HC Deb 23 January 2001 vol 361 cc832-49 5.39 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

I beg to move, That Private Members' Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 2nd and 9th February, 9th, 16th, 23rd and 30th March, 6th and 27th April, 11th and 18th May, 8th and 15th June and 20th July. The motion is necessary to enable paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 14 to function properly. That provision states: Private Members' Bills shall have precedence over Government business on thirteen Fridays in each session to be appointed by the House. The motion to appoint those days has been on the Order Paper for some time. Clearly, some right hon. and hon. Members want to debate the matter. It is an important principle that private Members have time on the Floor of the House specifically for their business. The dates allocated by the motion are designed to give private Members' Fridays a similar pattern to those in preceding Sessions: seven Fridays for Second Readings, followed by a gap and a more leisurely series of dates for remaining stages.

It is important that that time is available. Although private Members' Bills can be derided as ineffective, a surprising number ate enacted each year. In the years between 1964 and 1993, 10 to 15 private Members' Bills, on average, were passed each Session. Twenty-one such Bills were passed in 1996 –97, when some were given Government time, and even in recent years, six or seven private Members' Bills have reached the statute book each Session.

Private Members' Bills have tidied up the statute book. The Lord Chancellor (Terms of Office and Discharge of Ecclesiastical Functions) Act 1974 made it possible for the post of Lord Chancellor to be held by a Catholic. Private Members' Bills have dealt with matters that affect small groups. The Motorcycle Crash Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act 1976 permits Sikhs to wear turbans, rather than helmets. When we drive past a gaggle of riding school children all securely helmeted, we see the results of the Horses (Protective Headgear for Young Riders) Act 1990. Private Members' Bills have extended the effectiveness of the House. The National Audit Office owes its existence to the National Audit Act 1983—a private Member's Bill.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for giving way. Will he explain to the House why then are not more dates earlier, when they might not be damaged by an election, and more dates later, which would not be available if the most likely election date, early May, materialised?

Mr. Tipping

I have learned one thing during my time in the House: never to speculate on the date of an election. There is every possibility that the House could sit for another year and more.

There is an honourable tradition whereby private Members' Bills have been used to force Governments to face social issues that they would rather duck. The book "How Parliament Works" notes: Private Members' Acts have brought about the abolition of the death penalty, the legislation on abortion and homosexuality and the end of theatre censorship. Even when they are defeated, private Members' Bills can have huge influence. The Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill may have been defeated in the 1993 –94 Session, but the Government were forced to introduce their own Disability Discrimination Bill in the next Session. I am sure that hon. Members can think of further examples.

There have been calls for private Members' Bills to be given a better chance of success. The motion allocates a mere 13 Fridays. Perhaps, some say, the procedure should be relaxed to counterbalance such a limited time. The Procedure Committee considered the matter in 1994–95 and commented at paragraph 18 that it is a matter for debate whether a majority in the House, not supported by electoral mandate, should be allowed to overcome serious objections from a minority of members on one issue. It concluded that any significant change in procedure which enabled a minority to pass through the House a bill inconsistent with the policy objectives of the Government majority is unrealistic and a breach of the conventions under which private Members' bill procedure has operated. Such a change could also have a dangerous consequence in that it would enable the Government majority to use the same procedure to drive through the House a private Member's bill to which there was substantial but minority opposition. Our motion tonight simply allocates the time required by Standing Orders.

In the past, some private Members' Bills have been taken through all their stages on a single day. Now hon. Members tend to insist that no Bill should be passed without debate. Given the limited time, that reduces the chances of success. Some may argue that the chances of success are so small that it is pointless for the House to approve the motion. However, private Members' Bills and the time allocated to them offer unrivalled opportunities for procedural training and tactics. We all know the need to have our supporters present and correct at 9.30 am and to have sufficient numbers to secure a closure.

However important private Members' Bills are in themselves, and however great the procedural amusement they provide, the key reason why the provisions of Standing Order No. 14 should be implemented remains that Standing Orders allocate the time to private Members and they should be given it. I invite the House to agree to the motion, which will put the Standing Orders into effect.

5.45 pm
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

It is a pleasure to listen to the Parliamentary Secretary opening the debate on a matter that is clearly important to Back Benchers. Private Members' Bills are peculiarly their province. As the hon. Gentleman said, the motion has been on the Order Paper for some time. It is clear from the presence of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends that they have some anxieties and concerns about the way in which the matter is being presented, about which we shall hear more presently.

I shall not get involved in discussion of the number of days allocated. Those who want to raise their concerns will do so. In view of the fact that the motion has consistently been objected to since it first appeared on the Order Paper, it is unfortunate that we have not had an earlier opportunity to debate it, so that Back Benchers could express their views. One has the impression that the Government hoped that by reintroducing the motion time and again, the objections would simply go away. [Interruption.] I hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). It was apparent that the issue would not go away, as there were matters that needed to be discussed.

