HC Deb 04 July 2000 vol 353 cc190-203 8. In this Order "allotted day" means today or any other day on which the Bill is put down on the main business as first Government Order of the Day. 9. If any Motion is made by a Minister of the Crown to amend this Order so as to provide a greater amount of time for proceedings on the Bill under paragraph 1 or 2 of this Order, the Question thereon shall be put forthwith and may be decided, though opposed, at any hour.

The Bill was in Committee in the House of Commons for more than 40 hours and 16 sittings, following consideration in the other place involving four days for the Committee stage, two for Report and one for Third Reading.

Debate in Committee was conducted in good spirit. It was extremely constructive, and there was a general intention of improving the Bill, which I think was achieved. An informal timetable was agreed, and was used effectively, with no curtailment of debate on any point raised by the Opposition parties. There was no complaint from either side about insufficient time being allocated for debate. Indeed, we had the opportunity to sit more frequently if we needed to.

The time allocated for Report has been discussed through the usual channels. We tabled this motion with a view to ensuring that there was sufficient opportunity, within the overall time provided, to discuss all aspects of the Bill, to which amendments have been tabled by both sides. That approach has also been discussed through the usual channels. I therefore do not intend to take up any more of the time available in discussing how we should organise the business of considering the Bill, and propose that we proceed to do so as soon as possible.

I look forward to another constructive debate today.

5.6 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I shall speak briefly.

It is true that the motion has been agreed by all the major parties, but I do not want the Minister to run away with the notion that we accept for a moment that six hours and 45 minutes is enough for us to discuss every clause in this not exactly short Bill—with the exception of that dealing with the section 28 issue, which will be dealt with tomorrow. It was in the spirit of trying to be helpful to the House, as always, that we agreed the motion.

As the Minister was good enough to concede, the Committee stage was conducted in good spirit. There were a few good jokes here and there, at least from our side. The Government, of course, lost almost every argument in Committee, but, sadly, none of the votes. The Minister was also good enough to confirm that we took a wholly constructive attitude. We supported the good things in the Bill and tried to make them better, and we opposed the bad. Above all, we tried to improve the Bill as a whole.

The Minister mentioned amendments, which, from her point of view, was bad salesmanship. A total of 438 Government-inspired amendments were tabled in the Lords, and, subsequently, nearly 400 more were tabled in the Commons Committee. At this late stage, the Government have tabled well over 100 new amendments—115, according to my arithmetic—again, to their own Bill. No wonder the Minister said on Second Reading that the Bill was not yet finished.

Things are going from bad to worse, as we shall see as the debates develop. Labour Back Benchers are queueing up to rubbish the Bill. The Government have been universally criticised over Cabinet secrecy. They face renewed defeats in the Lords on council structures and on section 28. Frankly, the Bill has turned into an embarrassing shambles. It is hardly surprising that the Minister was slow handclapped at the Local Government Association conference last week.

5.9 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

One advantage of having three children and 10 grandchildren is that I am used to people not listening to what I say. Indeed, some would claim that I have made an entire career of talking when no one listens to what I say, which is why I have been so long in the House of Commons. However, I want to make a serious protest about the growing practice—on the part of not just the Government, but Opposition Front Benchers—of reaching an agreement on timetabling.

The Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons has made a proposal, which has not, as far as I am aware, been debated in any real detail by ordinary Members of Parliament, to move towards the routine timetabling of all legislation. It is important that we put on record what that entails. If both Front-Bench teams agree a timetable—I am talking not about any particular type of legislation, but about all legislation—the right of Back Benchers to move amendments and the right of constituents to ask their individual Members to move an amendment that may not be agreed by their particular party will be, if not grossly circumscribed, then, even worse, lost.

As a democrat, I happen to think that the reason why the House of Commons works—indeed, the reason why our extraordinary system of government in the United Kingdom works—is because it is sufficiently flexible to allow any person who wants to write, to telephone or to visit an individual Member of Parliament to raise a matter that could form the basis of an amendment to legislation. If that is lost because of an agreement by both Front-Bench teams to get legislation through, irrespective of how many individual Members of Parliament have the right to take part in the debate, we are moving towards a juggernaut system that will destroy many of the rights of individuals in this place and in the UK generally. I am almost coming to dread the words "programme motion" or "the usual channels" because I have been here long enough to know that power always resides in the Whips Offices and with those who agree on the general programming of the material.

