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15 Oct 2002 : Column 257—continued

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you are in a position to advise, guide or help us. We have had an extraordinary day, in which we have, quite rightly, had three important statements from the Government, which took a great deal of time. Mr. Speaker and your colleagues were correct to allow Members to take part in the questioning until 6 o'clock or thereafter. We have had subsequent business, and we are about to discuss a relatively uncontroversial but important measure and to give it its Third Reading. Then, we shall come to what we all supposed to be the main business of the day. It is quite clear that, because Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on all speeches in all debates, a great many Members want to take part in that debate. The matter affects all our constituencies in the greater part of the United Kingdom and rumour has it that about 60 Members have applied to Mr. Speaker to be called to speak. It does not take a mathematician of genius to work out that 10 minutes multiplied by 60 will be significantly longer than the hour or so that Back Benchers will have to speak in that debate. As this is such a crucial issue, affecting so many Members in all parts of England, and as it could equally well be debated on another day, would you, Sir, be in a position to invite the Leader of the House or his deputy to make a business statement so that we can defer consideration of the local government finance formula grant distribution until another day?

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A number of hon. Members on the Government side seem to find some cause for amusement in the point that my hon. Friend has raised. Many people outside the House will not understand our procedures, but it is right that they should understand them and their implications. The Order Paper reads:

It goes on to describe the Adjournment debate:

Those outside the House may not realise that the Report stage is the only opportunity that the House will have to consider the matters in the Public Trustee (Liability and Fees) Bill that were considered in Committee, apart from the Third Reading, which is also scheduled for today's Sitting. Those matters may well, therefore, take us until about 10 o'clock, and the very important Adjournment debate on local government finance could get no time at all. This is a serious matter, and I strongly urge you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to support the point put to you by my hon. Friend.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Let me try to answer the points that have been raised. I

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should point out that a ruling has already been given from the Chair earlier this afternoon in the light of these same considerations. The Chair has absolutely no power to require any Minister to come to the House; nor has it any power or control over the business that is put down for consideration this day. The Chair is aware of the difficulties that have arisen because a number of important matters came up earlier in the day. It is, however, a matter for the Government or the usual channels if there is to be any reconsideration of the order of business for the day.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have a unique position in the House in your capacity as Chairman of Ways and Means, and you therefore have a unique influence on matters financial. You will, therefore, be aware that we are now in a doubly paradoxical position. Not only was it originally intended that this important matter of local government finance be dealt with on a debate for the Adjournment, which might have been bad enough, but we now see the prospect of that debate shrinking by the minute before our very eyes and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) suggested, there is a danger that it might disappear altogether.

My appeal to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker is this. Bearing in mind what you have just said, would you be prepared, together with Mr. Speaker, to give serious consideration to having discussions with the Leader of the House to see whether you can reassure the House that you will protect us from this diminution of the ability of the House properly to discharge its responsibilities in the important matter of local government finance? Otherwise, where do we turn? Are we now completely at the mercy of the Government, who are manipulating the business so that this important matter cannot properly be considered? We appeal to you for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: There is nothing that the Chair can do immediately about the situation with which we are faced as a result of the amount of business that is down for consideration by the House this day. Mr. Speaker is, of course, the protector of Back-Bench interests, and he will have observed what has happened today. Obviously, I cannot speak directly for him, but I imagine that, with his traditional concern for these matters, this issue might form part of the routine discussions in which he is frequently involved.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It may be for the convenience of the House if I say that we fully understand the importance that many hon. Members attach to the business that is to be taken later tonight. I also understand entirely that many Members from both sides of the House wish to contribute to the debate. It was necessary for the House to hear the statements that we heard this afternoon, and I do not think that any reasonable Member would object to those statements, which, necessarily, have taken time. We will look for another opportunity to extend the debate that will start tonight so that more Members may contribute to it.

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[Hon. Members: XIn the Chamber?"] Whether it will be in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall is a matter that we will have to consider.

Mr. Forth: Oh!

Mr. Cook: It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman objects to that. Half of all the next 10 days are Opposition days. If the Opposition wish to substitute the debate for one of those days, I will consider that request sympathetically.

Mr. Forth: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not sure whether that was a point of order or a business statement. It sounded very like the latter to me, in which case it is subject to the usual procedures of the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I must make it plain that I took the Leader of the House's comments as being further to the point of order that is being considered.

Mr. Forth: I do genuinely appreciate what the Leader of the House has said and his sensitive appreciation of the difficulties that we face, but it would be helpful to Mr. Speaker and to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and you have generously indicated that you will take a lively interest in the issue—and to all of us if we could tease out of the Leader of the House whether he is prepared to consider proper time for a proper debate on this important financial matter on the Floor of the House and not to set a precedent by shoving the matter off to Westminster Hall where, with the best will in the world, it cannot be properly considered and given the weight that it would be given in the Chamber. I hope that the Leader of the House will not start using—I might even say abusing—Westminster Hall as some sort of cheap overflow for important business that has been squeezed by the Government.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The continuing discussion of the matter is, of course, taking away from the time that will be available. There may still be an opportunity for the usual channels to have some communication while the House proceeds with the next item of business. The Chair is not able to do anything other than proceed with the business that is set down for discussion. I suggest that it would be as well to move on to that.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not want to

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prolong this discussion, but when you consider this matter—as you have kindly said that you will—you might remember that in all the time that I was the Secretary of State dealing with these matters we always had a full day's debate on what was the annual discussion of them, not the fundamental change that we have before us tonight. I hope that you will not underestimate the importance of this debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I cannot continue the discussion by means of points of order, especially as they are getting slightly wide of the issue. I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern. Indeed, I understand the concern of the House, but I cannot unilaterally alter the business of the House in any way. I am a servant of the House and ensure simply that the business is conducted. Those points having been made—I am sure that Mr. Speaker has taken note of them—it would be best to proceed with the day's business.

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