On one matter, I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary. He said that, historically, the purpose of private Members' Bills was to enable Back Benchers to bring before the House matters that would require a considerable degree of unanimity in order to reach the statute book. I was fascinated to hear the hon. Gentleman present an exposé of the reasons for that, with which I heartily concurred.

I hope that I will not be considered to be out of order if I gently point out to the Parliamentary Secretary that having adhered to that policy in respect of the Hunting Bill when it was a private Member's Bill—the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill—and seen it consigned to oblivion by the House for the very reasons that the hon. Gentleman articulated, the Government, for reasons which remain incomprehensible, saw fit to reintroduce it in Government time, when every argument that the hon. Gentleman has just advanced would militate against that. I found that telling. Perhaps at the end of the debate, the Parliamentary Secretary will amplify his remarks. A better justification for not proceeding as the Government did after the failure of a private Member's Bill would be difficult to find.

I am happy to listen carefully to the objections that are likely to be raised by my right hon. and hon. Friends to the number of days allocated and to other matters connected with private Members' Bills and the business of the House.

5.48 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) pointed out, we have finally got the motion on the Floor of the House, where it belongs, and we have an opportunity to debate it. However, I wonder whether it is too late.

The Government seem to have taken the attitude that such matters are entitled to be nodded through by the House, without proper debate or consideration, and they are learning the hard way that that simply is not the case. When the Government say, "We believe that a certain number of days should be allocated to this or that", they should not assume that the House will acquiesce.

As the debate is entitled "Business of the House", the House should debate it. It is only slightly to the credit of the Minister that he has been brought to the House kicking and screaming, at the last minute, reluctantly to present the matter to the House, when it is far too late to do anything about it.

That is important because the matter was first presented to the House before Christmas. It should have been dealt with then, as there was time for those who opposed it to say why we felt that it was inadequate or inappropriate. We are now at a late date in January. We are asked to agree that the private Member's Bill cycle, to which the Minister alluded, should start very soon, on 2 February, and that only two days will be allocated in February. The Government care so little about private Members' Bills that we are then to go away for a month before resuming the process on 9 March.

I presume that the Committee of Selection will sit on the Wednesday after the first of the two Fridays, so 14 February would be the first day available for Committee proceedings. Therefore, even if a private Member's Bill were to get a Second Reading in the House on one of the first two Fridays and to get through Committee in one sitting, the first day on which it could possibly come back to the Floor for Report or Third Reading would be 9 March.

Hon. Members who have gone through the private Member's Bill process know that it is not always to their delight or advantage, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) would agree. The Government have taken so long to seek to resolve the matter on the Floor of the House that they have put private Members' Bills in jeopardy. They have taken so long because there may be an election.

It is not good enough for the Minister to say, in his bland way, that we must not discuss whether there is going to be an election. The entire country assumes that there will be an election in April or May. That makes it incumbent on the Government to make more proper provision for private Members' Bills than appears in the motion.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

My right hon. Friend is being too generous to the Government. The chances are that the House will be dissolved at the end of March. Private Members' legislation has to get through the other place, so it is probable that none will become law in this Session. Is not the motion therefore bogus?

Mr. Forth

If so, it would cause me no loss of sleep. My right hon. and learned Friend is right to remind the House that a private Member's Bill, like any other, must be dealt with in another place. If necessary, it must return to the House of Commons before it reaches the statute book. My point is that holding a general election in April or May—or even June or July—would put at risk all the private Members' Bills that have been balloted.

So casual is the Government's attitude in this matter, as in so many others, that they have allowed a month to pass since the motion first appeared, since when no attention has been paid to it. If we end up with no private Members' Bills in this Session, we shall know whom to blame—the Government. Their attitude to such Bills is hostile, and they kill about 30 or 40 of them every year. I should be happy to provide any hon. Member who so wishes with an analysis.

The Government have dealt with this piece of business very casually. They have assumed that the House will accept everything that they do, but that assumption is false. The debate allows us to say to the Government that they should not assume that they have killed the House of Commons. They have done a pretty good job of strangulation, but the body is not yet quite dead. The House is still capable of exercising some of the powers that have been left to it.

The other message to the Government is that they should not think that they will get away lightly with treating private Members' Bills so casually. My analysis shows that the Government have left private Members' Bills with little or no chance of reaching the statute book. To many hon. Members, that will seem a great pity.

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

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for, in effect, triggering this debate. He has exposed the fact that the Government do not want any private Members' Bills to pass through the House in this Session.

The motion first appeared on the Order Paper before Christmas. I was among those hon. Members who objected to it. We wanted the matter to be brought to the Floor of the House much earlier, so that it could be discussed fully. However, the Government waited for a month before the opinion of the House could be heard. The result is that no private Members' legislation will succeed this Session—unless the Government approve of the Bill involved.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst analysed the timetable, and he is right to say that the House would be dissolved near the end of March if there is to be a general election in May, which seems probable. Any legislation would have to get through Second Reading, Committee and Report stages, and then go to the other place. Lords amendments, if any, would then have to be considered in the House of Commons, and then Royal Assent would have to be granted. It would not be possible for any private Member's Bill that was one whit controversial to get through that process by the end of March. The Government are seeking to frustrate the passage of private Members' legislation. We need to identify the bogosity—if that is a word—of the Government's attitude.

