HC Deb 15 December 1999 vol 341 cc285-92

4.4 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

As I was saying last night, I do not criticise the Leader of the House for her non-attendance in the debate, even if the motion was in her name. I pay tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who dealt courteously with several matters in the previous debate and is in his place, ready, I hope, to deal with the matter under consideration. I do not criticise the Leader of the House in that respect, but, as the motion was in her name, it would have been particularly helpful if she had been present, or indeed, if the Parliamentary Secretary had on her behalf set out the reasons for the motion.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a tendency? Does he recall that in Monday's debate on the Adjournment, when precedent suggested that the Leader of the House should be in her place, the Minister was present, but not the Leader?

Mr. Forth

My right hon. and learned Friend is correct. Although we acknowledge that the Leader of the House is a very busy person and carries onerous responsibilities, nevertheless I should have thought that her eminent position encouraged her to be present for such procedural motions. They may not look particularly important, but we know that they can be extraordinarily important in determining the order of business.

Having had no guidance at all from those on the Government Front Bench, we are left to speculate on the meaning of the motion. I turned to "Erskine May", which is the last resort—or, for many, the first resort—when seeking to elucidate the mysteries of a motion, especially a procedural motion, such as the one under discussion. I shall share with the House, just for a short time, the entries that I found in "Erskine May" relating to messages. The nature of the messages is crucial. As we have been given no indication of the nature of the messages, "Erskine May" may help us.

I started with page 284, which helpfully tells us that when messages arise, they come after Prayers, business taken immediately after Prayers, questions and business taken after questions. That raises a number of interesting questions about the day. I assume—I could be wrong, but I am making the working assumption—that on the day in question, that is, tomorrow, we will get all the usual matters of business, with the possibility of the messages arriving.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Is it not possible that the Leader of the House, as a result of a particularly pressing engagement, has absented herself, but only temporarily, and that we might reasonably hope— especially if my right hon. Friend is wise enough to pursue his remarks at a leisurely pace—to observe her return before long?

Mr. Forth

That must be our fervent wish, without wanting to detract in any way from the Parliamentary Secretary, who is in his place as ever, jovial as ever, and anxious to help, as ever he is. I have a modest list of questions, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will want to answer.

My first question is: do we anticipate a normal day's business, possibly leading up to the receipt of Lords messages?

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I notice that my right hon. Friend quoted from page 284 of "Erskine May" and pointed out that item 6 of business taken after questions was consideration of Lords amendments. Has he noticed, however, that item 5 is personal statements? Might the motion be in preparation for the Chancellor coming tomorrow to make a personal statement about the erroneous statements that he made in the House recently?

Mr. Forth

Would that it were so. I go even further and say that I should like the Prime Minister to elucidate for the House some of the grotesque errors that he has made, no doubt inadvertently, at the Dispatch Box, including not a few this very day. We live in hope of that.

The scene is set by the apparently innocuous motion for various possibilities to arise. On page 610 of "Erskine May", I found some helpful information, as one would expect. I shall read a brief extract, as I do not want to detain the House unduly. Under the general heading "Communications between the Lords and the Commons"—

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm for those who are fortunate enough to observe our proceedings that they are witnessing a classic filibuster?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Such matters can safely be left to the Chair.

Mr. Forth

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not mean to suggest that a motion that has been properly tabled and, so far, properly debated, is an abuse of the House. I hope that he does not suggest that such matters should not be debated.

I shall return to "Erskine May" and quote from it in a spirit of helpfulness. On page 610, under the heading "Communications between the Lords and the Commons", it states:

The two Houses of Parliament have frequent occasion to communicate with each other, not only in regard to bills which require the assent of both Houses, but with reference to other matters connected with the proceedings of Parliament. That partially answers one of the questions that I asked earlier. I was speculating, probably rather wildly, that an accelerated legislative process lay behind the apparently innocent motion. It now appears that there is no such intention—perhaps the Minister can confirm that, and that we are probably considering

"other matters connected with the proceedings of Parliament."

That gives us a clue that we can work on in the absence of guidance from the Minister.

