HC Deb 26 July 1999 vol 336 cc59-66

8. This paragraph applies to—

  1. (a) proceedings on Consideration of Lords Amendments,
  2. (b) proceedings on any further Message from the Lords, and
  3. (c) proceedings of the kind mentioned in paragraph 6.

9. Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings to which paragraph 8 applies.

10. Proceedings to which paragraph 8 applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

11. No dilatory Motion with respect to, or in the course of, proceedings to which paragraph 8 applies shall be made except by a Minister of the Crown; and the Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

12. Where proceedings on a Motion for the Adjournment of the House would, by virtue of Standing Order No. 24, commence at a time when proceedings to which paragraph 8 applies are in progress, the proceedings on the Motion shall be postponed to the conclusion of the proceedings to which paragraph 8 applies.

13. If the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the expiry of the period at the end of which proceedings to which paragraph 8 applies are to be brought to a conclusion, no notice shall be required of a Motion made at the next sitting by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order.

The Local Government Bill left the House of Commons on 24 March for another place, and has now completed its passage through the Upper House. It has been further improved by my noble Friends, and we therefore have a few amendments to consider. The Bill has already been subjected to extensive scrutiny both here and in another place, and I think it entirely appropriate to limit the amount of time available for discussion of the amendments.

Local government needs to be clear about exactly when the Bill will become an Act, so progress on it is very important. We need to make progress on, in particular, work relating to best value.

I understand that, in the main, the debates in the upper House were conducted in an excellent spirit, with noble Lords committed to clarifying the Bill and its implications. I hope that something of that spirit still attaches to the Bill and that we can have a productive and constructive discussion. All the amendments that we have to consider were introduced in another place by the Government, whether to clarify existing provisions or to meet concerns that had been expressed by noble Lords. They are intended not to be controversial, but solely to improve the Bill.

Therefore, I shall spend no further time discussing the guillotine motion and hope that we can move on as soon as possible to considering the amendments.

5.40 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

By any standards, this is an extraordinary motion, but, sadly, all too typical of the Government. There is a danger of regarding such motions as an everyday event. Indeed, they are almost becoming that; they are becoming a habit with the Government. Better than any glossy annual report, the motion reveals the Government's true state: it shows vividly their control-freak tendency.

We have to ask ourselves first: what has the motion to do with the Bill? The Minister referred to the history of the Bill. During the debate on the timetable motion, she talked about the scrutiny in Committee. She said: Debate was conducted in good spirit: it was overwhelmingly constructive, and there was a general intention to improve the Bill, not to wreck it."—[Official Report, 24 March 1999; Vol. 328, c. 399.]

Ms Armstrong

Hear, hear.

Mr. Waterson

I assume from that sedentary intervention that the Minister still stands by those sentiments. She made some complaint at the time that the Report stage was taking too long, hence the allocation of time motion. She will have read carefully the debates in the Lords. Indeed, she has conceded that the Lords had, to use her word, improved the Bill. One hesitates to think what will happen after the Lords have been emasculated by the Government.

The Lords debates have been constructive and concise. Many amendments were discussed in the other place and not pressed to a vote. There was clearly no attempt to delay the Bill. The Minister has implicitly conceded that point.

Ms Armstrong

indicated assent.

Mr. Waterson

The Minister does so again from a sedentary position.

We shall discuss an amendment on consultation with outside bodies over best value. That point, which was raised by Opposition Members in the Lords, was accepted in principle by the Minister in the other place and reproduced in the form of a Government amendment. That is just one concrete example of how the other place has set about the Bill in a constructive and workmanlike fashion—so much so that, in effect, all today's amendments are Government amendments, many of them technical in character.

I have a shrewd suspicion that debating all the amendments will take less time than is allocated for in the timetable motion. Therefore, why are we having the motion at all? It clearly has nothing to do with the business that is before us.

We shall not, of course, have the opportunity, because of the utter reasonableness of their lordships, to debate again some of the big issues in the Bill. The Government's desire to be over-prescriptive and over-centralising in their attitude to local government contrasts starkly with the Conservative party's approach to local government: it wants to localise and to repatriate powers to it. The Bill will, of course, give the Government unprecedented and draconian powers against local government.

The Government were not willing to accept in the Bill even a sunset provision. As the Bill now makes no such provision, we shall not be able to debate the matter. Neither does the Bill contain de minimis provision. Neither shall be we be able to debate the continuation, under another name, of capping—despite the Government's clear general election pledge to get rid of it. I return to my question: why exactly are the Government pressing their timetable motion today? Why use a sledgehammer to crack a nut? There can be no suggestion of the Opposition seeking to disrupt the passage of this business. Just a few days ago, on 22 July, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) rightly said—it applies also to this motion—that the Government's guillotines are caught up in some wider Government agenda". He went on to say: The guillotine has nothing to do with these two Bills; it is revenge"— for something else that happened.

