HC Deb 01 May 2001 vol 367 cc753-9 3.41 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer)

I beg to move, That—

  1. (1) at the sitting on 2nd May the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on any Motion in the name of Margaret Beckett relating to Regulatory Reform not later than Seven o'clock, and such Questions shall include the Questions on any amendment selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; and
  2. (2) if proceedings on any such Motion have not been completed before Seven o'clock, the Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means for consideration at that hour may be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours after it has been entered upon.
The motion is self-explanatory and provides that the draft Standing Orders cannot be talked out by requiring that the Question be put at seven o'clock. It protects the rights of the House by ensuring that amendments selected by the Speaker can be put at the end of debate and that if Divisions occur after 7 pm, the time for private business is not reduced.

Such business motions have been standard under this Administration and the previous one. The debate on the first Standing Orders on deregulation orders was similarly limited to their concluding not later than two hours after their commencement by the previous Administration in 1994. The fact that the business will be followed by private business, which should start at 7 pm, or shortly after, makes such a formulation inappropriate on this occasion.

3.42 pm
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

First, so far as I am aware, there was no ostensible reason for Ministers to resort to the necessity of constraining debate tomorrow on that basis.

Tomorrow's debate is important and I shall not prejudge any issues that may arise then. However, as the Minister knows perfectly well, the comparison with orders made under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 is not comprehensive, as that Act dealt with exceptional powers, and the super-affirmative procedure was intended for a particular purpose. By contrast, the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, as we can already see—and as we shall no doubt discuss tomorrow—provides a power that has a much wider application and that can be used in a far greater range of circumstances. Clearly, Ministers are seeking to use that legislative procedure in a range of circumstances, as shown by the consultation papers that have already been issued.

It is important that the House should examine the procedure under which such orders are to be scrutinised. I must confess that I am surprised by the Minister's contention that the motion is necessary to avoid such debate being talked out. I share entirely the Minister's view that it is important to protect the subsequent private business tomorrow, but I have no reason to suppose that my hon. Friends in the Opposition do not intend to see it through.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that if the motion had not been moved, we would have the debate on regulatory reform, which would be interrupted at 7 o'clock. Private business would take place from 7 o'clock to 10 o'clock, and we would then resume debate on regulatory reform. There is no question of that debate being at risk; as I understand it, it is protected by the existing procedures of the House.

Mr. Lansley

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. As always, I should have deferred to him in such matters of parliamentary procedure, and I am sure that he is right. There is no question of the subsequent private business being imperilled. However, it may prove necessary for debate to continue in order to scrutinise the procedure, which is different from that which applies to orders made under the 1994 Act, and a range of additional factors will have to be taken into account by the relevant Committee.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lansley

Yes, but then I must make my remaining one or two points.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because he is, I imagine, being his usual restrained and gentlemanly self. Will he nevertheless confirm that the Government's intended circumscription of debate on the orders represents nothing more than a fig-leaf to cover their embarrassment about the fact that they were woefully short of Back Benchers who were ready to speak on the Bill?

Mr. Lansley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As many hon. Members will recall, he was an assiduous attender in the House during consideration of the 2001 Act on Report and Third Reading. He knows that there was a signal lack of support expressed in speeches from the Government side, although I suspect that, in at least one example, the amendments that we tabled would have been widely supported by Labour Members had they had the chance and the discretion to provide such support.

As we are so close to consideration of tomorrow's business, I am surprised that the Minister did not take the opportunity to assure the House that the time specified on the Order Paper will not be further reduced by the making of ministerial statements, which would have a bearing on the time available for discussing the orders. Therefore, we are considering the motion despite being ignorant of the extent to which time will genuinely be available, and I regret that the Minister did not further inform us on that point.

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

I rise to express my concern about the motion, which, as I understand it, will have two consequences: first, debate on the motion in the name of the Leader of the House must be concluded by 7 o'clock and, secondly, debate on the private business will be limited to three hours. I regret that the motion will impose such restrictions on both items of business.

I begin by discussing the Deregulation Committee, which is the matter that the Leader of the House will deal with tomorrow. We must deal with whether the motion before us provides the House with sufficient time to discuss that business. I do not believe that it does.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) made an important point about business statements and other interruptions. If the Question has to be put at 7 o'clock, as I understand it has, and if there are one or more statements, as there may well be, time will be taken up and the period available for debate will be extraordinarily limited. In some examples, that does not matter, but in the example of the business to be discussed tomorrow, it does, because we are to set up a Select Committee.

It is a good thing that we are establishing a Select Committee. However, whenever one is involved in such a matter, questions both particular and general have to be addressed, and it is right that there should be proper time available in which to address them. First, who will be responsible for selecting its members? It could take a long time properly to debate that matter, because my hon. and right hon. Friends may want to point out that Members of the House more generally should be involved in that selection.

