HC Deb 09 May 2001 vol 368 cc216-21

Question again proposed.

Mr. Leigh

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I feel that it should be plat ed on record that we, the House of Commons, have just approved estimates for £149 billion in 55 seconds—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let me reply. We have acted in accordance with long-standing Standing Orders, and these matters are, of course, properly recorded.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not true that it took only 55 seconds because the Conservative party did not want to vote against it?

Mr. Speaker

I cannot comment on those matters.

Mr. Leigh

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. No debate is allowed so that was a completely duff point of order.

Mr. Speaker

I have a nicer way of putting things than the hon. Gentleman Mr. Gray.

Mr. Gray

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

It puts the little matter that we are discussing into context to think that, according to the explanatory notes, if the Bill becomes law, up to £16 million will be spent over five years, which translates as roughly £3 million a year. When I compare that with the £149,381,539,000 that we agreed in a matter of seconds, Perhaps I should be grateful for the fact that we have two hours in which to discuss a mere £16 million.

However, in the countryside, post-foot and mouth disease, the £16 million is crucial to the farms that the Bill will allow to diversify. That diversification will be crucial to the riding schools and other equestrian businesses throughout the nation that are going out of business. The matter is of great importance, which is why I believe that the time allocated to it in wildly inadequate.

The Programming Sub-Committee met yesterday morning at 10 o'clock. I made the point that it is absurd to have a Committee in which no record is taken. There is no purpose in the Opposition and the Government debating the programming proposed by the Government if there is no one present to take note of those points. Members of the Programming Sub-Committee then have to repeat in Standing Committee the valuable points that they made so that they are put on tilt record. I hope that the Modernisation Committee, or whatever abstruse organisation is responsible for such matters, will take that into account and consider keeping an official record of Programming Sub-Committees so that our powerful points on whether enough time is available are recorded and perhaps referred to when subsequent programming motions are discussed.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend ma[...]es a powerful point about the absence of a verbatim record or even of a minute of the proceedings of the Programming Sub-Committee that considers the terms of a programme motion. That concern has been raised before, not least in relation to other Bills. Does he accept that one reason why that is problematic is that the absence of a record tends inevitably to lead to argument about who said what in the Committee, when they said it, or whether they said it at all?

Mr. Gray

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He has participated in many Programming Sub-Committees and knows their shortcomings. I believe that you, Mr. Speaker, are considering whether a Hansard reporter should be present to produce a formal record of what happens in them. That would be an eminently sensible innovation for the new Parliament to consider.

There is another absurdity to take into account. As the Minister said, the Programming Sub-Committee was reasonably agreeable towards the Bill's timetable. That was because the Bill has broad cross-party support and we thought that it was sensible to sit until 10 o'clock last night. I shudder to mention it in Public, but the usual channels had duly considered that factor well in advance of the sitting of the Programming Sub-Committee. Therefore, its meeting was absurd and a waste of time. That highlights the nonsense that has come about as a result of the Government's so-called programming ideas. Either both sides of the House agree on a suitable programme for discussion of such matters, or they do not. By and large, we have agreed since time immemorial; rarely have we disagreed on how much time should be given to discuss a Bill or other business.

However, if we disagree, there is no Hansard reporter to take a note of that fact and the reasons for it, which means that we have to repeat our arguments in Standing Committee. The system makes no sense. The programme motion for this Bill was relatively generous and the Bill could, theoretically, have been discussed in Standing Committee until 10 o'clock last night. Both sides of the House agreed to that. None the less, two Ministers, two Whips and half a dozen Back Benchers had to spend five or 10 minutes yesterday morning meeting in a Committee to agree something that had already been approved. I hope that those points will be noted when the future of programming is considered in the next Parliament. It has not worked. Well established and acceptable procedures have managed to achieve the same results.

In that context, allowing us only two hours today to discuss the Bill's remaining stages perhaps reflects the fact that we did not make use of the full time allocated to us last night. That was because of the great excitement buzzing around the Committee Room as a result of the Prime Minister's announcement. However, that was before we saw his nauseating performance in the school in Southwark, which made the nation call for the sick bag.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is certainly straying from the programme motion.

Mr. Gray

You are, of course, right. Mr. Speaker. I apologise, but I was so overcome by the horror of what I saw on the news last night that I deviated from the motion.

The truth is that the Bill deals with difficult and important matters. The issue is complicated and important to hon. Members who represent rural constituencies. I hope that the Government will see sense and, even at this late hour, allow us more time to have a proper discussion of village shops and the diversification of farms. I am particularly concerned about the equestrian industry. Either they should give us more time tonight or, at the very least, the Minister should assure us that they have listened carefully to our concerns. They are reasonably aware of the problems facing the equestrian industry. In the unlikely event that they form a Government after 7 June, I hope that they will say that they will consider these points. The Conservative party has said that, when we are in government, we will impose zero business rates on equestrian industries and other businesses in the countryside.

10.10 pm
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

The point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) needs to be answered, because it is one that Liberal Democrat Members regularly make in these debates. They say that these are important matters and that we should not spend time debating the programme motion because that takes up some of the time that we have available to discuss the Bill. We only have two hours to discuss the remaining stages of the Bill, so the pressure is on us to shut up. Every minute that we take on the programme motion means that less time is available for consideration of the Bill. That is a sort of kowtow version of politics, whereby the Opposition have to give way to Government blackmail and the way in which they ram legislation through Parliament.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend has generously complimented the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on his remarks on the programme motion, but the said hon. Gentleman does not even have the courtesy to listen to the compliment that is being paid to him.

Mr. Leigh

I do not want to get involved in that debate because the hon. Gentleman is having an important discussion elsewhere. [Interruption.]

