HC Deb 02 April 1990 vol 170 cc997-1006

15. In this Order— allotted day" means any day (other than a Friday) on which the Bill is put down as first Government Order of the day, provided that a Motion for allotting time to the proceedings on the Bill to be taken on that day either has been agreed on a previous day, or is set down for consideration on that day; the Bill" means the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords]; Resolution of the Business Sub-Committee" means a Resolution of the Business Sub-Committee as agreed to by the Standing Committee; Resolution of the Business Committee" means a Resolution of the Business Committee as agreed to by the House.

This is an unusual step to be taking, but that is because this is an unusual Bill. The motion has not been tabled because of the slow rate of progress in Committee, as is often the case, but at the outset of detailed consideration of the Bill.

It is designed—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask the hon. Members below the Gangway either to leave the Chamber or to listen to the Leader of the House.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The motion is designed to enable the House to debate the Bill in a structured and reasonable way. In no sense is it designed to curtail debate. It therefore should not be described as a guillotine motion. In the best sense of the word, it is a timetable motion. On that basis, I venture to hope that it is not only an unusual motion but one that will command general if not universal assent.

There is a strong Government commitment to carry through the Bill. It deals with an aspect of life that has been radically changed by medical and scientific advance in recent times. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health said, at present there is a legislative vacuum that needs to be filled. The Bill and the debates that it is calculated to provide are designed to achieve that objective.

The House has just agreed that consideration of the Bill in Committee should be split. The allocation of time motion is the next logical step. We wish to ensure, in Standing Committee and in particular in Committee of the whole House, that we can achieve adequate consideration of the Bill's provisions and of amendments that may be tabled to alter or to add to them.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

As hon. Members have experienced use of the English language which, to say the least, was slightly unusual, will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that the motion will not be used to curtail other aspects of the Bill? Many hon. Members will be unhappy that debate on a Bill that clearly is about embryology should be expanded. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is advocating an unusual form of timetabling, but I hope that he will understand that it does not meet with universal approval.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The approach that I am commending has been the subject of wide consultation. A substantial amount of time will be allocated for consideration in Standing Committee. We wish to ensure that the House is able to reach conclusions on the issues involved.

It is very much in the interests of all hon. Members, on difficult matters of conscience such as this, that they should try to reach clear and orderly conclusions. The debates need to be full, although they need not be drawn out to interminable length. If the motion is accepted by the House, it will achieve those objectives.

The motion allows two days in a Committee of the whole House, to be brought to a conclusion at 11 pm on each day. The Business Committee will decide, in the usual way, the allocation of available time on the Floor, but the Government intend the first day to be devoted to discussion on clause 11 and consequential amendments to schedule 2. We propose that the second day should be allocated to discussion of any amendments on the medical termination of pregnancy.

I should re-emphasise that, like their predecessors, the Government take no collective stance on these moral questions and have made it clear that any amendments will be the subject, among Conservative Members, of a free vote. The arrangements that I propose do not reflect a Government view. They are entirely designed to enable the House to reach orderly decisions.

Dealing thoroughly with those two topics in advance of consideration of the rest of the Bill will, I hope, have other advantages. The selection of the Standing Committee is likely to be less difficult once the House has expressed its mind on the key questions, and the substance of the debate will give the Committee a useful steer, which will help to keep it generally in line with the views of the House.

The motion then proposes that the debates in Standing Committee should be completed by 22 May. I believe that that will allow sufficient time for a discussion of amendments on the parts of the Bill which are not to be considered by the Committee of the whole House. The Business Sub-Committee will ensure that the various parts of the Bill are given a reasonable share of the time available so that the main points at issue can be thoroughly debated and determined. The motion then provides for two full days in the House for Report and Third Reading. As the main issues of conscience will already have been voted on by the whole House in Committee, once again that should allow ample time.