There is absolutely no merit in choosing members of a Select Committee if the exercise of that choice is confined to the usual channels. While the hands may be safe, they may not reflect majority opinion, and we need ample time in which to express our anxieties about the way in which Select Committee members are chosen. There will be an opportunity for us to do so tomorrow, so I am extremely sorry that we are confining the debate and that hon. Members from all parties will have only a limited opportunity to express their anxieties about the way in which Select Committees are chosen.

The chairmanship of Select Committees is also a concern. I want them to be as free as possible of party manipulation, so that they can enhance the independence of the House. I think that we need a ample time tomorrow to discuss in detail how we can choose Chairmen who fully and properly reflect the House, who are not to be regarded by the Government as safe pairs of hands and who will supervise the Executive.

The Select Committee reports are a further issue. The motion to be discussed tomorrow sets out requirements on such reports, but I cannot find in it any obligation for the Government to provide time in the House to discuss them. I suspect that that is a matter of concern not only to me, but to other hon. Members who want to ensure that the reports are fully and properly debated. Tomorrow's motion provides an opportunity to raise and ventilate those matters, so I very much regret that time is to be constricted.

The private business is protected in the sense that three hours will be devoted to it. That is good news as far as it goes, but that is not very far. The City of London (Ward Elections) Bill is a private Bill that has been brought before the House on many occasions, and its progress has been frustrated many times by Labour Members. I do not complain about that, as hon. Members are perfectly entitled to express their opposition to such Bills. I have done so myself and I make no complaint about it. However, if we confine a debate on a Bill that is of considerable importance to the City of London, we must bear in mind that that will prevent it from ever being enacted.

I think that the House needs a greater opportunity to discuss and consider private business. The motion should provide more than three hours of debate. I regret that it does not do so, because that time is not nearly long enough. If we confine the debate, the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill will never make progress. Let us be clear: its passage will have been frustrated by Labour Members. I do not object to the process, provided that we know that it is happening and that no hypocrisy is involved.

Mr. Bercow

I do not cavil at anything that my right hon. and learned Friend says, but does he agree that the proposed truncation of debate is especially inappropriate and, I would go so far as to say, tasteless, as we have just had an Easter recess, as we are about to take Monday off for ourselves and as another event is likely to intercede before long? Should not hon. Members be prepared to do a little work?

Mr. Hogg

That is a telling intervention, but I am entitled to make another comment: this Parliament could run for another year. We could take all the time in the world to discuss the business, but for particular reasons—I am bound to say that I think that they have nothing to do with national interests—the Prime Minister has decided to call a general election 12 months early. We are entitled to ask why. I strongly suspect that he thinks that his electoral lead—if he has one—will be frittered away. That does him no credit and it tells us an awful lot about the way in which the Government operate.

I know that the motion is not earth shattering, but by confining the debate the Government are shutting out the House from an ability properly to discuss important questions about Select Committees, both in particular—I refer to the Select Committee on Deregulation—and in general, and are ensuring that important private business will not make progress. I regret both of those things.

3.54 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I echo the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). As the debate progresses, the motion appears increasingly otiose. As I said in my intervention, in the normal course of events, we would first discuss the motion. If our discussion did not conclude, it would be interrupted at 7 pm. Private business would be tackled between 7 pm and 10 pm, and we would resume the debate on the motion after 10 pm. That gives us an inkling of what the Government are up to and what they fear.

The Government are paranoid about the House of Commons doing anything after 10 pm. I understand that; the delicate babes on the Labour Benches do not want to be here late. They find it difficult to concentrate for long and objectionable to be here after 10 pm. A debate on that should properly be held at another time. By tabling the motion, the Government aim for the usual regrettable combination of truncating debate and dismissing hon. Members as early as possible, thus minimising Government embarrassment. As long as we recognise that, we can take a proper view of the matter.

By restricting time for the debate on the Standing Orders to the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, we will not only limit the possibility of debating my modest amendments, if they are selected. Such action has wider implications. For example, should we simply endorse the existence of a Select Committee, albeit in a slightly different form? Is not it time to debate whether the number of Select Committees is already excessive?

There are far too many Committees, and the number only increases. I cannot remember when we last did away with a Select Committee. In our eagerness to create more chairmanships and travelling opportunities for colleagues, we miss the point of Select Committees, which are supposed to be focused, serious and serve some parliamentary or wider purpose. The Government, as ever nowadays, are trying to restrict the amount of time for debate. You, Mr. Speaker, and other occupants of the Chair would not deny us the opportunity to make the odd passing reference to the number of Committees and whether they are appropriate. I appreciate that the motion does not increase that number, but endorses and slightly changes the number.