I endorse those remarks entirely in the context of this guillotine. I also entirely agree with the shadow Leader of the House's remarks, made in the same debate, that The guillotine is therefore unnecessary and vindictive … it is an attempt to unite the Labour party after its well-advertised splits and tensions, and it does so at the expense of the freedoms of the House."—[Official Report, 22 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 1363-67.] The fact is that the Government are becoming positively promiscuous in their use of such motions to crush dissent and stifle debate. The motions reveal business managers' nervousness half-way through this Parliament, and after local and European election results and the recent Eddisbury by-election. I was pleased to see my new hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) take his seat earlier today.

As we approach the next general election, Government Whips will begin to find Labour Back Benchers less easy to control. We are also now entering the much-heralded so-called "year of delivery". However, between now and the next general election, glossy brochures will no longer be sufficient: the Government will have to start delivering on some of their pledges.

I am sure that there are other reasons for the motion—such as Labour Members who like to be tucked up in bed at an early hour; and Ministers who do not like facing the fast-bowling, or want to get off on their holidays. Perhaps the impending reshuffle, however, is the most significant reason for this ill-judged motion. I wish the Minister—I am sure that my right. hon. and hon. Friends will agree—nothing but the best in the impending reshuffle. We enjoy having her where she is, and wish her a long and happy stay in that position. However, reshuffles affect not only Ministers, but Whips.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

My hon. Friend was very selective. I wonder whether he was being so deliberately?

Mr. Waterson

I was probably being selective accidentally, if that is of any help to my hon. Friend—who made a cogent point, if only I knew what it was.

The fact is that such motions are a matter of not merely Ministers and Labour Back Benchers but Government Whips—who wish to appear macho, to protect their own jobs. It remains to be seen how successful they are in that endeavour.

As for the Opposition, I shall certainly not be seeking to divide the House on the motion. The Government, with their large majority, could certainly—yet again—steamroller it through. However, in the context not only of the Bill and its provisions, but of Parliament and its rights and duties, it is important that we should make it absolutely clear that we wholly deprecate the motion, and think that it is wholly unnecessary.

5.49 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

In the Minister's brief introduction to the debate, she relied fairly heavily on the argument that the matters that we shall be considering were "non-controversial"—I think that that was the term that she used. She seemed to imply that the provisions had been eased quietly through another place—where little debate on them was necessary—and that they were all just jolly good, non-controversial things on which we need not detain ourselves for too long. That in itself is controversial. It is not good enough for a Minister to say that something is non-controversial simply because she says so, and that therefore the House should pay little or no attention to it. That assertion needs to be challenged.

That would be so in any case. However, when one looks, even cursorily, at the headings for the groupings of amendments to be covered in three hours, if we agree to the motion—which I am reluctant to do without further clarification—one sees that we are to deal with matters such as "Consultation on performance indicators." That is a very broad subject. Consultation is never uncontroversial—maybe not the fact of it, but its extent. Those who are to be involved in consultation is a matter for debate.

We are then to be asked to consider: Inspections: housing benefit and council tax benefit. What could be more controversial than these matters? The House could easily spend three hours on each of them. Then we come to: Powers of the Secretary of State, and commencement". If there is one thing that should make the House anxious, it is the phrase: Powers of the Secretary of State". These matters have been debated with passion in Standing Committee and on the Floor of the House time and again, and rightly so. In that innocuous phrase could lie any number of controversial matters which the Minister has sought to brush under the carpet and slide through the House without further consideration. That is to say nothing about commencement which, I confess, may be relatively uncontroversial. However, in other circumstances, the nature and timing of the commencement of a Bill can be a matter for some argument.

We then come to an amendment charmingly headed "Minor and drafting". If ever I saw a candidate for closer inspection, that is it. How often have we come across matters of great importance buried under that innocuous-sounding heading?

Sir Paul Beresford

One aspect of "Minor and drafting" concerns the Greater London Authority, as the Government have had to shift the numbering of 10 clauses because the first 60 clauses have had another 10 added. Is not that an indication of the quality of the drafting and the thinking of the Department in proposing the Bill?

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend who reinforces my point. Concealed within this heading can be any number of changes—some of which, I accept, may be reasonable. However, others may well materially affect the substance of the Bill, and therefore deserve further consideration.

Last but not least, we are to consider "Council Tax and precepts"—a matter which, in the past, has often given rise to debates that have lasted a whole day. In your many years of distinguished service to the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will have been party to debates in Standing Committee, if not on the Floor of the House, in which "Council tax and precepts" alone could have given rise to many hours of impassioned debate by hon. Members. So many aspects of this matter would normally require detailed consideration and debate.

I am beginning to wonder whether the motion to restrict debate is remotely acceptable. I hope that the Minister will feel it necessary to expand on what she said to reassure us why she believes that only three hours is sufficient to deal with all these important matters. I do not accept her characterisation of these matters as non-controversial. How could council tax and the powers of the Secretary of State be non-controversial? I have never heard of such a thing.

It is getting towards the end of term, and the Minister has her bucket and spade on her mind—some of her right hon. Friends have caravanning on their minds. Ministers are all worried sick about the reshuffle, about which the Prime Minister seems unable to make up his mind. However, those are not good enough reasons to hurry through the business this evening. Ministers are all worried out of their minds about losing their gigantic ministerial salaries, private offices and chauffeur-driven cars, but they are paid enough and they should be prepared to be here as long as necessary to do justice to the matters before us. They should not say insultingly that they want to rush business through in three hours so that they can go to their offices and worry about whether they will still be in their jobs tomorrow.

