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Emergency Services Personnel (Protection) Bill

Mr. Bill Etherington accordingly presented a Bill to make it an offence to assault, intimidate or otherwise interfere with emergency services personnel in the execution of their duties; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 July, and to be printed [Bill 67].

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Police Reform Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No.2)

4.37 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): I beg to move,

    (3) Proceedings on Third Reading (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at Ten o'clock on the second of those days or, if that day is a Thursday, at Seven o'clock on that day.

The motion allows for one and a half days for Report and Third Reading, which provides an additional half-day as compared with the motion agreed by the House on 7 May. We have structured the order of consideration to ensure maximum time for debate on what are generally seen as the two most contentious parts of the Bill, namely part I and chapter 1 of part IV.

The order of consideration also accommodates members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs who are unable to be present today. Hon. Members will note that amendment No. 1 is tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and other members of the Committee. The order of consideration ensures that that amendment is not reached until tomorrow.

The Bill was extensively debated in Standing Committee, taking up some 28 hours in total, so hon. Members have had the opportunity to give it adequate scrutiny. In any event, the Bill commands widespread

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support. Indeed, on Second Reading the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said that Her Majesty's Opposition

    "agree with or acquiesce in roughly 98 per cent. of it."—[Official Report, 7 May 2002; Vol. 385, c. 63.]

I am sure that as a result of the changes made in Committee its approval rating must now be around the 99 per cent. mark, which is not bad for a Bill at this stage of its progress.

There are relatively few Opposition amendments, which cover eight substantive issues, and the one and a half days allowed by the programme motion should be more than adequate to debate them fully. I hope that hon. Members will feel able to agree the programme motion.

4.39 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): We shall not oppose the motion. As the Minister said, one and a half days should be adequate for our discussions. However, I want to make two specific points.

First, the Minister rightly said that the timetable allows significant time for discussing what are agreed to be the most hotly disputed provisions of the Bill, especially part 1. However, the motion states that discussion on part 1 will conclude at 6 pm tomorrow. I hope that the Minister can assure us that he and the Home Secretary will prevail on the rest of the Government to ensure that statements do not encroach on that time, because there is no provision to extend the time in the case of a statement. Today's timetable provides for three hours; tomorrow, the deadline is 6 pm. Many would consider two and a half hours adequate for debating part 1. However, it will not be adequate if we lose an hour or so through a statement.

My second point causes grave anxiety to Conservative Members. Last night, the Government tabled many amendments. All except one relate to one issue, which part 1 covers. Now is not the time to comment on the detail, but the media were apparently informed about the amendments and the Government spin on them before they were tabled or available to any hon. Member. One and a half hours passed after the first press calls to my office and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) about the amendments and before I could get copies of them from the Public Bill Office. I understand that, strictly, it should not have let me have sight of them, but I am grateful to the Clerks there for allowing me to do so.

Despite the Government's apparent Damascene conversion from spin, the reality is different. They seemed more interested in setting the scene with the media than tabling the amendments about which they were spinning. Consequently, it has been possible for us to table amendments to amendments only today. Although that is perfectly in order, I want to underline the point to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope that you will pass on our anxiety to the Speaker so that when he makes his selection for tomorrow, he notes the difficulty in which the Opposition were placed by the timing of the amendments' tabling. I shall not comment on their content; that is for tomorrow's debate, but I hope that we can debate our amendments, too.

The Minister rightly said that members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs are unable to be with us today. We can make our judgments about priorities, but I accept the reasoning for the Minister's timetabling. I add

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that it helps my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, who is also elsewhere on parliamentary business today. Matters have therefore worked out all right.

We shall not divide the House on the programme motion, but I hope that the Minister takes note of my two points and that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have noted the latter.

4.43 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Under ordinary circumstances, I would divide the House, but as discussion on the programme motion is taken out of the time for substantive debate, I shall not do so. However, I emphasise that I strongly deprecate timetable motions in general and in particular, and I shall make brief comments on that.

