HC Deb 20 January 2000 vol 342 cc998-1015

3. Proceedings under paragraph 2 above shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to sittings of the House; and Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on the Bill.

4. If at this day's sitting proceedings on a Motion for the Adjournment of the House would, by virtue of Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration), commence at a time when proceedings on the Bill are in progress, the proceedings on the Motion shall be postponed to the conclusion of the proceedings on the Bill.

5. Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to the Bill.

6. No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken or to recommit the Bill; and if a Minister makes any such Motion, the Question on the Motion shall be put forthwith.

7. No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to the Bill except by a Minister of the Crown; and if a Minister makes any such Motion, the Question on the Motion shall be put forthwith.

8. The proceedings on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion one hour after they have been commenced; and Standing Order No. 15(1) shall apply to those proceedings.

9. If at the sitting this day the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the conclusion of the proceedings on this Motion or on the Bill, 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.

Yesterday, a handful of Conservative Members delayed parliamentary business on the Representation of the People Bill, not because they really objected to the Bill, but because they wanted to avoid debating the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill. They were reluctant to argue their case on that Bill because their party was divided and the opinions of Conservative Back Benchers were out of touch with those of the country. The Representation of the People Bill was disrupted because of their moral cowardice on another Bill.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

I hope that it is a point of order.

Mr. Fabricant

It is a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—you will know that I do not raise points of order that are out of order. However, is it in order for the Minister to imply that I—who was one of the four hon. Members interested in the issues debated last night—oppose the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, when I do not? Is that not a gross slander?

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps I shall have a point of order one day, but, so far, I have not had one today. I tell the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) that the Minister and other hon. Members will make their speeches in their own way, and that it will be for him to try to rebut the case that they make.

Mr. Gray

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I wish that the hon. Gentleman would not speak while I am on my feet; it is very bad manners. Does he have a point of order? He cannot make a point further to the previous point, because it was not a point of order.

Mr. Gray

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Last night, your colleague, the occupant of the Chair, ruled that no filibustering had occurred. Just now, the Minister said that there had been filibustering, contrary to the ruling of the occupant of the Chair.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I did not hear the Minister say that.

Mr. O'Brien

The intervention by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) demonstrated that he is contradicting some of the other Conservative Members who spoke last night. Conservative Members are going in every direction on the issue. That is the very point that I was making, and that is what they were seeking to disguise from the public.

The truth is that the Representation of the People Bill was disrupted because of Conservative Members' moral cowardice on another Bill. Their behaviour yesterday was an abuse of the House. If we are properly to conduct business, we need a guillotine on the Representation of the People Bill.

As Madam Speaker and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, often make clear, members of the public watch proceedings in the House, and they want parliamentary business conducted with dignity. Yesterday, they saw a handful of Opposition Members making deliberately long-winded, discursive speeches. On no fewer than 19 occasions, the Deputy Speaker had to intervene, calling Opposition Members to order as they wandered through the highways and byways of the debate.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I shall give way shortly.

The Bill has broad parliamentary support, and Conservative Front Benchers agree with most, if not all, of its provisions. I believe that the Government have the support of the House to ensure that the Bill's passage is concluded.

I think that I am able now safely to make one prediction: in the speeches that follow this one, we shall hear much synthetic anger from Conservative Members. Last night, in response to the business statement, in an extraordinary display of hyperbole, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said that a guillotine would damage the very fabric of our parliamentary democracy." — [Official Report, 19 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 938.] Let us put aside the histrionics, not to say the hysterics, and consider the facts. The Bill is an agreed Bill, giving effect to the recommendations of a working party that itself was the product of a consensus. I know that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) takes the view that the fact that a Conservative representative was on the working party is of no relevance to him, and it is perhaps a sign of the state of today's Conservative party that he disowns his party so easily.

Mr. Brady

I deeply resent the Minister's implication. Earlier today, the Leader of the House mentioned the debate on the definition of "temporary" unemployment and the short, but very civilised discussions that I had with the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on proposed change to the law. I did not make a speech on the issue, although I could have done, but chose to address it in brief interventions on the Minister. Conservative Members are trying to improve legislation, as it is our duty to do, and I strongly resent the Minister's implication that we were doing anything other than that.

Mr. O'Brien

As we proceed, I shall show how few Opposition Members were prepared to make speeches in debate of what they now claim to be such an important Bill.

