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Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As ever, he has anticipated one of the many points that I intend to make. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall return to the question why the Adjournment debate should not be held on Monday. First, I shall plough through some of the other points that I am determined to make.
The next question is why only three hours are to be allocated to the Adjournment debate. The House has become accustomed to the fact that we often have a whole day on the end-of-term Adjournment debate, precisely for the reason that my hon. Friend points out. Those debates are often fully subscribed, because they are one of the rare occasions when right hon. and hon. Members can raise constituency or policy matters in the House and explore them in a relatively relaxed waysomething that we all value highly.
Bob Spink (Castle Point): My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says. A number of usual suspects attend the Adjournment debatesI am one of them. There are usually 20 to 30 of us. We like to air important topical issues that concern our constituencies. The debates are an important part of the annual parliamentary diary, and it would be outrageous for the Government to seek to curtail the power of individual MPs to bring before the House matters that concern them in their constituencies.
Mr. Forth: A number of unusual suspects also turn up for the debates, in my experience. My hon. Friend makes a proper point: why only three hours? If the Minister boasts, as he did a few moments ago, that the motion was a benign move to protect the business, and that the Government were generously giving the House a whole three hours for the Adjournment debate, the obvious question to the Minister, which I hope he can answer, is why are the Government giving us only three hours? Why can we not have five hours or even more than that?
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Can my right hon. Friend assist me as a relative newcomer to this place, and tell me whether there are any conventions about the length of speeches that might be made from the Back Benches or from the Front Benches in that important debate? I certainly have a number of issues that I should like to deal with at some length, were I lucky enough to catch the Speaker's eye on that occasion.
Mr. Forth: It is fair to say that the Speaker has never yet exercised his prerogative to limit the time for such speeches. The debate is one of the occasions on which the House exercises its own self-discipline, and admirably so. Hon. Members can come along and make brief or occasionally not-so-brief contributions, depending on the importance of the subject matter.
David Burnside (South Antrim): As a relative newcomer who is gaining a little experience, I spoke in the Adjournment debate at the end of the last Session. My party and right hon. and hon. Members are expecting a very important statement from the Prime Minister by
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend makes a good point, which relates to the point made by our hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) a few moments ago: why choose Monday? Is that a cock-up or a conspiracy? We keep having to ask that question about the Government. I suspect that in this case, it is probably a bit of both. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) rather indicate that the Government may have something to hide, or that there is something of which they are afraid, and that they want to get the Adjournment debate tucked neatly out of the way on Monday, before hon. Members start worrying about such an important matter.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): As a relative newcomer, may I draw on my right hon. Friend's experience in the House? On how many occasions can he recall the Adjournment debate not being on the last day of the parliamentary term?
Mr. Forth: I would say, at a guess, that that is pretty unusual; the convention has been that such debates are held at the end of term, so why are we forced to hold the debate on Monday? The Government have got us and themselves into difficulty by insisting that the debate take place on Monday, rather than on Tuesday or Wednesday. That brings me to another point altogether: why choose Monday, Tuesday or even Wednesday?
Earlier today in a different context, we said that the Opposition would be more than happy, even at this late date, if the business managers suggested that the House may want to sit for an extra day or two to debate, for example, foot and mouth disease matters or, as we now discover, to have a proper, full-day Adjournment debate. What is wrong with that? Why are the Government in such indecent haste for the House to rise for the summer recess when it is now becoming perfectly obvious that there are more and more important matters to be dealt with?
Bob Spink: Perhaps I can help my right hon. Friend. There is good reason for the motion. It is not a cock-up, but a conspiracy because an important announcement will be made on Tuesday regarding airport planning in south-east England. I am sure that a number of hon. Members, including myself and those with constituencies in Southend and Kent and even Labour Members, such as the hon. Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Basildon (Angela Smith), may wish to raise that issue on the Adjournment. So I agree with my right hon. Friend. Why should not the House sit for an extra day on Thursday to debate those important matters?
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The right hon. Gentleman mentions a conspiracy. We are told that there are no such things as conspiracies, but I have worked out my own theory: some conspiracies are moved on by cock-ups. Perhaps that is what has happened. However, there is a more serious aspect. Is it because the Government have such a large majority that they believe that they can do anything without considering any opposition? Is there not a possibility that a precedent will be set? In future, we may be asked to take such a decision about something other than the Adjournment debate. We must look very carefully at the procedures of the House so that such things do not happen again.
Mr. Forth: Of course my hon. Friend, who has great experience in the House, puts his finger on the problem. I wish that we could look at the procedures again. In fact, I think that we will be forced to do so, because the truth is that we have now discovered a flaw in the deferred Division process that will have to be considered and sorted out pretty quickly.
I certainly will ask for my hon. Friends' support in opposing the motion at the end of the debate, if only to find out what will happen as a result. Unless the Minister gives us a very satisfactory explanation for the questions that I have asked, I am not inclined to agree to the motion any way. We have a series of questions. Why only three hours? Why on Monday? Why cannot we sit for an extra day to allow the Adjournment debate to be a proper length?
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that constructive suggestion. We are full of constructive suggestions, and I hope that the Minister has been listening to them because we are trying to be helpful. However, the Government probably do not want to be helped in this case.
I wish to make a final point. If we allow this motion to go through unchallenged this evening, what worries me is that it will give the Government the idea that they can start to bring these Adjournment debates further and further forward, and bring on unpleasant and controversial business afterwards, thus denying Members the opportunity to use the Adjournment debate further to explore the unpleasant matters that the Government hope
I hope that the Minister will be able to give some helpful responses, but, nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves and to the House not to agree to the motion in the terms in which it is put. We can, therefore, force a review of the procedure and find out what is the truth behind it: is it a conspiracy or sheer incompetence? In that respect, it will have served one purpose, if nothing else.