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I firmly suggest that we will not conclude consideration of the groups that are before us tonight. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) will be disappointed, yet again, at the outcome of his sterling efforts to put a small measure that has a great deal of common sense behind it on to the statute book. He has proposed it in countless private Member's Bills and time has never been found for it. Now he has the perfect vehicle to introduce his reform of the civil service, yet he will not
be able to do so. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) has tabled some excellent new clauses for discussion, but of course we do not reach new clauses until the very latter parts of our consideration in Committee, so it is almost certain that we will not be able to discuss the matters of huge constitutional importance that he has raised.
Liberal Democrat Members wish to debate one key proposal, on the role of the Attorney-General. It was in the previous Bill, when the reforms were supported by the Select Committee on Justice, of which I am a member; by its predecessor, the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs; and by a minority in the Joint Committee. Yet this House is not going to be allowed to debate that very important matter because of the timetable exerted by the Lord Chancellor.
Mr. Grieve: Although the hon. Gentleman and I may differ on whether the reforms that he seeks to the role of the Attorney-General are right, it is perfectly clear that they should be debated during our consideration of this Bill-there is no reason why they should not be. It is clearly in order that it should be possible to achieve that consideration-if we had the timetable that enabled us to do so.
Mr. Heath: Of course it should. Let me conclude by saying that if one wanted the clearest possible advertisement for the virtues of a proper business committee, where these matters are discussed in advance between the parties, including Back-Bench Members on both sides of the House, and where we can identify those issues that hon. Members wish to have time to consider properly and provide the appropriate time for them to do so, this is it.
This is something that has not even been discussed by the Front-Bench teams; nobody has agreed to these guillotines and these knives, which the Lord Chancellor now wishes to insert. This programme motion goes against the principles of the discussion of constitutional Bills and against the interests of this House, and I hope that this House will oppose it.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that, as a matter of principle, when a Bill dealing with the constitution is before the House, it should not be the subject of a programme motion. The House of Commons ought to have an opportunity to discuss these important matters, especially given that when the Lord Chancellor introduced the Bill, he talked about this Government's terrific record on the constitution and said that this Bill was an addition to it.
However, I am not absolutely convinced that the reasons advanced by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome are necessarily the right ones. I was present on Second Reading and I recall that the hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) poked fun at the Lord Chancellor, saying that this Bill had a grand title but there was nothing in it. To be perfectly frank, the Opposition cannot have it both ways: they cannot say that the Bill is also weighty and important. I agree that the subject matter is, and even I poked fun at the Lord Chancellor, despite the great
respect that we have for him, saying that given the history of what the Government have done on the constitution, this should have been a much more substantial Bill.
Mr. Grieve: I should make the position clear. I believe I said that the mountain moved and brought forth the mouse, and that is very much how I view this Bill. However, I also made it clear that elements of it, including the extremely important civil service reform and the proposals on the House of Lords, which are also extremely important and are a departure from the Government's previously stated position as to how they intend to carry out the reform of the other place, will require detailed scrutiny and, I suspect, are likely to excite a lot of participation. The question then becomes: how long should this Bill have for consideration? If the time were open-ended, the Bill would resolve itself-heaven knows we have not got much business in this place at the moment. For those reasons, the Government have got off on the wrong foot. Here is an opportunity to correct their position.
Keith Vaz: I say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that even if this were the shortest Bill in the world, he would be able to make his usual passionate and eloquent speeches, ensuring that even one of them would fill the whole four days-he is that able an advocate when he speaks at the Dispatch Box.
The one point that I wish to make in conclusion relates to the bit of the Bill that I found to be of substance, which was that concerning the House of Lords. With the greatest respect to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), may I say that I was not suggesting in my intervention on the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield that we should substitute discussions outside this House for a proper debate inside it about House of Lords reform? However, I was very taken by the suggestions made on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), and others, relating to the appointment of temporary-or term-limited-peers.
I really do not believe that four days would be enough to discuss such an issue. I hope to obtain an undertaking from the Lord Chancellor that even though we cannot discuss it in great detail because of this programme motion, if an approach is made by an Opposition party, whichever one it may be, serious and substantive discussions will take place with that party about the idea of term-limited peers. We need to find a consensus on House of Lords reform. I, for one, do not believe that we have to wait for the next election and for the next manifesto to be written in order to make another commitment about such reform, because we have done that for the past three terms. I hope that that discussion will take place. If he gives me that undertaking, that will satisfy me that there is no need for additional time to be given to discuss this Bill.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con):
May I associate myself with what has been said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)? This is an important Bill, but, goodness knows, it could be a much more important Bill. I venture to say that most of the most important propositions that are placed before the House are in the
new clauses and, as the House will know, the new clauses are for the most part grouped right at the end of day four, and therefore in all probability will not be reached.