My right hon. Friend and I agree about many things, such as the hateful nature of the Government, but we differ about the desirability of private Members' legislation. My right hon. Friend is a great strangler of such legislation, and would say that he is broadly against it. I am broadly in favour of the process, but I am careful about which Bills I support. I am in favour of the process because it gives hon. Members the opportunity to identify issues that are important to themselves or to interest groups.

Mr. Forth

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of what Sir Winston Churchill said in 1931? When asked about private Members' Bills, he said: I am not very anxious to help private Members' Bills. I have seen a great many of them brought forward, and in most cases it was a very good thing that they did not pass. I think there ought to be a very effective procedure for making it difficult for all sorts of happy thoughts to be carried on to the Statute Book.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend, the great strangler, makes a very good case. Most private Members' Bills need to be treated with great caution, and I have voted against an awful lot of them because it is awfully easy for people's wishful thinking, in an ill-attended House on a Friday, to go through the statutory process and suddenly become law.

Mr. Forth

Not any more.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend, the great strangler, makes it less probable than it used to be, and I am very glad that he does, but it does not alter the fact that the private Members' process is a good one for identifying issues. Usually, private Members are wrong when it comes to the expression of those solutions in statutory form, but they are often right in identifying the issue, which then triggers debate and may trigger more sensible legislation. Occasionally, the private Members' process is a good vehicle for passing very minor measures, which otherwise would not attract Government time, but which are passed because the private Members' system provides an opportunity. For those reasons I am in favour of the process, although I view with concern many of the Bills that emerge from it.

That brings me to my next point. Thirteen days on which private Members' legislation will get precedence is not enough, especially as we have a Government who are over-mighty and oppressive of the interests of minorities. I would like private Members' legislation to get precedence on more days, not because I particularly want the Bills to be passed, but because I want private Members to have an opportunity to articulate their concerns on matters that arise from their constituencies or matters of national interest.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has given us the opportunity to highlight these issues. The motion could have gone through on the nod. The Government would have preferred it to do so, because they do not like debate. We on the Back Benches, who are standing up for the privileges of Parliament, do like debate, and because debate in the House is being so severely truncated by Ministers, they must expect us to take every opportunity to debate issues of importance.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) was responsible for the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill. She will remember that I strongly disagreed with that when we debated it, but it was an example of a matter that it was proper for a Back Bencher to raise. I disapproved of the outcome, I disapproved of the Bill, I protested against it and I protest now, but that type of thing should be encouraged because it enables Members to express their views and those of their constituents.

I am extremely glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has triggered this debate, and I hope that he will trigger many more such debates. I am playing my modest part in encouraging that debate.

6.1 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) to the extent that they were saying the same things—which, on the whole, they were.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, I believe that we have too much legislation. The limited number of forms of conduct that are unacceptable and need to be made crimes and offences are already crimes and offences, and there is no need to add unduly to the list, using up much parliamentary time and incurring great expense.

Most of the legislation that is passed under the present Government is vexatious, regulatory, meddlesome, intervening and interfering, which is why my right hon. and hon. Friends usually vote against it. I would not welcome the introduction of much more similar legislation in the shape of private Members' Bills connived at or encouraged by the Government.

However, if I had to choose whether the time of the House should be a little more occupied by the ideas of private Members or by those of the Government, I would prefer the former, because it is just conceivable that one of my colleagues would come up with an interesting idea that did need attention in a legislative way, whereas I find that Her Majesty's Government usually comes up with ideas that are vexatious, meddlesome and intervening.

Mr. Hogg

The more days private Members have, the fewer days are available for the vexatious, oppressive and tyrannical.

Mr. Redwood

My right hon. and learned Friend was ahead of me in my argument. The great advantage of allowing more private Members' days is that it might limit the number of Government days, and so reduce the amount of meddlesome and unnecessary legislation that is introduced.

I object to the way in which modernisation has been steamrollered through the House. The motion could have been discussed before Christmas or two or three weeks ago, when the debate would have been more relevant and timely and more options would have been available to the Government in the light of the feelings of the House. We are discussing it today because the Government have decided to steamroller and dragoon; to cheat the House of Commons of proper debate and scrutiny; and to decide, of their own initiative, what we shall discuss and when, instead of allowing the usual channels—the normal dialogue between the main parties in the House—to settle what is important and what is not so important and to make progress with Government business, given that the Opposition have a right to a certain amount of choice as to what to highlight and what to debate.

The normal procedures have broken down because the Government have behaved in a typically arrogant and overweening way, and some Opposition Members will continue to debate these procedural matters until the Government understand that trust has been broken and needs to be restored.

I regard it as part of the Government's cynical plot to sideline the powers of the House, and the rights of the individual Members of the House, to choose a very limited number of dates for private Members' business before a likely general election at the beginning of May, and to choose another series of dates that will obviously fall, given that the election now looks almost certain to be on that date or slightly earlier.

The Government have allowed the expectations to build up. They have not attempted to dampen those expectations or to suggest that there are other serious dates, so this afternoon the House must conclude that they have cynically chosen a series of dates so that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, no private Member's Bill can conceivably pass—unless the Government suddenly get behind one and make additional arrangements to dragoon a measure through the House and the other place very quickly indeed.

It is all part of the pattern of a party that thinks that, because it has so many seats in the House of Commons, it has the right to do what it likes when it likes, without courtesy, without discussion, without proper debate and without asking those of us who represent the other interests and viewpoints of the nation what we consider to be relevant and how legislation might be improved or modified.

One thing that I used to value, as a Minister of the Crown, was that dialogue in Committee and in hard-fought debates on the Floor of the House, when the Chair would allow—and the Minister was happy to accept the ruling of the Chair—the debate to run on because the Opposition had a serious point. I thought that it was my job as a Minister either to have what I thought was a better argument and argue it through, or to give a bit of ground because I or my officials had missed something important and the legislation needed to be modified. I never thought that it was my job to get angry with the Opposition and say that they had no right to a life or existence and no right to a view, and that we would immediately impose a guillotine to ensure that we could not debate those things.

The art of being a good Minister is to tempt, persuade and cajole the House into agreement, and work out a way of living with the Opposition, so that the Opposition may have their day or two in court on the things that really matter to them and, as a result, are more prepared to allow the Government's business to pass.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I have something of a vested interest in the matter, having drawn No. 1 in the private Members' Bill ballot. I have been following what the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have been saying and their objections to the dates in the motion and the amount of time allowed. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question, and the other Opposition Members who have spoken might like to express their views, too.

If, theoretically—accepting that hon. Members have objections to the dates and the frequency—a private Member's Bill was introduced to the House that secured public support, and on which there was agreement in the House that it was a sensible measure, would it be sensible, in the interests of the dialogue that the right hon. Member is talking about, for that private Member's Bill to be blocked to make a point about procedure, even if the substance of the Bill was sensible?

Mr. Redwood

There are so many ifs in that question that I fear I cannot be tempted into giving either the friendly answer that the hon. Gentleman would obviously like or an unfriendly one, which would be unfair, given the number of hypotheticals that he has advanced. I believe that he should mainly address his remarks to Ministers. The reason that he is very unlikely to get his Bill passed is that Ministers are not making enough days available. The reason that he is very unlikely to get full co-operation from all of my right hon. and hon. Friends is that the Opposition are exceedingly angry about the way in which business is being dragooned through the House.

I notice a pattern developing. When the Government began imposing guillotines on everything—obviously, wanting to limit the number of days for private Members' business is part of that—they were so arrogant that they would not tell the House anything about their thinking. Then they would just explain a little. Today we have had rather fuller explanation and a little bit of flexibility. That is welcome, but it is still nothing like the proper flexibility that a mature House of Commons has enjoyed in the past and expects from its ministerial team. Ministers should be prepared to engage in debate. They should not be shy of private Members' business having more days for debate, and they should not wish to carry on in this ridiculous fashion, believing that they can steamroller anything that they like through without proper discussion.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, who is normally a more reasonable and accommodating Minister than many of his more senior colleagues, will take this message away and think about it. There is a very strong feeling, which I suspect is shared on the Labour Back Benches, that Back-Bench private Members' business and Back-Bench private Members' views are not getting enough airtime, are not being taken seriously and are not being engaged in debate by the Government, and that the Government should mend their ways—otherwise, they might find that the feeling of hon. Members in this place that they are anti-democratic and authoritarian spreads into the country at a very sensitive time for them, when they are facing re-election.

6.10 pm
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

I am surprised that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) is not seeking to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to participate in our debate, as he is the potential beneficiary of the ballot, which is the parliamentary equivalent of the national lottery. There is no constitutional reason for having a general election this Session: there are only political reasons for having one. The Government may well wish to cut and run before people catch up with all their misdeeds, including those of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, about which, I understand, we shall read more in tomorrow's newspapers.

The Government may well cut and run, but it seemed from the intervention of the hon. Member for Northfield that he is already looking for scapegoats. He is going to try to find a scapegoat for the eventual failure of his Bill in the interventions of my right hon. and hon. Friends. However, if his Bill fails, the Government should be the scapegoat, as they will have failed to provide sufficient time for it in this Session before running for cover in a general election.

Mr. Burden

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) did not answer my question, so I shall put the same question to the hon. Gentleman. My point is very simple: if the hon. Gentleman felt that a piece of legislation was sensible, would he join in blocking that legislation purely to make a procedural point?

