§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
Madam Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a short business statement.
After discussions through the usual channels, the business for Thursday 18 April will now be as follows:
Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill. A draft of the Bill is available in the Vote Office.
The business previously announced for that day will be taken on a later occasion.
MONDAY 22 APRIL AND TUESDAY 23 APRIL—Committee and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill.
I will announce the business for the remainder of that week in my usual business statement on Thursday.
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)
I thank the Leader of the House for that statement and assure him that the Opposition understand the urgency associated with the Bill and generally welcome it as a necessary step towards all-party negotiations on 10 June. However, I am disturbed that the House has not been given proper notice and was not informed before the recess that this business might take place at this time.
The Leader of the House will be aware that, since the Jopling changes, on all occasions I have urged him to give as much notice as possible of future business, even on a provisional basis, on the understanding that some flexibility might be required. On that basis, hon. Members should have had more warning that this business might be slotted in this week.
Although we acknowledge the urgency of this measure, surely this would have been an ideal opportunity for a draft Bill and associated papers to be published earlier, as requested by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, so that all hon. Members could have had at least the Easter recess to consider its provisions. As there is general support for this measure among hon. Members and a genuine desire to get the legislation right, surely the Government could have adopted a more mature approach on this occasion rather than informing them at the last moment.
Will the Leader of the House assure us that proper arrangements will be made so that all hon. Members are able to table amendments—including, if necessary, manuscript amendments—at all stages of the Bill's passage? Can he tell us what the Government intend to do to ensure that all stages of the Bill are completed according to the time scale which he has given us today? Will the Government be moving a timetable motion, or is the Leader of the House proposing an open-ended debate for the Bill's Committee and remaining stages?
§ Mr. Newton
On the latter point, I should certainly hope that—with the co-operation that the hon. Lady has reaffirmed on behalf of the Opposition, which I understand has been expressed in some other quarters as well—it will be possible to deal with the Bill in the normal way. Were things to go wrong, clearly we would have to consider the position. 531 On the question of amendments, of course—as I hope I demonstrated with the Prevention of Terrorism (Additional Powers) Bill shortly before Easter—I will always do anything I can to co-operate in easing practical problems when speedy passage of legislation is required. Specifically, we intend to table a motion allowing for amendments to be tabled before Second Reading, which I understand would be for the convenience of some hon. Members.
On the hon. Lady's earlier comments, the proper course is simply for me to say that I understand why she made them. I hope that she, in turn, will understand that I regard those comments as marginally unfair. In the circumstances in which the Bill was not drafted before Easter, we could not be sure that it would be possible to draft the measure according to a time scale that would permit what she has called for. She will know that, for many weeks, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), have been quite properly engaged in a great deal of consultation with her colleagues and with hon. Members in other parties concerned with Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
I assure the Leader of the House that my right hon. and hon. Friends will co-operate with him to ensure that the Bill proceeds according to the timetable necessary for it to be implemented. May I, however, press him on two matters? First, as the Second Reading will be concluded on Thursday night, may we have an assurance that amendments can be tabled up to the time of the selection of amendments on Tuesday morning so that there is maximum opportunity for hon. Members to table amendments for debate?
I understand the Leader of the House's reservation on the second matter, but—provided the House is willing, if necessary, to sit late through the Committee stage—can we take the necessary time to debate the amendments at Committee and Report stages, without a guillotine if possible, so that no hon. Member feels that this very important piece of legislation is being steamrollered through?
More mischievously, may I say that I hope, for the sake of the Leader of the House, that we do not have more such legislation? Otherwise there will be absolutely nothing left for the Government to get us to do in the remaining year of this Parliament.
§ Mr. Newton
I think that the hon. Gentleman's latter remarks are a very long way from the truth, but I shall not go further down that path.
On the hon. Gentleman's earlier two points, I cannot add very much to what I said about how we hope that it will be possible for the Bill to progress. I am grateful to him for reaffirming his party's constructive approach to the Bill.
On the selection of amendments, we are once again treading in an area that is for you, Madam Speaker. If I may say so, Madam Speaker, you and the Clerks at the 532 Table demonstrated no less good will than I did, I hope, in facilitating consideration of the Prevention of Terrorism (Additional Powers) Bill.
§ Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)
As this Bill creates an electoral procedure and a body that can, at its best, charitably be described as "very novel" in the United Kingdom, does the Leader of the House think that it is reasonable that we should be asked to absorb what has been put before us today and to take part in a Second Reading debate by Thursday? Will he assure us that, when we come to the Committee and remaining stages of the Bill next Monday and Tuesday, the House will be prepared to sit late on both nights to give the greatest possible consideration to this novel procedure—so that we can meet the time scale for this Bill laid down by the IRA?
§ Mr. Newton
I cannot add to what I have already said about how I hope that the House will be prepared to deal with the Bill. I should be sad if the hon. Gentleman felt this way; but if he does feel that he is being asked to do something unreasonable, I have no doubt that he will find ways to make that clear. However, I hope that he will acknowledge that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has gone to considerable lengths to try to carry people with him after it was plain that not all of them could get everything that they wanted. That has involved a good deal of careful discussion with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)
Is not it right that the Bill has to be rushed through because two Governments decided that the deadline, to please the Irish Republican Army, would be 10 May? Is that not why we have to pass the Bill with such speed? Taking into account what the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said, is it not the case that, if there is to be a timetable motion, we shall be examining without full debate a procedure to elect people whose parties have been defeated in the election? Therefore, some parties that could not win a seat under the procedures set out in the Bill will at least get two seats if they are within the first 10. That is a most novel way to get people to a forum or to discussions. Surely something with such constitutional implications should have time to be discussed fully.
§ Mr. Newton
You may perhaps agree, Madam Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman is tempting me to discuss the Bill rather than its handling. Against the background of the determination of my right hon. and learned Friend and, indeed, the whole Government—although perhaps not in the terms that the hon. Gentleman used—to get negotiations started on 10 June, which led to the timetable that I set out, the provision of three full days to debate the Bill is neither unreasonable nor ungenerous.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I must register my disappointment that the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill, which was to have been debated on Thursday, is to be postponed. Can the Leader of the House give us any information on when its remaining stages will be dealt with?
Can the right hon. Gentleman also help me with regard to the business for Friday 19 April? I see from my Whip that we are to debate the remaining stages of the 533 "Prisoners' Earrings Bill"; is that a Government measure to brighten up our overcrowded prisons or a new method of restraint to stop our prisoners escaping?
§ Mr. Newton
I cannot help the hon. Gentleman with his earrings problem, but I shall see what intelligence I can secure for him. As for the first part of his question—I have forgotten what it was.
§ Mr. Newton
Oh, yes. I cannot at present tell him exactly what day it will be dealt with, but we shall not be looking to delay it any longer than we have to.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
Has the Leader of the House overlooked the fact that the Scottish Grand Committee is meeting in Inverness on Monday? May I remind him that many Scottish Members have a deep and abiding interest in matters relating to Northern Ireland? Is the meeting in Inverness to be postponed? If not, why were Tuesday and Wednesday of next week not selected to debate such an important Bill?
§ Mr. Newton
The proposed arrangements for the passage of the Bill also have to take account of the need for it to be discussed in another place and the need for secondary legislation to follow it before the processes leading to the election—and, therefore, the negotiations—can be put in place.
§ Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)
That was a very poor reply about accommodating Scottish business, but I want the Leader of the House to think about the displaced business, given the urgency of the new business for next week, which I understand. He will have noted from the response to the previous statement that hon. Members of all parties—Members whose constituencies are probably experiencing hundreds of job losses—have considerable interest in having another debate on bovine spongiform encephalopathy. If we have such a debate—perhaps the Leader of the House can specify when it will occur—will he make arrangements for the Secretary of State for Scotland to participate in it, given his inactivity during a crisis which has such a strong Scottish dimension?
§ Mr. Newton
For a long time, I have shown that I am not unmindful of the needs of Scottish business and that I look carefully at requests such as that which the hon. Gentleman has made. Having seen my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in action, I reject out of hand any suggestion that he has not been vigorously involved in the effort to find solutions to some of the problems arising from the beef crisis.