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Mr. Hanson: I would not wish the hon. Gentleman inadvertently to mislead the House. I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) that he discussed the matter with both the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown).
Mr. Walter: I cannot comment on what happens through the usual channels, but I understand from my discussions with those gentlemen that there was no agreement on the amount of time to be allocated. I understand that a discussion may well have taken place, to which I was not party but which--as is often the case when discussions take place with Ministers and Whips--was rather one-sided. I understand that it was a case of, "This is our business. We propose that this will happen. Of course, you will have every opportunity to discuss it during the debate on the programme motion."
That, clearly, is what we are doing now. We are debating the programme motion, and the probity of it. As I have said, however, I think it extraordinary that the Government should use their solid majority to overrule the rights of the House. It is wholly unacceptable for the Government, at the beginning of a Session, to introduce Sessional Orders permitting a programming Committee to decide on the length and content of debate on Report, and then to table a motion asking us to disapply those orders a bare few months later, in favour of a motion severely limiting our discussions on Report and Third Reading.
No amount of protest from Labour Members about there being cross-party agreement on the need for the Bill will change the fact that the Government have treated the House with disdain, indifference and contempt. The allocation of time is unsatisfactory. This is not a proper way for the House to do business, and it is not a way for the Opposition, or Labour Back Benchers, to scrutinise the Government's legislation.
I am sorry that Ministers do not take their legislative responsibilities as seriously as they might, but my hon. Friends and I do, and I know that Labour Back Benchers who served on the Standing Committee, in particular, took theirs exceedingly seriously. The many Members who also take their responsibilities seriously, and who share my view that inadequate time has been allocated, will doubtless wish to register their concerns shortly.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I oppose the motion. I regret to say that I have had to oppose such motions many times since we returned from the Christmas recess at the beginning of January. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I oppose programme motions
A number of us find this deeply offensive. I shall articulate again the reasons why: they are very similar to the reasons that I have given on many occasions in the last few months. The first applies not only to this Bill but to any Bill that is the subject of a programme motion. The basis on which accountable government works, and the reason for people's willingness, in a political commonwealth, to accept legislation that has passed through the House, is the belief of those people that the legislation has been properly scrutinised by their elected representatives. The plain truth is, however--this cannot be said too often--that a timetable motion prevents a Bill from being properly scrutinised by their elected representatives. In time the electorate will come to recognise that, and when they do they will appreciate that the existing legislative process is a farce--and a disgraceful and shameful farce at that.
My first and, I believe, wholly compelling objection to programme motions is that important legislation is not properly scrutinised. My second objection is also one of principle. It was hinted at--in fact, expressly stated--by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) when he said that amendments might be necessary, but that they would be tabled in another place.
There are at least three comments to be made about that. First, I think that my hon. Friend felt obliged to say what he did because he did not think we would have enough time today to discuss properly the amendments that he had in mind. That is shameful. I do not mean that my hon. Friend's action was shameful; I mean that it is shameful that he should have been put in such a position. Surely substantive amendments tabled by those on the Opposition Front Bench should be debated here, not in the other place.
That was my main point. My second is this: amendments will be debated in the other place, and possibly passed; they will then come back to this elected House, where they will be debated again--if at all--on a very tight timetable motion. As a consequence, proper measures of change will not be properly debated in an elected Chamber. That cannot be right.
Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman has been here for a long time. He will remember what happened under the last Government, of whom I was a member for 13 years. We did not guillotine Committee stages until 100 hours or so of debate had taken place. It was not our practice to guillotine Committee stages; nor was it our practice, as a matter of routine, to put down timetable motions on Report. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's intervention was plainly misconceived.
Those of us who are interested in parliamentary government--representative, accountable government--are deeply concerned about the fact that the Chamber is increasingly deserted. There is a reason for that, although
If a debate is confined to a few minutes, an hour and a half or whatever, Members who might otherwise wish to participate will know full well that they will not have a chance to do so, or that they will be sat on by Whips from one side or the other. That is a way of reducing the amount of debate in this place. If debate is restricted by artificial limits, there will not be Members in the Chamber. I consider that process extremely dangerous.
I think it was the Minister who, quite fairly, pointed out that only two new clauses had been selected. It is possible--I made the point earlier--that in this instance there is time enough to consider them. I do not pretend that I have followed the debate on this particular Bill very closely.
Mr. Forth: I am surprised that my right hon. and learned Friend is prepared to be so generous. He will note that six, seven or eight Members are present, and they may wish to speak. Two new clauses have been selected; two times six or seven is 12 or 14; we have been given only an hour. Even my right hon. and learned Friend may rapidly conclude, having divided an hour by 14, that only a few minutes will be left for each Member to consider the new clauses. In all conscience, does he consider that adequate?
Mr. Hogg: It may or may not be adequate. I am not trying to pretend that I have been following the debate on the Bill very closely. I am prepared to accept, as a basis for argument, that on this occasion there might be adequate time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst says that that is not the case. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset has already made the point that he will have to cause amendments to be tabled in another place because there is not sufficient time to debate them here. Perhaps my assumption is, therefore, unduly generous.
Mr. Walter: If I may correct my right hon. and learned Friend slightly, he will see from the amendment paper that three new clauses and two amendments were tabled. Although it is not for me or any other hon. Member to question the Speaker's judgment in selecting amendments for debate, I suspect that the allocation of time was such that Mr. Speaker, in his wisdom, could choose only two amendments for discussion.
Mr. Hogg: I was proceeding on the basis that the Speaker's selection was as it is, and I was not seeking to go beyond that. However, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset makes a sound point in saying that amendments will have to be tabled in another place because of the restriction of time. That is a serious observation.
Although it is true that there are only two new clauses to debate, hon. Members often use debates on particular amendments or new clauses as an occasion on which to articulate concerns arising out of the issues that are their subject. That is an important mechanism, whereby hon. Members can bring to the Floor of the House constituency-based problems and refer to them in the debates on new clauses. If one cuts down such debate, either by cutting the number of new clauses to be debated or by restricting the time available, the opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members to articulate such concerns is inevitably lost. That is a sad state of affairs.
I must also remind the House that the first occasion on which the House as a whole has the opportunity to discuss the detail of any Bill is on Report. We are frequently told by Ministers--no doubt the same thing happened when I was on the Government Front Bench--that the new clauses are but a reflection of what was promised in Committee. That may be true, but it does not satisfy or conclude the argument, because that is the first occasion on which the House as a whole--even if we are but 12 in number now--can consider those new clauses and amendments. Promises, assurances or statements made in Committee are neither here nor there, so far as hon. Members who did not serve on the Committee are concerned. A process is being put in place that tramples on democracy.
I know that I have said all this before, and I shall say it again. At the root of the matter, democracy is being denied. The Government are denying democracy and deliberately trampling on it. That is a scandal, and I shall take every opportunity to bring that fact to the attention of the country. I hope that at the forthcoming election, the people of this country will understand that this is a tyrannical and despotic Government.