Under the heading "Messages"—we may be getting a bit warmer—"Erskine May" states:

A message is the most simple mode of communication; it is frequently resorted to, for sending bills from one House to another"— we have partially eliminated that possibility— for the interchange of reports and other documents, for communicating about joint committees or private bills, or for requesting the presence of a Member or Officer of one House, to give evidence before the other House". It is therefore entirely possible, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) suggested, that the other place could send a message to summon the Prime Minister or the Chancellor to explain the misinformation that has flowed from the Government, not least from Nos. 10 and 11, in the past two and a half years. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his suggestion.

Mr. Hogg

Another possibility is that the other place wants to hear from the Deputy Prime Minister his reasons for believing that it is proper for the new Minister of Transport to be a Member of another place, and not accountable to hon. Members in this House.

Mr. Forth

That suggests some intriguing possibilities. More and more Ministers are in another place, and a peculiarly large percentage are from Scotland. I cannot begin to imagine the reason for that, although I am sure that they are people of great integrity and of even greater ability. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his suggestion. The nature of the relationship within Government between the two Houses of Parliament may emerge from passing messages back and forth, for which the motion provides.

I move on to page 611.

Mr. Maclean

The crucial page.

Mr. Forth

I should warn the House that I have not got into my stride yet; I am still on my preliminary remarks.

Page 611 of "Erskine May" states: In the Commons the reception of a message from the Lords is recorded in the Votes and Proceedings and the Journal, and any action required to be taken is normally set down for a subsequent day. That is interesting because the subsequent day cannot be Friday 17 December as the House is not sitting. By implication, it will have to be the following Monday. In the absence of knowledge about next Monday's exact business, we are left to speculate that if a message from the Lords, which resulted from the motion, contained anything that required action, it would be "set down for a subsequent day." The motion does not necessarily relate to the business for one day; it could affect at least two parliamentary days. That really has surprised me, because on my initial reading of the motion I thought that only a day's business would be affected. Does not that show the value of "Erskine May"?

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. As there will be no further Prime Minister's questions before the House rises for Christmas, is it not especially significant that any Lords message might facilitate a statement by the Prime Minister on either Monday or Tuesday next week because that would enable him to put the record straight on taxation? My right hon. Friend, with his encyclopaedic memory, will recall that the Prime Minister said on 21 September 1996 that Labour had no plans to raise taxes at all, whereas today, very significantly, he did not use the words "at all" at any stage—only, and rather frequently, the word "actually".

Mr. Forth

I was not in my usual place, for reasons that I shall not go into, but I was in the Chamber and I heard the Prime Minister say that. Now that my memory has been jogged, I recall what he said previously. It is possible that such a statement might be made, but I think that my hon. Friend is falling into his usual optimism in expecting one. Be that as it may, we are left with a teasing conundrum: we not only have no idea of the content of the messages, but were we to approve the motion—which is no foregone conclusion—it may affect tomorrow's business and the business for a subsequent day. That is what "Erskine May", at page 611, allows.

We have made some progress because we have an idea of the possible scope of the business and the messages, and we know that two days business, instead of one, could be affected. I want to round off these comments by referring back to page 545 of "Erskine May", which also deals with Bills, although I think that I have, almost to my own satisfaction, eliminated the introduction of a Bill as a possibility. However, for the sake of completeness, "Erskine May" says: The Lords ordinarily send their bills to the Commons by the Clerk of the Parliaments, or by a clerk deputed for the purpose. When the bill has originated in the Lords a message is sent to the Commons desiring their agreement. That reintroduces the possibility of a Bill—perhaps an emergency Bill or a surprise Bill of some kind—being introduced in the other place that may be sent to the House of Commons by message or through that process. That is rather less likely and, to set our minds at ease, perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary might rule it out categorically. He is in possession of much more information about what is happening in the other place, particularly with regard to Government business, although he may not be able to be absolutely categoric about private Member's business there.

Mr. Hogg

There is, of course, a further possibility that my right hon. Friend might care to bear in mind. The other place may want to communicate with the House to the effect that certain Bills now proceeding through the House are not sufficiently well thought out to justify their further progress until there has been yet further consultation. Speaking for myself, in relation to the Terrorism Bill, which was discussed last night, might not the other place like there to be further consultation before it makes further progress in the House? There could be messages from the other place about a multitude of Bills which we know the Government have in mind.

