HC Deb 18 December 2002 vol 396 cc875-9

5.6 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I beg to move, That, in accordance with the Resolution of the Programming Committee of 12th December 2002 and pursuant to the Programme Order of 26th November 2002 relating to the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill (Clauses 1 to 4), proceedings in Committee of the whole House shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) by the times specified in the Table—

Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings
Clause 1 two and a half hours after the commencement of any proceedings on a motion relating to the Resolution
Clause 2 five hours after the commencement of such proceedings
Clause 3 five and a half hours after the commencement of such proceedings
Clause 4 six hours after the commencement of such proceedings
It is right that clauses 1 to 4 should be debated today on the Floor of the House. Those clauses provide for referendums to be held about establishing regional assemblies, set out the referendum question, entitlement to vote and the referendum period, and we consider them to be of first-class constitutional importance. The remaining clauses do not raise such issues, and it is appropriate that we will consider them in Committee Upstairs.

The motion proposes a split of time between the clauses. Clause 1, on the power to order referendums, should be concluded two hours after the start of the debate. Clause 2, on the referendum question, should be concluded five hours after the start. Clause 3, on the entitlement to vote, should be concluded five and a half hours after the start, and clause 4, on the referendum period, should be concluded six hours after the start. That indicates that we will probably still be at it a little after 11 o'clock this evening.

That allocation of time has been based, broadly, on the subject matter of each clause and the number of amendments currently tabled to each clause. The split seems to us to be broadly right, allowing about 40 per cent. of the time to consider clause 1—one of the most important clauses in the Bill—about the same proportion of time to consider clause 2, which deals with the referendum question and which has obviously generated a lot of interest, while ensuring that the Committee of the whole House has time to consider the other issues raised by clauses 3 and 4. That is a sensible allocation of time, which should allow full and proper scrutiny of all those issues.

5.8 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

I shall be very brief. For the record, we are disappointed about the allocation of only one day for the Committee of the whole House to debate a Bill that may have profound constitutional implications.

Having failed to persuade the Government of the need for a further day's debate on the Floor of the House, we very much regret the decision to limit the total amount of time for debate today to just six hours. We regret even more the decision to insert intermediate guillotines, making it almost certain that some of the most important issues arising from the Bill will be debated neither on the Floor of the House, nor in Standing Committee.

However, given the irony that any discussion of the iniquity of the timetable and any Division on it erodes still further the very limited time available for debate, will do no more than place those concerns on record.

5.9 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

I wish to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) has said. To use the Minister's words, this is a matter of first-class constitutional importance. It is therefore welcome that this part of the Bill is debated on the Floor of the House, which I acknowledge. I object, however, to the fact that we are subjecting such an important first-class constitutional measure to a guillotine or timetable.

Of course, the Minister is entirely right to speak of the Bill's importance. Clauses 1 and 2 have the possible effect, for example, of incorporating Lincolnshire into the east midlands region, which Lincolnshire does not want, and could lead to the abolition of the county council in Lincolnshire, which Lincolnshire does not want. It is therefore a matter of substantial importance, and it will also apply to all the shire counties, which are grouped within regions.

I very much object to a process of timetabling. I am bound to say that although Bills are now frequently subject to timetabling, it is rare that we have the opportunity to discuss a motion. Because of the Standing Orders that the House has been bullied into passing, timetable motions, on the whole, are no longer debated, which does not enable Members to protest at the process. I am glad to say, however, that on this occasion we can protest at the process with particular reference to this motion.

My first point is an important one. An implied bargain exists between the electorate and the House that if the electorate accept the obligations of legislation, we at least will do our part in scrutinising the legislation. Inevitably, however, as my hon. Friend said, the timetable process prevents the House from performing that function. Legislation that has not been properly discussed will therefore leave the House to go to the other place, and, no doubt, in the fullness of time, there will be a further timetable motion to deal with the amendments coming from the other place. What kind of democracy is that?

On the second question that we need to ask ourselves, who has decided the terms of the motion? My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has made it plain that he and his colleagues wanted two days. He was not—and we are not—allowed two days; we are allowed only one day. What will be the consequence of that? The Executive, who have charge of the Bill, will come to the House and tell us that one day is sufficient. To make sure that we only have that which they want, they will use a whipped vote, should there be a Division, to force that through. I regard that as a disgrace.

Furthermore, if we were to push this motion to a Division, and if right hon. and hon. Members wanted to speak for up to 45 minutes on the matter, that would come out of the time allocated to the clauses, which are substantial. To take the point even further, clause 1 deals with the important question of the regional assemblies, clause 2 deals with import ant questions as to the language of the referendum, and substantive amendments have been tabled. If we choose to divide on each of the possible amendments in clause 1 and on stand part, we will vote at least three times, and perhaps more. That will reduce the time available to this House to debate the other clauses.

The truth is that we have got used to this process because we cannot stop it. The Government have got used to bullying the House because they know that they can do so. We should, however, take every opportunity to protest. I will not press for a Division on the matter tonight for the reason advanced by my hon. Friend—I am conscious that that will use up time allocated to the debate. This process, however, is contrary to what I understand democracy to be. It is bad law making and bad democracy, and the Labour Front Bench should be profoundly ashamed of their activity.

5.14 pm
Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood)

I shall be brief for all the reasons that have been set out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). I wish to add my voice of protest at the timetable to which the House is being asked to agree and, in particular, at the time allowed to debate clause 1.

