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I should like for a moment to concentrate on the word "schedules", which is rather important to us in this debate. It would be one thing if we were dealing only with amendments--although amendments can be a matter of great seriousness and very wide-ranging, of course subject to selection by you, Mr. Speaker--but when we discuss the possibility, as is stated in the motion, of new schedules to the Bill, that raises the possibility of a wide-ranging debate and of considerable change to the thrust and direction of the Bill itself. No less could be said of new clauses.
Once we get into the territory of new clauses and schedules and the possibility of their being moved were they to be selected, the relationship between Second Reading and Committee, and between Committee and Report, comes into play, as does the matter--which we are not discussing today, although we shall tomorrow--of the time available for them. Therefore, time and again, we keep coming back to the fact that hon. Members must make some type of judgment, within the terms of the motion, on whether we think that it is credible or acceptable, in terms of parliamentary accountability and scrutiny of the Bill, to countenance what is suggested in the motion.
Even if the Government are attempting to say, "Aren't we being generous, having guillotined this Bill and said", as the Leader of the House did, "that we will have all the proceedings under a guillotine in less than one parliamentary day?", hon. Members are now in the invidious position that we--with you, Mr. Speaker--may have to make a very rapid judgment on a complicated manuscript new schedule or new clause and then be forced to make up our minds on that provision on a matter as important as elections.
Mr. Hogg: Although we are discussing procedure, namely the motion on the Order Paper, does my right hon. Friend agree that we are aware of only part of the process? Until we see the timetable, we do not know when, for example, the Bill will be considered on Second Reading. We are seeing but part of the process, not the whole. How can the House conceivably vote successfully on this motion?
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. I was going to touch on that issue, and now is as good a time as any to do it. We know that we have only just had the Bill and the Government propose that it should be dealt with tomorrow, but we do not know at what stage tomorrow it will be dealt with. It is an important point. My right hon. and learned Friend has highlighted the fact that those of us who will try to balance our time between wanting to participate in the upcoming debate and attempting to rush off and start drafting numerous amendments and new schedules to the Bill--as I fully intend to do--do not know how much time we have available to do that. The motion states simply
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Is not another serious possibility that, if consideration of the Bill is guillotined, as we expect that it will be, the passage of this motion may disadvantage any amendments or new schedules tabled with the benefit of knowledge of what has been said on Second Reading? Amendments tabled before Second Reading may take up all the available time.
Mr. Forth: Indeed, and we shall therefore have an odd phenomenon. I propose to draft today, without having heard the Second Reading debate, amendments that necessarily will be somewhat speculative--although I
Mr. Hogg: My right hon. Friend says "never", but I know that there is a debate on the future of the green belt, and that that is a matter of some concern to him. He might be minded to attend the whole debate in Westminster Hall tomorrow--
We are in an extraordinarily difficult position. The Government have tried to portray the motion as an act of generosity, but it is completely the opposite. The House is in an invidious position, with hon. Members being asked to tamper with the country's electoral arrangements--no less--in a limited amount of time and with no proper time allowed for representations from outside, consideration or consultation. There is the great risk that any amendments, new clauses or new schedules that are tabled will be defective, either for the reason set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West a moment ago, or simply because insufficient time has been allowed for their preparation.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The right hon. Gentleman makes the serious and welcome point that the House should never rush through legislation without looking at it. However, that should not detract from the fact that it would not be the first time that hon. Members had written new schedules or amendments without having any idea of what was contained in the Bill connected with the subject matter.
Mr. Forth: It is always reassuring to know that there is a precedent, in which I am, generally speaking, somewhat of a believer. However, my point is that the House is being put at a peculiar disadvantage on this occasion. If we are to be bereft of a summing-up by the Minister, there will be no option for some of us but to seek--
Mr. Bercow: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no requirement, in terms of parliamentary propriety, to debate amendments in the chronological order of their tabling? Although no Conservative Member cares a tinker's cuss whether the Minister of State replies to the debate, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be entirely appropriate for the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office to be plucked from his office and instructed to return forthwith to the Chamber?
Mr. Brady: I am afraid that my right hon. Friend may have treated with undue levity the comments of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), for whom both he and I have great respect. The hon. Lady said that such a state of affairs was not without precedent. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that, in a constitutional measure of this sort, one should set a higher standard? We should not necessarily expect this measure to proceed without proper precedent. I know of no such precedent. Does my right hon. Friend?
Mr. Forth: I certainly do not and would be interested to know whether the hon. Lady does, for the reason that my hon. Friend has given. This is a constitutional measure of the greatest importance--we know that the Prime Minister has agonised over it--yet the Government seek to rush it through in this unseemly way.
All in all, this is a very sad day. The arrangements are most unsatisfactory. Even in the event of an elegant, comprehensive and lengthy reply from the Minister, I believe that some right hon. and hon. Members may have no option but to vote against the motion to express their disapproval of the whole matter.