First, any democracy depends on a bargain between the electorate and the House. The electorate will accept obligations and requirements on the assumption that Bills are properly scrutinised. Timetables have a nasty habit of preventing proper scrutiny, and when the electorate realise that the bargain is not being respected, I fancy that their respect for parliamentary democracy will diminish.

We are talking about a Report stage, which is the occasion on which the House as a whole—particularly those hon. Members who did not serve on the Standing Committee—has the opportunity to participate in the debate. The plain truth is that if we tightly constrain the debate, we exclude right hon. and hon. Members. In the end, that reinforces an unwillingness on their part to participate in debate at all. That is something that I have witnessed in this place over many years, and I deprecate that, as well.

I would also make the plain, pragmatic observation that, in these circumstances, substantial chunks of important legislation will go largely undiscussed, or perhaps not be discussed at all. That makes me very uneasy about the parliamentary process. Of course, one is entitled sometimes to impose timetable motions. I accept that; I have been responsible for doing so myself in a previous incarnation. But one should surely do so only if there is a pressing requirement for such a motion. We are, therefore, entitled to ask what the pressing requirement is in this case.

The Minister has told us that there was much agreement on the Bill, and that was reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). Indeed, the Minister suggested that we agreed on 98 or 99 per cent. of the provisions. If that is the case, why the timetable? So far as I am aware, no Conservative Member—and perhaps no Labour Member either—is minded unduly to extend the debate, so why the artificial constraint? No one can say that the House is overburdened with business at the moment. After all, the House is getting up on a relatively early date—24 July—and coming back on a relatively late date in October. Last week, the business collapsed on various occasions, and, on Thursday, we have a debate on the Adjournment. May I ask, therefore, what is the pressure on parliamentary time? Why are we not allowed an unconstrained debate? I suspect that it is because the Government like tightly to constrain all debates, but I am against them on that point, as I would be against my hon. Friends if they tried to do the same thing.

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I shall not go into the merits of the Bill—you would stop me if I did so, Madam Deputy Speaker—but I want to emphasise that some important questions are to be discussed. I repeat that this is the first opportunity that many right hon. and hon. Members have had to examine the substance of the Bill in detail. After all, they were not on the Standing Committee. Today, for example, we shall reconsider the circumstances in which chief police officers can be suspended, be required to resign, or retire. That is not a minor issue.

We shall also consider further the ability of the police to obtain specimens from people who cannot give their consent, the ability of the police to seize motor vehicles—those are not a minor matters either—and the orders that can be made against sex offenders, which is a serious issue. My hon. Friend and the Minister were right to emphasise that there will be yet further discussions tomorrow on the circumstances in which the Secretary of State can give directions to chief police officers and police authorities as to how they should perform their functions. That, too, is an important issue. I understand that the debate on that matter will end at 6 o'clock.

My hon. Friend made a serious point about statements, but he did not—I make no criticism of him for this—refer to private notice questions. He was probably here when, for example, the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) raised the question of a statement by the Foreign Secretary regarding the new changes relating to the sale of arms to the middle east. I had the impression, listening to Mr. Speaker at that time, that he was encouraging a private notice question. If, however, there were a PNQ on such a subject, tomorrow's debate would be yet further curtailed. What would be the justification for that?

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire made another serious point about the raft of amendments that was tabled last night by the Government. That action was not very satisfactory, given that nine or 10 days have passed since the Committee finished its sittings. That is hard luck, no doubt, on my hon. Friend, but it is worse luck on those outside the House, as they have had no opportunity until today to make representations to hon. and right hon. Members on the points that they wish to have made in tomorrow's debate. That is yet another example of legislation being pushed through the House at an unreasonable and, in my view, undemocratic speed, and I am against it.

As I understand it, we are not pushing the House to a Division, but I am against timetable motions. I am particularly against the proposition that the time taken by this debate, and by any subsequent Division that we might have been minded to call, comes out of the substantive debate. That could reduce the substantive debate by a further one hour, which is simply an attempt to blackmail hon. and right hon. Members into not protesting at timetable motions. I am against timetable motions, and I believe that we should repeatedly protest against them.

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