In my lifetime, legislation has not necessarily got better. This is not a party point. I think that all Governments are faced with the difficulty that, before Third Reading or, even worse, in another place, large drifts of amendments to Government legislation are tabled by Government managers. That cannot be acceptable.

When I was a junior Minister, the following was drummed into me: give parliamentary draftsmen enough time to frame good legislation, tell them the basis of it, argue with them on the way in which it is framed, bear in mind the general implications of the whole of the legislation and then—and only then—bring it to the House of Commons for debate. That is getting lost. To substitute for that the suggestion, "Well, it doesn't matter because Members have only so long to debate the legislation anyway. If it is not in the form that it will be in law after it is passed by both Houses, that doesn't matter. At some point or another, it can be amended in future." We must stop and think where we are getting to. As a House, we must seriously consider whether we are looking at what we are doing and are confident of the quality of the scrutiny that we are giving legislation. I do not think that that is the case.

The fact that Ministers and the Opposition Front-Bench team do not even feel nowadays that they must get up and defend at any great length the imposition of a timetable motion is in itself revealing. This is a massive Bill. It concerns local authorities across the UK. It has enormous implications. Simply to say that that is a very good reason for curtailing the debate on the various provisions does not seem to follow; it is a non sequitur. The longer and more important the Bill and the more serious the content, the more it should be looked at by all Members of the House of Commons—not just one group and not just from one particular political point of view.

The House of Commons needs very careful scrutiny. It is full of people who have high hopes and high standards, but that does not make them infallible. Civil servants are excellent and take brilliant direction, and we have parliamentary draftsmen who know superbly how to create legislation, but that does not make them infallible.

What we as individual Members of Parliament have to say—I accept that I have said this before; God help me, I may even say it again—is that it is important that the House does not routinely accept timetable motions as though they are the answer. Timetabling is not modernisation, but a retrograde movement. It takes away from the rights of the people of the United Kingdom to have on their statute book laws that work, laws that have been thought about and properly framed, and laws that the citizens themselves accept and want to uphold. When we forget that, we forget why this Parliament exists.

5.16 pm
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

I say hurrah and—to quote a famous 18th-century speech in its entirety—"ditto" to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). However, I shall not follow that 18th-century speech in like measure because, as the hon. Lady said, this is the 35th Bill in this Parliament on which debate has been truncated. The purpose of all guillotine motions, whether agreed between those on the Front Benches or not, is to prevent continuation of debate, and, therefore, in many instances, as the hon. Lady said, to deny hon. Members the opportunity to speak perhaps to their own amendments and to vote on amendments.

With today's motion, the Government hold out the prospect of certainty in the finishing of business and the rising of the House. The motion certainly would enable the House to conclude the debate, if not the votes, at 10 minutes to midnight.

The timetable motion is Government business. It is not being driven by the Opposition, although they have agreed to it. There is clearly a very firm intent by many hon. Members to go down the route of programming legislation. All I want to know about that route is, who ever consults Back Benchers?

I was not told by my Front Benchers that there was to be a guillotine on this legislation. Undoubtedly—I defer to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions on this—Labour Members were fully consulted on it. Undoubtedly, Labour Members who had signed non-Government amendments were sought out, and a calculation was made on whether there would be adequate time for them to speak as the voice of their constituency or of our country. I have no doubt that Liberal Democrat Members fastidiously went through that process. Perhaps I am making a slight criticism of my own Front Benchers for their failure to determine whether this agreed timetable motion meets the criterion required of every motion that binds the House.

The problem, of course, was demonstrated again today. Another piece of legislation has been announced on the hoof; apparently, it is to be completed by July. I should simply like to know what has happened to the Disqualifications Bill.

In truth, we have simply to examine the pattern of legislation in this Parliament to understand why there is a crisis, and the mood seems to be to accept the Government's continual guillotining of Bills. In the very first and long Session of this Parliament, there were 1,901 pages of legislation. In the second Session of this Parliament, there were 1,590 pages of legislation. In this Session, so far—not even counting what the Home Secretary has in store for us—there have been 2,537 pages of legislation. That is putting not a quart but a gallon into a pint pot. Motions such as this truncate the Government's mandate when it comes to consideration of important Bills, and hon. Members must reflect on what the Government are doing to them.

The Minister said that the 40 hours spent in a jolly little Committee upstairs covered all the dimensions of the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said, that does not tally with the number of Government amendments tabled in Committee, in the Lords and now on the Floor of this House. Those amendments amount to a huge number of additional pages of legislation on top of the two and a half thousand already brought before the House this Session. They reveal that the Government have not even prepared the legislation.

The system is breaking down. The Government write legislation as it goes through the House, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich made admirably clear. The practice is improper, but yet again the House is being marched to a guillotine.

The motion contains an element that strikes against the function of Back-Bench Members. Paragraph 3 is entitled "Conclusion of Proceedings". All hon. Members want to table amendments on matters about which they feel strongly, and hope to get an opportunity to speak to them in the ordinary course of business. However, I draw the House's attention to the terms of this agreed timetable, of which paragraph 3(1) states: For the purpose of concluding any proceedings which are brought to a conclusion at the time appointed by this Order, the Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions (but no others). Paragraph 3(1)(c) makes a special category of the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown. Paragraph 3(4) states: If two or more Questions would fall to be put under sub-paragraph (1)(c) on amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions. That means that one vote will cover almost all Government amendments to the Bill. No other amendments will be taken, regardless of how much they represent the opinion of Back-Bench Members from the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat parties. The motion gives the Government power to abolish all the subsidiary amendments that Back-Bench Members may want to raise. The tightness of the guillotine, which allows just six and three quarter hours for debate, will not even give us an opportunity to speak.

Many hon. Members have commented that being jumped with legislation means that we cannot anticipate how we fulfil our role or function in the House. There were 52 Bills in the first Session of this Parliament—one Bill a week. Invariably, people interested in matters such as civil liberties, over which the Home Secretary rode so gaily a few minutes ago, bring their concerns to the detailed examination of legislative proposals.

I apologise to the House for the fact that I tabled amendment No. 221, to clause 60, only yesterday. It appears as a starred amendment, because it was tabled too late to be selected for debate. In a reasoned, measured debate, there would have been every possibility that I would get to speak to the amendment, which deals with matters of freedom of information and the Bill's creation of a criminal offence without any test of harm.

I am speaking up today, along with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, in order to stand up for Back Benchers. We should not give the Government the right to mandate all the amendments necessitated by the fact that they did not draw up the Bill correctly in the first place. That amounts to writing legislation on the hoof. The Government will get their amendments, but what about the voice of every diligent Back Bencher in the House who feels that he or she has a contribution to make or argument to put that may command a majority of the House?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

My hon. Friend speaks with immense knowledge of the way the House operates, and with a fervour that can be picked up in all parts of the House. Is he not saying, in essence, that this guillotine motion—and it is typical of what might happen in the future—is making the role of Back Benchers in the House totally irrelevant and handing over control to the usual channels? Am I not right in saying that the House is a place in which Members of Parliament, whatever their role, should be heard, and that they are being denied?

Mr. Shepherd

I agree with my hon. Friend. He has only to refer to paragraphs 3(1)(c) and (4) to see that the motion gives enormous power to the Government. In addition, there is another device, to which my Front-Bench colleagues agree. What is so startling is that debate on guillotining Bills should be included in the time allotted to the first group of amendments. The objective is quite clear, and we have had enough of it—it is to stop people discussing the fact that they are being denied the right to speak to their own amendments, and even to vote on them. It has happened time after time.

One can see Ministers' eyes glazing over—they think that government is far too important a job to be troubled with the mere consideration of Bills. This is Henry VIII at his very best: Everything I say shall be law. Indeed, we will not even vote on this because of paragraphs 3(1)(c) and (4) of the motion.

It is pretty futile to ask the Government what they are doing in the shape and form of these motions, but I do so nevertheless. Ultimately, they are striking not just at me but at their own Back Benchers. We have seen it time and again—for example, with the debate on air traffic control. That indicates the prospect for people who may feel strongly on issues in this Bill.

