§ Considered in Committee [Progress, 28 January]
§ [MR. MICHAEL MORRIS in the Chair]3.37 pm
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
On a point of order, Mr. Morris. We are proceeding with a Bill which deals with all aspects of European union at the very moment when the previous showcase of European union, the exchange rate mechanism, is in tatters. Is it appropriate for us to proceed further, especially with the debate on citizenship of what is described as the union, without a Minister coming before the Committee to tell us the latest position on the ERM and the impact and influence that it will have on the pound? It seems to me that we are proceeding down a Utopian and impractical road when the previous scheme is already in tatters and no statement has been made to the House or the Committee. I should like your guidance accordingly.
§ The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Morris)
The hon. Gentleman's point does not have too much relevance to amendment No. 12. I suggest that we proceed with the debate on that amendment.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
On a point of order, Mr. Morris. Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said about the demise of the ERM, as this Maastricht debate is closely connected with the ERM, which has seemingly reached a state of collapse, could it not be argued that we should not proceed with this tinpot Maastricht Bill? It is meaningless. France or one of the Benelux countries may well be the next to suffer the domino effect. The whole thing is crazy. We keep debating this issue despite the fact that it is dead. It is time we directed our attention to questions that matter to the people—unemployment, housing, education—and stopped pottering about with a Bill that ought to have its neck wrung.
§ The Chairman
As the hon. Member is aware, the Bill was given a Second Reading by a majority of 244. I am therefore duty bound to ensure that we proceed with the Committee stage and that we have a fair debate.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
You, Mr. Morris, know that today's business was decided last week. You look at me in a quizzical manner, but it is a fact that the menu for this week was decided through the usual channels. Last week, it was decided that we should debate this Bill today. However, since that time certain events concerning the exchange rate mechanism have taken place. The Bill is, in large measure, about European monetary union—a system based on various rules and regulations which, after the events of the past weekend, will not be appropriate. European monetary union can work only through arrangements different from those provided for in the Bill.
How is it possible for the Committee, at this late stage, to make the necessary contact with the Government to secure a change in today's business? It is quite obvious that this Bill is no longer appropriate, as the European 25 exchange rate mechanism is dead, and monetary union is buried. We are legislating for something that is manifest nonsense. May we have your assistance, Mr. Morris?
§ The Chairman
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but the rules of the House of Commons are such that I have to accept the business that is set down for today. The first amendment for debate is No. 12, which deals with citizenship.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)
I do not know when we shall reach the question of cohesion, but that debate may not be far off. I am aware of the fact that, in dealing with large numbers of amendments, the Chair faces difficulties. However, I have to say that, in respect of this question, it seems that two debates are joined. It is quite clear that at least half of these amendments are sponsored by hon. Members who are interested in the composition of the Committee of the Regions. As different parts of the United Kingdom are represented here, I understand the widespread interest. However, there is a distinct sub-cluster of amendments dealing with the substance of regional policy—a matter of great importance. Have you, Mr. Morris, been able to consider this matter, and will you give some thought to the possibility of our having two separate debates for this group?
§ The Chairman
I am especially grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, to whose letter I have responded. He may find my reply on the Board, although it will not have been there until about 2.30 pm.
In essence, many of these categories represent a confederation of issues. I have to look at the opening amendment and consider the implications of those that are attached to it. The right hon. Gentleman will find that, in the end, it is a matter of judgment. On the question of cohesion, my judgment is that all the amendments that are linked pull to the centre. It may well be that some of the regional issues will develop, and it will be in order, in the course of speeches relating to certain amendments, to allude to them. Nevertheless, as they have particular relevance to the lead amendment, I am not inclined to break down the groups.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
We are about to turn to the question of citizenship, which is, of course, related to elections and, in turn, to the rights of voters, who, at general elections, determine matters relating to monetary affairs. From all that is happening in the markets, it is abundantly clear that the exchange rate mechanism and economic and monetary union are dead.
§ The Chairman
Order. That may have been an ingenious way of reintroducing the question of the exchange rate mechanism, but I have already ruled on that matter, and I do not want any further references to it.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Morris. We all appreciate the problem that the grouping of amendments pose for the Chair. You told my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) that the important debates on the constitution and the powers and activities of the Committee of the Regions are linked to the broad issue of cohesion, which covers north-south regional assistance. According to your ruling, those amendments will be taken together. Will you bear in mind that if the amendments 26 were to be incorporated in a Bill it might well contain 10 or 12 clauses and two schedules, as was the case when we discussed the question of asylum last week? Will you bear that and the range of subjects under discussion in mind when making any decision about the conclusion of the debate?
§ The Chairman
I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that the Chair is willing to listen sympathetically to particular points made and especially to distinctive points, as I have said during discussions on earlier amendments.
§ Mr. Winnick
On a point of order, Mr. Morris. You said that you did not want to take any more points of order on the exchange rate mechanism and, as always, I abide by the ruling of the Chair. I should like your guidance on the circumstances in which you would be willing to consider a manuscript amendment, if events in the outside world make our debate irrelevant.
§ Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)
On a point of order, Mr. Morris. You mentioned that you were minded to consider the closure with sympathy and with regard to the number of amendments in the group. Can you confirm that, on average, during the passage of the Single European Act, three amendments were grouped together? The next group contains 12 and, under the heading of cohesion, 23 amendments and four new clauses are grouped together. Am I right in thinking, therefore, that each debate should be roughly seven times as long as the average during our consideration of the Single European Act?
§ The Chairman
The hon. Gentleman's interpretation of my earlier remarks is entirely wrong. I do not think that I said anything to that effect, and frankly I am surprised that he picked it up. The number of amendments is irrelevant to the length of the debate. It is open to hon. Members to put down a host of similar amendments. I have served on Bills when there have been even more amendments than there are for this Bill. It is the Chair's responsibility to ensure that there is a full debate on and around the lead amendment and the matters that flow from it.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
On a point of order, Mr. Morris. On the subject of closures, a serious matter is at issue. If a Bill is timetabled, right hon. and hon. Members know exactly how much time they have to deal with each stage of the legislation. We are working to a totally arbitrary system of closures—at the whim of the Government, it seems. Will you use your discretion and, at the very least, will you not cut off an hon. Member in mid-sentence, as happened to the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), because it appears discourteous? You, Mr. Morris, did not do that—it was one of your colleagues in the Chair—but it is a discredit to the Committee.
§ The Chairman
I must make it clear that the acceptance of a closure is not at the whim of the Government, but is entirely a matter for the judgment of the occupant of the Chair, who decides whether the amendments have been adequately debated.
§ Mr. Marlow
It is totally new, as it has only just occurred to me. My intention is to be helpful. Obviously you and the Committee do not want to legislate for nonsense and we have difficulties because of the monetary situation. Would it be possible to suspend the sitting for a short time because of the great pressure—
§ The Chairman
Order. No. Clearly, as the point has only just occurred to the hon. Gentleman, it cannot have had much consideration.
Before I call the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) to move the amendment, perhaps the Chair will be allowed a point of order on a subject about which a number of colleagues have written to me. I appeal to members of both Front Benches to speak into the microphones in front of them and to resist the temptation to turn round to address their colleagues, as other Members cannot then hear their arguments.