Mr. Forth

My right hon. and learned Friend has raised an intriguing possibility. Does it not highlight the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the two Houses of the legislature? There can be such intercourse between the two purveyed by messages, as the motion suggests. Even on a day such as tomorrow, which the casual observer might think is one on which not much would happen in the House—

Mr. Maclean

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Forth

Yes, but I shall be concluding my remarks shortly.

Mr. Maclean

Although most observers might think that tomorrow will be a quiet day, the last paragraph of page 611 of "Erskine May" says:

If it is necessary in the Commons to proceed upon a Lords' message on the day of its reception, the Speaker informs the House between the orders of the day (or may even interrupt the business under discussion) and the House having ordered the Lords' message to be read and considered…motions are made and questions put from the Chair". Has my right hon. Friend considered the possibility that the Government anticipate important messages from the Lords tomorrow and intend to bounce the House by putting important questions from the Chair on a day when they expect slack attendance?

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend has typically teased out a point that had escaped my attention. I had not realised the importance of that paragraph on page 611 of "Erskine May", because I had been concentrating on the previous paragraph. My right hon. Friend may expand on that point if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because he has obviously given it more consideration than I have been able to do in my brief preparation for this important debate.

I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will agree that we have identified under this motion some possibilities that deserve a brief debate, and certainly merit an explanation from the Minister. Were the Government to decide, unusually for them, that in future they will do the House the courtesy of explaining briefly their intentions in these procedural motions, it could save time. By not doing so, they display the arrogance of assuming that we will nod everything through. They have made sinister references to the usual channels, which they seem to think determine what happens in the House. If I do nothing else, I should like to disabuse them of that.

Mr. Hogg

The important point about the usual channels is that, although Front Benchers can commit themselves, they cannot necessarily commit their Back Benchers.

Mr. Forth

That is the case on the Conservative Benches, but it remains to be seen whether it is also the case on the Government Benches. That is the valuable point that I hope will emerge from this brief debate.

Should the Minister catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that he will be able to satisfy me, if no one else, on the points that I have raised, so that I can decide whether 1 think the House should divide on this issue to express its view. I believe that that is a modest request.

4.22 pm
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

There are some important issues to be dealt with in the motion. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) dealt with them last night and, more particularly, today. The House knows that my right hon. Friend has drastically telescoped his remarks so that they do not interfere with our consideration of the important Bill that is before us today.

Opposition Members who are present on Fridays—my right hon. Friend and I are often here on a Friday—will realise that, had my right hon. Friend wished to pursue these matters in much greater depth, the House would be discussing them for a few more hours. If some of my right hon. and hon. Friends came to assist him, we could be debating the motion until 10 o'clock tonight. However, it is not my right hon. Friend's intention, nor is it mine, to prolong these proceedings unnecessarily.

I hope that Labour Members have learned an important little lesson from our brief discussion of this motion last night and today. The Minister is an honourable, decent man, and I suspect that he listened to the advice of the champagne socialists in the Whips Office sitting on the Front Bench with him, who told him, "Bounce it through on the nod and keep your mouth shut. Don't say a word. It's late at night and they all want to go home to bed. Just put it through without explanation." It may have seemed good advice at the time, but I suggest to the Minister that it is not the way to proceed if he wants such motions put through reasonably quickly.

Mr. Forth

Has my right hon. Friend thought about what might happen if a message from the other place had to be dealt with by a Minister in this House who was at that very time engaged in the Disneyland Chamber that we mistakenly set up somewhere off Westminster Hall? Has he thought of the procedural implications that could arise from a message from the other place, were the relevant Minister to be wasting his time in futile debate in a pretend Chamber?

Mr. Maclean

My right hon. Friend is right. I am not sure whether the Serjeant at Arms could extract a Minister from the banana republic parish council that we have created above the Westminster Hall Cafeteria and bring him to the Chamber so that he could deal with a message. I do not want to pursue that, but the Modernisation Committee may wish to.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend is conveying his own messages to the Government Front Bench about the dangers of taking the House for granted. One message that he may wish to convey is this: if Ministers ever seek to provide Government time for the promotion of a private Member's Bill that would infringe the rights of my constituents, they can be sure that every parliamentary opportunity will be taken by Members who defend human rights.

Mr. Maclean

I think that we have all noted the underlying point made by my right hon. and learned Friend. I look forward to seeing him here every Friday in future when private Member's business is being dealt with. I also look forward to co-operating with the Government to ensure that the rights of all our constituents are protected, at least for the time being, until important inquiries are completed.