The House does not even discuss whole parts of Bills. The Disqualifications Bill that emerged from here has not re-emerged anywhere else, but we have had debates on Lords amendments in which only three and a half out of 12 groupings have been reached—what a discourtesy to the House of Lords. What does it imply when measures such as this go back to the House of Lords and it sees that we have not discussed important amendments?

Those were the remarks that I wished to make, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

5.28 pm
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and, if I may say so, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

I oppose the timetable motion, notwithstanding the fact that I understand that it has been agreed with those on the Front Benches. That does not, from my perspective, give it any greater validity. We need first to understand how frequently this process takes place. I believe that this is the 34th timetable motion in this Parliament. That contrasts markedly with the practice in previous Parliaments.

Mr. Shepherd

I would suggest to my right hon. and learned Friend that 35 Bills have been guillotined, with well over 50 motions to secure the objective.

Mr. Hogg

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. The number is even greater than I anticipated. The contrast, therefore, with previous practice is even more marked. I understand that under the Government headed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), there were some 17 timetable motions, while under the Government led by Lady Thatcher there were some 34 timetabled Bills in the 11 years that she was Prime Minister. We are seeing an extraordinary increase in the practice and it is wrong.

First, I want to emphasise and endorse what the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said. She clearly articulated the anxiety that ought to be felt when these timetable motions are proposed. Her first point was on the redress of grievances. All of us, as Back Benchers, have an obligation to find suitable opportunities to express the anxieties, uncertainties and grievances of our constituents. That is one of the foremost duties of a Member of Parliament, although in this legislative sausage machine it is becoming less easy to perform. One way in which one does so is by tabling amendments to Bills, which give one the opportunity to focus on individual cases. The consequence of timetable motions, which provide a tight framework for debate, is that we cannot debate the amendments that we have tabled to provide the focus for our constituents' grievances. The hon. Lady is right about that.

The second reason why I deprecate this use of timetabling is that it is the inevitable product of too heavy a legislative programme. The reason why we have such motions—apart from the unwillingness of the Labour party to sit late—is because of the enormous legislative programmes. No one supposes for a moment, however, that this country is better governed because we have this large corpus of law; indeed, we are much worse governed. If we have to have timetable motions to get the vast body of legislation through, the solution is not to have these motions but to have less legislation.

My third point—it was also the hon. Lady's—deals with the willingness of the Government to legislate on the hoof. The hon. Lady has much experience in government and she will forgive my saying that so do I. Both of us would agree that when we started in this place, Governments were much more disciplined about preparing their Bills in advance. That is not to say that we did not sometimes legislate on the hoof, but we tried not to.

It is an absurdity that 115 Government amendments are tabled for discussion—I think that about 400 were tabled in Committee, which is also an absurdity. Also, the Bill has already been discussed in the Lords. What sort of government is this? It is thoroughly incompetent and bad government and we should not acquiesce in it by approving timetable motions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills referred to paragraph 3 of the motion, which enables Government business to be thrust through regardless but also prevents our ensuring that we discuss and vote on other matters.

My hon. Friend also pointed out that the time that we are taking to debate the motion will be taken out of the time for the substantive discussion. If the House does its duty by protesting against the motion, the first part of the Bill will barely be discussed. The timetable motion will prevent it from being discussed. The Government's answer is simply to say, "Well, don't talk about the timetable motion." That is a scandal, but it does not surprise me because hon. Members who were in the House last night heard the Minister with responsibility for prisons say in terms in his reply, "We, the Government party, are not interested in hearing what the Opposition have to say. Why should we be?"

The Government do not want the House to debate the matter. Indeed, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, who is in charge of the Bill, has just left. She may have fled—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] No, I see that she is below the Gangway with her back to me. I suppose that is courteous enough—at least she is here.

However, the point is that we are so constructing the timetable motions that we cannot debate the substance of the Bill. We have 50 pages of amendments. There are 16 groups for discussion. There are about 242 amendments, of which 115 are Government amendments. Any time for voting comes out of the overall time. We can be entirely certain that whole wedges of proposed legislation will not have been discussed in this place.

Let us remember that this is the only occasion when the House as a whole has the opportunity to discuss the detail of the Bill. Second Reading is not a substitute for that. The Report stage is when the House as a whole can discuss the legislation that will bind our constituents and our fellow citizens.

This is a scandal. I know that the Government propose to introduce more and more such motions, but it is our business, as the Opposition, to say that this is tyranny; we should play no part in it.

5.36 pm
Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I welcome this debate on timetabling, believe it or not; although I do not welcome its direction or logic. I shall speak only briefly, particularly as I do not want to do the House a discourtesy, because I cannot remain for the whole debate.

I cannot help but pick up on the main thrust of the arguments put forward by various Members that, if we have timetabling and programming of Bills, we undermine parliamentary scrutiny. If one wants to undermine parliamentary scrutiny, the best way to do so is to scrutinise matters in the middle of the night. That is what we do all the time.

Many hon. Members are sick to death of that ludicrous and antediluvian procedure; we certainly welcome moves to change it. I understand some of the concerns that are being expressed; they are genuine points, but my fundamental point is that they stem from the fact that, historically, opposition in this place—whether from the official Opposition or from the ranks of the Government—has only one weapon: time. Often, that results in time wasting.

Mrs. Dunwoody

In my time, I have been known to oppose my own Government—impossible though that may seem. Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a difference between carefully reading what is written in legislation and automatically opposing it? She assumes that only those who oppose the content will want to read what is in the legislation. I assure her that that is not the case.

Ms King

I assure my hon. Friend that that was not my assumption at all. I should like another assumption to be undermined—that there can be parliamentary scrutiny only if debates are allowed to proceed in an untimetabled fashion.

A further assumption is that Back Benchers, too, would not benefit from more timetabling. I would be astonished if I knew what was coming up and when. My goodness, how revolutionary that would be. I could plan what I wanted to speak on and when—the parts of the debate on which I wanted to make points that were important to my constituents.

I said that I should speak only briefly, so I shall conclude by reminding hon. Members that, earlier, it took 30 minutes to make two points. All MPs—including Back Benchers—will have to realise that we need to show a little more self-control and an ability to make our points more succinctly.

5.39 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The House is now in distinct danger of demeaning itself and denying its essential role in the legislative process. My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench who have apparently signed up to the timetable motion have not explained to me why they have done so. They may or may not do so subsequently, but it is beyond me to understand why they have connived in this grubby little parliamentary manoeuvre. That is a matter for them, but they cannot expect me to support it, and nor do I.

The Minister boasted that the Bill had spent 40 hours in Committee. Forty whole hours—I am supposed to be impressed. Frankly, I am not. I remind the few Labour Members who have been here more than three minutes that in the good old days when they were in Opposition and they took their job seriously, in the early 1980s, it was the convention that a large Bill was in Committee for approaching 200 and certainly 150 hours before a guillotine motion was even contemplated. That expectation has come down over the years, and that may or may not be correct, but the fact that the Committee spent 40 consensual and jolly hours apparently not doing a very good job of scrutinising the Bill should not impress those of us who were not members of the Committee when we reach Report stage. So we can dismiss that as an unsatisfactory and specious argument.

If we look in detail at this ghastly guillotine motion agreed by those on the so-called Opposition Front Bench, we see that the large number of measures contained in each group of amendments in the first set of groups gives rise to the extraordinary phenomenon that, were we to debate the first group—the structure of the guillotine will effectively diminish the time available—we would have six minutes for each of the items within that group. The group contains some important provisions about Wales, local authority powers, consultation and many matters which in normal circumstance would require proper debate and consideration.

When I say six minutes for each item, that is six minutes for the entire House and for all Members present to make the contribution that they want to make. That is not including the time that will be taken if the House decides to express its view in a Division. I know that Divisions are unfashionable on the Government side, but some of us still cling to the idea that casting a vote in this place as well as saying something is of some importance. The consensus between the two Front Bench teams may have eliminated that possibility, but some of us still hold it rather dear. We may want to divide the House as often as possible just to cling on to the power as long as we still have it, but I shall leave that idea to colleagues to contemplate.

The second set of groups of amendments is even more extraordinary. By my calculation, one minute is allowed per item selected by the Speaker for debate and consideration by the House. That is one minute in total for all Members of the House present who wish to participate. Even if we accept the strictures of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) to be brief, she surely agrees that a minute to debate an entire item is just a little restrictive.

