HC Deb 07 February 2000 vol 344 cc83-9 7.34 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

I beg to move,

That, if the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill be read a second time, no Order shall be made for the committal of the Bill and it shall be ordered to be read a third time upon a future day; and upon a Motion being made for Third Reading the Question thereon shall be put forthwith and may be decided, though opposed, after the expiration of the time for opposed business. I shall be happy to answer any questions that arise.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

As I understand the motion, it is to provide a special and accelerated procedure for our proceedings on the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill later this week, and the intention is to comply with the provision of the Parliament Acts that the Bill, when it leaves the Commons, must be identical in virtually every respect to the Bill previously enacted here.

The precedents for the motion are somewhat scarce. Unusually, my researches unearthed precedents set by Liberal Governments, which suggests that we are trespassing on what might mark the political boundary between history and archaeology.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Has my hon. Friend found any precedent for such a motion on a matter of conscience that goes to the heart of people's behaviour?

Mr. Lidington

That is a good point. It is true that such a motion has been used previously to enact measures of intense party controversy and that it was employed on the War Crimes Bill in 1991—a measure that, although the subject of fierce controversy, was given a free vote in both Houses of Parliament—but I do not believe that there is a precedent for a Bill to be dealt with under the Parliament Acts that deals with a matter of personal moral and religious beliefs.

I hope that the Minister will be able to explain in a little more detail than he has yet been willing to do what the Government's motives are for using the Parliament Acts and not at least trying out the opinion of the newly reformed other place, and why they are employing this precise motion to give effect to those Parliament Act procedures.

I was surprised that the Government, having told the House that the removal of the hereditary peers was essential to get rid of what they regarded as a tremendous injustice, should now apparently have so little confidence in their reformed Chamber that they are unwilling to put the Bill to the test of a vote in it.

I question the need for the motion. The precedents are limited. In 1913 and 1914, Parliament Act motions of this kind were introduced for the Government of Ireland Bill, the Established Church (Wales) Bill and the Plural Voting Bill. It is perhaps worth noting that the incumbent Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, moved those motions; those were days when Prime Ministers were rather more keen on appearances at the Dispatch Box.

The motion provides that, after Second Reading, there will be no Committee stage and that, although there may be a motion for Third Reading—and my understanding is that it could be voted on—there will be no debate on that motion.

Miss McIntosh

I have just been to the Public Bill Office to try to table an amendment to the Bill, and I was told that, if the motion is approved this evening, no hon. Member will be permitted to table one. That is deeply regrettable. The House will not be allowed the opportunity to consider an amendment to equalise the age of consent at 18, which would be entirely in keeping with European law.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Lady should not attempt to make a speech in an intervention.

Mr. Lidington

Questions arise over the removal of the Committee stage and the possibility of debate on Third Reading. The Government's argument is that, in order to comply with the procedures laid down in the Parliament Acts, we cannot have a Committee stage. However, I find it strange that a Government with a majority of about 180 should be so nervous of the normal Committee procedure.

The Government have plenty of weapons available. They have a comfortable majority and, although such Bills have always been decided—and will be decided this Thursday—on a free vote, there is a big majority in the House as now constituted for the principle behind the Bill. The Government also have available the normal procedures to manage business, including closure motions and guillotines.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's constitutional arguments. If we were to have a Committee stage during which—heaven forfend—Conservative Members attempted to filibuster and the Government had to move a closure motion, may I take it from what he has just said that the Conservatives would not then jump up and down and scream and shout about the curtailment of democracy?

Mr. Lidington

On all proceedings in previous Sessions on the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, the Conservative party has operated a free vote, without the application of party Whips. That applies to the motion tonight and would apply to any vote held on the substance of the Bill or any other procedural motions relating to it. In free votes, as the hon. Gentleman knows, my Front-Bench colleagues take different views, depending on their personal opinions. That is how it should be with a Bill of this nature and that is how we will continue to operate.