The working party's recommendations were published in July, and there has been plenty of time for everyone to consider them. I therefore hope that we shall hear no canards about the Bill being rushed through with indecent haste. It has been the subject of wide consultation and full opportunity for debate.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien

This must be the last time.

Mr. Bercow

The Minister is showing signs of not knowing his elbow from his posterior in parliamentary terms. Does he not recognise that, if more right hon. and hon. Members had made speeches, the debate would have been even longer, causing him to complain even more? Will he accept what should be clear beyond peradventure—that many hon. Members regarded features of the Bill as ill-considered, confused and, in some cases, downright stupid? Why does he not grow up and stop impugning the integrity of right hon. and hon. Members?

Mr. O'Brien

The way in which the debate was conducted yesterday was clear for all to see, including members of the public who were watching. At times, very few could be bothered to come to listen to the long, discursive speeches conducted by some Conservative Members. They will know what was going on.

We had a full and constructive Second Reading debate on 30 November last year. The Committee stage began on 15 December, after the regulation interval between stages. We agreed to the Conservatives' request to take the Bill on the Floor of the House because they said that it was a constitutional measure. Constitutional Bills have been guillotined before, regardless of whether this Bill falls into that category. Conservative Members no doubt recall with discomfort the European Communities (Amendment) Bill in 1986, when the Lord President of the Council, Mr. John Biffen, pointed out when moving the guillotine motion that six constitutional Bills had been timetabled since 1966. The Bill is not controversial in the sense of most constitutional Bills, and we have had very few Divisions on it. I also refer Conservative Members to other guillotines that their party imposed on 14 January 1985 and 25 February 1997.

After three days of debate—

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)


Mr. O'Brien

I had said that I would not give way again, but I shall give way to the right hon. Lady—how could I refuse her?

Miss Widdecombe

Does the Minister agree that it is when there is agreement between the parties that Bills should be examined minutely? That is the time when Back Benchers in particular should have an opportunity to give a Bill a close examination. Is that not a good principle?

Mr. O'Brien

The right hon. Lady is being disingenuous. She knows well from her long experience in the House the difference between a proper examination of a Bill and a deliberate attempt to disrupt the proceedings of the House. That is what was going on yesterday.

The Bill is not controversial in the sense of most constitutional Bills. That should be made clear to the public who watch proceedings in the House. For much of the time, only a handful of Conservative Members have bothered to appear. At times, there have been only two Tories in the Chamber. On the second day of consideration in Committee, only two Back Benchers made full and proper speeches. On the third day of consideration in Committee, only four Back Benchers made full speeches. We had three days of debate in Committee to allow for the fullest possible discussion of the Bill. On the second day, the Government suspended the 10 o'clock rule and on the third day—a Thursday—the Government suspended the 7 o'clock rule. On the first two days of consideration in Committee, we did not hear any contributions from the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) or for Bromley and Chislehurst. I do not believe that they were even in the Chamber on those two days. We shall bear that in mind if either of them decides to make protestations about their deep and abiding interest in the Bill.

I accept that the Report stage came soon after the Committee stage, but the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), from the Opposition Front Bench, said: The Opposition do not object to scheduling Report stage for Monday".— [Official Report, 12 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 306.] It was later put back two days to give an extra opportunity for amendments to be tabled. The Opposition clearly did not object to the timetable.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announced a week ago that all the remaining stages of the Bill were due to be taken yesterday. There was not a single objection or suggestion that that provided inadequate time.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I am not disagreeing with what the Minister has said about the timetable, but will he confirm that the Government originally proposed the remaining stages for Monday but, as a result of representations that there should be a longer gap, the timetable was changed by two days, which at least gave us some time between consideration in Committee and the remaining stages? That was far preferable to the original Government plan, which would have been unacceptable to hon. Members on both sides.

Mr. O'Brien

I accept that there was a discussion between the usual channels, and that agreement was reached on the way in which we should proceed—an agreement which was broken by at least some Conservative Back Benchers yesterday.

What we witnessed yesterday was a disgrace. We can get into a semantic discussion about whether we should use the "F" word to describe it, but let us be quite clear. During yesterday's deliberations on this Bill, certain Opposition Members were deliberately wasting time.