Mr. Chope

I would always vote, as far as I could, on the merits of the legislation. Having considered, albeit briefly, the alleged merits of the hon. Gentleman's private Member's Bill, I am not sure that I am convinced of them. Obviously, if we had the chance of a full debate, we would be able to explore that more fully.

Mr. Forth

As we are talking about making law, I hope that my hon. Friend would always insist that every Bill was properly debated on Second Reading, received proper consideration in Committee, on Report and Third Reading, and was considered properly in another place. I hope that, along with me, my hon. Friend would insist that anything destined to reach the statute book went through all of those stages in detail.

Mr. Chope

I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend, as there are too many examples of legislation that has been cobbled together by the Government and supported by the Opposition—whoever they were at the time—only for us to find out that it is probably the worst legislation ever passed by the House. It is essential that legislation is subject to proper scrutiny.

I am concerned on behalf of all those who have been successful in the ballot. I do not know whether the Minister has the required authority, but the Prime Minister could certainly come to the House tomorrow and say that there has been a lot of speculation about a general election in this Session. He could say that, as the Government have the largest majority that a party in government has had in a generation, there is no need to go to the country on constitutional grounds this Session. He could therefore announce that there would not be a general election until October at the earliest.

Mr. Forth

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government could also have said that they would bring the process forward? We have already had non-sitting Fridays this month since we came back from the Christmas recess. Fridays have already been frittered away by the Government, yet the Government are delaying the consideration of private Members' Bills. Does my hon. Friend not see irony in that?

Mr. Chope

I am not sure that my right hon. Friend is right. Because we had a late Queen's Speech, strict timetables are laid down in the rules of the House on the presentation of Bills. I do not think that Bills could have received a Second Reading until they had been presented and printed.

Mr. Hogg

There is another way forward. My hon. Friend will know that members of the Government are always boasting that they will win the next general election. Well, we shall see about that. However, for the purposes of argument, let us assume that they will. It would be perfectly possible for them to promise the House that, in the event—however unlikely—of their winning the election, they would provide additional dates to consider private Members' Bills to compensate Members promoting such Bills for the dates in this Session that have been stolen from them.

Mr. Chope

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a good point which, I hope, will be taken up and become part of the Conservative manifesto. I am sure that that would be very popular. If there is a general election in spring, and a Conservative Government returned victorious, with a Queen's Speech in, say, May or June, we would be in for a long first Session. During that Session, there should be scope to give substantially more time to consideration of private Members' Bills than they normally receive.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)


Mr. Chope

I see that my hon. Friend on the Front Bench wishes to intervene. I hope that she will say that that is going to happen.

Mrs. Browning

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his extremely sensible suggestion which, I assure him, will be discussed at the highest levels.

Mr. Chope

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. All that I need now is for the Minister similarly to say that my proposal will be discussed at the very highest levels. I hope that he will be able to give me that assurance when he winds up our debate. However, I thank him for his courtesy, as he did not open our debate peremptorily by saying: "This is the motion—take it or leave it." He spoke for five or six minutes and explained a bit about the background, history and importance of the issue. The Minister understands the importance of Parliament and the House in debating these issues. It is a pity that some of his friends in Government do not seem to have the same respect for the importance of discussions in the House.

The motion was tabled and consistently blocked: sometimes my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was involved in that and had to be in the House for longer hours than perhaps even the Minister. My right hon. Friend had to go to all that effort to enable us to have this debate today. Other hon. Members also participated in that procedure.

This is an important debate in what is, more or less, prime time. I hope that it will provide the Government with an opportunity to say that there will not be an election until October so that all of the Back Benchers who have been lucky in the ballot can exercise their lottery right to have their day out. Our debate also gives the Minister an opportunity to discuss extra opportunities for Labour Back Benchers in the next Parliament.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Naturally, all Conservative Members await the onset of the general election campaign with relish and nothing else. However, will my hon. Friend confirm that his enthusiasm for maximum time to debate private Members' Bills is not unqualified or unconditional? When he sees some of the nanny-state, interfering, regulating, tinkering, mollycoddling contents of some of those Bills, his enthusiasm may abate.

Mr. Chope

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I would defend to the death the right of Members, however misguided, to put their proposition to the House and have it debated. I am not saying that I will agree with all those nanny-state propositions: far from it. However, it is right that people should have a chance to advance them. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) thinks that it is important to legislate on the issue of high hedges. I am not sure how that will be achieved successfully, but I hope that we will be able to have a full debate on the matter.

The Government have already promised to legislate on high hedges—or, rather, they have given the impression that they will legislate on them. However, in practice, they are not introducing a Bill on high hedges because they obviously realise that it is extremely difficult to get even a proper definition of a hedge that will satisfy people at large. I certainly receive more letters about high hedges than about hunting.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal)

Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to wander a little bit from the motion, but now I really must bring him back to the main motion.

