HC Deb 09 July 2002 vol 388 cc765-70

1. Paragraph 4 of the Order (consideration and Third Reading) shall be omitted.

2. (1) Proceedings on consideration and Third Reading shall be concluded in one and a half days.

(2) Proceedings on consideration shall be taken on each of those days as shown in the first column in the following Table and shall be taken in the order so shown, and each part of the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the second column of the table.

Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings
First day (half day)
New Clauses, New Schedules, and Amendments relating to Part 3, New Clauses, New Schedules and Amendments relating to Chapter 2 of Part 4 and New Clauses, New Schedules and Amendments relating to Parts 5 to 7. Seven o'clock or three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order, whichever is later.
Second day
New Clauses, New Schedules and Amendments relating to Part 1. Six o'clock or, if that day is Thursday, Three o'clock.
New Clauses, New Schedules and Amendments relating to Part 2 and Chapter 1 of Part 4. Nine o'clock or, if that day is a Thursday, Six o'clock.

(3) Proceedings on Third Reading (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at Ten o'clock on the second of those days or, if that day is a Thursday, at Seven o'clock on that day.

The motion allows for one and a half days for Report and Third Reading, which provides an additional half-day as compared with the motion agreed by the House on 7 May. We have structured the order of consideration to ensure maximum time for debate on what are generally seen as the two most contentious parts of the Bill, namely part I and chapter 1 of part IV.

The order of consideration also accommodates members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs who are unable to be present today. Hon. Members will note that amendment No. 1 is tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and other members of the Committee. The order of consideration ensures that that amendment is not reached until tomorrow.

The Bill was extensively debated in Standing Committee, taking up some 28 hours in total, so hon. Members have had the opportunity to give it adequate scrutiny. In any event, the Bill commands widespread support. Indeed, on Second Reading the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said that Her Majesty's Opposition agree with or acquiesce in roughly 98 per cent. Of it."—[Official Report, 7 May 2002; Vol. 385, c. 63.] I am sure that as a result of the changes made in Committee its approval rating must now be around the 99 per cent. mark, which is not bad for a Bill at this stage of its progress.

There are relatively few Opposition amendments, which cover eight substantive issues, and the one and a half days allowed by the programme motion should be more than adequate to debate them fully. I hope that hon. Members will feel able to agree the programme motion.

4.39 pm
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

We shall not oppose the motion. As the Minister said, one and a half days should be adequate for our discussions. However, I want to make two specific points.

First, the Minister rightly said that the timetable allows significant time for discussing what are agreed to be the most hotly disputed provisions of the Bill, especially part 1. However, the motion states that discussion on part 1 will conclude at 6 pm tomorrow. I hope that the Minister can assure us that he and the Home Secretary will prevail on the rest of the Government to ensure that statements do not encroach on that time, because there is no provision to extend the time in the case of a statement. Today's timetable provides for three hours; tomorrow, the deadline is 6 pm. Many would consider two and a half hours adequate for debating part 1. However, it will not be adequate if we lose an hour or so through a statement.

My second point causes grave anxiety to Conservative Members. Last night, the Government tabled many amendments. All except one relate to one issue, which part 1 covers. Now is not the time to comment on the detail, but the media were apparently informed about the amendments and the Government spin on them before they were tabled or available to any hon. Member. One and a half hours passed after the first press calls to my office and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) about the amendments and before I could get copies of them from the Public Bill Office. I understand that, strictly, it should not have let me have sight of them, but I am grateful to the Clerks there for allowing me to do so.

Despite the Government's apparent Damascene conversion from spin, the reality is different. They seemed more interested in setting the scene with the media than tabling the amendments about which they were spinning. Consequently, it has been possible for us to table amendments to amendments only today. Although that is perfectly in order, I want to underline the point to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope that you will pass on our anxiety to the Speaker so that when he makes his selection for tomorrow, he notes the difficulty in which the Opposition were placed by the timing of the amendments' tabling. I shall not comment on their content; that is for tomorrow's debate, but I hope that we can debate our amendments, too.