Doubtless, an Opposition Member will try to advance the argument that it could not have been a filibuster as the Deputy Speaker would have ruled anything of the kind out of order. The fact that the Deputy Speaker was obliged to intervene on Conservative Members straying out of order on no fewer than 19 occasions speaks for itself. Back Benchers, such as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who had tabled important amendments and who had regularly attended the Committee, had to listen to a few Tory Members delay, dissemble and dissipate the parliamentary timetable.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is trying to gain a reputation in this Parliament as "the beast of Bromley", but he is a poor substitute for my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), without the wit. I was going to comment on his colleague, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, who normally sits at the right hon. Gentleman's feet, but I will refrain as he is not in the Chamber.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has had his comeuppance today. The Conservatives have only themselves to blame for this guillotine—or, rather, the handful of Back Benchers who delayed the House's business yesterday. If Opposition Members had had to sit, as I did, and listen to the tedious repetitious rhetoric yesterday, they would have turned their ire in the direction that it belongs—on to their Back-Bench colleagues.

This is an important Bill, and there are still important amendments relating to it to be discussed. It should be possible to deal with all of them in the time that remains. Whether that proves possible will, I suspect, depend on the attitude taken by Opposition Members.

If, as they claim, the Opposition are really interested in this Bill, they will accept the allocation of time motion and let us get on with discussing the Bill. If, on the other hand, they decide to treat us to grandiloquent speeches on the motion before us, their professed interest in this Bill will be exposed as a sham. We shall see.

The Bill will play an important part in modernising our democratic institutions, and it deserves both the support of the House and proper consideration. I invite the House now to ensure that that happens by supporting the motion.

1.57 pm
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

The Minister asked us to look at the facts, so let us do so. He says also that the Bill deserves proper consideration, and I believe that it does.

On the first day of the Committee, 15 December 1999, we had a statement by the Leader of the House on millennium compliance and questions on the business statement. That lasted for one hour. On the second day, 12 January, we had a statement on Senator Pinochet and a statement on homosexuality in the armed forces. That meant that we did not start the Committee until 5.17 pm. On the third day, 13 January, we had business questions. Yesterday's Report stage was preceded by a statement on the Patten report and a ten-minute rule Bill, which meant that we did not start until 5.7 pm. That left us with under five hours to discuss Report and Third Reading.

In Committee, important speeches were made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) on extending the franchise to other Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens residing in the UK—some 850,000 people. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) spoke on lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, and we had an impressive, but lengthy, contribution from the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward), which lasted almost half an hour. There were shorter contributions from the hon. Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Gedling (Mr. Coaker). The whole debate took one and a half hours.

We had a debate on multiple entry on an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, and a similar measure was discussed by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton). The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) spoke on overseas voters—a speech that extended into the second day, even though those measures were being dealt with in another Bill. There was a contribution also from the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). We had a debate on the proof of elector—particularly as the provisions are being extended to the homeless—because, under the Bill as it stands, no is proof necessary.

Another, important, debate took place on whether to shorten the time during which postal votes would be made available, on an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Battersea with which we had great sympathy. The hon. Gentleman also talked about the exclusion of names from the register and referred specifically to Jill Dando, and the problem of battered wives and their appearance on the register.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire tabled an amendment that would have given powers to the electoral registration officer to encourage those who are not on the register to put themselves forward for inclusion, and we had great sympathy with that amendment. We had a lengthy debate on clause 9, with contributions from the hon. Members for North-East Derbyshire and for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound). I suspect that other hon. Members have—as I have—received several letters from charities and commercial organisations that will be affected if clause 9 remained unamended.

The Minister was reassuring on several of the amendments that were tabled in Committee. Indeed, only two votes took place, once when the Liberal Democrats pressed their amendment on lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 and the other on clause 9 and the tick box on the electoral form to signify a wish not to be included on a commercial register.

Last night, the House—certainly at least the Conservatives—were prepared to sit past 10 o'clock to continue the Report stage and Third Reading. We were taken aback by the fact that yesterday's business also included two Second Readings. Several of my hon. Friends have great sympathy with the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill and would have wished for sufficient time to consider it properly.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I was a supporter of the private Member's Bill on fur farming in the previous Session and I was here last night ready to speak on the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill. I fully expected to be able to do so, albeit in the early hours of this morning. I had no objection to waiting until that time, but it is surprising that the Government are unable to keep their Back Benchers here after 10 o'clock and persistently fail to move the 10 o'clock motion.

Mr. Evans

I can only concur with my hon. Friend's comments, because several of my colleagues wished to support that Bill. The Minister should talk to his business managers to ensure that the House is never again treated in such a contemptuous fashion, with two Second Readings following the continuation of the Report stage and Third Reading of an important constitutional measure.