Mr. Chope

High hedges are the subject of the third private Member's Bill to be presented, which, I understand, will be debated on the third Friday: that specific date is on the Order Paper. I hope that my remarks about legislation on high hedges are in order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall not say much more about those hedges now, although I hope that when the Minister responds, he will explain why the Government, having promised to legislate, have not introduced legislation on them. That would allow us to see the colour of such legislation and whether it would meet the needs of our constituents.

6.19 pm
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I, too, have a vested interest in the debate, as I was sixth in the lottery for private Members' Bills. I am in an interesting position because—although there is nothing official, in writing, to guide the public—the received wisdom is that there will be a 3 May general election, so that my Adoption Bill would be considered on the last Friday before Dissolution. The restriction on the number of available Fridays is therefore very pertinent to my position.

In my short time in the House, I have learned to keep within the spirit of private Members' Bills by choosing an issue on which there is very broad agreement. I therefore chose as the subject of my Bill the reform of adoption law. It is rather fortuitous that the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), who is responsible for the issue, is in the Chamber. He will be very familiar with the correspondence that we have exchanged on the subject.

I should like to pick up on various issues raised in the debate by Opposition Members, not the least of which is the late starting date of this Session, as that seems to be the key reason why we may be up against the problem of an impossible timetable for considering a private Member's Bill that enjoys very broad support. Indeed, the reason why consideration of almost all private Members' Bills in this Session is an academic matter is that the previous Session ran so late into last calendar year. The public will find that very difficult to understand.

There has been great support for the subject of my Bill—the reform of adoption law—and the public will be incredulous that the Government seem to regard foxhunting as a more important legislative priority than children in need of adoption. The Government's priorities have left some of my constituents and British adoption agencies bemused, to say the least.

I very deliberately chose adoption as the subject of my Bill to try to add a bit of pressure on the Government to introduce the reforms that, in July 2000, in debates on the Care Standards Act 2000, they undertook to make. Back in July, we were given assurances that legislation would be forthcoming, and the Prime Minister had just conducted a review of adoption. Indeed, the Opposition gave Ministers the opportunity to add new provisions to the 2000 Act to introduce the reforms that the Prime Minister said he wanted. That offer was refused, and we were told to wait for later Government legislation.

We waited for the Queen's Speech, but there was nothing in it about adoption reform. Consequently, I have taken the opportunity to address the issue in my Bill. Moreover, I generously offered in writing to allow Ministers to use that opportunity to introduce their own draft Bill to reform adoption law. However, my offer was churlishly rejected on the grounds that a private Member's Bill would be piecemeal and could not possibly introduce such legislation. Well, Ministers were already making a mighty assumption about what my Bill should contain. As the Minister of State knows, I have told him that my Bill should contain the White Paper proposals which have received consensual support and require primary legislation. That offer was generously made.

Last week, at Prime Minister's questions, the plot seemed to thicken. In answer to a question asked by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister said that the Government would introduce legislation in this Session to reform adoption. That was very interesting. We have probed the Government on the matter of "this Session" because, as we are all aware, it seems that there is not a great deal left of this Session.

Mr. Bercow

Given that, as my hon. Friend rightly says, the Government's legislative priorities are perverse and are likely to be regarded with rank disdain by millions of people who believe that the adoption issue should be properly addressed long before and instead of that of hunting, does she agree that the great danger is that the Government will not want to reach that sixth Friday, for they will not want to suffer the public opprobrium to which they would be subject if her patient and articulate advocacy of her measure were effectively to show up the Government's failing in that regard?

Mrs. Spelman

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I think that he is thinking precisely as I am—that the subject of my private Member's Bill, in the context of the concertinaed time scale afforded us, is a source of very real embarrassment to the Government; and so it should be. Undoubtedly when history looks back at the Government's choice of legislation which they could have passed in this Parliament with their very large majority, their failure to introduce legislation reforming adoption will be particularly regretted.

I hope that I have the opportunity of a Second Reading for my Bill, as I shall use it to underline the point that the Government undertook to introduce such reform. Indeed, at last week's Prime Minister's questions, the Prime Minister promised to introduce such reform. It will be very interesting to see what happens. I should add that the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, to which the Government have referred, has already been enacted. It would not, therefore, serve to fulfil the Prime Minister's promise.

As a holder of one of the opportunities to promote private Member's legislation, I feel passionately about this debate. More time could have been allowed to consider private Members' Bills, and the Government could have chosen a better set of priorities. Those two factors would have made a substantial difference to the way in which I view restrictions on Back Benchers' opportunities to deal with very important matters.

Mr. Redwood

Has my hon. Friend been approached by representatives of the Government to say that they find her initiative very helpful and that they would like her to help draft the Bill, as it might get the Prime Minister off the hook? Or has there been absolutely no dialogue at all, and does the Prime Minister seem not to wish to honour that particular pledge?