The Bill raises some complex and difficult issues, but it cannot be regarded as one of exceptional length or complexity. The timetable motion will enable the House and the Standing Committee to give full and orderly consideration to an important measure. It should enable us to reach clear conclusions on the difficult ethical issues involved and on the ways in which these new medical and scientific developments should be treated in detail. I have no doubt that this is the right course for the House to adopt. On that basis, I commend it to the House.

10.40 pm
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I do not want to delay the House too long, although I should say that—perhaps unknown to many hon. Members—this timetable motion is not just unusual but, as far as I know, unique and could in future be used as a precedent. Before it is passed, we should carefully consider the implications.

There is a well-known difference of view in the House, which has persisted for some years, about the effectiveness of debate in Committee. There are those who believe that the Government should get their business through and that the best means of achieving the Government's aim and orderly consideration of a Bill in Committee is by the House determining a timetable before it refers the Bill to Committee. I respect that view. It is expressed in the Procedure Select Committee's report, but the House has neither debated it comprehensively nor come to a decision.

There are, however, those who believe that such a practice is contrary to the best interests of Parliament, that it deprives any Opposition, of whatever colour, of one of their major weapons and that, if members of a Committee are sensible, it does not mean that proper consideration cannot be given to a Bill. I therefore submit that the merits of timetabling Bills in general has not yet been determined, because there has not been that necessary consideration.

I do not think that we should debate that matter tonight. I am questioning the necessity for a timetable for Standing Committee to be introduced as part of this timetable. We know why the Leader of the House has moved a motion for the major controversial issues to be dealt with by a Committee of the whole House—I would not dissent from that. It has been a long-established practice in Finance Bills that the major matters should be debated on the Floor of the House and then the Standing Committee deals with consequential matters. I would not necessarily dissent from the timetabling of such consideration and any amendments that may be taken. There is a very good reason why that would appear to be a sensible procedure for this Bill.

I question whether, on Second Reading, the House, even before hon. Members have discussed matters that will be raised on the Floor, should decide the date on which the Bill should be reported to the House. The Leader of the House has fully admitted that that is an innovation, but he has given no indication whether it will set a precedent or of the consequences of such a decision.

I calculate that, if the Standing Committee met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the timetable would allow eight or nine sittings for the consideration of the supposedly non-controversial matters in the Bill. I put it to the House, however, that even matters that are not controversial are often complex and that a judgment on them may require consultation with outside bodies. The Committee may discover unexpected features of such matters during its deliberations. They may not be connected with the views on the major matters in the Bill or with amendments debated and decided on the Floor of the House. Matters relating to the efficacy of implementation are a case in point. I have given a pledge to my constituents that I shall watch carefully the machinery for the implementation of this Bill and the efficacy of its implementation. Those matters are important and are dealt with in the so-called non-controversial parts of the Bill.

I submit that it would be procedurally inadvisable for the House to take such a decision now for two reasons. The first is the one that I have given in relation to this Bill and the second is that such a decision may be used as a precedent in respect of the general argument about the timetabling of Bills. We have not yet had that argument or decided upon it. Let me give an example. Some of my hon. Friends are upset that matters relating to the termination of pregnancy are dealt with in a Bill introduced to deal with embryo research. It is most unfortuate that the Leader of the House has attached to the Bill a timetable in respect of a big question that is not directly related to the Bill.

I am well aware that the Government want to secure the Bill's passage through Parliament. We all want that, regardless of our point of view, because at the moment there is a legal vacuum that must be filled; the whole House wants the Bill. If, as a result of a decision in Committee, one subsidiary school of thought or another wishes to delay the proceedings because it has lost the debate on the important question in Committee of the whole House, I can well understand that the Leader of the House will want the Bill to come out of Committee.

