HC Deb 07 June 1985 vol 80 cc608-11 2.15 pm
Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

I beg to move,

That at this day's sitting the remaining stages of the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill may be proceeded with until any hour though opposed and on Friday 5th July Lords Amendments to the said Bill may be proceeded with until any hour though opposed.

When I was fortunate enough to draw first place in the ballot for private Members' motions, I decided to table the procedure motion that is now before the House. I did so for several reasons. On 15 February this year, the Bill received a Second Reading by a majority of 238 to 66. It was supported by Members from the Labour party, the Liberal party, the Scottish National party and the Conservative party. Indeed, it was an all-party Bill. There was a long Committee stage, but the Report stage was not completed.

Although there are differences of opinion about the Bill, no one can deny the vital issues at stake. In view of those vital issues and the decisions that must be made, I believed it important that the House should have the opportunity to decide whether it should discuss the Bill again. I deeply regret the fact that that will not be possible today.

I have been accused of abusing the procedures of the House, but I reject that accusation. I used the procedures of the House, as other hon. Members have legitimately done today. To accuse anyone of abuse is to attack his integrity.

The amendment signed by some extremely distinguished hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), and my right hon. Friends the Members for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), is a seductive and clever amendment, but I would ask the House to consider the following point. What has arisen today is extremely rare and will probably not occur again for 50 years. Several factors had to come together. First, we had to have strong all-party support for a private Member's Bill. Indeed, we had support across the board, with the exception of the Welsh nationalists. Secondly, the Government had to be neutral. Thirdly, the Bill had passed through most of its stages in the House of Commons. Fourthly, and most remarkably, a supporter of the Bill had to win first place in the ballot for private Members' motions on a most critical day. The chance of all those things happening again will probably not occur in the rest of this century, and I suspect in most of next century.

Whatever happens to my motion, which is a use of procedure, not an abuse of it, it will almost certainly be submitted to the Select Committee on Procedure. That Committee will make a recommendation to the House, and the House will decide how the procedure should be used in the future. Had my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made a speech this afternoon, I am sure that he would have been as seductive and persuasive as is the amendment.

Why are the Government and so many senior ex-Ministers so wary? My Back-Bench colleagues on both sides of the House should for once forget the issues of the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill and remember the powers and position of Back-Bench Members. If we are not careful, we shall hand over, bound hand and foot, all powers to decide about the future of private Member's Bills. It will mean that no private Member's Bill will have a chance of reaching the statute book unless it is uncontentious or given Government time. I beg the House to think carefully about changing the present procedures.

I have cut my speech extremely short. There are few greater privileges than the opportunity to serve in this House. I should like the House to be free to exert its will. I do not want it to tie its hands or to allow the Front Benches and the usual channels to have the power always to prevail.

Mr. Speaker

At the beginning of this morning's sitting I announced to the House that I had selected the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot).

2.21 pm
Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

I beg to move, to leave out from 'That' to the end of the Question and to insert instead thereof: this House is of opinion that to exempt the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill for an unlimited period from the provisions of Standing Order No. 1 (Sittings of the House) would breach the longstanding practice of the House to sit on Saturdays or Sundays only in circumstances of national crisis, and the unanimous decision of the House in 1979 (following a report by a Select Committee on Procedure) to bring forward its hours of sitting on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. to 9.30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in recognition of the fact that many Members have to travel long distances to their constituencies.' The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) said that the Bill had all-party support. He will notice that my amendment also has all-party support, and for two reasons. Today has been a good day for the House. Everyone knows that there are extremely strong passions about this issue, the Bill itself and its passage through the House. Despite that, the House has discussed the matter sensibly in the circumstances of the day.

It would be extremely churlish not to acknowledge that a reason why the House has kept its temper sensibly today under your guidance, Mr. Speaker, was the remarkable speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who opened today's proceedings. As everyone who heard it will agree, it was a credit to the House. I am not suggesting tht he will be seduced by the Establishment — nothing of the sort will ever happen to him. The House should congratulate him on the way in which he opened our proceedings earlier today.

The hon. Member for Kemptown put his case in moderate terms, but he is greatly mistaken. I do not blame him for introducing his motion. Every hon. Member has the right to use our procedures to his own ends and purposes. I used to take the view that everything in love, war and parliamentary procedure was in order. That applies to hon. Members on both sides of the House. The hon. Gentleman was right to put down the motion, as were all the hon. Members who tabled amendments to it.

A reason why the amendments were tabled was that if the hon. Gentleman's motion were carried the consequences would be entirely different from those which he forecast. Far from being beneficial to Back-Bench Members, it would be utterly ruinous to private Members' time in the months and years to come. It would mean that every Bill would be open to similar attempts to impose a timetable, that the balance between public business and private business would be altered, that almost every week we would be open to having the same sort of discussions as we are having now, and that soon the Government would have to table a motion of the character of my amendment. Indeed, I am surprised that they did not table such a motion on these proceedings. If they had, they would soon have found that control over parliamentary time would have been destroyed. That would not have been beneficial to private Members' time any more than it would have been to public business.

I strongly agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) when he said that Members of Parliament must be prepared to withstand pressures. None of us should complain about pressures from outside the House. Indeed, part of our purpose is to be subjected to pressures. However, there are some distinctions about the pressures that are brought to bear, and I should like to give the example of one which is strictly apposite to the Bill.

Many hon. Members will have read the remarkable article written by Cardinal Basil Hume in The Times yesterday. He wrote: The Unborn Children (Protection) Bill is central to i. debate about present-day society: how it shall take control of its own future". He concluded with large claims which elevated the discussion to high altitudes, writing: The abandonment of objective moral principles and the dogmatism of permissiveness have combined in our day to undermine society. This is our crisis. That is what he says the Bill is about. If that is what the Bill is about, this was not the proper way in which to get it through the House of Commons.

There is a good case for arguing that private Members' Bills open up subjects which should be dealt with by Government legislation. That is a perfectly proper procedure and helps guard against some dangers. If more private Members' Bills were put through the House by means such as these, that would not do much for the reputation of legislation.

I should like to quote the other type of representation that has been made and to contrast it with what Cardinal Hume said. One of my hon. Friends received a letter which ran: I have thought about your letter to me of 26th April regarding your absention at the second reading of Mr. Powell's Bill, and it has given me great cause for concern. I had previously sent you the guidelines issued by the Bishops on the matter, and these are quite clear, so that I have been troubled by your indecision, and have wondered whether or not I owe it to my people to put them in the picture on your position.

It is my hope that you will by now see clearly the vital point of principle which is raised, and. that you will make yourself available in the House next Friday and Friday night and if need be on Saturday to support the Bill. That is not the best kind of pressure. There will be discussions. Much the best course is for the Department of Health and Social Security to introduce a Bill after full discussions with the medical authorities. The matter, having been opened up, is bound to be proceeded with in that way.

I hope that, when we return to discussion of these matters in different circumstances, the pressures on hon. Members will be more in the terms of Cardinal Hume's article than in those in letters sent to some of my hon. Friends. Cardinal Hume would do the public discussion of the issue a great service if he repudiated representations made in the other terms that I have described, especially when they are directed not solely at the Bill but at changes in procedure such as the hon. Member for Kemptown is perfectly entitled to seek.

The suggested changes in procedure would do great injury to how we conduct private Members' business and to the general discussion of legislation. It would alter the balance and, Friday after Friday, whenever such motions were put down—

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

Would they be passed?

Mr. Foot

If the motion that the right hon. Gentleman has supported — he may even have had a hand in devising it, who can tell?—were passed today, it might be too late—

It being half past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.