Mr. Don Foster rose
Mr. Clifton-Brown rose
The Chairman: Order. Before I allow the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) his riposte, it might be helpful if I place some matters on record. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) indicated, I had intended to make a statement at the end of this short debate. As certain matters have been raised, it is appropriate to do it now. If necessary, I propose to add the injury time that I take now on to the end of the debate, so that nobody should feel short-changed.
At the Programming Sub-Committee last night, certain decisions were made and votes, which are a matter of record, were taken. I should make it plain that Mr. Speaker has ruled that Programming Sub-Committees are to be treated as Select Committees sitting in private. When Select Committees sit in public and take evidence, their hearings are recorded verbatim. When they sit in private, no such record is taken. Mr. Speaker made that ruling and it is not for me or for members of the Committee to challenge it. However, if hon. Members have a different view, they are entitled to make their points to the Modernisation Committee, and through the Committee, to the whole House. It may be that, as the new ways of working become clearer, the House may wish to take an alternative view.
I believe that decisions taken should be minuted. Committee members who were not present last night do not have access to how decisions were taken. That is unsatisfactory, and it is why I am intervening now. I indicated to the Sub-Committee last nightthe Chairman of Ways and Means having told me that which has already been made plain by both Government and Opposition Front-Bench spokesmenthat while the final sitting day is time-limited to 5 o'clock, no other sittings are so limited. Hence, so far as the Chair is concerned, there is flexibility within the sitting days.
I have expressed through the usual channels my willingness to serve the Committee for as long as is necessary. I cannot commit my co-Chairman, but I am certain that Mr. Stevenson will take a similar view, given the guidance of the Chairman of Ways and Means.
I also told the Programming Sub-Committee last night, and now make it clear to all Committee members, that I shall reconvene the Sub-Committee if I deem it necessary in the light of amendments and new clauses tabled either by the Opposition or by the Government. I believe that that offer has the broad consent of all hon. Members.
Mr. Don Foster: I, too, am delighted to serve under your chairmanship on this Committee, Mr. Gale. As I have said before, your chairmanship is both fair and firm and you always extend enormous courtesy to hon. Members, with a great deal of good humour. You have even been knownoccasionallyto smile at one or two of my remarks. I was therefore interested by the way that you smiled at the Minister's reference to me as a relic. I should like to remind you that the Minister and I are not alone; we have with us another relic, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). I am greatly looking forward his contributions to the Committee, as I suspect that their style will be very different from that which we can expect from the hon. Member for Eastbourne, judging by his opening remarks.
I am also delighted to be joined today by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake). As his wife was due to give birth to their second child yesterday, I hope that the Committee will understand if my hon. Friend is not at our next sitting; I am sure that his absence will be brief, as he believes that this is an important Bill.
Given the comments made about Liberal Democrats by the hon. Member for Eastbourne, anyone who reads the Official Report of today's proceedings will be forgiven for believing that there is an election in the air. You will not be misled, Mr. Gale, because your many years of experience will tell you that such comments are made regularly, whether or not an election is imminent. The hon. Member for Eastbourne began by saying how much he looked forward to the Committee's debates, in which he hoped for a great deal of good will. I am delighted to join him in hoping that that is the case, but am surprised at the way in which he has gone about attempting to ensure as much.
As you rightly pointed out, Mr. Gale, many Committee members were not involved in our deliberations in the Sub-Committee last night. I should therefore like to place on record the observation that I made then, thatas it was the first time that many of us had sat on such a Committee, there having been very few such Sub-Committees in the many hundreds of years of our Parliamentwe were fortunate to be there and to witness some firsts. One of them was a real first: the first-ever filibuster in a Programming Sub-Committee, by the hon. Member for Eastbourne. Therefore, I was pleased when he said todayit still took him 13 minutesthat he would not repeat all those remarks, although he did endorse them. I am delighted that he has not changed his mind between yesterday and today. His comments were reminiscent of those of former American Vice-President Dan Quayle, who said, ``I agree with all the mis-statements that I have made''.