The Government's argument, as I have said, is that to comply with the Parliament Acts, it is necessary to have no Committee stage. Those arguments were made by the Liberal Government in 1913 and 1914, by the Labour Government in 1948 and by the Conservative Government in 1991. However, there is an alternative available to the Government that has not previously—as far as I am aware—been mentioned and that is explicitly provided for in section 2(4) of the Parliament Act 1911. That Act, while it states clearly that the Bill sent from the House of Commons must be the same as that which was passed in the previous Session, also states that the House of Commons may, if they think fit, on the passage of such a Bill through the House … suggest any further amendments without inserting the amendments in the Bill, and any such suggested amendments shall be considered by the House of Lords, and if agreed to by that House, shall be treated as amendments made by the House of Lords, and agreed to by the House of Commons; but the exercise of this power by the House of Commons shall not affect the operation of this section in the event of the Bill being rejected by the House of Lords. The provision was designed to retain for the House of Commons the right to consider possible amendments to a Bill being brought forward under the Parliament Acts, without that compromising its ultimate rights to overrule the House of Lords and insist that the will of the Commons should prevail. When the Minister winds up, I hope that he will tell us whether the Government will provide for what is sometimes termed the suggestions procedure to operate in respect of the Bill.

The precedents show that no less a figure than Winston Churchill, at the time a Cabinet Minister in a Liberal Government, said: The Suggestion stage is … to enable either small points which are oversights to be set right by general agreement or to enable suggestions of compromise to be put forward and debated. The root principle of the Parliament Act is that every Amendment which makes for agreement, and for a change in a Bill which tends to lessen disagreement, can be incorporated in the Bill without depriving it of the advantages of the … Parliament Act."—[Official Report, 23 June 1913; Vol. LIV, c. 843.] We should ponder carefully before we agree to a procedural motion that would considerably curtail the rights of every Back Bencher to debate the Bill and to suggest ways in which it could be improved. Of course, once Second Reading had taken place, any amendments would have to comply with the overall purpose of the Bill.

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)

Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that the House has not already had sufficient time for debate on the Bill in the previous Session?

Mr. Lidington

One thing that I have learned in my relatively brief time here is that almost every piece of legislation introduced by any Government benefits from debate and amendment. Too often, I have seen Governments introduce legislation, curtail debate by procedural devices and then, a couple of years later, discover that it is far from perfect. The courts have to try to sort it out or it has to be amended through further legislation.

The motions that were debated in 1913 and 1949 said that suggestions should be made in the form of a motion on the Order Paper tabled between Second Reading and Third Reading. If we are not to have a Committee stage, it would still be possible for the House to follow the procedures laid down in the Parliament Acts, provided that there was a gap between Second and Third Readings. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain whether the Government intend to proceed to Third Reading on Thursday immediately after Second Reading or whether they will set a further day for the formal motion of Third Reading. If the suggested procedure is to be followed, who is to decide whether a particular motion is selected for the debate? Will it be the Government, will it be Madam Speaker, or will there be a discussion through the usual channels?

I am also concerned that the Government have decided against allowing any time for Third Reading. This was, as I have acknowledged, part of the 1991 resolution of the House, but the previous precedents for measures of this type in 1913, 1914 and 1949, while curtailing the possibility of amendments being moved in Committee, allowed the House time for a full debate and a Division on Third Reading as well as on Second Reading. So there is a difference between the way in which the Government are choosing to proceed this week and the way in which previous Governments have approached the powers given to them under the Parliament Acts.

My conclusion is that the only explanation for the Government's conduct is that they are fearful and embarrassed about the prospect of their Bill being debated in detail and at proper length in the Chamber. It is a great pity that they should choose not to rely on the good sense of individual Members to debate this measure with the maturity and judgment that I think has characterised debate on the Bill. It is a pity that they should propose a procedural motion that severely restricts the right of the House of Commons to debate an important measure on which many of our constituents have strong opinions. The Government owe the House a more detailed and compelling explanation than Ministers have provided so far.

7.52 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I share with the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) the hope that there will be a fuller explanation from the Minister in a few minutes. I do not wish to delay him, so I shall be extremely brief.

It was unfortunate that, instead of putting options to the Opposition parties, the Government decided to proceed with one option because, as has been said, there are several. One would have been a guillotine motion, and Liberal Democrats would have resisted that firmly as being inappropriate. I hope, too, that the Conservatives would have recognised that as inappropriate to this measure, which is an issue of conscience on which we all believe that a free vote is appropriate. It would have been helpful if we had been given the opportunity to consider the Parliament Act procedure under which suggested amendments can be brought forward without pre-judging whether the Act could be used. It is unfortunate that we do not have such an opportunity

Issues still need to be discussed properly in both Houses, and I hope that there will be opportunities to do so. I hope that the debate on Second Reading will be as wide ranging as it should be. I hope in particular that Ministers will consider some of the issues that still cause concern, such as the abuse of a position of trust. There are anomalies that need to be cleared up. Even if they cannot be cleared up in the Bill, some assurance by the Minister introducing the Second Reading debate is desirable.

We have reached a point where perception is as important as substance. The perception is that if this House, or the other place, puts major obstacles in the passage of the Bill, there will be a widespread view that Parliament is yet again dragging its heels over an issue on which there is a settled view. My colleagues and I have considered the precedents carefully, as has the hon. Member for Aylesbury. We accept that there is a good case for proceeding with this motion and we will therefore support it.

7.54 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

The motion tonight is a purely procedural one. The substance of the matter and the Bill to be considered on Second Reading on Thursday has been debated at length—exhaustively—with some good speeches from both sides and some that were, quite frankly, best forgotten. All in all, we have had an opportunity, time and again, to consider the substance of the debate and a settled view has been arrived at by the House, as hon. Members have said in this debate.

Let me outline briefly why we have alighted on this procedure. It is important, in so doing, to look briefly at the Bill's unhappy history, particularly at the sorry account of the treatment of these proposals in another place. In accordance with the Government's agreement, reached on the cases before the European Court of Human Rights of Sutherland and Morris, the House was given an opportunity to consider the equalisation of the age of consent as an amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill as long ago as 22 June 1998. Concern was voiced in that debate about the need to protect young people from abuse of trust. Nevertheless, the House agreed the amendment, on a free vote, by 336 votes to 129. However, on 22 July, the amendment was rejected, on a free vote, in another place. When the Bill returned to the House on 28 July, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it clear that we would not press the amendment but would reintroduce the legislation in the 1998–99 Session. The House then agreed not to reinstate the amendment in that Bill.

In accordance with that commitment, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill was introduced on 16 December 1998, this time containing provisions on both the age of consent and on abuse of trust. The Bill was overwhelmingly supported by the House, on a free vote, on Second Reading, by 313 votes to 130. It was then considered in detail in Committee. There are some hon. Members present tonight who participated in that detailed and useful consideration, as a result of which an amendment was accepted which, if my memory serves me well, came initially from the Opposition. The Bill was considered in detail in Committee, including on the Floor of the House, for 12 hours and 56 minutes. On Third Reading, the Bill was passed by 281 votes to 82, and was sent to another place, where it was refused a Second Reading, again on a free vote, by 222 votes to 146.

We subsequently concluded that it was right to give Parliament a further opportunity to consider the issue. In response to a question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) on 23 July, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced that the Government had, with the agreement of the applicants, sought a further extension of the European Court of Human Rights cases of Sutherland and Morris. As part of that application, we undertook to the court to reintroduce the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill this Session and said that, if necessary, the Parliament Acts would be used to secure its passage. That decision was reaffirmed in the Gracious Speech.

I have listened to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), but tonight's motion can hardly have come as a surprise to him. The suggestion that this is in some way a curtailment of the rights of Back Benchers does not bear examination. I think that, in the cold light of day, even he would accept that.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I have two simple factual questions for the Minister. Can he confirm that, if the Bill goes through this House on Thursday and goes to the other place, his colleagues there will have a free vote on Second Reading? Can he also confirm that the Lords will then be free to look, for the first time, at the abuse of positions of trust provisions if they want to?

Mr. Boateng

These are all matters of conscience; they are matters for a free vote. It is not for me to speak of what will occur in the other place—that would be presumptuous.

Mr. Tyler

Go on—why change the habits of a lifetime?

Mr. Boateng

Do not tempt me—I must resist. The tradition has been that these should be seen as matters of conscience.

In bringing the Bill back before Parliament, we have made it clear that we will resort to the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 if another attempt is made in another place to reject the Bill. We do not do that lightly. We understand that beliefs on the age of consent are strongly held, and we respect them. However, the Parliament Acts exist for a reason—to resolve disputes between the two Houses, such as the present one, in which the will of the elected House has been repeatedly frustrated by the unelected Chamber.

The view of the House of Commons has been clear on every occasion on which the issues of the Bill has been debated. If it receives on Thursday the same overwhelming endorsement that it won in the previous Session, the repeated expressed will of the elected representatives of the people must ultimately prevail, in a democracy, over that of the unelected Chamber.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

The right hon. Gentleman said a moment ago that he did not wish to be tempted, but I should like to draw him slightly forward because I proposed the amendment that the Government graciously accepted in the previous Session. Does he agree that the Bill is of precisely the type that could benefit if the other place agreed to hold a Committee stage, although, of course, the other place must not ultimately reject the Bill or delay its passage?

Mr. Boateng

No, I shall not be tempted. My experience of the hon. Gentleman tells me that it unwise ever to be tempted by him on anything.

Let me deal briefly with the constitutional principles surrounding use of the Parliament Acts. The hon. Member for Aylesbury suggested that our use of the Acts was some sort of innovation. It is not so; the War Crimes Act 1991 was a similar issue of conscience and morality on which different views were honestly held and persuasive arguments made on both sides. In that case, the Conservative Administration saw no constitutional impediment to using the Parliament Acts to enforce the will of the House of Commons to enact a Bill on which there had been a free vote in both Houses. It is the same with the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the other House would be free to consider any amendment that we might choose to attach to the Bill, under what he described as the "suggestions" procedure. We see no need to offer suggested amendments. We take the view that the Bill was thoroughly considered and amended during the previous Session, and we see no need for further amendment. The House thought it appropriate to send the Bill to the other place, and we believe that we should send it again. Between that date and this, nothing has changed that would affect the provisions then agreed. Of course, it remains open to the House of Lords to suggest any amendment. The Bill would then return to this place for our consideration.

Against that background, I commend the procedural motion. The principles of the Bill are clear. It was considered exhaustively by the House during the previous session. We spent 23 hours and 15 minutes considering it. We do not need the formality of Committee or Report stages; nor do we need another Third Reading debate. The motion provides that no order should be made for the Bill's committal in the event of its receiving a Second Reading, and that it should be read the Third time with the Question being put forthwith, and decided, if opposed,

after the expiration of time for opposed business. The Bill deals with serious issues, but those issues have been repeatedly and exhaustively aired. No new issues have been raised in the Bill, which is identical to that sent to the other place in the previous Session. However, the House will have the opportunity on Thursday to discuss the substantive issue and to give its opinion on the Bill. We shall hear a wide range of opinion on the matter. If, as I am sure that it will, the House continues to believe that the Bill should proceed, that should happen as soon as possible without any need for additional and fruitless stages. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That, if the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill be read a second time, no Order shall be made for the committal of the Bill and it shall be ordered to be read a third time upon a future day; and upon a Motion being made for Third Reading the Question thereon shall be put forthwith and may be decided, though opposed, after the expiration of the time for opposed business.

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