But there are many standing Committees in which such circumstances pertain. What happens? If there is tarrying in Committee and if the Committee stage appears not to be progressing at the rate that the House would wish, a simple solution can be applied. The Leader of the House can introduce a timetable motion and say, "We want to timetable the Committee stage because the whole House wants the Bill and we want it out of Committee." That is surely the solution and the safeguard that the Leader of the House seeks tonight. In other words, his fear about progress in Committee may be well founded but I suggest that his solution is wrong, for the two reasons that I have given.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present when I spoke on Second Reading. I made the point that the course that he advocates destroys the legislative process because it means that the opening clauses of a Bill are discussed exhaustively and the remaining clauses not at all. Many of us believe that the timetable motion is a welcome innovation, provided—as appears to have happened in this case—that a consensus is reached on what constitutes a reasonable time for the consideration of the Bill. I have so far heard no argument to suggest that the timing proposed by the Leader of the House is unreasonable.

Mr. Spearing

I am glad that the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) intervened, because he has illustrated the very point that I was making earlier. There are general views about the timetabling of Committees. The right hon. Gentleman has views about that, to which he is fully entitled. I do not want to enter into an argument with him, but I question his phrase "reasonable time". Who is to decide what is a reasonable time in Committee when complex matters, perhaps involving scientific or medical issues in which hon. Members are not necessarily expert, may arise? If the right hon. Gentleman wants the Bill to be dealt with properly in Standing Committee—something that we all want—it does not help matters to say that the Bill should be out of Committee by 22 May.

Although I did not hear the earlier remarks of the right. hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, I suspect that they verged on the main debate about timetabling instead of being of relevance to the Bill.

The motion seeks to put a time limit on days in Committee which may mean that the Committee will decide to meet more often than on Tuesdays and Thursdays and sit late into the night to conclude its business—and that is not always the best way to deal with Committee matters. It also limits us to two days for Report and Third Reading. Matters other than the controversial issues relating to the working of the Bill may need more time on consideration and Third Reading.

Timetabling consideration of the Bill on the Floor of the House is going too far. If the Bill is obstructed, the remedy lies with the Leader of the House, and perhaps even I would agree with that remedy. However, it is not clear that that remedy is necessary, and the motion is premature. I ask hon. Members who believe in parliamentary democracy and the freedom of this House to discuss matters, unless and until a case is made for truncating debate, to vote against this timetabling motion.

10.51 pm
Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

I want to make a short, but I hope pertinent, point that should appeal to the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) who intervened on points of order. I do not understand how we can meaningfully discuss any part of the Bill, and particularly clause 11 and schedule 2, without discussing clause 1 first, as that defines the terms that are used.

Clause 1 is headed "Principal terms used". I will not deploy the arguments that I would deploy if we were discussing the definition of "embryo". However, my point is pertinent to discussing the remainder of the Bill. I do not believe that we can pluck out certain bits and discuss them until we have settled what we mean by the terms. It is clear that there is already confusion about that.

In relation to clause 11, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House referred to putting conscience into the law. However, if conscience is to be meaningful in law, it must be concise. Will my right hon. and learned Friend amend the arrangements so that we may refer to and amend clause 1 if necessary? That should be the business of the whole House. Before the Committee discusses the remainder of the Bill in detail, hon. Members should know what they are talking about. That is a matter of definition. Given that my right hon. and learned Friend had a classical and scientific education, he will know the need for precision in construe.

10.53 pm
Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am flattered by the reference of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) to my classical and scientific education. However, even that did not convince me of his point.

The Bill is relatively unusual, and in the modern style, in having its definition clause at the beginning rather than at the end. In most Bills that have been debated in the House over many years, it has been a matter of routine for the House to debate the definition clauses after it has debated everything else. If that happens in this case, it will not be unusual or earth-shattering. The House will certainly be able to do it in that way.

Sir David Price

Do I gather that my right hon. and learned Friend will allow hon. Members to discuss clause 1 and that there would be greater virtue in putting the definition at the beginning of the Bill? As I understand it, we shall discuss clause 11 and schedule 2—schedule 2 will be very detailed—before we discuss clause 1.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I said, that will be in accordance with the normal practice on many Bills over many years. The definition clause is normally at the end of a Bill. I have often argued for definition clauses to be at the beginning of Bills, and this change is welcome, but there is no reason to be worried about it.