We had an opportunity in the Programming Sub-Committee to discuss whether we have sufficient time to debate all the important issues before us. I made it clear then that I believe that our current procedures are wrong, in that we expect the House to decide the end date of a Committee on the same day as the Second Reading debate. It seems odd that we have to make such a rapid decision, because it is only during that debate that we are able to determine the range of issues and concerns. It would be better to have a gap between the Second Reading debate and the programme resolution.
However, an end date has been set. The Government have presented us with an inordinately flexible way of approaching the legislation. We can sit for as long as we want, and we are grateful to you, Mr. Gale, for agreeing to continue in the Chair for all hours of the night should it prove necessary. However, I hope that that will not be the case.
In the Programming Sub-Committee, I supported a motion tabled by the hon. Member for Eastbourne that we should have the flexibility to go on to midnight on the last day of the Committee, should that prove necessary. Sadly, that motion was defeated but, with that exception, the programme resolution before us is very flexible.
Finally, although much has been made of the informal discussions among all the parties concerned, whether under duress or not, we have agreed on a sensible way of allocating our time up to the finish date. Although it is not part of the programme resolution and is not binding, I urge all Committee members to uphold that informal agreement. Only by doing that can we ensure that all parts of the Bill receive reasonable consideration.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am pleased to have literally three minutes in which to put on record some of the issues that I raised on a point of order in the Programming Sub-Committee yesterday. I would like to make it clear that the main Opposition party wholly deprecates this timetable procedure. I was involved in discussions on the timetabling of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, which was far more complex than this Bill. The debate lasted six weeks, and the out day was exactly that which was originally agreed informally at the beginning of the Committee. Such sledgehammer guillotine procedures are totally unnecessary.
I raised seven points last night regarding the Programming Sub-Committee. First, although I do not wish to challenge the Speaker's ruling, as time goes on it will increasingly seem a good idea to make the Sub-Committee's proceedings public. In this age of enlightenment, with the Government's Freedom of Information legislation, there is no good reason why those deliberations should not be made public because there is nothing secret or sensitive about them. The United States' House of Representatives Committee on Rules sits in public.
Secondly, if the Sub-Committee's proceedings are not to be in public, all Members of Parliament should at least be allowed to attend, particularly those who will sit on the Standing Committee. After all, they will be most affected by its decisions.
Thirdly, there should be a verbatim note of the Sub-Committee's procedures, as important matters will be decided there. Courtesy of the usual channels, to whom I am grateful, the programme resolution is relatively flexible. However, the Government have it in their power to make such resolutions far more complex, with individual clauses having to be finished at a particular sitting. I have no doubt that when that happens discussions will be held about what precisely has been agreed by the Sub-Committee, so it seems sensible that a verbatim note should be taken of its proceedings.
Fourthly, if a verbatim note is not taken, some way should be found to make each Sub-Committee's rulings public, not least because those rulings will form a precedent for future Sub-Committee proceedings. I hope that that will be considered.
Fifthly, the resolution should be made available at least one day before the programming sub-Committee meets. It is a matter of courtesy to the members of that Committee; it also means that proper consideration can be given to the resolution and that amendments can be tabled in an orderly and timely manner.
Sixthly, we need some general guidance on the circumstances under which you, Mr. Gale, would consider recalling the programming Sub-Committee. If the Opposition make a request through the usual channels, I believe that we should normally expect the Sub-Committee to be recalled. After all, the Government may table substantial new clauses and a large number of amendments, as has happened with Bills in previous Sessions. Indeed, some Bills were almost rewritten by the Government because they were so badly drafted, and a third of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill was not considered by Committee in the House of Commons but only by the other place. In such circumstances, the Opposition would ask for the Programming Sub-Committee to be recalled.
Finally, we should have some idea of when and how the Sub-Committee might ask the House for an extension of the Committee's end date. I realise that the Government would be exceedingly reluctant to do that, because it would involve another 45-minute debate on the Floor of the House. But we are Members of Parliament, and it is our duty and our job to discuss measures brought to the House by the Executive, and to debate whether they should be amended for the good of the people. If we cannot do that as a result of measures tabled by this overbearing Government, then Parliament is being set aside and the wishes of the British people are thereby being disregarded.
The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 4.
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