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While I was happy to nod all this along in a rather grumpy way, I am no longer prepared to do so. Furthermore, and more importantly, the Leader of the House should not be prepared to be treated in such a way; her credibility is on the line now. She believes in
this, but some ruse is preventing it from happening. It is not her fault, but only she can do something about it.
As I said, I have stopped being rather gentle about this. I now feel quite aggressive, but that is because the House is being treated with contempt, and that is not the note on which we should end our proceedings.
Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the context of what has been said by the very distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), may I request some guidance about the constitutional role of the Leader of the House, as expressed by "Erskine May" and all the other authorities?
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has made a fascinating contribution. I hope that everyone will remember what he said and the atmosphere in which he said it, because he showed that there is a speciousness on the part of the Government when they say that they cannot bring the Standing Order motion above the line because amendments to it would cause the House a lot of trouble. If the motion was brought above the line, the former Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), would not be here to move her amendment, which would therefore fall, and we could go straight on to a vote on the motion. The situation demonstrates the cynical way in which the Government are operating. We must agree that there is a conspiracy on the part of the Government because the only alternative is to cast aspersions on the veracity of the Leader of the House when she said:
"I can assure the House that we will bring forward the Standing Orders, and there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse them before the next election."-[ Official Report, 11 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 433.]
Did that mean anything other than what it would mean to anyone with a basic knowledge of English? It means that the Leader of the House assured us that we would be able to vote on the Standing Orders before Dissolution.
Mr. Cash: I was not able to follow this up subsequent to my point of order, but I put it to my hon. Friend that it is traditionally understood in the House that the Leader of the House is responsible for the conduct of business on behalf of Parliament as a whole. Does he agree that this incident-whether the right hon. and learned Lady was forced into this position or agreed to it-demonstrates one thing: she has not carried out the functions of the Leader of the House as we understood them to be conducted?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. In putting his point to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has demonstrated that he did not raise a point of order in the first place.
I will not be tempted into attacking the character and integrity of the Leader of the House, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that it used to be a long-standing convention that the Leader of the House would stick up for the
rights of Back Benchers, even if that made him or her unpopular with their Cabinet. However, that convention seems to have gone by the wayside. I recall that when the late John Biffen was Leader of the House, he made himself very unpopular as a member of the Government and with the then Prime Minister for sticking up for and performing the traditional role of the Leader of the House, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone has referred. I am sorry that the current Leader of the House is no longer here.
Sir Robert Smith: Is it not important to reinforce the point that it should be this House that finishes the business, because it is this House that has experienced the lack of accountability and the lack of scrutiny of the Government and wants to deliver that change, not a newly elected House that has yet to experience those failings?
I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, and I did not think that his words were as strong an assurance as the words of the Leader of the House that I just quoted.
Martin Salter: Given the appalling collusion that appears to have taken place-my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has proof positive of it-does the hon. Gentleman agree that Members who want to drive the agenda forward have no option but to vote down the business motion? Will he organise on his Benches to ensure that that happens?
Mr. Chope: If there is a Division, I shall certainly be in the No Lobby, and I hope that all those who want to stand up for the rights of Back Benchers will be there with me. The roof will not fall in on Parliament if the motion is voted down; the usual channels will simply have to get together and produce very quickly an alternative business motion-one that takes account of the expressed wish of the House.
Martin Salter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his patience. Does he agree that we would not even have to go that far? The Government merely need to announce that they are prepared to table a revised business motion. If they did so, we could avoid an unseemly bun fight and an unseemly Division, and not detain hon. Members here too late tonight. We could certainly find the hour necessary in the plenty of time available on Thursday.
Mr. Chope: That intervention conveniently brings me to a proposition that I was going to make. The Leader of the House has said that the reason she is not prepared to table a motion on the Back-Bench business committee Standing Orders is that there is not sufficient time. I am the Member who tabled 15 amendments to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill. I hope that, when she replies to the debate, the Deputy Leader of the House will respond to this offer, which I make publicly.
I am not part of the usual channels-not part of the carve-up-but I would be prepared to withdraw all my amendments to that Bill, thereby ensuring that we did not have to spend an hour discussing them tomorrow and that we therefore had an hour to discuss the Standing Orders relating to the business of the House and Back Benchers' access to the Order Paper. I would be happy to give way to the hon. Lady if she thinks that that offers a reasonable way through the present impasse. We are told that the Leader of the House really wants to deliver, but is being held back; well, I am offering, in effect, one hour of time for that purpose, because I think that those Standing Orders are much more important than even the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): We have living proof of the need for the motion in the shambles giving no time for proper consideration. Is my hon. Friend of my opinion that never before has the House been asked to take the Second Reading of a big, contentious Bill, the Finance Bill, and Committee stage and all remaining stages of another big, contentious Bill, the Digital Economy Bill, on the same day, with lots of other business tabled as well? Is that not complete chaos?
Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The sad thing is that, as was said at the beginning of the debate, the business motion is based on agreement between the two Front Benches. I find that difficult. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said that there was a carve-up between the Labour and Conservative parties, but I disagree; I think there was a carve-up between the Government and the shadow Government, which is a very different proposition.
Mr. Cash: Does my hon. Friend recall the number of people-if not the precise number, certainly the volume-who guaranteed that the matters that we are now discussing should go through when there was, on the face of it, a convergence of view between the two Front Benches? The view of the House as a whole was carried by a very substantial number of Members, who may not be in the Chamber at the moment but who would be enraged by what is going on.
Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is sad that not more Members are present, but that is probably because many take the view that there has been a carve-up and there is nothing they can do to influence it. However, it sounds as though, even as we speak, momentum is gathering behind those who will oppose the business motion, because that is the only way of getting across to the Government the strength of feeling among Back Benchers.
Let me say a little about the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill and the relevant provision in the business motion, which I think is without precedent, although I may be wrong about that. Paragraph 14 of the motion states:
"The Order made on Friday 12 March 2010 that the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill be considered on Friday 23 April 2010 shall be discharged; and, notwithstanding the practice of the House which forbids the bringing forward of an Order of the Day, the Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, shall be considered tomorrow."
That drives a coach and horses through the conventions of the House and procedures relating to a private Member's Bill. Many is the private Member who has made a judgment on the best day for their Bill to appear on the Order Paper; they cannot bring forward the Bill for discussion on an earlier date than the one on the Order Paper. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), in putting his Bill on the Order Paper for 23 April, was essentially indicating to the world at large that further discussion of his Bill was not going to take place.
Mr. Chope: As we are in the business of breaking conventions, perhaps the Chief Whip would like to participate in this debate and account for the behaviour of his predecessor, the right hon. Member for North-West Durham, to which the hon. Member for Cannock Chase referred.
The Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill has not been through the other House and has not completed its Report stage. If the Government wanted the Bill to have more time, they could have given time for consideration: on many days in the 10 days before the short Easter recess, the House rose three or four hours before the appointed hour. In that time, we could have discussed that and other private Members' Bills, but the Government were against that. Going further back, I recall that the Government and Opposition Front Benchers voted down an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) that would have allowed an extra Friday for debating private Members' Bills. Now, we are faced with the Government saying that the Bill is so important that it has to be passed with indecent haste. They are putting tremendous pressure on the other place, which will have to consider Second Reading and all remaining stages of two Bills within 24 hours, even though, I submit, there is nothing especially important about either of them.
I conclude with a point about the speciousness of the argument advanced by the Leader of the House. She said that because there were amendments tabled to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, that can be debated, but although, similarly, there are amendments tabled to the Standing Orders motion, they cannot go through. We cannot have that sort of inconsistency in the argument. It is perfectly sustainable to argue that the fact that amendments have been tabled to a measure means that the measure is blocked and should not go into the wash-up, but that does not fit in with the arguments made in relation to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill.
Mr. Cash: Has my hon. Friend noticed that there is a certain buzzing among the Whips? The hornets' nest is now opening up. Following the remarks made by him, by Liberal Democrat Members, by some Conservative Members, and by Labour Members, particularly the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), there is a real buzz going on. Hopefully, this debate will turn into a substantial vote.
There is obviously going to be a Division. I know that at least two more Liberal Democrat Members want to speak. My hon. Friend has perhaps picked up
on a feeling that the powers that be may want to move a closure motion-the Chief Whip is nodding-but one of the consequences of such a move is that it absolves the Deputy Leader of the House from having to answer any of the points raised in the debate. It is a very convenient procedural device to close down Back-Bench discussion. I will resume my seat in the hope that the Government Chief Whip, in one of his last acts in this House, will exercise some self-restraint, and will allow the other two Members who have been seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to participate in the debate. I am sure that I will be surprised.
David Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In light of the revelations by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), I wonder whether it might be in order to move a manuscript amendment to the motion. The manuscript amendment would read,
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