The Minister rightly said that members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs are unable to be with us today. We can make our judgments about priorities, but I accept the reasoning for the Minister's timetabling. I add that it helps my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, who is also elsewhere on parliamentary business today. Matters have therefore worked out all right.

We shall not divide the House on the programme motion, but I hope that the Minister takes note of my two points and that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have noted the latter.

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

Under ordinary circumstances, I would divide the House, but as discussion on the programme motion is taken out of the time for substantive debate, I shall not do so. However, I emphasise that I strongly deprecate timetable motions in general and in particular, and I shall make brief comments on that.

First, any democracy depends on a bargain between the electorate and the House. The electorate will accept obligations and requirements on the assumption that Bills are properly scrutinised. Timetables have a nasty habit of preventing proper scrutiny, and when the electorate realise that the bargain is not being respected, I fancy that their respect for parliamentary democracy will diminish.

We are talking about a Report stage, which is the occasion on which the House as a whole—particularly those hon. Members who did not serve on the Standing Committee—has the opportunity to participate in the debate. The plain truth is that if we tightly constrain the debate, we exclude right hon. and hon. Members. In the end, that reinforces an unwillingness on their part to participate in debate at all. That is something that I have witnessed in this place over many years, and I deprecate that, as well.

I would also make the plain, pragmatic observation that, in these circumstances, substantial chunks of important legislation will go largely undiscussed, or perhaps not be discussed at all. That makes me very uneasy about the parliamentary process. Of course, one is entitled sometimes to impose timetable motions. I accept that; I have been responsible for doing so myself in a previous incarnation. But one should surely do so only if there is a pressing requirement for such a motion. We are, therefore, entitled to ask what the pressing requirement is in this case.

The Minister has told us that there was much agreement on the Bill, and that was reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). Indeed, the Minister suggested that we agreed on 98 or 99 per cent. of the provisions. If that is the case, why the timetable? So far as I am aware, no Conservative Member—and perhaps no Labour Member either—is minded unduly to extend the debate, so why the artificial constraint? No one can say that the House is overburdened with business at the moment. After all, the House is getting up on a relatively early date—24 July—and coming back on a relatively late date in October. Last week, the business collapsed on various occasions, and, on Thursday, we have a debate on the Adjournment. May I ask, therefore, what is the pressure on parliamentary time? Why are we not allowed an unconstrained debate? I suspect that it is because the Government like tightly to constrain all debates, but I am against them on that point, as I would be against my hon. Friends if they tried to do the same thing.

I shall not go into the merits of the Bill—you would stop me if I did so, Madam Deputy Speaker—but I want to emphasise that some important questions are to be discussed. I repeat that this is the first opportunity that many right hon. and hon. Members have had to examine the substance of the Bill in detail. After all, they were not on the Standing Committee. Today, for example, we shall reconsider the circumstances in which chief police officers can be suspended, be required to resign, or retire. That is not a minor issue.

We shall also consider further the ability of the police to obtain specimens from people who cannot give their consent, the ability of the police to seize motor vehicles—those are not a minor matters either—and the orders that can be made against sex offenders, which is a serious issue. My hon. Friend and the Minister were right to emphasise that there will be yet further discussions tomorrow on the circumstances in which the Secretary of State can give directions to chief police officers and police authorities as to how they should perform their functions. That, too, is an important issue. I understand that the debate on that matter will end at 6 o'clock.

My hon. Friend made a serious point about statements, but he did not—I make no criticism of him for this—refer to private notice questions. He was probably here when, for example, the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) raised the question of a statement by the Foreign Secretary regarding the new changes relating to the sale of arms to the middle east. I had the impression, listening to Mr. Speaker at that time, that he was encouraging a private notice question. If, however, there were a PNQ on such a subject, tomorrow's debate would be yet further curtailed. What would be the justification for that?