As for the more general points on the timetable motion, I was glad that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) acknowledged that my fears were well-founded and that it was sensible to look ahead pre-emptively at the management of the Bill. I was grateful for the intervention by the former leader of the Liberal party, the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), who said that my purpose was legitimate. However, I emphasise that I have not introduced the motion out of some whimsical fantasy of my own. I have introduced it after widespread consultation with people on behalf of all parties.

Mrs. Dunwoody

It is a free vote.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Of course it is a free vote on the substance, but for the free vote on the substance to take place I have canvassed very widely to determine the best way of doing it.

I was asked how long the process will take and who will decide how long it will take. I have done my best to ascertain how long it should reasonably take. I am offering that view to the House, and the House will decide. The House should be willing to respond favourably to my suggestion, which is based on a widespread canvassing of opinion that has not been challenged in any way.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Surely the point is simple. It is to be a free vote. Every individual hon. Member should have the right to decide according to his or her own conscience and his or her own information. It is useless to say that there has been wide consultation when each individual must be responsible for his or her own vote. The Leader of the House has not consulted, because he has used what is known as the usual machinery, which, frankly, does not always consult hon. Members who want to have a say.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

With respect, the hon. Lady misses the point. Of course the votes on the matters of substance will be free votes, but the vote now is how we set a framework for those votes to be taken. I have canvassed opinion, not just through the usual channels, whom the hon. Lady chooses to regard as disreputable and inaccurate. I have not canvassed all 650 hon. Members, but I have canvassed a wide range of opinion and I have come to the conclusion that I now place before the House. There is now an opportunity for hon. Members to vote on the proposal that I now leave before the House.

Mr. Spearing

I agree with the Leader of the House that, on the general difficulties of bifurcation and bringing a Bill into a Committee of the whole House for two days, even for a timetable of two days, he may have consulted to some extent. On balance, that is probably the right solution. Can he assure the House that he carried out equal consultation on the specific features that I referred to in my speech? Could not potential difficulties be better dealt with by a post-Second Reading timetable motion, if it were necessary? That knowledge would surely be in the minds of hon. Members on the Committee.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

This is a post-Second Reading timetable motion. The essential difference in what I am now proposing and what is more often the case was identified by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale. The normal way of arriving at a timetable motion is for the House or the Committee to grind slowly through the first clause—take days and weeks doing that —and then find itself hurrying like mad to consider the rest of the Bill. The Procedure Committee recommended a different approach to avoid that.

In the light of that advice and in the light of the conclusions that I have arrived at, having talked to several people about it, I see no reason why one should not attempt a common sense way of dealing with this Bill. I am grateful for taking the hon. Member for Newham, South as far as I have in agreeing with me. I commend my motion to the House as the most sensible way to proceed.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 218, Noes 62.