We know that the Government want the legislation quickly, but we want it right. This is an important constitutional Bill and many amendments have yet to be discussed. We are being asked to constrain our discussions to three hours and that will not be enough time to do justice to amendments tabled by both Conservative and Labour Members.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend will be privy to information to which others of us do not have access. Is he aware of any pressure from the Government Whips to ensure that the admirable speeches by the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) were cut short? If no such attempt was made, is it not a little rich for the Government now to complain that we have made too leisurely progress?

Mr. Evans

I am not aware that the Government Whips put any pressure on the right hon. and hon. Members mentioned by my hon. Friend. Indeed, I believe that the hon. Member for Watford was encouraged to speak at length. As for the right hon. Member for Gorton, it became apparent that the content of his amendment would be covered by another Bill, and he could therefore have concluded his remarks forthwith. I am afraid that a lot of time was wasted discussing that amendment.

The Minister agrees that this is an important constitutional Bill and that it deserves time for proper scrutiny on the Floor of the House. Although there is much agreement among the parties about the thrust of the Bill, that does not mean that there is no need for proper scrutiny. The Bill establishing the Child Support Agency is an example of what can go wrong when there is a lot of consensus about legislation.

The Minister scoffs at our protests that the very fabric of parliamentary democracy is being damaged. Last night's business statement confirmed that that is happening. The Government show total disregard for the House of Commons and for a very important Bill.

2.5 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I shall be brief, as it is hypocritical to argue at great length for the more expeditious use of our time in the House.

I followed last night's debate as closely as I could without actually being in the Chamber throughout and I read Hansard very carefully this morning. I was interested to discover that such skilled debaters as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) seemed to speak at much greater length than usual. They are normally rather succinct—the sign of a good debater—but it may be significant that their skills seemed to fail them.

Why did we get into that difficulty last night? What were the effects? Discussion of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill was postponed, as was discussion of the Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Bill. The latter is an extremely important measure for those of us who represent fishing communities. It is concerned with various schemes of financial assistance. The explanatory notes state that it is designed to ensure that Ministers may make various schemes of financial assistance 'for the purposes of reorganising, developing or promoting the sea fish industry or of contributing to the expenses of those engaged in it.' That is extremely important.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler

I said that I would be brief, and no doubt the right hon. Gentleman will get his chance.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is not present today. I know that there are not many fishermen in Bromley, but Conservative Members who represent fishing communities will have some answering to do. The Conservative party has caused to be postponed the approval of grants to fishing communities of something like £7 million. The availability of that sum could now be in doubt as a result of the delaying tactics last night.

However, it is the Government's business to get their business through. They cannot be allowed to escape scot free of responsibility for last night's extraordinary events. I was amazed when I was told in advance how the Government intended to handle last night's business. I assumed that a new spirit of compromise and consensus had broken out over the new year, and that something had been done to deal with the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border and for Bromley and Chislehurst. I thought that the millennium spirit must have overtaken them.

I also assumed that the Conservative Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), had somehow managed to discipline what has become an undisciplined rabble on the Conservative Benches, but the Government must now know that that is not the case. The Conservative party has its own millennium bug, and it was visible on its Back Benches last night.

The Government must take very seriously the fact that Conservative Front-Bench Members are unable to control the party's maverick rebels. The evidence is clear in the Hansard report of last night's proceedings. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said: I…feel in no way bound by a colleague who, unbeknown to me, conspires with the Government in a working party to give this measure a spurious urgency that I do not understand and that has not yet been explained to me." — [Official Report, 19 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 876.] That is a declaration of war—not of war with the Government or with the Liberal Democrat party, but of civil war. The Government must take careful note.

It was interesting that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the hon. Member for Buckingham seemed to be vying for the honour of making the longest contribution to the debate. Can that have anything to do with the fact that they are both on the award shortlist for the Opposition Member of the year competition? I understand that voting is taking place as I speak. Their contributions last night were electoral statements, and should have been declared as such.

I was interested that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, who seemed to be a late entrant into the stakes, even managed to speak about junk mail and wine from Bordeaux Direct. Surely that is not relevant to the Bill.

The Conservative Chief Whip and the shadow Leader of the House were not even present when we were discussing the change in business last night. They have effectively disowned their Back Benchers.

Miss Widdecombe

Where were you?

Mr. Tyler

I was here.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I cannot have the right hon. Lady shouting across at the hon. Gentleman while he is speaking.

Mr. Tyler

I am grateful for your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am glad that the right hon. Lady is so keen on law and order that at least she listens to you, if not to me.