The motion states that you, Mr. Speaker, shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on any Motion in the name of Margaret Beckett". I do not know whether that is a broad hint that the Leader of the House might slip a few more motions on to the Order Paper between now and tomorrow. The motion allows for that. If that happens, we are being asked to endorse limited debating time without knowing the total business before us. That is disturbing.

Is the Parliamentary Secretary prepared to guarantee that no further motions in the name of the Leader of the House will be tabled for tomorrow? I cannot understand the reason for the wording unless it is to allow some dubious business to be surreptitiously slipped in at the last minute and encompassed by the restricted time that has been allowed for the business.

The motion bears the hallmarks of the Government and their attitude to the House. It is necessary only if one accepts two propositions, which I shall outline. First, it is desirable, nay, essential to restrict debate on all matters so that the Government are embarrassed as little as possible and their delicate supporters get to go home early. Secondly, good, long-standing arrangements that are well understood in the House must be disturbed. The Parliamentary Secretary has not explained the reason for that.

We are left with a dilemma: do we accept unnecessary nonsense and roll over yet again?

Mr. Bercow

In the absence of any helpful response from the Parliamentary Secretary on the Government's intentions tomorrow, would not it be instructive for the House to hear either from its Deputy Leader, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, or from the Deputy Chief Whip, either of whom would be in an ideal position to advise the House as to exactly what the Government have got up their sleeve?

Mr. Forth

If this debate were to allow the Government Deputy Chief Whip the opportunity to come and enlighten us as to the darkest innermost thoughts of the Government, that would be a breakthrough indeed. I am not overly optimistic that that will happen, although the right hon. Gentleman looks remarkably relaxed and cheerful about the prospects surrounding the motion. He obviously feels that he has the situation under control, as well he might.

The difficulty here—as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), with his usual perception, readily identified—is that the Government are tightening their grip on the House and on parliamentary procedure in such a way as to make meaningful debate, meaningful opposition and meaningful holding of the Government to account and questioning of their actions next to impossible. This is yet another small but significant example of that phenomenon.

All in all, this is another sad little moment for the House and for Parliament. I somewhat regret that my hon. Friends on the Conservative Front Bench do not seem inclined to oppose the motion or divide the House on it. At this stage, there is probably not much point in doing that, although I regret to say that. As we seem to be heading towards an unnecessarily early general election, it would appear that fewer and fewer people are concerned about what happens here. However, those of us who continue to be concerned will continue to have our tuppence worth whenever possible, and await events.

4.2 pm

Mr. Stringer

I shall be extremely brief, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) took the debate much wider than the terms on the Order Paper.

Mr. Bercow

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I think that I know what the hon. Gentleman's point of order will be, but I shall let him speak.

Mr. Bercow

I just want to be sure. I might have misheard what the Parliamentary Secretary said, but I understood him distinctly, at the start of his oration, to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham had gone well beyond the terms of the motion. That, of course, is impossible, is it not, Mr. Speaker? Had they done so, you would have been on your feet rebuking them.

Mr. Speaker

I think that the Minister was expressing an opinion. The best thing to say about the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham is that they were borderline cases.

Mr. Stringer

Thank you for that, Mr. Speaker.

I was surprised when the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) said that there would be insufficient time to deal with the change from a Deregulation Committee to a Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee. He will remember from the many debates that we had during the passage of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 that we recognised that the debate on the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 had been very contentious and highly emotional. It was opposed by the Labour party on three-line Whips. At the end of that process, when a similar debate to today's arose in the House, Conservative Members, who then formed the Government, allowed a full two hours debate for a brand new procedure—the super-affirmative procedure—which has now become accepted by both sides of the House as a procedure that works on consensus.

The Government are proposing that the terms of reference for the Select Committee be changed along the lines originally given for the Deregulation Committee, to take account of the fact that we now have a Regulatory Reform Act. That is changing something in detail. Indeed, there is a wider power in that Act, but there are also greater hurdles to be overcome before a regulatory reform order is passed.

Mr. Hogg

Will the Minister please respond to the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) asked him? It related to the fact that the motion is drawn in such terms as to apply to any motion relating to regulatory reform that might be before the House. Will the Minister be good enough to give a guarantee that the only motion relating to regulatory reform to be discussed will be the one now on the Order Paper?

Mr. Stringer

The motion will clearly relate to the Regulatory Reform Act and the establishment of a new Select Committee with extended terms of reference.

I ask the House to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That—

  1. (1) at the sitting on 2nd May the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on any Motion in the name of Margaret Beckett relating to Regulatory Reform not later than Seven o'clock, and such Questions shall include the Questions on any amendment selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; and
  2. (2) if proceedings on any such Motion have not been completed before Seven o'clock, the Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means for consideration at that hour may be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours after it has been entered upon