HC Deb 03 November 1999 vol 337 cc298-303

9. 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 7.

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

11. Proceedings to which paragraph 9 applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

12. No dilatory Motion with respect to, or in the course of, proceedings to which paragraph 9 applies shall be made except by a Minister of the Crown; and the Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

13. Where proceedings on a Motion for the Adjournment of the House would, by virtue of Standing Order No. 24 (Urgent matters), commence at a time when proceedings to which paragraph 9 applies are in progress, the proceedings on the Motion shall be postponed to the conclusion of the proceedings to which paragraph 9 applies.

14. If the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the conclusion of any proceedings to which paragraph 9 applies, 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.

I suspect that most hon. Members will want to debate the substance of the Bill and the amendments, rather than the timetable motion. However, the Government have tabled a timetable motion to allow proper consideration of all those parts of the Bill, especially those parts in which hon. Members have expressed special interest—particularly the provisions on incapacity benefit, which we have arranged to debate first, so that they will be debated in prime time and proper consideration is given to them.

I shall not say anything more now—

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Darling

Yes, I certainly shall, but in a moment. I was going to say that I did not plan to take up any more of the House's time now, so that we could get on to the real meat of the debate. However, as the hon. Gentleman has intervened, I shall give way to him.

Mr. McLoughlin

Will the Secretary of State explain the Government's thinking on allowing business to collapse early on Monday, but timetabling today's business?

Mr. Darling

As the hon. Gentleman should know—he is an Opposition Whip—that is a matter not for me, but for the business managers.

I do not have anything to add now. If hon. Members desire the Government's reply to any particular point, I shall deal with it.

3.42 pm
Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

The Opposition strongly oppose this guillotine, but we shall not divide the House on it, as a Division would eat into valuable time that we need to devote to the Bill's substance. I merely state how unhappy we are that the Government have managed the business in the past few days in such a manner as to limit scrutiny of the Bill to one extremely cramped sitting. It would have been perfectly possible to have the two-day debate on the Bill that Opposition Members requested.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) is absolutely right to say that it was extraordinary that we spent Monday debating the Record Copies of Acts motion, which was essentially concerned with whether Acts of Parliament should be printed on paper or vellum. We have spent a day on vellum, and we shall now have a day on disability benefits, widows' benefits, IR 35, and a host of other matters. It demonstrates a bizarre set of priorities.

We strongly deprecate the fact that it was not possible to find two days for a debate, and are confident that it would have been perfectly possible to debate all the relevant matters without needing a guillotine.

The Government are terrified of challenge and scrutiny. What a contrast with the promises in their original consultation document on welfare reform, which, in the foreword's final paragraph, states: It will take time. Frank Field"— those were the days— has started the process in this Green Paper. Now that the process is under way, we want all the nation to be part of it. There will be consultation and time for discussion at every stage. That promise was signed by "Tony Blair, Prime Minister". We know how much it was worth.

I should also like very briefly to mention the extraordinary events of last night, when the Government tabled a guillotine motion that would have made out of order any vote, at any stage, on any amendment not tabled by the Government. That was an outrageous attempt to restrict parliamentary scrutiny. However, under pressure from hon. Members on both sides of the House, the Government withdrew their initial guillotine motion, revised it and tabled the motion that we are now debating. The lesson that I draw from the episode is that Ministers were trying to bully the House. Hon. Members on both sides stood up to the bully. We did it last night on procedure and we can do it tonight on the substance.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts

I do not propose to give way. I have spoken very briefly. I oppose the motion, but I do not intend to press for a Division.

3.45 pm
Mr. Kaufman

As the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) will not give way, may I take one minute of the House's time to ask a rhetorical question? If the Conservatives believe not having enough time to discuss such issues is reprehensible, why, when they were in government, did they regularly kill Bills proposed by Labour Members to help the disabled simply by calling out "object"? Perhaps they could inscribe that on vellum and explain it.

If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's concessions of £200 million are not enough, perhaps the Conservatives could explain how much more they would spend and how they would raise the money. Time may be limited, but they have an opportunity to respond to questions that cry out for an answer, in view of the hypocrisy that pervades their party on the issue.

3.46 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I certainly cannot answer the rhetorical question from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). I have some sympathy with his expression of concern. However, the guillotine motion is different from most of those that have come before the House under successive Governments. We have always opposed them and shall continue to do so. We would have opposed the motion in the Division Lobby this evening, but we want to avoid taking useful time out of the debate.

The motion is particularly disreputable. I hope that Labour Members will analyse it carefully. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats made it clear to the Leader of the House last week that we were only too happy to devote two days to this very important Bill. Two days were available. On the past two nights, debates have petered out and the House has risen early because the subjects did not deserve the time allocated to them.