We shall be discussing executive arrangements, overview and scrutiny arrangements, matters such as the resignation of a deputy mayor and the definition of the role of a mayor and of assembly members. I have picked just a few matters at random. Those are matters that surely justify more than a minute's debate, but apparently not. It has been agreed that a minute per item is all that is required in this ever more modern House of Commons. Those who have put their names to this measure apparently agree with that.

For the next two groups of amendments, three minutes per item has been allowed. For the one after that, one minute has been allowed. For the one after that five minutes, and for the one after that, three minutes. Then, bizarrely, we are apparently to spend two and a quarter hours on homosexuality. I leave the world outside to make a judgment about that priority. It strikes me as odd to say the least that we should dwell on homosexuals for two and a quarter hours while skipping lightly over tribunals, membership of the standards committee, investigative procedures, proportional representation, and procedures and timing for elections. All of those will be swept aside in a matter of minutes, while we dwell on homosexuals at length in a leisurely manner.

This cannot be serious, as one of the people I have been watching over the weekend, Mr. McEnroe, would no doubt say if he was here. I find it saddening and demeaning for the House that we are being asked to support a measure as grubby and disgraceful as this. I do not give it my support. If the House were to divide, I would want to vote against it. If the House does not divide, I want it to be very well known that I join my right hon. and hon. Friends in utterly opposing the motion and its like.

5.45 pm
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I will be very brief. I believe that in the very near future, if not during this debate, the House will have to decide whether there is any meaningful constitutional role and responsibility for the genuine Back Bencher in the House.

I believe that the position of Back Benchers is being increasingly eroded and made more and more difficult, and more and more irrelevant. As a Back Bencher of some standing in the House I deeply regret that, because it is not just a matter of Opposition and Government. As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has so often said in the House, with great commitment and great knowledge and great experience, there are divisions within the political parties in the House; and I believe that, if the House is to have any meaningful role in the eyes of the electorate at large, those views that differ within a party, let alone those on which there are differences across the House, should have a proper opportunity for expression in this place.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) spoke about wanting to be able to plan ahead as to when she was going to speak and to plan the other duties that, rightly, she has in the House. I must tell her that, given the volume of legislation—which was so well conveyed by my right hon. and hon. Friends—she is most unlikely to be called; and she was not elected to the House merely to trot through the Lobby in support of her party. Similarly, I remind those on the Conservative Front Bench that I was not elected by the people of Macclesfield to trot through the Lobby in support of everything that my party says either in opposition or in government; that is not what the House is about.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I just want to present to my hon. Friend evidence in support of his argument that the problem is not the fact that the Opposition's main weapon is time, but the progressive tendency of all Governments over time to compress Report stages. In the 1970s, multi-day Report stages were the norm; today, they are the exception. That is why half of all the guillotines and timetable motions in the past 15 years have occurred in the past three years, under the present Government.

Mr. Winterton

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he, too, has much experience of the way that the House operates. He has been a Minister. He currently chairs perhaps the most important Select Committee of the House and, I believe, is well regarded from all parts of the House for the contribution that he has made to the deliberations in the House. The point that he makes is absolutely right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) was absolutely right to point out the amount of legislation that the House is being expected to deal with. In this Session of Parliament alone, we are dealing with more than 2,500 pages of legislation. That is outrageous; and for the only opportunity that the whole House has to discuss the nitty-gritty of a Bill to be constricted and to be prescribed as is proposed in the motion before us is, I believe, absolutely outrageous.

I say to Ministers, there is also a severe problem in this prescriptive motion, because the Government could seek to persuade their own Members to speak at length on amendments, thus preventing the real, crucial issues that are of concern to the Opposition ever being debated.

The Government are neutering the House of Commons.

Ms Oona King


Mr. Winterton

They are raping the House of Commons. They are castrating the House of Commons.

They are doing so by denying the right of Back Benchers to contribute, virtually at any stage of the Bill's passage. I do not believe—

Ms King

The hon. Gentleman suggested that timetabling is not necessary and that I want it because I need time to prepare for a speech. But earlier, I spoke after 30-seconds notice. He said that the timetabling motion is outrageous and that the Government are castrating the House.