Mrs. Spelman

I am very sorry to tell my right hon. Friend that my overtures have been rebuffed. Perhaps we should not be entirely surprised about that. I have certainly written twice to the Minister, reiterating our offer and making it clear that my opportunity to promote a private Member's Bill could be a vehicle for the Government's own draft Bill. We know that a draft Bill already exists. I have asked for a copy of it, but I have not been afforded one. After the Prime Minister's response at Prime Minister's questions last week, we probed the Government on the issue, but there has been no clarification of what legislation he plans to introduce in this Session, as he has promised to do.

Mr. Hogg

Is my hon. Friend saying that she has given the Government the opportunity to use her Bill to implement their own stated commitments? If that is so, can she explain why they have not taken advantage of the offer?

Mrs. Spelman

I note the tone of incredulity in my right hon. and learned Friend's voice. However, incredulous though he may be, the situation that I have described is absolutely true. My only conclusion on why the Government have so churlishly rejected my offer is that they are too proud to accept it.

Mrs. Browning

My hon. Friend will know that, last Thursday, when I raised with the Leader of the House the issue of the Prime Minster's pledge on adoption legislation in this Session, she indicated that, in relation to adoption, private Member's Bills and the time available to consider them were very important. However, after hearing my hon. Friend's comments, I am totally confused about the matter. At last Thursday's business questions, my very clear understanding was that the Prime Minister's pledge would be honoured using private Members' Bills.

Mrs. Spelman

I confess that I am similarly confused, for there has been no clarification the matter. Are we to take the Prime Minister at his word? So far it has not been retracted—unless such an occasion arises tomorrow, when I shall seek to catch the Speaker's eye so that I can probe the Prime Minister on the offer that he made last week. Perhaps we shall all be much clearer after Prime Minister's questions tomorrow.

Given his pledge last week, it seems perfectly legitimate to ask the Prime Minister to introduce legislation this Session to reform adoption law, and to ask him for which reforms he plans to use primary legislation. It seems legitimate also to ask him to clarify for the public that the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 is done and dusted. Interestingly enough, that legislation started as a private Member's Bill. It has been enacted and now requires only to be implemented. That is all that delays the introduction of those provisions.

In reply to the perfectly valid points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), I can only say that the whole House is confused on the issue. My Bill is sponsored by members of the all-party parliamentary group on adoption, which is an entirely cross-party group of hon. Members. They support the initiative to try to enable the Government to introduce reform of adoption law because reform is so obviously needed, as has been highlighted by the recent cases of the internet adoption babies. However, the all-party group is similarly confused by the current situation.

Mr. Bercow

I do not wish to embarrass my hon. Friend, but I should like to pay her a compliment. She has just vouchsafed to the House an assurance regarding her willingness to sacrifice her Bill to the Government because she is concerned about the issue at stake and about achieving urgent progress on it. That is an example of heroism, selflessness and statesmanship of which I have known no equal from any hon. Member during the past four years. Does not it demonstrate the Government's base ingratitude that they are not prepared to respond in a similar spirit?

Mrs. Spelman

I thank my hon. Friend for that compliment. I have learned to take all compliments made in the House with a pinch of salt, but he has a valid point. There is a distinct arrogance in a Government who assume comfortably that they will win the next election and that they can afford to wait for their victory before they introduce legislation. Indeed, they count on that victory just as one counts the eggs in a basket, and it is that arrogance that has caused their current embarrassment. Their sheer complacency allowed the issues involved in the internet adoption case, which caused all of us such disgust and horror, to arise. The case arose in the absence of reform and implementation of legislation that has already been agreed to—something that has shown the Government to be more than a little wanting.

6.31 pm
Mr. Tipping

A number of hon. Members, many of them Opposition Members, made it clear that they wanted this debate. I agreed with them, and I believe that this has been an interesting and important discussion. It was perhaps short, but it has been taken in prime time, as the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) recognised.

The debate has reflected hon. Members' different views of private Members' Bills. We have heard of hon. Members—I shall not name them—who are alleged to be stranglers of such Bills. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made it clear that he has little regard for private Members' Bills, but the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and Hykeham—

Mr. Bercow

North Hykeham.

Mr. Tipping

I refer to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), whose constituency I hope to visit during the election campaign, whenever it comes. [Interruption.] Indeed, I have been in Lincolnshire today, but rather than being dragged kicking to the Chamber, I have rushed and sweated to get here for this important debate. The right hon. and learned Gentleman thought that private Members' legislation gave Back Benchers an opportunity to raise important issues. We saw an example of that tonight, when my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) advocated his outworkers measure, which will help to deal with scams such as the receipt of money in advance for bogus schemes.

