HC Deb 09 May 2000 vol 349 cc663-8

13. In this Order— allotted day" means this day and any day on which the Bill is put down on the main business as first Government Order of the Day; and the Bill" means the Transport Bill.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

4.28 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

All guillotines are an affront. This is as bad as most, and worse than many.

Guillotines, surely, represent a failure of the parliamentary process. They imply that the House has neither the disposition nor the time to deal properly with the matters at hand. They also render impossible the main function of the House, which is to scrutinise legislation properly; and they deny Back Benchers, in particular, an opportunity to give their attention to it. I suspect that they also imply the existence of an excess of legislation. The fact that a guillotine needs to be introduced at any stage of the parliamentary Session suggests that the Government are putting too much legislation before the House, and the House feels that it is not being given proper time to deal with it.

That applies particularly in the case of this Bill, which by any measure is large and important. One would have thought that the House would want to give a proper amount of time to its consideration—especially at this stage, when we are faced with a substantial number of amendments. I look in particular at the first grouping that is proposed in the timetable motion. Not only are there at least 40 distinct items to be considered in the four hours to be allocated, but they range across very different subjects.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Four hours are not allocated to that group of amendments. Under Standing Orders, the first three hours are allocated to this debate. If we had three hours on the debate and a Division at the end, the Government would intend to dispose of all those matters within about 40 minutes.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his correction. I was assuming that, given my customary brevity, the House would not be detained for any great length of time. Depending on what he wishes to say, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that may or may not be the case. My hon. Friend is right. In certain circumstances, there could be as little as three hours or less to consider the 40 items that I have mentioned; the four hours are a maximum.

The items range across different issues such as loans and grants, the disposition of shares, directorships, the parliamentary process itself and the key issue of the nature of the company that is to be set up. All those items are supposed to be properly scrutinised and considered in the House of Commons in a period that could be as little as under an hour and that, at most, will be something short of four hours.

That is bad enough. It is proposed to give the next grouping an hour and a half. I count 90 Government amendments and 20 other amendments. How is the House is supposed to consider them properly? That is less than one minute per item, if one wants to look at it in that way. An hour is allocated to a later grouping: it is proposed to deal with 36 Government amendments and seven others in that time.

I do not want to go into any more detail. The matter explains itself. It is a pathetic admission of failure by the House as a whole, by hon. Members and by those who propose the timetable motion because it suggests that the House of Commons has lost interest in its principal function: the proper scrutiny of legislation. The motion arrogantly implies that we Back Benchers should be prepared to allow the matter to slip through—this enormous Bill, this enormous number of amendments—in one brief sitting today of somewhat short of eight hours and in a sitting tomorrow of six hours. It is pathetic.

That the House of Commons should have come to this makes me feel very sad. I would like to think that it will never happen again, but I am not sure, given the Government's propensity not only to bring excessive numbers of Bills before the House—and to make them excessively long—but to be forced by their incompetence to introduce so many amendments to their Bills. All those factors add up to the fact that we can see what the Government's attitude to the House of Commons and its traditional function is. I deprecate the whole thing.

4.33 pm
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

My regret goes a little further than that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). On the Order Paper, the motion stands in the name of Front-Bench representatives of the principal parties. They have clearly sat down and considered what is the best way of debating the Bill; I take that on trust because no speech has yet been made to justify why the mechanism is necessary.

Why are we cutting off the rights of Members of Parliament—the representatives of constituencies—to speak? Why are we reducing on the most important issues the ability of any one of us—it is what we were elected for—to speak on behalf of our constituents and to express anxieties or balanced arguments as to why the measures or clauses are appropriate or inappropriate?

Such motions used to be a matter of great solemnity for the House. They were barely used. The Government have now introduced, I think, 36 principal guillotine motions; in fact, there have been nearly 50 guillotine motions. I know that that might even shock the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I know how vigorous he was in opposing the decisions of past Conservative Administrations to impose guillotines.

The Secretary of State may think, now that he is in office, that guillotines are right, but when he was not in office, he clearly thought that such motions were wrong. Nevertheless, that seems to be the thought behind the guillotine.

In the House's Standing Orders, three hours are set aside for debate of a guillotine motion. However, even that may be truncated. It is the House's right, by the force of the majority, to ensure that many hon. Members who may wish to speak to these important matters cannot do so. That would be an extraordinary rejection of the very function that we are called here to perform, and of even our name—Parliament.

I take exception to this guillotine motion, which will limit what is perhaps the most important political debate. Perhaps the debate's importance is the reason why the Opposition have been so keen to conduct it in this manner, raising it to such a prominent position and ensuring that they maximise the Government's discomfiture on it. It is a shortsighted way of considering the matter.

No one doubts that the principle involved in the sell-off of air traffic control is very important. The issue raises in all parties anxieties about the national interest and about who can best guarantee the security of air traffic control. Some people say that the Government can do that best, whereas others say that it can be done best by someone else. Some people ask whether there should be a golden share to ensure that air traffic control cannot be bought by foreign commercial interests and put at ransom.

Every hon. Member knows that all those issues are important. Hon. Members on both sides of the House—but especially Labour Members—are deeply anxious about them. I do not take lightly Labour Members' feelings in voting against the principle proposed by the Government. Many of them will wish to speak in the debate to explain to their constituents why they take a different view, but the motion will deny them the opportunity of doing so.

I have not troubled even to count the number of amendments in the first group, which—if the guillotine debate were to last three hours, plus a Division—we could have only 40 minutes to debate. If we had only 40 minutes, the Secretary of State would have barely enough time to mangle his first sentence. If the process were to continue, the Government would be denying even themselves the ability to justify their case to the House. How can that be right? It is an important argument.