However, has he noticed that not a single woman is on the Opposition Back Benches? Unpredictability further discriminates against women. That is outrageous.

Mr. Winterton

I have to tell the hon. Lady that, of all the people in the House, I most value the fact that the House is accessible to women Members of Parliament. I should know; I am married to one. She came into the House on her own merit and she speaks for the Conservative party on an important matter.

As the hon. Lady is more than aware, many things take place in the House other than the debate that is currently taking place in the Chamber. I shall not comment on who is present and on what sex they are. All I can say is that Conservative Members believe fervently in genuine debate.

The motion will deprive us of the opportunity to debate the issues and of influencing those on the Government and the Opposition Front Benches. I think that the House will rue the day that this motion is passed, as it will be because of the Government's huge majority. However, representatives of the Opposition parties are putting down markers that the purpose of the House is being undermined and destroyed.

I regret the fact that my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench have agreed to the motion. It is an abuse of the House and I support the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills and of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich. It might embarrass the hon. Lady, but I must say that she is a fervent and stalwart believer in democracy and parliamentary democracy. It is a pity that more Labour Members are not prepared to take the same stance. I congratulate her, as she as been congratulated by my hon. Friends. I only wish that there were more like her in the House.

5.52 pm
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

It is very difficult to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) but, as ever, it is a great privilege. I endorse everything that he said.

I want to speak briefly to underline the important warning that was given at the outset of the debate by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who raised the concern about the rights of Back Benchers. I am particularly moved to do so because of an experience that I had a few weeks ago in relation to the Transport Bill, which was also timetabled. A complete absurdity took place. I tabled an amendment which I was told had the support of Ministers, and I knew that it had the support of Members from both sides of the House and of all the major parties. However, that amendment could be neither debated nor voted on because of a timetable motion.

We are in precisely the same position this evening. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) has tabled an important amendment that merits debate and consideration. However, that amendment cannot be debated or considered, and that is bad for the House of Commons. As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, it is also bad for our country and our democracy. We are not far from considering the important deliberations of the Modernisation Committee on the timetabling of legislation, so it is vital that all Members, particularly Back Benchers, understand what we stand to lose if we proceed with the further timetabling of legislation.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) committed an error that is often made when making the argument for timetabling all legislation. She confused that argument with the one about the hours that Parliament sits. We are not talking about what time of day or night we hold our debates, and it is always possible to have debates on more than one day if it is necessary to do so to avoid sitting late. However, if we timetable all legislation, it is certain that the rights of Back Benchers to influence legislation and the rights of ordinary citizens to have their views and concerns expressed in the House of Commons will be vastly diminished. That will be regrettable and it will greatly damage our proud parliamentary democracy.

I was heartened to hear the excellent contributions from those Members on both sides who warned of the consequences of what is being contemplated. I only hope that all Members start to hear those important warnings before it is too late.

5.55 pm
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Although I accept that my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench have come to an arrangement with the Government, I have enormous reservations about the guillotine motion that is being discussed. It is an admission by the Government of the enormous work load that they are trying to push through this place in a short time. People will wonder why the House of Commons will rise on 28 July and return on 23 October, which is one of the longest recesses that there has ever been. That means that the time that we have to discuss, scrutinise and improve legislation will be truncated. Yet, the number of amendments that the Government have tabled shows that they believe that this Bill can be improved.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) seems to believe that the Report stage exists merely for the Opposition to delay the Government getting their way. That is not what it is about. We have been sent here by our constituents to consider and to improve legislation, so that the Acts that we put on to the statute book are as good as they possibly can be.

A full debate is not just an opportunity for Opposition Back Benchers. It also allows Government Back Benchers to scrutinise the Bill. The problem with a timetable motion is that my contribution even on this motion is being shortened. Because of the guillotine motion, I am a less effective Back Bencher than I otherwise could be. [Interruption.] No, we are all less effective. The role of Parliament has been diminished by the motion. It is not about the Executive getting their legislation through; it is about the weakening of Parliament, and the weakening of Parliament weakens us all.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved. That the following provisions shall apply to the remaining proceedings on the Local Government Bill [Lords]:—