I was making a straightforward point. The Government will be able to conclude their business more quickly if they do the House the small courtesy of explaining what are, in some cases, simple and innocuous measures. If they do not do that, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and I, along with others, will conclude that they may have a more devious and sinister purpose, and will wish to explore what they are up to in more detail.

Let me give the Minister a good reason for not obeying his Whips Office in future, but trusting his own instinct and judgment, jumping to the Dispatch Box and telling the House what the Government are doing. A late lamented Transport Minister—I believe that she was once an actress—did not appreciate that, to get a Bill through the House on a Friday, she must treat the House with a certain courtesy. She became rather grumpy when a Bill that she hoped would be bounced through in 10 minutes took about five hours to debate because the House was giving it proper scrutiny.

That lady is no longer a member of the Government, which is a source of concern to some of us who would like to oppose some of her other transport measures. Because she treated the House with discourtesy and contempt, she did not win favours from her own Back Benchers. If the Minister wishes to earn favours from his Back Benchers, to conclude business by 10 pm and to get it passed, a simple explanation at the outset would be helpful. It is not good enough for him to explain that a measure is innocuous after Opposition Members have made their speeches.

I urge the Minister in future to tell us what a motion is about at the beginning, so that we do not have to drag it out of him at the end.

4.28 pm
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The House should be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) for taking the opportunity to clarify, or at least to seek to clarify, the purpose that lies behind the motion. He has also done something else, which the Government would do well to consider: he has made it clear that, if the Government ever act in a way that is not consistent with what hon. Members think to be right, a range of possibilities are open to hon. Members to put obstacles in the way of business, and to do so in a way that is proper.

I was here earlier when the private Members' Bills were introduced. I noticed that they included the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill. Any attempt to bang that Bill through the House will attract a great deal of discussion on every possible occasion. I will not be alone in going a long way to ensure the rights of our constituents to go fox hunting.

My other point is made in the spirit of helpfulness. The Order Paper often contains motions, the impact of which is unclear. I congratulate the Government on the new Order Paper, which is an improvement on what we had in the past, but it would be helpful if it gave some indication of the purpose and impact of many of the orders that we are asked to pass on the nod. The usual channels could have a profitable discussion about that. If the impact of some of the motions and orders could be set out, perhaps in an appendix, Members of Parliament such as me would have a clearer view of what we are being asked to do and we might well find that, on occasions such as this, business would pass through the House more expeditiously.

I am delighted to know that there are agreements between the Front Benches. That has always been so. However, as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said last night, some of us feel that the rights of Back Benchers can never be compromised by agreements between Front Benchers. Front Benchers speak for themselves, but they do not necessarily speak for their Back Benchers.

4.31 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

There are occasions in the House when I am reminded of Richter's words to the third flute: Your damned nonsense can I stand twice or once, but sometimes always, by God, never.

My right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) have demonstrated that poachers can certainly make good gamekeepers and gamekeepers can make even better poachers, because they have been usual channels in the past. They have performed a valuable service to the House this afternoon, because they have given the Government a timely warning. One can have no objection to the measure that we are debating, but the Government should be careful about trying to slip things through too quickly.

4.32 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

I apologise to the House for being a poor substitute for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I shall pass on the good wishes that have been expressed to her. Hon. Members will recognise that she is a regular, courteous and punctilious Member of the House.

The motion was debated for a limited period last night and for a slightly extended period today. The phrase "teased out" has been used several times. Some of my hon. Friends will feel that some teasing has gone on.

Let me try to set the record straight. The motion allows the Speaker not to adjourn the House tomorrow until any messages have been received from the Lords. The matter was referred to in last week's business statement, when no objections were raised.

There is nothing new in the procedure that we are advocating. There is a long-established practice of facilitating the quick and easy passage of the Consolidated Fund Bill, which will be before the House tomorrow. I anticipate that we may receive messages from the Lords by the end of the day.

Mr. Hogg


Mr. Tipping

I am keen to make progress. There has been plenty of teasing.

With that explanation, I hope that we can move on to the Representation of the People Bill and making sure that this Parliament is for the people.

Question put and agreed to.


That, at the sitting on Thursday 16th December, the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until any messages from the Lords shall have been received.

  1. Business of the House 37 words