It is perhaps quite useful to remind oneself of the nature of some of those new clauses, which seem to me to be of fundamental importance and well worthy of discussion in this place. Those to which I will refer are all tabled in my name-I hope that I will be forgiven for that. The first would allow Ministers who are not Members of this House to appear in the House and to answer questions and participate, though not vote. That would have the advantage, would it not, of the right hon. and noble Lord Mandelson's being able to come to this House? I would welcome that.
There is a second proposal, also tabled in my name, that we should have fixed-term Parliaments. I know that that is a matter of considerable interest to a lot of right hon. and hon. Members. On the point made by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) about life peers' being appointed for fixed terms, I could see considerable advantages if peers were to be created for a period less than life-for five or 10 years, or whatever. Whatever the merits of that proposal, it is surely sufficiently important to attract a debate in this place. Although we might not be able to agree that proposition in the next four days or whenever, that this House should have the ability to ventilate and express that view seems quite plain.
There is another proposal that I venture to make. War-making powers should be entrusted to this House and should not be part of the royal prerogative. Again, that seems to me to be a matter that is very much in the interests of the House. I have tabled a new clause that has the effect of making the selection of the Prime Minister dependent on an address moved by this House to Her Majesty. That again seems to be an issue that is well worth considering.
There is the further question of Mr. Speaker's having the right to recall Parliament in exceptional circumstances rather than leaving it to the Government of the day. That again seems to me to be a matter of considerable importance. The business committee, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, should be set up by the Standing Orders of this House so that we, and not the Government, determine, for example, the business surrounding a constitutional Bill such as that which we are now debating.
There is also the question of referendums. I tabled an amendment to the effect that when there is a treaty between the European Union and the United Kingdom that abrogates the sovereignty of the United Kingdom or in any way significantly curtails the relationships in an adverse way, it should be subject to a referendum. The House might not agree with that, but that it should be the subject of debate seems to me to be quite plain.
The truth is that all these proposals, some of which have been on the Order Paper in the names of other right hon. and hon. Members for some time, are all matters of substantial constitutional importance. If we were not to have this timetable motion-or, alternatively, if we had more time-the House would have the opportunity to debate them. I venture to say that no right hon. or hon. Member would say that those new clauses were unworthy of debate, but the Secretary of State's timetable motion will deprive the House of such an opportunity.
Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain something to me? I understand his argument about the knives, but a large part of everybody's argument tonight has been over the fact that four days have been allocated. If that argument is powerful today, why was it not sufficiently powerful on 20 October to get him into the Lobby? There was no dissent to the programme motion on that day.
Mr. Hogg: The Secretary of State is being less attentive than he normally is. The truth is that one has to determine a timetable motion in the context of the amendments and new clauses that were on the amendment paper when the timetable motion came to be considered. No doubt when this motion was first debated, the House had not determined the exact character of the new clauses and amendments. Now we have; we can see the amendment paper, and it will expand. Nobody, not even the Secretary of State, has argued that the points that I have just made are unworthy of debate. The House should therefore extend the time available for debate.
Mr. Grieve: Does my right hon. and learned Friend also agree that the merit of not having knives is that, as the days progress, it might become apparent that there is insufficient time to consider the business within the Government's timetable? We could therefore make powerful representations that we needed extra days if necessary. The mischief of the knives is that we lose chunks of business at the end of each day and we are never able to recover it.
Mr. Hogg: My hon. and learned Friend is quite right. The knives are even more mischievous when we have two important statements taking up part of the time for debate. Moreover, the principle of the knives is incompatible with carry-over motions. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome properly said, there is a carry-over motion, which suggests that the Government want some business to be discussed, but the knives deny that opportunity in respect of the next two days.
Mr. Heath: The right hon. and learned Gentleman will also be aware that there is a very high expectation of a statement tomorrow-the second day in Committee-so we will lose yet more time. That is again something that could not have been factored in when the programme motion was first considered.