I believe that the Government should have foreseen the situation. They should recognise that the Conservative party is incapable of uniting behind its Front Bench. They should recognise that Conservative Back-Bench Members are in no way obliged to follow their Front-Bench leader, even when agreement has been reached. In those circumstances, it was, frankly, folly to table the business in an open-ended way and to cause so much trouble.

Miss Widdecombe

Lib-Lab pact.

Mr. Bercow

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler

No, I am about to sit down.

Miss Widdecombe

He is scared.

Mr. Tyler

I have said on many occasions, both in the Chamber and in the Select Committee on Modernisation, that we believe that agreed programme motions are the way to proceed. I welcome the fact that that has become a regular practice. I do not understand why the Conservative Front Bench, having agreed to the necessity and importance of the Bill, did not then agree to a programme motion.

Miss Widdecombe

We wanted a debate.

Mr. Tyler

Could the Government, or a Conservative Member—or even the right hon. Lady, who seems incapable of keeping her mouth shut when in a sedentary position—explain?

Miss Widdecombe

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler

I shall now give way to the right hon. Lady.

Miss Widdecombe

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The explanation is very simple. We believe in debate, and we believe in the importance of the Bill. When there is consensus on a Bill, that is precisely when it is most important that it is subject to the scrutiny of the whole House. That is why we wanted it taken on the Floor of the House in the first place, and the Government did not.

Mr. Tyler

It is evident that there is no longer consensus within the Conservative party. That is the problem. There is consensus on the importance of the legislation; there is consensus in the Modernisation Committee that a programme motion is appropriate for this sort of business, so that we can then have an orderly discussion of the issues. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) has important points to make; he should be able to make them, not be squeezed out by the irrelevance of the contributions of some Conservative Members.

Earlier in the debate on the business of the House, reference was made to the shadow Leader of the Opposition. I think that it was a slip of the tongue; it was a reference not to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), but to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. May I suggest that, in future, the Government seek agreed programme motions with those on the Conservative Front Bench? May I also suggest that they also need a third-party endorsement from the other party behind the Conservative Front Bench if they are to push it through?

2.14 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I wish to avoid being a casualty in other people's battles. The last three groups of amendments stand in my name. The timetable motion is liable to affect my amendments so that they will fall unless there is Conservative co-operation.

If the Minister examines the record, he will see that last Thursday I moved two sets of amendments and I was brief in doing so because I was conscious of the time. We dealt with them rapidly. It would be my intention to deal similarly with these amendments. They refer to relatively minor but important matters in specific areas affecting electoral returning officers, such as their ability to correct clerical errors at the last minute before elections take place. We need an opportunity to debate those issues. I can only appeal to Opposition Members to move speedily through their amendments.

Paragraph 6 of the timetable motion states: No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken or to recommit the Bill; and if a Minister makes any such Motion, the Question on the Motion shall be put forthwith. If there is a lack of progress today, and we do not reach some of the serious amendments at the end, there may be an opportunity for Ministers to take action to see that I am given the chance to debate my amendments.

2.16 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

These are often revealing occasions when, in the heat of the moment, people give things away that they might not otherwise do. There have been a number of such examples in the past few minutes.

First, I must take the Minister to task. He opened by saying that Opposition Members who were not against the Bill turned up to debate it. I have made it very clear, and it was referred to a number of times, that I am against the Bill. It is unnecessary, bad and dangerous but, most of all, it is badly drafted. The fact that it was badly drafted became increasingly apparent as the debate proceeded.

It is worrying that both Ministers and Liberal Democrat Members appear to believe that debate is an unnecessary embarrassment in the House of Commons, and that these matters should be dealt with in some expedited way involving the minimum of embarrassing debate. That may be what is characterised as the modern view of this place, but it is not one that I share.

I am of the old school; I confess that my view of the House has been shaped over many years. I had the privilege to come here in 1983, and I have seen it from the viewpoint of a Government Back Bencher, a Minister and now an Opposition Back Bencher. My view is that this is the place where matters should be dealt with, very often in a slow, deliberative—albeit, I understand, very frustrating—way. I am also still of the view that time is the best and most effective weapon that any Opposition party has. In that, I do not count the Liberal Democrat party, because it is an arm of government, to all intents and purposes. The speech of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) illustrates that all too well. I cling to the view that it is incumbent on Members of Parliament, in their different capacities, to make the contribution that they must to scrutiny and, occasionally—yes—to delay the Government. That is partly what was happening yesterday.