The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) spoke at length about the need for adoption legislation, on which I agree. That is why the Government produced the White Paper. That document and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister say that adoption legislation will be introduced during the current year. As the hon. Lady pointed out, my right hon. Friend said last week that legislation would be introduced during this Session. I hope that we can work together on a consensual basis to make changes that are of paramount importance—a phrase that is used in the relevant law—for the children themselves. However, she also made one or two party political points. I chide her gently; the previous Conservative Government, whom she supported, also published a White Paper on adoption. After that, however, it took them three years to produce a Bill that was never enacted.

I offer the hand of partnership, as adoption is an extremely important issue. The hon. Lady has heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government have said, and has seen the White Paper. We will introduce legislation.

Mr. Redwood

Can the Parliamentary Secretary explain how the Prime Minister's extraordinary promise will be fulfilled? Is he saying that the Government now regret spurning the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) that her Bill might be used—of course, if they wanted to take that option, they would have to allow more time for private Members' debates such as this one—or that they will introduce a Bill about which we have not yet been advised? They would have to be very quick to introduce a Bill before the election, so how will they honour their promise? I do not believe that it will be honoured.

Mr. Tipping

The right hon. Gentleman is keen to pursue the date of the general election. He has emerged from the darkness of the Back Benches and into the light, but I fear that the Opposition Members' desire to try to name the day reflects an anxiety to get out of the light and back into that darkness.

Let me stay in order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The sixth Friday is allocated to the hon. Member for Meriden. I envisage that any proposed adoption legislation will be comprehensive. Traditionally, private Members' Bills have stuck to one or two subjects, but I have no doubt that the sort of issues that the hon. Lady wants to pursue will be dealt with in any Government Bill. I am at a disadvantage, as I have not yet had the opportunity to see her Bill; indeed, I understand that it has not yet been published.

Mrs. Spelman

On comprehensiveness, will the Parliamentary Secretary accept that the Protection of Children Bill 1999 was a comprehensive, pertinent and important measure that was enacted through precisely the sort of vehicle with which I am trying to change the law?

Mr. Tipping

The advice from the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton)—it is valuable to have the Minister of State with responsibility for these matters beside me—is that the Bill to which the hon. Lady referred had 20 clauses. We envisage that the Government Bill will have far more clauses and that it will be comprehensive. I am not saying that it is her driving motivation to seek to gain party political advantage of these issues, but it must be borne in mind that they are important and are paramount to children's interests. She has heard what the Government have said; we will introduce the legislation.

Mr. Hogg

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will forgive me for issuing a warning to him. I have now been in the House for 20 years, so I know that when we come to a general election, the Government of the day seek to pop through all their outstanding legislation in the hope that it will go through on the nod. I point out to him that a number of my hon. Friends and I do not intend to let that happen. We intend only those Bills that are right and with which we agree to be popped through.

Mr. Tipping

Well, I heard what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said and I am not surprised by his view. He and his Conservative colleagues resemble turkeys waiting for Christmas. I look forward to the general election, whenever it comes. When it arrives, we will have to have the discussions to which he refers. I am not sanguine about the idea that the Bill will be popped through, as he charmingly put it.

Mr. Bercow

Will the Parliamentary Secretary give way?

Mr. Tipping

I shall give way once more, after which I must make some progress.

Mr. Bercow

The Parliamentary Secretary's mellifluous tone is as apparent as ever. I am bound to say, however, that his stance is rather rum. He appears to disapprove of the measure proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), but how can he do so when, by his own admission, he has not yet seen it? Is not it a trifle cheeky of him to speak portentously about the comprehensive Bill that the Government intend to introduce on the matter, when he is as yet in no position to judge—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I fear that hon. Members are getting into a great deal of detail on a particular Bill, rather than the motion under discussion.

Mr. Tipping

I shall keep within your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker, and simply say that any adoption measure that is considered on the sixth Friday that is allocated in the motion will not be as comprehensive as the Bill that the Government will introduce. The advantage of being in government is that one has a hand in and sight of proposed legislation.

Mr. Hogg

It is in the Parliamentary Secretary's back pocket.

Mr. Tipping

I have no Bill in my back pocket, but the White Paper on adoption has been produced—[Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to make me say that an Adoption Bill is extant. We have published a White Paper and held a consultation. We are in the process of producing a Bill, which will be introduced in the current Session, as the Prime Minister said.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) sagely and rightly said that there was nothing unusual about 2 February because the timetable is determined by the Queen's Speech. Several hon. Members have argued that we should have brought forward the first date for considering private Members' Bills. That is not possible because of the rules of the House.

Mr. Bercow

Which rules?

Mr. Tipping

Standing Orders. Several hon. Members have said that we will not have enough time to discuss the private Members' Bills. They may know the date of the general election; they may be planning their campaign, but the Government have a good deal of business to tackle. We have set out our task, and we are determined to achieve more. A great deal has been achieved, but much more remains to be done. I look forward to doing that in the remainder of this Parliament and with a Labour Government in the next Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That Private Members' Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 2nd and 9th February, 9th, 16th, 23rd and 30th March, 6th and 27th April, 11th and 18th May, 8th and 15th June and 20th July.