I hope that the Minister will seek to expand on these matters as I ponder whether I wish to support the guillotine motion.

5.57 pm
Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

I listened closely to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), the Opposition spokesman, and I heard nothing worthwhile to support his objection to the guillotine motion—a motion which, on principle, Liberal Democrats would normally want to oppose. However, we need reasons for opposing the motion.

A great deal of time has been spent on this Bill in this House, in Committee and in another place. We will spend some time on it tonight, and there will be opportunities in future to spend more time on it.

The reasons given by the official Opposition seem to have nothing to do with the business before us, and are simply opposition for opposition's sake. I hope that we can draw this debate to a fairly prompt close so that we can get on with debating the Lords amendments.

5.58 pm
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

That was an extraordinary speech from someone who claims to represent a party which is seeking to hold the Government to account.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that it was hardly an extraordinary speech? It was a typical speech from a Liberal Democrat.

Mr. Leigh

I agree, and to take my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) to task for what I thought was an over-moderate speech and for daring to speak one word of opposition to the Government was ridiculous of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders).

I wish to refer to timetable motions, which were quite rare. There were no timetable motions at all in the House until the controversies of the Government of Ireland legislation in the last century, when the Bill raged back and forth on Report alone for some 80 days and the Speaker had to stay in his seat literally for hour after hour. The whole Government were in danger of crumbling because they could not keep their people on the Benches for those hours.

When I entered this House, I did not think that timetable motions were applicable to minor amendments at this late stage of a Bill. The Government cannot have it both ways. If these amendments are uncontroversial, surely there is no need for a timetable motion. Surely nobody suspects that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) would talk for hour after hour and hold up the Government's business. In fact, we will not be able to hold anything up, because there is no major business to conclude before we all go on holiday tomorrow.

Three hours is not long for any debate, but if my right hon. and hon. Friends wanted to spend three hours on the timetable motion, there would be no time at all to discuss the amendments. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst maintains that the amendments are not uncontroversial. That may be part of the truth, but they contain nothing that is likely to detain the House for hour after hour.

The House will have to come to a sensible conclusion about timetable motions if we are to protect our traditional role of scrutinising the Executive. Are we entering a period when virtually every Bill is timetabled? Some think that that would be a good idea.

Ms Armstrong

indicated assent

Mr. Leigh

Some believe that one should have an agreement from the word go, to stop filibustering and prevent the Opposition from talking for hour after hour in Committee while Government Back Benchers are told by their Whips to say nothing. That is a perfectly justifiable point of view.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend mentioned filibustering. I hope that he will accept that that is impossible in the House because of the diligence and wisdom of the occupants of the Chair, who will always prevent any suggestion of time wasting or frivolity.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman should not try to draw the Chair into the argument.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

My hon. Friend may not have noticed just now that the Minister showed that she wholeheartedly agreed that the more business was guillotined, the better it was from her point of view.

Mr. Leigh

The Minister is an honest lady who is entitled to her point of view. She believes that all business should be timetabled. That is a rational and logical point of view. That might be convenient for the Government, because it would mean that they could plan their business exactly, but it might not be entirely convenient for the Opposition or, more important, for the process of democracy, which relies on Oppositions using the one power that is available to them—to speak. That power has not been taken lightly and has often resulted in the harsh light of scrutiny being thrown on Bills.

Are we playing a game in the House, in which the Government say their piece, we say ours, and they get their business through with some cosy arrangement agreed through the usual channels; or is this a living and vibrant place in which people feel passionately and use the power available to Back Benchers to talk and talk and subject the Executive to scrutiny, perhaps thereby making the Government slip up? That is what we are paid to do. It is a noble and important role for Oppositions.

Mr. Swayne

When programme motion after programme motion was agreed between Government and Opposition Front Benchers during the passage of the Scotland Bill

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman does not need to give me the history of the Scotland Bill. I was sitting here at the time. We do not want to get into that.

Mr. Leigh

This is not the Scotland Bill; it is not a matter of huge controversy. In the 1970s, we took weeks and weeks to discuss devolution legislation. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was there day after day—as were the late Mr. Enoch Powell, and Mr. Michael Foot—holding the Government to account. What is wrong with that?

We will not have hour after hour and day after day of controversy on the Bill, but we are saying that it is treating the House with contempt to allow only three hours for our deliberations, including the timetable motion. The Government should be ashamed of themselves.

6.5 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The problem when a programme motion is agreed between Government and Opposition Front Benchers is that, in the ordinary course of debate, issues are discovered that require further elucidation by the Minister or, indeed, by Back Benchers. The timetable motion, agreed in advance, simply cannot take account of that. That is why such motions should be avoided if at all possible.

The motion is entirely avoidable. It may be that we will not come across issues that could have detained us long, but it remains a possibility. That is why it is pointless to have a programme motion when one is clearly not needed.

Question put and agreed to

Resolved, That the Order of the House of 24th March 1999 be supplemented as follows: