HC Deb 19 January 2000 vol 342 cc938-45

10 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

With permission, I should like to make a short business statement.

In view of the lack of progress on the Bill tonight, I regret that the first business tomorrow will be the Representation of the People Bill (Allocation of Time) motion, followed by conclusion of the remaining stages of that Bill. The business for the remainder of that day will be a debate on the Braithwaite report on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I greatly regret the business statement by the Leader of the House. The Bill that was before us this evening concerns the representation of the people. It is the Government's answer to falling turnouts at local elections and general elections and the dismal turnout at the European elections of just over 23 per cent. Tonight's announcement is a slap in the face for our democratic system and will do nothing to promote representative democracy.

The Representation of the People Bill has enormous repercussions for the way in which we will vote in this country. It gives the Home Secretary enormous powers—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. There must be quiet in the House, so that everyone can hear what he is saying.

Mr. Evans

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Bill has enormous repercussions for the way in which we will vote in this country. It gives the Home Secretary enormous powers to alter the hours of the vote, the number of days of the ballot, where ballot boxes will be placed and who is able to vote. It is ironic that that is the Bill that is being treated so badly by the Government.

Guillotining that vital constitutional legislation will damage the very fabric of our parliamentary democracy.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not anticipate the debate that has been announced for tomorrow. This is a business statement and I hope that all questions to the Leader of the House will be relatively brief.

Mr. Evans

Full debate on and scrutiny of the remaining stages of the Bill is vital. The lack of it will ensure a poorer Bill. We have accused the Government of having no regard for this country's constitution, and nothing proves it more than their actions this evening. I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider the decision and to allow full debate on the remaining stages of the Bill.

Mrs. Beckett

I concur with the hon. Gentleman's remarks in so far as I accept that it is an important Bill. That is why the Government have taken it on the Floor of the House and why we have been prepared to be open in discussion about the handling of it. Indeed, we were asked for a day to deal with the items that were before the House today, and that time was provided.

It is my understanding that the time has been taken to debate the use of such words as "temporary" or the phrase "for example". The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Bill raises important issues. I am sure that he is as aware as I am that the House can work only with a degree of consent. When it appears that a small handful of hon. Members exploit that consent, the House has to take that into account and to change the ground rules.

On Thursday, I made the business statement and announced the time allocated for the Bill. Not one single Conservative Member—the hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day), who is speaking from a sedentary position, was not even here—raised the issue of the Bill, said that there was any problem, or that the time was in any way inadequate. It is too late to do so now.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Thirteen batches of amendments have been tabled on Report. So far today, we have not even completed the first three because of the activity on the Opposition Benches. The last three groups of amendments on the amendment paper stand in my name. If they had been discussed, there is no reason why the Minister and I could not have dealt with them in 20 minutes or so. In drawing up the timetable motion, I hope that consideration will be given to dealing with serious matters towards the end of the Bill that might otherwise be neglected.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's point, and I have great sympathy with him. He has a long track record of activity on and expertise and serious interest in these matters. He will appreciate that it is not easy to reflect what he seeks, but I will certainly bear his remarks in mind.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Is it not the case that the business statement has been made as a consequence of the insufferable attempts at filibustering by certain right hon. and hon. Members? Is it not also the case that their motive has been not an interest in the Representation of the People Bill, but a desire to talk out the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill? When the Leader of the House makes her statement tomorrow, can she guarantee a slot for the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill so that it receives proper scrutiny by the House and is not subject to further delay?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. It is particularly unfortunate that some of those who have been discussing at great length quite minor issues in the Bill—considering that it contains some serious issues that they could have been discussing—said that their opposition to the original fur farming legislation was because it was a private Member's Bill when it should have been a Government Bill. Now it is a Government Bill, and although I cannot undertake to give the hon. Gentleman full details tomorrow, I can confirm that it will be a Government Act and that it will go on the statute book.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what has happened today has been an absolute disgrace and makes a mockery of Parliament? Is she further aware that her statement is quite justified, and that there can be no other way of proceeding with this measure?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He makes the point that when a few abuse the freedoms and privileges rightly enjoyed by this House, they bring them into jeopardy.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Leader of the House tell us what she is afraid of? Why can the House not continue its proper debate on the Bill, making steady progress as it has been doing this evening? Why has the right hon. Lady come here in a fit of pique, wearing her jackboots? Will she acknowledge that her colleagues are not prepared to continue considering the Bill any time after 10 o'clock, a time that seems to have some magic significance for her? Why can we not simply get on with our business and consider the Bill? What objection does the Leader of the House have to continuing consideration of the Bill in the perfectly orderly way in which it has been conducted so far?

Mrs. Beckett

Many of the issues that I understand the right hon. Gentleman has been discussing this evening could have been raised on either of the first two days that the Bill was debated on the Floor of the House. However, he took no part in those debates. I am sorry to disappoint him but I am not afraid of anything except an abuse of the freedoms of the many in this House by the exploitation of a few.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Will the Leader of the House explain what on earth is the point of inviting Conservative Members to participate in the working party on whose work the Representation of the People Bill was built, when other Conservative Members abuse Parliament on Report?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is extremely difficult. We recognise that hon. Members of all parties play a serious part in the business of the House and address the issues that we are sent here to address. However, from time to time there are those who frivolously exploit their opportunities, but there we go.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Is not this another intolerant act from an increasingly intolerant Government? [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady was not in the Chamber for one minute of today's debates. Had she been here, she would have heard her hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) support points made by the Opposition. Will she tell us what the Report stage is about, if we are not allowed a further four hours—at the present rate of progress—to complete the Bill in an ordered and serious manner? If the right hon. Lady had bothered to be in the Chamber during part of the Report stage, she would not have had to rely on second and third-hand accounts of what she thought was being debated.

Mrs. Beckett

Like other hon. Members, I am able to take advantage of modern communications in the House, so I know what is happening. I should take the right hon. Gentleman's representations more seriously, first, if they were not a characteristic feature of his behaviour and, secondly, if he had contributed to the proceedings on the Bill during either of the first two full days of debate on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Will my right hon. Friend consider the representations on the whole process of timetabling that I made to her and the Chief Whip? Does not tonight's ridiculous charade underline the arguments in favour of timetabling all business?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely correct in that—as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) pointed out and as, I am sure, Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen recognise—there are undoubtedly useful issues in the Bill which should be debated. The time made available for debate was not challenged until this evening; that time has been used not to discuss serious issues but to filibuster. That is an abuse of the House.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

I am sorry that the right hon. Lady has not yet told the House what her intentions are with regard to the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill— [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah.") That Bill raises matters of considerable importance, which touch on the liberty of the subject. I want the Bill to be properly debated, at the proper time, so that I can speak and vote against it. It was never a good idea to put a Bill of such importance on late at night. I hope that when she decides on when we shall debate that Bill, we shall do so early in the day and with sufficient time.

Mrs. Beckett

I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have every intention of giving time for that matter to be debated and voted on. I note that this is the first admission from the Opposition that the need to debate the Representation of the People Bill has to do with the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill—the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just made my point.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House and the hard-pressed fishing communities of Scarborough and Whitby what will happen to the Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Bill? Is not the lack of seriousness with which the Opposition take such issues an indictment of the Opposition? When can we return to that important business which is vital to my constituents?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is correct. What is more, I suspect that he is probably speaking for some Opposition Members, although for reasons that we all understand, they are showing a certain amount of collegiate loyalty. Although, last Thursday, I was not pressed to find more time for the Bill that was debated this evening, I was pressed to find an opportunity to discuss fishing issues. My hon. Friend will know that one of the Bills that has been lost for today's business, as a result of the activities of Opposition Members, would have offered an opportunity to discuss fishing issues.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

When the Labour Members who are shouting and bawling—almost none of them bothered to attend today's debates— [Interruption.] When they read Hansard tomorrow morning, they will discover that, since 5 o'clock, we have held a constructive, good-humoured and well-ordered debate. Will the Leader of the House tell us why she has not bothered to come into the Chamber to see what has been going on? Will she tell the House why she is so terrified of debate, and of scrutiny by Opposition Members?

Mrs. Beckett

I am shaking in my shoes, naturally, as a result of that condemnation. I will simply say to the hon. Gentleman that, so far as I can see, he too is one of those who did not contribute to debates on any stage of the Bill until today. Of course it is perfectly legitimate for him to do so, but I simply say to him that his concern is perhaps a little late found.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

As the promoter of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill in the last Session, I assure my right hon. Friend that the Conservative Members—two of them in particular—who have been filibustering this afternoon have form in that respect. What does she think that the Conservative party has to say about animal welfare to all those groups who oppose cruelty? The vast majority of Members want fur farming banned. Can she assure us that she will bring the Bill back for its Second Reading as soon as possible?

Mrs. Beckett

Again, let me assure my hon. Friend that the Government have every intention of ensuring that the Bill whose original purpose she promoted reaches the statute book. As she will fully understand, I cannot at this second give her details of when and how that Bill will again be debated, but I can assure her that what has happened in the past has been what many Members across the House regard as an exploitation of the use of private Members' time, and we do not intend to see the same thing happen in Government time.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I have not been taking part in these proceedings. Instead, I have been making profitable use of my time in the Library, preparing for the sitting of Standing Committee F tomorrow morning. What makes the right hon. Lady so reluctant to move the 10 o'clock motion, and what is it about Labour Members that they are unable to make use of their time at night when they are not taking part in the proceedings in the Chamber?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that the hon. Gentleman is an assiduous attender at our debates. I am confident that, in his heart of hearts, he is well aware that to spend time in the House discussing the use of the words "temporary" and "verifiable" may not be the best use of the time that is available to us.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I was referred to earlier. Yes, I participated in some of the earlier debate, but it took me merely six minutes to make two very simple points. It took Conservative Members 60 minutes to make the same points, very badly.

Mrs. Beckett

That is why my hon. Friend is so much more highly paid.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

My track record on animal welfare is reasonably well known in the House. I am a passionate supporter of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill and I have waited patiently here tonight, with a view to coming into the Chamber to support it. However, as one who, wearing another hat, has on occasions had the duty to defend the rights of Back Benchers, I would not wish that Bill to be used to deny Back Benchers on both sides of the House the right to discuss issues on Report. I have yet to hear the right hon. Lady answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth): why will she not move the 10 o'clock motion, so that we may complete the discussions on the Representation of the People Bill and move on to the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman has no more control over his hon. Friends than has anyone else, and there can be no assurance that we would complete the stages of the Representation of the People Bill if we moved the 10 o'clock motion and sat through the following day. He may be prepared to take the risk; I prefer to give him the proper time to debate the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill in reasonable hours and at whatever length is required.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

Is it not clear that the filibuster by the Conservatives is not just an abuse of the democratic procedures of the House but a denial of the democratic wishes of the people of this country to prohibit the outlandish practice of fur farming? Will my right hon. Friend now take it upon herself to introduce timetabling of parliamentary business so that a minority of Conservative extremists cannot obstruct the democratic will of the people?

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) knows, I have always been reluctant to contemplate the use of the procedure that I have had to announce tonight. I am a strong believer in, and have always practised, the use of sensible programming so that issues of real importance on Bills may be debated and we do not spend time on issues of no real importance or of minor importance.

I wholly accept my hon. Friend's point that the programming of legislation is likely to lead to sensible and proper discussion.

Mr. Gale

Who is the judge of that?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman shouts, "Who is the judge of that?" Any Conservative Member who thought that inadequate time had been proposed for the Representation of the People Bill had the opportunity to say so at business questions. Not one of them opened their mouth.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Can the right hon. Lady cite a precedent in the public business of the House in which two Second Reading debates were taken in succession on the same day and following the Report stage of a third Bill?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman should have more sense. If he had been here longer, he would have known that the previous Government did everything.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of our constituents would have been appalled to see what has gone on in the House tonight, especially the attempt to prevent us discussing the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, which many of them want to see passed? Will she ensure that the right of Back Benchers to have such discussions is fully protected and not overridden by the juvenile behaviour of certain Conservative Members?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. There is an important balance to be struck in preserving the rights of Back Benchers on both sides of the House. We are in danger of straying into territory in which the freedoms that are properly, sensibly and rightly available to Members are used to create problems that will ultimately be resolved. Every Government have had to make such decisions from time to time. If we face continual tactics of the kind that we saw in the discussions of the Representation of the People Bill, such matters will have to be considered.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

As an assiduous attender of debates in the Chamber, may I assure the right hon. Lady that Conservative Members simply sought to amend ill-considered, confused and sometimes downright stupid features of the Representation of the People Bill? Her statement, which attempts to prevent us from continuing to do that, is an abrogation of the democratic rights of the House.

Will the right hon. Lady also note that the hon. Members for Corby (Mr. Hope), for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) all had one characteristic in common when they pronounced judgment on Conservative Members? None of them was in the Chamber for the debates this afternoon or this evening.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind—I notice it continually—that, although Members may not be present in the Chamber, they observe our debates.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

On television.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman says, "On television" as though there were something shocking about that. Nevertheless, those Members hear our debates. It is not valid to assume that Members who have not been present in the Chamber are not aware of the debates.

I recognise that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is an assiduous attender in the Chamber and takes part assiduously in our business. On the whole—I do not wish to do him any harm—he is not among those who are most guilty of sometimes using our procedures in the way to which I have had to draw attention tonight. Although it may not suit Conservative Members to admit it, he will be as well aware as anyone else that it is important to strike a balance. On the one hand, we should preserve the proper freedoms of Members and, on the other, we should deal properly with the business—Government or otherwise—that is before us. If that balance goes adrift, it has somehow to be remedied.

Mr. Hope

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), in his assiduousness in observing the Chamber's proceedings, has clearly failed to recognise that I was here earlier today—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must sit down if I rise to my feet—[Interruption.] He must not try to continue the debate from a sedentary position, otherwise he will get into real trouble. He raises a point for debate, which he will have other opportunities to raise if he wishes. It was not a point of order for the Chair. We have heard quite sufficient on the matter tonight; there will be a debate tomorrow.

Mr. Wilshire

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During the questions to the Leader of the House on her statement, a Labour Member used the word "filibuster" to describe contributions that you and other Deputy Speakers have clearly ruled are perfectly proper and in order. Is it in order to use the word "filibuster" in those circumstances?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Great emotion normally arises when timetable motions are introduced. The proceedings have been chaired throughout the evening in such a way that we have noticed when an hon. Member has been out of order, and that has been dealt with. For the most part, as we know, proceedings in the House move slowly; at other times, they move amazingly quickly. Generally speaking, everything has been in order this evening.