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire made another serious point about the raft of amendments that was tabled last night by the Government. That action was not very satisfactory, given that nine or 10 days have passed since the Committee finished its sittings. That is hard luck, no doubt, on my hon. Friend, but it is worse luck on those outside the House, as they have had no opportunity until today to make representations to hon. and right hon. Members on the points that they wish to have made in tomorrow's debate. That is yet another example of legislation being pushed through the House at an unreasonable and, in my view, undemocratic speed, and I am against it.

As I understand it, we are not pushing the House to a Division, but I am against timetable motions. I am particularly against the proposition that the time taken by this debate, and by any subsequent Division that we might have been minded to call, comes out of the substantive debate. That could reduce the substantive debate by a further one hour, which is simply an attempt to blackmail hon. and right hon. Members into not protesting at timetable motions. I am against timetable motions, and I believe that we should repeatedly protest against them.

4.51 pm
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

I have a brief point to make to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in your power to direct the Clerks to total up the time used by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) during many, many programme motion debates so that they can tell the House how many hours, and possibly days, of serious debate on matters of substance he has denied other Members?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

The hon. Gentleman may care to read through past editions of Hansard, where he will find the answer for himself.

4.52 pm
Norman Baker (Lewes)

I shall, I hope, be reasonably brief. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have been a stout defender of the Government on many occasions in the House.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

Quite right too.

Norman Baker

Well, one or two.

I am afraid that I take issue with the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), as the Bill is not being rushed through at, to use his words, an unreasonable and undemocratic speed. I am the first Member to object to unnecessary reductions in the time available to the House to debate Bills. Such an example was the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which was rushed through. This Bill is not being rushed through. We have had 28 hours of debate in Committee, and we have the opportunity here to debate, as it happens, relatively few amendments for a day and a half. I believe that the time allocated is appropriate, so I have no problem at all with the timetable motion.

The objections to timetable motions surely apply only if the timetable is so tight as to have the consequences to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred. That is not the case on this occasion. My only concern is one mentioned by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice)—the guillotine at 6 o'clock tomorrow. I understand that there is likely to be a statement tomorrow on cannabis, or something of that nature, or there may be a private notice question, so a situation might develop in which the debate on part 1 is curtailed, which would be unfortunate, although not what the Government intend. Will the Minister respond on that particular point? I hope he will, as it would put my mind at rest.

I am sure that it was scurrilous of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire to raise the point that the Government might be involved in media manipulation. I cannot imagine the circumstances in which they would resort to such tactics. Well, if I try hard I cannot imagine them. I note that tomorrow's controversial matters will be dealt with after the statement on cannabis, which means, of course, that the media will have gone home to write about that.

The other, more serious point is that the Government have managed to timetable this business to coincide with the all-party parliamentary beer group dinner, which will take place tomorrow evening at the same time as a number of important Divisions in the House. For that, I am not very grateful to the Minister.

4.53 pm
Mr. Denham

May I respond briefly? The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) set out his reasons for opposing timetable motions, although I have to say that, in the process, he reminded many of us of why we are generally in favour of them.

On the issues raised by the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for Lewes (Norman Baker), I had understood that the programme motion was the subject of discussion through the usual channels. On the assumption, for the moment, that we would none the less wish to complete our business with Third Reading at 9 and a 10 o'clock finish tomorrow night, if there can be discussions through the usual channels about flexibility over the 6 o'clock knife in the programme motion, we are willing to entertain that.

Although I cannot speak for the business managers, I cannot rule out the possibility of a Government statement tomorrow. If some adjustment within the normal finishing time were desirable, we would consider it after the debate this evening. The issues are too important for people to be left with a sense of not having discussed them properly. However, the fact remains that there are only eight substantive amendments in the groups to be discussed in these two days.

With regard to the media, people living in glass houses should be careful with their stones. Those of us who spent a good part of Sunday being rung up by people saying that they understood from sources not connected with the Government that some deal or arrangement had been reached, and asking about the Government's intentions on these issues, are well used to the briefing that has been going on around the Bill. It is better that we concentrate on the matters of substance before the House and move on.

Question put and agreed to.