Last night, the Government tried to push through three separate pieces of legislation in one sitting. That gives us a clear idea of the Government's mindset. It would be bad enough if they were trying peremptorily to finish off a very important and badly drafted Bill in one sitting. Incidentally, it appears that, to them, a sitting must now finish at 10 o'clock—I shall come back to that in a moment. Had they attempted to do just that, it would have been bad enough—but they then had the effrontery to expect the House to lie down and be trampled on by two Second Readings. The Government know that the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill is controversial; it was opposed by me—and others—when it was a private Member's Bill, and I shall oppose it again when it comes before the House as a Government Bill.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall should not be complaining to us that debate on the Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Bill was delayed. He should be asking the Government why they tacked that Bill on at the end of the day's business, behind the remaining stages of one Bill and the Second Reading of another. He did not ask them because his party is an arm of government.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman should be fair to my hon. Friend. If he had listened carefully, he would have heard that the Liberal Democrats share his view on this issue. I believe that the other business should not have been down for debate last night after the Representation of the People Bill. If there had been no other business, would the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have wanted to take so much time debating the Representation of the People Bill?

Mr. Forth

The answer, almost certainly, is yes. It is clear from both yesterday's and today's Order Papers that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have tabled amendments to this bad Bill. We felt that we should do so too. The Bill may have started as a cosy, consensual proposal, and there may well have been a working party of which I knew nothing. No doubt, some agreement was reached, although I am uneasy about that. If it was, so be it. However, the hon. Gentleman, whose respect for the House is almost as great as my own, must agree that the Bill has turned out to have more and more loopholes, to be poorly drafted, and to need more and more corrections, even by the Government.

The Government, although they have tabled amendments to the Bill, have accused us of doing what we should not have done—of having the gall to debate the Bill, the effrontery to table amendments and the impudence to take some time over discussing them. That says more about the Government's attitude to the House and to debate than it does about us.

Mr. Hughes

I do not want the right hon. Gentleman to misrepresent the Liberal Democrats, although I do not think that he or the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) have done so, so I should make it clear that, where a Bill arrives in the Chamber with a degree of cross-party support, it must be scrutinised properly. No one would suggest otherwise. The drafting of such Bills also requires particular attention. I disagree on that point with neither the right hon. Gentleman nor the right hon. Lady.

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has made the same point two or three times, and it must be correct. We are all scarred by the memory of the Children Act 1989, which introduced the Child Support Agency and was hailed as a model of consensus and all-party agreement. We have all suffered for it ever since. Last night's events illustrate beyond peradventure that we should be doubly suspicious of a Bill that comes before the House after a process of cosy consensus. We should have learned the important lesson that such Bills might require even more scrutiny.

I want to say a few words about the magic of 10 o'clock. The modernisers may take the view that the House should complete its proceedings at 10 o'clock and that it is unreasonable to keep more sensitive Members or Members of a particular gender here beyond that time. They are entitled to that view, but I do not see why the House should limit itself in that way. I freely confess that I was moulded by the experience of the Parliaments of 1983–87 and 1987–92, when business was routinely done late into the night.

Mr. Tyler

I did not say, and my colleagues and I will never say, that it is necessary to end the business at 10 o'clock. I apologise if I gave the right hon. Gentleman the wrong impression about that. I served my apprenticeship in the House in the balanced Parliament of 1974, which often sat late into the night. I recall that some of those debates were very valuable. The Liberal Democrats did not say last night that we thought it necessary or desirable to end business at 10 o'clock. We were prepared to stay as long as was necessary.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful for that point, and I exonerate the hon. Gentleman from what I am about to say. The Government want to put the House into a state of mind that suggests that anything that happens after 10 o'clock is unbearable, unnecessary and undeliverable. That is a problem for the Government and the Whips; they should not visit it on us. Yesterday, we were here to do serious business in scrutinising the Government and holding them to account. The fact that they could not bear scrutiny beyond 10 o'clock is their problem, not mine. The concomitant difficulties in their management of business are also their problem.

Mr. Bercow

Is not the performance of Labour Members especially unfortunate? A large number of Labour Members were not outside the Palace of Westminster attending to other duties last night, but were having convivial evenings within the precincts. If it is good enough for them to be here for other—often highly enjoyable—purposes, why is it unreasonable of us to expect them to attend to their legislative duties in the Chamber?

Mr. Forth

I shall hazard a guess that those Members were told by their Whips not to be in the Chamber. That is another aspect of new, modern government. It seems that Labour Members must not be here to participate in debate. We saw ample evidence of that last night, and similar evidence is before us today. That worries me.