The first group of amendments on clause 1 deals with the question of whether the House should agree to a Bill that will introduce referendums on the establishment of regional assemblies before it is known what powers those assemblies will have. We do not know what the implications of establishing assemblies will be for the county councils in Lincolnshire and my neighbouring county of Leicestershire. Those are fundamental questions relating to the governance of my constituents and those of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and to the provision of essential public services in that area.

The timetable asks us, in just two and a half hours, to accept the principle of holding referendums to establish regional assemblies without clear knowledge of the powers that the assemblies will have. Under the timetable motion, the House will have two and a half hours less the time that we take to protest against the motion to scrutinise that proposal. I protest vigorously against the principle that two and a half hours is enough to debate that fundamental and wholly objectionable proposal. However, I do so with so brevity—but none the less passion for that—so that we can move on to deal with the substance of the issue.

5.17 pm
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

I shall also be brief in recording my protest at the way in which the Government are timetabling the Bill. Although I protest, I am not surprised at the way in which they are handling the matter. We learned in Standing Committee that—not before the Bill receives Royal Assent, not before it goes to another place and not before it returns to the House for Report and Third Reading—the Government were taking soundings under clause I before the Bill had even gone to Standing Committee. Such is the Government's contempt for the proceedings of the House. They do not appear to care that the Bill might be amended on its way through. They assume that it will become law, so they have already issued documents and taken soundings all over the country as to the level of interest in referendums. They did that before the Bill had even reached Standing Committee. If ever there were an illustration that the Government had an overbearing attitude to the House and an arrogance towards its procedures, that would surely be it. That is why I place on record my strong protests at the lack of time that there will be to discuss this important measure today.

5.18 pm
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

The Minister has told us that the Bill is a matter of first importance for the constitution. If it is of first importance for the constitution, I would argue that it is wholly inappropriate to guillotine it. A measure of first importance for the constitution would not have been guillotined until this Government came to office in 1997.

I cannot believe that a local government reorganisation, with limited powers asserted that may indeed undo counties that have been in existence for a long time, is anything more than a local government measure. However, even if my judgment were correct and the Bill were merely a matter of local government reorganisation, I would still argue against a guillotine. Guillotines have become an instrument of the management and denigration of the House. We can no longer debate many of the issues that are of relevance and importance to us. I want to re-emphasise, however, that a matter of first-class constitutional importance cannot necessitate a guillotine.

The Minister and the Secretary of State have argued that the proposal is a balancing measure to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh devolution, but it is not. No one could seriously or rationally argue that. The idea is that it will settle the score and make people in England comfortable with the fact that they are grasping real and relevant powers at a local level. All those are important arguments and should not be discussed under the threat of the curtailment of debate. Around me are eminently rational and reasonable people who want to dispose of the matter appropriately. We do not know the rhythm or time that a debate will take, but every one of us should be concerned whether the abolition of, say, Shropshire or Staffordshire is appropriate.

I seriously oppose what has become the instrument of this "forthwith" Government—the guillotine motion. It is clear from our Order Papers that much of our business is forthwith. We have majoritarianism. It is a freak of parliamentary procedure that we have a 45-minute window of opportunity in which we can express our annoyance and anger at the denigration of Parliament. Ordinarily, the matter could have been contained in the motion that followed immediately on Second Reading. I oppose this guillotine.

5.21 pm
Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

I support the guillotine motion. I may not be eminent, but I assure the House that I consider myself reasonable. I remember what happened with the Scotland Act 1978 when I was involved in Scottish politics in the 1970s. There was a huge demand in Scotland not necessarily for devolution, but for the devolution debate so that the different arguments could be put. People in Scotland got extremely frustrated that it took Parliament about three years to reach a decision by correctly following the procedures of the time and debating the matter on the Floor of the House. That caused much disillusionment afterwards. I am a bit surprised to hear what the Conservatives have to say because they were the worst losers eventually. The electorate were more cynical about them than they were about even the parliamentary process.

People in the English regions want the issue debated and those in my region of the north-east support the proposal. The Government are offering people a choice. The Bill is enabling legislation that allows a referendum to be held. If people in Lincolnshire do not want to be part of a greater area, they will vote against it.

Mr. Hogg

It is all very well to say that if the people of Lincolnshire vote against the proposal they will not be part of it, but if other people in the area vote in favour of it, they will be.

Mr. Henderson

That is complete tautology. That is bound to be the case in any large area. It is like saying that if people in Westerhope in Newcastle are outvoted by people in the east side of the city—

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)

They usually were.

Mr. Henderson

Yes, they used to be. However, I do not accept the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Henderson

No, I want to finish and do not want to deny anyone the chance to speak.

People expect a decision. They want a choice. Given the way in which we have delayed and obfuscated before, we should support the motion.

5.24 pm
Mr. Raynsford

We have heard much synthetic indignation from Conservative Members. The arrangements have ensured full and proper scrutiny of the Bill, which has been the subject of detailed consideration over several days Upstairs. It is a matter of agreement between the usual channels that one day should be allocated—[Interruption.] It was agreed that one day should be allocated for a debate on the Floor on the House. We have six hours for that debate, which will allow thorough consideration. Obviously I will be keen to hear the comments and interventions from Opposition Members who have raised their concerns in this preliminary debate. The longer we spend debating the programme resolution, the less time we have to debate the substance of the clauses, so I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.