Mr. Hogg: Indeed. I have no doubt that when we come to the third and fourth days, whenever they might be, we will find that yet more important business has been shuffled into the programme. The truth is that this House is being denied an opportunity to make very important changes to the constitution, or, if it is not ready to make them, at least to debate them. I am afraid that this Government like to shut out debate and I regard that as quite lamentable.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con):
I rise briefly to support my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham
(Mr. Hogg). As the years have gone by, I have wondered more and more what the real duties of a Member of Parliament are. Today, they seem to be to attend to e-mails every five seconds and to respond on diverse subjects to constituents on matters about which I know very little. Our real duty, which is to scrutinise legislation-to look at it line by line-seems no longer to be important or the part of our lives that it should be.
I remember, in the days when I was in Committees upstairs, time after time the habit crept in of putting in the knives and the guillotine motions, which meant that whole chunks of Bills that I was taking through Standing Committees were never debated, neither in Committee nor in this House. That is a tragedy.
We all need to ask ourselves what is the role of a Member of Parliament now and what it will be over the next 10 years. Will it simply be instantly to react to a news story or can we please get back to the days when we examined legislation line by line and made our own arguments and amendments? The truth of the matter is that if I have an amendment or argument, I want to make it and I want the views of all hon. Members to be heard. If I lose the argument by a vote or because I have made it badly, that is that, but at least I have made it. Day after day, the trend continues that the opportunities for Members of this House properly to do the job for which they were elected, in my judgment, are gradually disappearing.
Mr. Heald: Well, there were arguments about the quality of the Bills, but the Government accepted the principle that they would agree programme motions with the Opposition, and allow the Opposition the time that they asked for to debate the Bills. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) never agreed even with those programme motions, but the Government were prepared to engage and at least try to give the Opposition the time needed to go through important matters.
This Bill deals with the civil service, and it has taken years to come before the House. The Government promised it first in 1996, and then in almost every year since. It has been the subject of a lot of debate in the House, and the Public Administration Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life have both produced excellent reports on it. Even so, the Bill is a bit of a disappointment, as it does not go far enough in a number of ways.
We have an opportunity to debate the Bill and make sure that some problems are put right. Our debate should go further than the very valuable new clauses tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, as other hon. Members have tabled amendments that deal with vital matters such as the role of special advisers. Are they to have the sort of executive powers that were so unpopular when they were exercised by Alastair Campbell but which have proved to be such exciting entertainment in films such as "In the Loop"?
Are we going to tackle, in a proper debate, the problem of the special adviser with executive powers? There are numerous amendments to clause 8, and they all need to be considered adequately. When we last debated these matters, I remember that the important question of who a civil servant is took some time. I see that we are due to have a similar debate in connection with clause 1.
In my view, the Government are going backwards and becoming ever less democratic. The surprise is that the Lord Chancellor, who has always been thought to be someone who respects the House and who wants to be at one with its traditions, should be backsliding in this way. The programme motion does not give adequate time for what is an important constitutional debate.
When we considered the devolution Bills, we had 36 days on the Floor of the House. That was agreed by the Government, but the Lord Chancellor is engaged in cheese-paring by offering a mere four days to consider this Bill in Committee-four days that will be interfered with by constant statements.
Mr. Heath: The four days may be sufficient-I do not think that they will be, but they may-but the point is that they can be extended by means of a further programme motion in the future. What cannot be extended are the knives that the Secretary of State is trying to insert today. If he were to withdraw this programme motion, he would be back to the previous motion that set a four-day limit, at the end of which we could see how much progress we had made.
Mr. Heald: I absolutely agree, and the hon. Gentleman is another veteran of these debates. My point is that the House as a whole has important amendments to debate, in connection with what is a constitutional Bill. In the past, the Government have accepted the principle that we should have the time to do a proper job, so it is poor for a person in the Lord Chancellor's position not to be prepared to listen to the House. Even at this late stage, he could remove these knives, which will have exactly the effect described by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and others.
Mr. Straw: With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I say that I understand the concerns of the House? I could be forgiven for thinking that there was general approbation for devoting four days to this Bill, as on 20 October-just two weeks ago-the House agreed that proposal without Division. Not even the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg)-who, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) just noted, normally rises to oppose any programme motion-opposed it. I was not party to the discussions through the usual channels, and I would not disclose them even if I were, but I took it from that result that there was general agreement.
At the heart of this argument is the question of how the knives should fall. The special Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) is examining the question of programming. It is also looking at the idea of having a business committee, to which I am highly sympathetic.
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