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I am advised that any attempt to adjourn the House, if the House is resumed, in the particular circumstances of this Bill is almost certainly unprecedented. I can only say that this debate has come rather late. I thought that noble Lords opposite were warned to be here at half-past 10 tonight for this surprising intervention. Indeed, given the number of noble Lords who have taken the trouble to attend so late that means that perhaps they are prepared to debate the Bill.
Members of the Committee may well say that this is an important constitutional Bill. It certainly is. I am sure that the Committee will agree that the Bill establishing devolution for Northern Ireland was an important constitutional Bill. On each of the four days in Committee on that Bill the number of groups taken were 20, 22, 24 and 39 respectively. Each of those figures represents one day's business.
Perhaps I should also remind the Committee that almost 700 amendments were tabled, fewer than 200 of them government amendments, for 10 days in Committee on the Scotland Bill. On the 10th day in Committee, no fewer than 46 groups were considered. About 120 amendments, excluding those withdrawn, had been tabled for six days in Committee on this Bill.
I wholly understand that many noble Lords believe that the House of Lords Bill is the most significant measure to come before the House in their lifetime. I certainly agree that this is a significant Bill; it is a constitutional Bill. I should say, however, that my having indicated to a number of noble Lords on all sides of the Committee the groupings issued last Wednesday afternoon, which covered last Thursday and today, those were two reasonable days' business. Indeed, last Thursday the proceedings finished at midnight and we had handled 20 groups. Today, 19 have been tabled and so far, in six hours, we have handled six of them. I wonder why.
I hope the Committee will agree that the arrangement that we have come to is a reasonable balance between the views on all sides of the House. I should add that progress on Thursday went much further than had been anticipated by the Opposition Chief Whip, from which it could have been deduced that today's business should have been short. There is also the matter of the recommitment. We shall be glad to recommit the Bill on the Weatherill clause, adding an extra Committee day, giving seven days in all. I should also add that many of the individual amendments that have been ungrouped in fact cover the same topics as have been previously debated. As I say, 20 groups were dealt with last Thursday and there are 19 on the list for debate today. It is unprecedented for the Opposition to seek to use their overwhelming in-built majority to disrupt the Government's business. Members of the Committee must think long and hard about what they intend to do.
Every government seek to deliver their legislation through Parliament, and they can face delay from the Opposition. Every government set their priorities. It has been the well-established custom of this House that the
There have not been many late nights since the election. We have been able to manage the business of the House to avoid it. Some, including myself, had begun to forget just how often the House had to sit late under the previous administration. Discussions took place through the usual channels about the time being made available before Whitsun. The Opposition did not agree to take the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill last Friday despite saying officially that they were in favour of an expedited passage for the Bill. That would have freed another half day for this Bill. Neither did they wish to waive their request for a day and a half at Report stage for the Tax Credits Bill. Some of tomorrow will be spent debating a procedural Motion on an amendment from a Front Bench spokesman. I believe that that is unprecedented. With some flexibility, that could have perhaps freed another half day for this Bill.
Additional time before Whitsun could perhaps have been found had the Opposition been prepared to co-operate. That is not how it has proceeded. Instead, we have had amendments not moved and then re-tabled two or three times during the Committee stage with the inevitable result that the end of that stage has become overloaded. This evening we have witnessed Members of the Committee opposite moving amendments which were grouped with others which were debated and decided earlier in Committee. That is against the spirit in which amendments are grouped in a self-regulating House.
That is the background against which the Government and those on this side of the Chamber must judge the actions of the Opposition today. It is in the best traditions of the House that it tries to balance the interests of all sides in agreeing its business. Under these circumstances I hope that the Committee will agree that we should proceed with the Bill. We all know what is going on. That is confirmed by an incident earlier today when an elderly Conservative Peer, obviously an infrequent visitor to this House, asked one of the Government Whips "What time is the vote?". Members of the Committee opposite may believe that that is a responsible way in which to treat an important constitutional Bill. I do not.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: I would not wish to accuse the Conservative Party of a policy of deliberate obstruction on this Bill. However, that has occurred to a number of us when we have listened to the same point being repeated time and time again. We have sometimes heard exactly the same point made 15 to 20 times on a wide variety of amendments. I can see no merit in this Motion and I hope that the Committee will reject it.
Lord Denham: Members of the Committee may say that. As a Conservative Chief Whip, sitting where the noble Lord, Lord Carter, is sitting now, if I had tried to push through a Bill like this without achieving agreement first from the other side, I would have failed. I would not have tried. As Chief Whip I tried to reach agreement with the other side. Sometimes I said that if the other side wanted more days on one Bill they would have to have fewer on another. But I do not understand why we cannot adjourn and deal with this exceptionally important Bill properly on another day.
Lord Henley: I am sorry about the approach of the Government Chief Whip. It struck me as rather bullying. He spoke of our alleged majority. When in government my noble friend Lord Mackay and I served in the Department of Social Security and were defeated again and again on many occasions. The majority that we have is somewhat exaggerated.
Lord Richard: The noble Lord cannot get away with that. The figures for defeats under Conservative and Labour administrations are well known. The government of which my noble friend Lord Callaghan was Prime Minister were defeated approximately 70 times per year in this House. In the 17 years during which Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major were Prime Ministers the average number of defeats suffered by the government in this House was between 10 and 12. The figures are unmistakable. How the noble Lord can wrap that up in some way as if he were the victim of attacks by his own Back-Benchers is frankly beyond me.
Lord Henley: We had defeats when we were in government and the noble Lord was in government. When we were defeated, government responded. However, when the noble Lord was Leader of the House the present Government did not respond to defeats inflicted upon them. But that is neither here nor there. What is important is that we try to achieve some degree of compromise about the matter under debate at the moment. I am perfectly prepared, if the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip is prepared to agree, that we should go on for another hour, but there are an awful lot of other matters to be discussed and we shall not finish them tonight.
What I have made clear to the Government Chief Whip is that we have been prepared to co-operate. That is why I stressed that we were prepared to co-operate on the four Bills that in one way or another they wanted to get through before Whitsun and that we would assist them with that if they would assist us by giving us a little extra time on this matter. We will give them their Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill
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