I want the business to proceed properly today. To the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), I should say that I believe that, whether or not the Minister changes the order of business, we shall reach his important amendments. My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) —who sends his apologies—and I have tried to withdraw some of our amendments so that today's progress may be better facilitated.

Mr. Barnes

The right hon. Gentleman said yesterday that he would be keen to speak on Third Reading. I hope that he will assist us in reaching that stage as I am among several Members who would like to say a few words then.

Mr. Forth

I shall facilitate that process by sitting down shortly. I rebut all that the Minister has said. I make no apology for playing my role in scrutinising the Bill and in engaging in debate. I hope to continue to do so. The Government's attitude towards the democratic process and accountability is alarming and dangerous.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government's refusal to go beyond 10 o'clock last night resulted in the remaining stages of the Electronic Communications Bill not being proceeded with today? Does he realise that many people in the e-commerce industry are incredibly concerned about the way in which that Bill has been bumped? A further delay has affected a Bill of great importance.

Mr. Forth

That fact illustrates the Government's peculiar sense of priorities. That important Bill has been sacrificed, even if only for a few days, while we continue to discuss a dangerous and unnecessary Bill that will add nothing to the welfare of the nation or to the security of the electoral process.

I am sorry that we have had to return today to debate the Bill, which we could and should have dealt with last night. This is yet another example of the Government's high-handed arrogance towards the House and the legislative process. I suspect that they are coming to like guillotines and the truncation of debate, because they are finding debates increasingly inconvenient. However, I see no reason why this Bill—no matter how unfortunate and unnecessary the circumstances surrounding it—should not be properly scrutinised, make progress and be dealt with in the way that Bills always should be.

2.28 pm
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

The Government's behaviour is frankly disgraceful. What has been announced today, and last night by the Leader of the House, amounts to an abrogation of the rights of Members of Parliament legitimately to highlight issues of remaining concern. Let it be placed on the record that, if members of the Liberal Democrat party are not prepared to denounce the Government's conduct, they sacrifice all claim to be a serious party of opposition. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Liberal Democrats are merely a limp-wristed appendage of the Government Front Bench. That may be good enough for them, but it would not be acceptable to Conservative Members.

It is important to understand the rationale behind what happened last night. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) returning to the Chamber, because I intend to refer to him.

Mr. Forth

He is another appendage.

Mr. Bercow

My right hon. Friend makes that poignant observation from his sedentary position. The hon. Member for North Cornwall cavilled at the conduct of Conservative Members, asserting ludicrously that Front Benchers were in some way out of sync with, and lacking control over, Back-Bench Members. Although I was flattered to be listed in the distinguished company of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the hon. Gentleman made a simple error in referring to me as a Back-Bench Member who was trying to upstage or contradict Conservative Front Benchers. I know that I am not a well-known figure, but let it be recorded that I am, in fact, a junior member of the Conservative Front-Bench team. I realise that that gives me about the status of the Foreign Minister of the Latvian Republic during the period of occupation, but one must be grateful for small mercies. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for the responsibilities that he has given me. I am a member of an Opposition Front-Bench team and I want it to be understood that Front-Bench Members of a political party are, first and foremost, Members of Parliament, who have not only a right but arguably a duty—a bounden duty at that—critically to scrutinise the legislation that comes before the House.

I hope that the hon. Member for North Cornwall does not suggest that, because I sit on the Front Bench and participate in Education and Employment questions once a month, that releases me from my responsibility, on behalf of my constituents, to consider the various elements of the Representation of the People Bill. If the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber yesterday afternoon, he would have heard me express vigorous support for the stance taken by my hon. Friends the Members for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). I did not cavil at their stance; I did not contradict them; I did not dispute that their line was right. I said that particular aspects of the Bill—relating to residence, the definition of temporary in the context of periods of absence from residence, weekend voting, pilot schemes and lengths, types and forms of consultation—needed to be thoroughly scrutinised by the House.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I am slightly confused. The hon. Gentleman has owned up to being a member of a Conservative Front-Bench team. Recently, one of his former colleagues, who held a similar position, found himself in some difficulties when he disagreed with the Front-Bench line. For a while, he was uncomfortable on the Conservative Benches; now, he is uncomfortable on the Labour Benches. Does the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) own up to supporting all the views of his party's Front-Bench spokesmen on the Bill, or did I detect a bit of support for the occasionally dissenting views expressed by his colleague, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)?