The courtesies have become so trivialised that the Government feel that it is no longer necessary even to explain why a guillotine should be introduced. Even Opposition Front Benchers do not think that it is necessary to justify them.

Mr. Forth

Does my hon. Friend not see the connection between the point that he made initially and the point that he is making now? Presumably, the reason why our Front Benchers do not think that it is necessary to explain the motion to the House is that they believe that a cosy and consensual arrangement made in private is sufficient, and that the House should simply accept whatever our betters on the Front Benches agree. Does he agree that that is a likely reason for the lack of courtesy from Front Benchers?

Mr. Shepherd

Before I answer that, I should first point out that Liberal Democrat Front Benchers have also signed the guillotine motion and do not think that it is necessary to justify cutting people off from speaking. The cosiness of the arrangement—which, as we all know, has been debated in the Modernisation Committee—means that Back Benchers, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the House, march to drums that deny them the opportunity to speak. It is an extraordinary arrangement.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, by debating the programme motion at length, he and other Opposition Members are contributing towards the restriction of debate in the House? If he wants to debate the substantive issue, it would be best to allow the programme motion to be put to a Division as soon as possible.

Mr. Shepherd

I feel that the hon. Gentleman has not even read the motion before the House, and his point is unwise. He should take the matter up with his own party managers, and ask whether a debate on a substantive matter should be curtailed to 40 minutes because some obstreperous Back Bencher has argued against the motion.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

Both Front-Bench teams have been accused of discourtesy. My hon. Friend will know that I have enormous sympathy for what he is saying, but we were left with a choice between two evils—a programme motion or a guillotine. I venture to suggest that, in this case, a programme motion is preferable to a guillotine, as we can at least guarantee that matters of concern to this House can be discussed. Otherwise, an endless stream of mundane Government amendments could use up the time before the guillotine falls. That is why we have done this. I do not expect my hon. Friend's forgiveness, but I crave his understanding.

Mr. Shepherd

There is no difference between a guillotine and a programme motion, other than the fact that, under a timetable motion, my hon. Friend is saying that he can more judiciously allocate the time allowed for debate. However, that does not work either, as we have one and a half hours to discuss some groupings of amendments.

One must consider the extraordinary nature of the Bill, which weighs a great deal and covers many pages. The amendments are colossal. The House must pause; that is all I am asking. We are giving so little time to important issues, and we are reducing debate so that there is an almost mechanical passage of legislation. There can be almost no thought or reflection on the individual amendments, which are blocked, grouped and marched on.

Previously, we had a guillotine on Lords amendments when the Government used their judgment as to the appropriate time for the guillotine. Out of 11 groupings of amendments upon which Madam Speaker had graciously decided, only four were debated. We do not even debate substantial pieces of legislation now, and that is what angers me. This House is viewed with great contempt because we just seem to be two marching armies. It is as if these are matters for party alone. However, each one of us represents a constituency. By voting to deny ourselves the right to speak on some of these important amendments, we are denying the very justification for our existence in this House.

4.42 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

I intended no offence by not intervening when the motion was moved, because the three main parties had agreed. However, this is a matter for the House. The three Front-Bench teams can get together and make agreements, but the House can agree or reject them. That is what we face.

One distinctive difference between a guillotine and this kind of co-operation on the allocation of time is that one party is not seeking to impose on the other. There is an agreement—as the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said—to seek a better way to deal with the important issues.

I have been in this place for 30 years and I am bound to say that I have heard these arguments from both sides. I am not unsympathetic to the points that have been made, as these are essential democratic issues. It is hoped that many of these issues can be debated in Committee where considerable time is given, but that does not deny the House the right to debate them.

We have faced such problems before—for example, during debates on the Maastricht treaty. I do not know what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) thought about that, or whether he voted against the timetable motion. I presume that he did not, as he was a member of the Government.

I have been on both sides of the Chamber dealing with the matter, and we have to find agreements in dealing with legislation. The fundamental point is being looked at by a Committee of this House which will report back to us. This is an agreed timetable, as is made clear in the motion which is signed by the three parties involved in the process. It suggests a sensible and logical consideration of the Bill, and it gives an opportunity for the Opposition to make clear those parts of the Bill that they want to discuss. I can recall several occasions when we discussed all sorts of stupid Government amendments and did not get to the serious issues until 2 or 3 am. We want to discuss the serious issues at a time when the public may be most interested to hear those discussions.

We sought to co-operate with the other parties to devise the right timetable. With all its faults and limitations, the timetable before us represents the best way forward. It also avoids the duplication of debate and makes for speedier consideration.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that many of us will feel that it is important to vote on more than one of the amendments and new clauses in the first group?

Mr. Prescott

We are trying to find as much time as we can, and I am trying to hurry my contribution, because the longer I am at the Dispatch Box, the more I shorten the period for discussion. That is one reason why I hung back, hoping that we would not have this debate, but the House has the decision in these matters. We have provided a timetable that I believe represents the best way of dealing with the Bill, and I commend the motion to the House.

4.46 Pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I am very conscious that we are eating into debating time for substantive matters, but I want to make one point on behalf of my constituents, bearing in mind that the most recent crash at Heathrow took place in my constituency.

My experience of 13 years in the House has taught me that when we have a programme motion or a guillotine and there are a given number of hours and many people want to speak, it is the matters of principle and philosophy, and the general matters of national concern, that get debated, while the local concerns of my constituents—and, in the context of Heathrow, probably those of the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) and for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen)—get squeezed out. With the memory of what has happened in Spelthorne, my constituents would want me to object, very briefly, to that squeezing out of their interests by other people's debates.

Question put and agreed to.