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare)

It is disgraceful of Conservative Members to make such comments when my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is talking to Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Leigh

It does not matter who the hon. Gentleman is speaking to. The fact is that he made a point and I was seeking to reply to it. We cannot let that point pass. The Opposition cannot be put under moral pressure not to do what Oppositions have traditionally done, which is to debate programme motions properly. We have a perfect right to do that.

Each time we debate a programme motion, the Government look back through history and quote all the times that Conservative Governments introduced guillotine motions. It is true that, on occasion, Conservative Governments have had to introduce guillotine motions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] Yes, I accept that we did that. The then Opposition sought, quite rightly from their point of view, to prolong debate because that weapon was available to them. When Labour Members were in opposition, they did that extremely well. I sat through many Standing Committees in which they spoke at length. They were not filibustering and were not out of order, and sometimes we spent many hours in Committee.

The sittings of the Committee on which I served and that considered the Bill that led to the privatisation of British Telecom went on for more than 100 hours, and we considered hardly any of the clauses. It was on occasions such as those that Conservative Governments introduced programme motions. We then had a great set-piece debate on the Floor of the House, which lasted for three hours. Important Front Benchers made speeches and the argument went to and fro across the Floor. It was a big occasion. Now, as a matter of course, the Government introduce programme motions for everything. I know that some Members argue that that is the right way to proceed, but, surely, programme motions should be introduced on the basis of consensus and the House should not be treated with contempt. The Government should not say that matters that are important—they affect the livelihoods of those who run equestrian centres and village shops—will receive only two hours of debate.

The Government say, "If you want to talk about the programme motion, you'll get even less time, mate. It's up to you. Just take it and be stuffed." That is what they are saying and it is simply not good enough. When programme motions are introduced, we shall argue again and again the point that the House must have more time.

I do not understand what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said. In his first breath, he said that this was a modest Bill that had much to be modest about, but in his second sentence he said that it was a very important Bill. He is a Liberal. Is it an important Bill or a modest one? Is it [...] complex Bill or one that does not need much debating? Does it affect people's real lives? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can enlighten us.

Mr. David Heath

I am grateful—

Miss McIntosh

The hon. Gentleman is back.

Mr. Heath

The hon. Lady intervenes on my intervention to say that I am back. She knows perfectly well that I got no further than the Speaker's Chair.

The hon. Gentleman asked how the Bill can simultaneously be important and modest. It is important because it provides some relief, however modest, to the businesses that we represent in rural areas, which desperately need it. [...]t is modest because it does not go nearly far enough, as I made clear in my contributions on Second Reading and in Committee.

Mr. Leigh

That is a fair point; the hon. Gentleman has now explained himself to the House. He has told us why this is an important area of debate and why we need to look at it in depth. There is tremendous suffering and part of the tourism industry, which employs large numbers of people, is not receiving adequate help. The hon. Gentleman made the important point that the measure is too modest, so presumably we could have all sorts of arguments and debates about how to improve the Bill and achieve proper scrutiny to ensure that we deliver more targeted help to businesses that need it.

I have a sneaking suspicion that, although the Bill has modest aims, it deals wit a complex and difficult area. It is hard to target help in the right way; it is virtually impossible for the House of Commons to have a serious debate in under two hours and achieve proper scrutiny to ensure that help is properly targeted. We rely on the other place. We have to do so again and again because the Lords do not have a savage guillotine procedure. In this case, however, we I know that enormous moral pressure will be put on the there place; Ministers will tell their colleagues in the Lords that the issue is important and the industry is suffering; they will discuss what will happen if they delay the Bill too long and if certain matters are debated. They will say that the Lords have got the expertise, but the Bill could fall.

I do not doubt that, for once, the Bill will be rushed through the other place Normally, the Lords are good, as they are not bound by party or partisan politics; they are prepared to look at things in a careful and considered way. However, there is a danger that, having received inadequate—indeed, derisory—scrutiny in the Commons tonight, this important Bill will go to the other place and, despite the Lords' best efforts, emerge as flawed legislation.

We must ask ourselves why, when we had so much warning about what was going to be announced this week, it was necessary for the Government to behave as they have. Why do they always have to use their enormous majority as a bathering ram and deploy arrogant, overbearing and overweening power to destroy any attempt by the Opposition to debate such matters? All that we are asking for is serious discussion. The Government will get their way today and, in a very short time, the Bill will leave the House of Commons. However, the House will have done itself no credit in the way in which it has discussed those matters.

10.17 pm
Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

I should like to congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill to alleviate some of the problems affecting our rural constituencies. I have been in the House long enough to remember when our industrial communities were ravaged by the previous Conservative Government, of whom the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was a member. There was no sympathy at all for the communities that my hon. Friends ad I represented.

The Government have responded to issues concerning the nation at large. They have not introduced sectarian or politically vindictive legislation, but something positive. It is a sad tragedy—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman is retiring soon but, for the sake of even-handedness, I must tell him that he is going beyond the scope of the programme motion. Those are matters on which, perhaps, he can speak when we get to the Bill itself.

Mr. Rogers

You are perfectly right, Mr. Speaker. I was going on to say that I was grateful that time was being made available. The Opposition complained that the Government were not making time available but, the fact is, we need to have a programme motion so that the Bill can benefit rural constituencies. The Opposition are trying to hold up a Bill that will benefit people in rural constituencies.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rogers

No, the hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time to participate and I am sure that he can do so again later. It is no good the Opposition bleating about the fact that a Labour Government are introducing legislation. We need a programme motion to get that legislation through. If we do not, people in rural constituencies will suffer and those who run stables, shops and small businesses in rural areas will not be able to get any help. It is important that we support the Government's programme motion and congratulate them on what they are doing.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Order of 30th April 2001 (Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill (Programme)) shall be varied as follows:—

  1. Consideration and Third Reading 50 words