Division No. 153] [11 pm
Alexander, Richard Eggar, Tim
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Evennet, David
Allason, Rupert Fallon, Michael
Alton, David Favell, Tony
Amess, David Fearn, Ronald
Amos, Alan Fenner, Dame Peggy
Arbuthnot, James Fishburn, John Dudley
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Fookes, Dame Janet
Ashby, David Forman, Nigel
Aspinwall, Jack Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Atkinson, David Forth, Eric
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Foster, Derek
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Franks, Cecil
Batiste, Spencer Freeman, Roger
Bellingham, Henry Fry, Peter
Bendall, Vivian Gale, Roger
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Garel-Jones, Tristan
Bevan, David Gilroy Gill, Christopher
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Glyn, Dr Sir Alan
Boscawen, Hon Robert Goodland, Alastair
Bottomley, Peter Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Gow, Ian
Bowis, John Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Gregory, conal
Brazier, Julian Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
Bright, Graham Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Ground, Patrick
Buck, Sir Antony Hague, William
Budgen, Nicholas Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom)
Burns, Simon Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Burt, Alistair Hampson, Dr Keith
Butler, Chris Hannam, John
Butterfill, John Hardy, Peter
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Canavan, Dennis Harris, David
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Hawkins, Christopher
Carrington, Matthew Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Chapman, Sydney Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Chope, Christopher Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Hind, Kenneth
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Home Robertson, John
Conway, Derek Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Howells, Geraint
Cran, James Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Irvine, Michael
Davis, David (Boothferry) Jack, Michael
Day, Stephen Janman, Tim
Dorrell, Stephen Jessel, Toby
Dover, Den Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Dunn, Bob Kellet-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Durant, Tony Kennedy, Charles
Key, Robert Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Kilfedder, James Robertson, George
Kirkhope, Timothy Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Kirkwood, Archy Roe, Mrs Marion
Knapman, Roger Rowe, Andrew
Knowles, Michael Ryder, Richard
Lambie, David Sackville, Hon Tom
Lamond, James Sainsbury, Hon Tim
Latham, Michael Shaw, David (Dover)
Lawrence, Ivan Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Lee, John (Pendle) Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe) Shelton, Sir William
Lightbown, David Shersby, Michael
Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant) Sims, Roger
Luce, Rt Hon Richard Speller, Tony
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
McAvoy, Thomas Squire, Robin
McCrindle, Robert Stanbrook, Ivor
Macdonald, Calum A. Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Maclean, David Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Maclennan, Robert Steen, Anthony
McLoughlin, Patrick Stern, Michael
McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael Stevens, Lewis
McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
McNamara, Kevin Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Malins, Humfrey Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Mans, Keith Summerson, Hugo
Marlow, Tony Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Maude, Hon Francis Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Meyer, Sir Anthony Temple-Morris, Peter
Miller, Sir Hal Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Mills, Iain Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Mitchell, Sir David Thurnham, peter
Morris, M (N'hampton S) Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Morrison, Sir Charles Tracey, Richard
Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester) Tripper, David
Moss, Malcolm Trotter, Neville
Moynihan, Hon Colin Twinn, Dr Ian
Neale, Gerrard Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Neubert, Michael Wallace, James
Nicholls, Patrick Waller, Gary
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Norris, Steve Warren, Kenneth
Paisley, Rev Ian Watts, John
Pawsey, James Wheeler, Sir John
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Whitney, Ray
Porter, David (Waveney) Widdecombe, Ann
Portillo, Michael Wiggin, Jerry
Price, Sir David Wigley, Dafydd
Raffan, Keith Winterton, Mrs Ann
Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Redwood, John Tellers for the Ayes:
Rhodes James, Robert Mr. Greg Knight and
Riddick, Graham Mr. Irvine Patnick.
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Fyfe, Maria
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Godman, Dr Norman A.
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Golding, Mrs Llin
Barron, Kevin Gordon, Mildred
Beckett, Margaret Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Harman, Ms Harriet
Bradley, Keith Haynes, Frank
Buchan, Norman Henderson, Doug
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g) Hood, Jimmy
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Hoyle, Doug
Cohen, Harry Kinnick, Rt Hon Neil
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Leighton, Ron
Corbyn, Jeremy Loyden, Eddie
Cousins, Jim McCartney, Ian
Cryer, Bob McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Dalyell, Tam Meale, Alan
Dixon, Don Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) Morgan, Rhodri
Flannery, Martin Morley, Elliot
Flynn, Paul Mullin, Chris
O'Neill, Martin Spearing, Nigel
Patchett, Terry Steinberg, Gerry
Pike, Peter L. Strang, Gavin
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Turner, Dennis
Primarolo, Dawn Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
Quin, Ms Joyce Winnick, David
Richardson, Jo Wise, Mrs Audrey
Rogers, Allan Young, Mrs Audrey
Rooker, Jeff
Sedgemore, Brian Tellers for the Noes:
Skinner, Dennis Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E) and Ms. Hilary Armstrong.

Question accordingly agreed to.