The Government were unwilling to allocate two days to the Bill, not because they wanted to allocate less time, but because they did not want prime media time to be available to Back-Bench Labour Members. That is why the Bill has been compressed into this evening. We even offered to go beyond midnight tonight on the Bill, as did the Conservatives, to ensure that there was proper time for the consideration of all the amendments.

As the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has said, the motion tabled last night was designed not to gag the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives, but to gag Labour Back Benchers who disagreed on principle with the Government. The guillotine motion is aimed not at the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, but at those Labour Members—members of the governing party—who have dared to put their heads above the parapet. They should look at the motion in detail. Every part of it has been designed deliberately to gag Labour Members who happen not to accept the control freak autocracy of their Front Benchers.

All hon. Members sitting opposite me—I trust that they are all honourable Members—should look carefully at how the Government have lost their nerve on the Bill. They are so proud of what they are doing that they are deliberately forcing it down the throats not of us or of the Conservatives, but of Labour Members. As the evening progresses, I hope that Labour Members will refuse to accept that dishonourable conduct.

3.50 pm
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

The timetable will give little time between 10 o'clock and midnight to discuss the issue of service companies. The House should be aware of the distress that that will cause outside, particularly as the proposals on service companies were proposed on Report, which meant that they were unable to be subject to scrutiny in Committee. The proposals went to the other place, where they were subject to detailed scrutiny.

Between 10 o'clock and midnight, the House will have to discuss 150 Lords amendments and no fewer than 40 Government amendments to Lords amendments, most of which affect service companies. This demonstrates the contempt of the Government for entrepreneurs who cannot afford to take their holidays in Italy at somebody else's expense. Many individuals have taken time off today to come to this House to see our democracy at work, and they will find it most unlikely that there will be any proper debate on the amendments passed in another place. The Government have recognised that these amendments have substance, as they have tabled 40 amendments relating to them.

If the Government were to explain properly the implications of their 40 amendments—as they would have to have done in Committee—that would take up most of the two hours. The Government are steamrollering this provision through, and the people of this country should be aware of the utter contempt in which the Government hold them. This is yet another example of the Government's gross and unacceptable arrogance.

3.51 pm
Mr. Darling

There is nothing unusual about a Government guillotining measures in the House. I was elected in 1987—by definition, much of the time since has been under Conservative Governments—and I can remember guillotine after guillotine being imposed by the Conservatives. I remember a Finance Bill one year in which a guillotine was imposed after only three or four hours of debate.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) might be interested to know that, on the Social Security Bill 1990, the Conservative Government imposed a guillotine of just three hours in a debate which sought to overturn 20 Lords amendments. We have several hours between now and midnight to debate essentially eight measures.

From my experience in the House, I believe that a timetable motion can sometimes lead to better and more debate than if time is taken up by vote after vote. These votes are sometimes provoked by Back Benchers—we have seen this from Conservative Members—simply as a filibustering exercise.

When we last debated the Bill—again under a timetable motion—the quality of the debate and the orderly and civil manner in which it was conducted were a credit to the House. Our proposals will achieve orderly debate, and if hon. Members organise and discipline themselves properly, all matters of concern will be fully and properly debated.

Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)

The Secretary of State has understandably chided the Conservatives for the hypocrisy of their stance on guillotines. Will he share with the House his hypocrisy as, when he was in opposition, he would have said the same thing that the Conservatives are saying now?

Mr. Darling

I have always believed that there is a case for timetabling a lot of Government business—it would be much better debated if that were the case.

Turning to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), I do not know what the Liberal Democrats' definition of prime time is. However, I would have thought that if this House has prime time, this is it. Business starts at 3.30 pm every day. We have arranged for probably the most controversial part of the Bill to be discussed in prime time—in good time for the evening news bulletins and tomorrow's newspapers. The hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that it would be better if we went on into the middle of the night. I do not know if that is the Liberal Democrats' prime time, but to me prime time is now. The Government are actually facilitating debate in prime time.

Mr. Tyler

Is the Secretary of State aware that both the main Opposition parties offered full consultation and co-operation in taking this stage of the Bill yesterday at this time, allowing two full days of debate?

Mr. Darling

I was not aware of that, but that is a matter for the usual channels to discuss—as they frequently do. I find the concern of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats for the well-being of my Labour colleagues interesting, but despite that—

Mr. Willetts


Mr. Darling

I was going to say that I sense that most hon. Members would like to get on to the substance of the Bill rather than discussing the timetable, but as a matter of courtesy I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Willetts

We have just discovered that the Secretary of State was not aware of the offer of two days. Was he aware of the original draft of the guillotine motion, which would have excluded all voting on any amendments other than the Government's?

Mr. Darling

Yes, I was, and this is a far better motion, showing that the Government are more than happy to have the debate. I do not shrink from that debate, and I urge the House now to move on to the substance of the business before us rather than spending any more time discussing a timetable motion that it would seem we are all largely agreed on.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Order of the House of 20th May 1999 be supplemented as follows—