended to leave out the words
Just before I was interrupted, I was saying that the Minister appears to be rigging the order in which Divisions are likely to be held. That is monstrous. We are a legislature. We are here today to debate these new clauses and amendments in the final stages of this important Bill. We are not here simply to arrange Divisions for the convenience of the Executive. As I understand it, the order of consideration for the new clauses and amendments was laid down clearly by Mr. Speaker before lunchtime today, it was published and it has been available in the Vote Office since 3 o'clock. It is quite extraordinary to be told at this late stagesome six hours after Mr. Speaker made his selection and rulingthat the order of debate will be changed. That
Mrs. Dunwoody: Decisions taken by the Chair are for the protection of Members of Parliament and the Orders of the Day are published so that Members of Parliament can have at least a vague idea about what they are debatingsomething that is not always true even when they have read what they are debating. Frankly, they can have no idea of what they are debating if what is printed on the Order Paper differs from what is proposed.
I had no intention of taking part in the debate, but the order of debate should be clear and transparent to Members, so that they know in advance when the group of amendments that they want to discuss will be debated. That is not exactly a revolutionary idea, but it commends itself to me. Because we are so dependent on the Chair for the protection of our rights, and because it is so vital that we are clear about how we conduct our business, I hope that a much more detailed explanation of the manuscript amendment will be given, even if we end up accepting the Minister's proposal. I have rarely seen such a matter handled with less finesse, and this procedure has not been particularly helpful.
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): The House will wish to consider two separate issues at this point, the first of which is the issue of process. Like the hon. Lady, I have never seen anything handled in the House with less finesse. There are two possible reasons why the Government are behaving in this way: either the Department has been monumentally incompetent, or the Government are trying to rig the procedures of the House, not for the House's convenience but for their own. I incline toward the latter explanation, because I cannot believe that Ministers and their officials could be so incompetent. The entire ministerial team were in the House for an hour and a half for a long statement, so it would surely not have been beyond their wit to hand copies of the manuscript amendment to the Opposition parties, and to show the same courtesy to their own right hon. and hon. Friends, who are intimately involved with the debates that the Government are trying to rig. I therefore absolve Ministers of the charge of monumental incompetence, but they cannot be absolved of the charge of reaching a nadireven by the standards of this Governmentin abuse of the procedures of the House.
The second point worth considering has to do with the substance of the manuscript amendment, with which we have not yet dealt. It is clear that the Government are trying to minimise the number of Divisions that can take place on the matter of faith schools.
I can approach that matter fairly dispassionately, as I support what the Government are trying to achieve with the faith schools amendment. However, they must recognise that there exist other points of view in the House, and that they are legitimate. The various new clauses tabled on faith schools represent varying nuances of view. The Opposition oppose those views, as do the Government, so this is not a partisan matter between Opposition and Government Front-Bench Members.
The question of faith schools engages the House in a non-party way, and it also engages the British people. It is an abuse of power by the Government to seek to minimise hon. Members' capacity to vote fully, clearly and competently on such a matter.
Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Will my hon. Friend the Minister explain to the Houseor at least to Labour Memberswhether the manuscript amendment is linked in any way to the numerous calls that I and other hon. Members received at the weekend? The Government are clearly somewhat sensitive about how we might wish to vote on the matter of faith schools. Will he make clear what effect the manuscript amendment will have on the votes on new clauses 1 and 18 in particular? The explanation that he has given so far has not assuaged my suspicion about the Government's motives.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I underline that point. I am sure that the Government's motives are not malign, but I am just a simple Back Bencher. When the Minister responds to the debate, will he say what effect the amendment will have on when we vote on the clauses relating to faith schools? What are the implications for the timetable of votes?
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I have been in this House for 14 and a half years, and I cannot remember ever finding myself in this position before in connection with a subject of such considerable interest to the outside world. Suddenly, the House, having been given no notice at all, is debating a manuscript amendment
Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order to allow hon. Members to speak in this debate who were not even in the Chamber when the manuscript amendment was moved?
Mr. Brazier: I have one question for the Minister. If the Government are determined to curb hon. Members' right to put their points of view on this extremely controversial issueon which I have spoken a number of times in the past, and about which the Minister knows that I share his viewswhere will it all stop? Has the House of Commons become nothing more than an extension of the Labour party's internal battles?
Mr. Beith: I am not a cynic by nature, and it is just conceivable that the Minister might be trying to help the House. If so, however, I wish he would wear a sign on his forehead saying "I am trying to be helpful", or something similar. The process that he has taken us through could hardly have been more unhelpful. It has left suspicion in everyone's mind.
We now have to decide whether it means what some of us think that it means. I sought advice, from which I gleanI thinkthat the amendment would allow new clause 18 to be voted on after we have voted on new clauses 1 and 2. The Minister did not trouble to mention that point in specific terms in his opening remarks. If the amendment was intended to be helpful, it still defeats me why some minimal notice of it was not given, or why some fuller and more intelligent explanation was not given at the start of the debate.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the Minister replies, I shall repeat that it was my belief, in accepting the manuscript amendment, that it would be helpful and for the convenience of the House. When the Minister responds, I hope that he will explain clearly why it is to the benefit of the House to deal with the matter in this way, and that he will convince the House of the need for the amendment.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As we all know, it is the burden and task of the person in the Chair to defend the interests of Back-Bench Members. I am a member of the Chairman's Panel, and I know that you, more than most in this House, will always seek to do that.
It is clear, from what I have heard of this short debate, that ample opportunity existed earlier this afternoon for the matter to have been discussed through the usual channels. That does not seem to have happened. Hon. Members have tabled amendmentswith which I profoundly disagreeand they surely have a right to be consulted.