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman is a legendary force for making mischief. He is trying hard, but he will not succeed with me. My vigorous support for my Front-Bench colleagues knows no bounds. I yield to none in my admiration for the parliamentary skills, and the continuing assiduity, of the Conservative shadow home affairs team. I am absolutely with my colleagues. However, I have a duty to look at the detail and to ask questions.

In the context of the outrageous decision to introduce an allocation of time motion, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) —who is not even bothering to listen to the substance of the debate—should distinguish between adverse comment about a Bill, or clauses in it, and questions about clauses in a Bill and potential amendments to it. In many cases, I asked a series of perfectly reasonable questions about clauses, although very often I received answers that were not perfectly reasonable or—sometimes—no answers at all. Many Members really want to contribute to debate.

I shall unburden myself of an anxiety that I have long harboured, although by doing so in the Chamber I probably guarantee that it will remain a state secret. I find it quite extraordinary that Members of the House spend years and, in some cases, even decades, seeking election to it; but that, having secured election to the House, which is the greatest privilege that any English man or woman—or Welsh man or Northern Irish man or Scots man or, for that matter, Scots woman—can enjoy, they seem peculiarly reluctant to spend any time in the Chamber. Why do the attractions of other parts of the Palace of Westminster exceed the attractions of the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are debating a timetable motion, not the social habits of hon. Members. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would remember that.

Mr. Bercow

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As always, I comply with your exhortation and guidance.

Mr. Evans

Does my hon. Friend agree that the way in which the business has been changed at short notice means that my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) cannot be in the Chamber, because he is attending the Standing Committee on the Freedom of Information Bill? Furthermore, I cannot attend the Westminster Hall debate on small firms to make an important contribution. The change of business has had many repercussions.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend is right. His point shows that we would not have willed the situation. The idea that the matter was deliberately engineered by Conservative Members is nonsense. It results from the actions of a high-handed, imperious, arrogant Government, who are uninterested in, and largely oblivious to, any criticism that might reasonably be expressed of them.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

May I refer the hon. Gentleman back to the remarks he made earlier? I assure him that I am neither limp-wristed nor an appendage to anybody. Will he clarify the motivation of Conservative Members yesterday? I am as much in favour as anybody else of scrutiny by the House. It is part of the role of every Member of Parliament to keep an eye on the Government. Yesterday, Conservative Members gave the Representation of the People Bill an extremely long and slow scrutiny. Was their motivation genuinely to consider the detail of the Bill, or was it to ensure that the Government were forced, because of the timetable that the Government themselves had set, to cancel debate on legislation that appeared on the Order Paper after the Bill?

Mr. Bercow

No. The reason the hon. Gentleman should not contribute on that point is that he was not in the Chamber. The reason why the substance of his argument is wrong is that, during the debate yesterday, I lost count of the number of occasions on which my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) reluctantly gave way, but made it clear that they were anxious to bring their remarks to a conclusion. They made pithy, succinct and eloquent contributions on matters of considerable complexity. It is quite wrong of the hon. Gentleman to cavil at their doing so.

What audacity we have seen from the Government today. How dare Ministers complain about the way in which we delayed debate when it was the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who introduced the subject of the Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper? As he had decided to favour the House with the views of Karl Popper, I had to respond—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should not go into the detail of what happened yesterday. [Interruption.] Order. In this House, we take one day at a time. Yesterday has gone; we are discussing a timetable motion.

Mr. Bercow

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the Minister will take note. If he had not made his intervention, it would not have been necessary for me to refer to "The Open Society and its Enemies", "Conjectures and Refutations" and the "The Poverty of Historicism" and so on. However, those were legitimate matters in the light of the Minister's remarks yesterday.

We were holding a serious debate. The final proof of my earnestness in debate is that, yesterday, I was celebrating my birthday. The Minister might say, "What a sad anorak; he wants to spend his birthday debating the Report stage of the Representation of the People Bill."

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth)

indicated assent.

Mr. Bercow

It is true that, later, I was due to meet a friend for a celebration of my birthday. However, I took immensely seriously the important amendments that we had to consider. If Labour Members think that I took part in the debate simply in order to prolong it or to cause the Government inconvenience, when I could have had a thoroughly stimulating evening elsewhere, they are absolutely wrong. There were weaknesses in the Bill. They needed debate; they required scrutiny and they deserved criticism. That is what Conservative Members offered.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the following provisions shall apply to the remaining proceedings on the Representation of the People Bill

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