HC Deb 17 March 2003 vol 401 cc631-40 3.36 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy)

I beg to move, That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Bill

Timetable 1. Proceedings on Second Reading, in Committee, on consideration and on Third Reading shall be completed at this day's sitting and shall be brought to a conclusion, if not previously concluded, at Ten o'clock.

Questions to be put

2. When the Bill has been read a second time—

  1. (a) it shall, notwithstanding Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put, and
  2. (b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.

3. On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question and, if the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.

4. For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 1 the Speaker or Chairman shall forthwith put the following Questions (but no others)—

  1. (a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;
  2. (b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
  3. (c) the Question on any Amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;
  4. (d) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded.

5. On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.

Consideration of Lords Amendments

6.—(1) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(2) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall be brought to a conclusion, if not previously concluded, one hour after their commencement.

7.—(1) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 6.

(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question already proposed from the Chair and not yet decided.

(3) If that Question is for the Amendment of a Lords Amendment the Speaker shall then put forthwith—

  1. (a) single Question on any further Amendments to the Lords Amendment moved by a Minister of the Crown, and
  2. (b) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown, That this House agrees or disagrees to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords Amendment as amended.

(4) The Speaker shall then put forthwith—

  1. (a) single Question on any Amendments moved by a Minister of the Crown to a Lords Amendment, and
  2. (b) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown, That this House agrees or disagrees to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords Amendment as amended.

(5) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown, That this House disagrees to a Lords Amendment.

(6) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question, That this House agrees to all the remaining Lords Amendments.

(7) As soon as the House has agreed or disagreed to a Lords Amendment, or disposed of an Amendment relevant to a Lords Amendment which has been disagreed to, the Speaker shall put forthwith a single Question on any Amendments moved by a Minister of the Crown and relevant to the Lords Amendment.

Subsequent stages

8.—(1) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

—9.(1) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 8.

(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question which has already been proposed from the Chair and not yet decided.

(3) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown which is related to the Question already proposed from the Chair.

(4) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown on or relevant to any of the remaining items in the Lords Message.

(5) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question, That this House agrees with the Lords in all the remaining Lords Proposals.

Reasons Committee

10.—(1) The Speaker shall put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for the appointment, nomination and quorum of a Committee to draw up Reasons in relation to the Bill and the appointment of its Chairman.

(2) A Committee appointed to draw up Reasons shall report before the conclusion of the sitting at which it is appointed.

(3) Proceedings in the Committee shall, if not previously brought to a conclusion, be brought to a conclusion 30 minutes after their commencement.

(4) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with sub-paragraph (3) the Chairman shall—

  1. (a) first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair but not yet decided, and
  2. (b) then put forthwith successively Questions on motions which may be made by a Minister of the Crown for assigning a Reason for disagreeing with the Lords in any of their Amendments.

(5) The proceedings of the Committee shall be reported without any further Question being put.


11. Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply to any proceedings to which this Order applies.

12. The proceedings on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement and paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 shall apply to those proceedings.

13. Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.

14. No Motion shall be made to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken or to re-commit the Bill.

15. No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown; and the Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

16.—(1) This paragraph applies if—

  1. (a) a Motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) has been stood over to Seven o'clock, Three o'clock or Four o'clock (as the case may be), but
  2. (b) proceedings to which this Order applies have begun before then.

(2) Proceedings on that Motion shall stand postponed until the conclusion of those proceedings.

17. If the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies, no notice shall be required of a Motion made at the next sitting by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order.

18. Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his absence. He will join us as soon as possible.

The Bill is the result of intensive negotiations that culminated at Hillsborough on 3 and 4 March. Our aim during them was to find a way in which to rebuild the confidence and trust necessary to restore stable and inclusive devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.

As will be explained on Second Reading, at the end of the negotiations, our judgment is that a shared understanding has been reached of the way in which the process can move forward. There is a genuine chance that we might shortly be in a position to complete the transition to a peaceful and democratic society in Northern Ireland. All parties now need time to reflect on our discussions on the way forward. The prize is the opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to cast their votes at an Assembly election on the basis of a set of working institutions. Without the Bill, the current Northern Ireland Assembly would be dissolved this Friday, the election campaign would start and there would be no political advance before the Assembly election on 1 May.

The Bill would postpone the dissolution of the current Assembly to 28 April and the date of the election to 29 May, thus allowing for a short delay to give the parties the opportunity to reflect.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

I am a little bemused. The Minister refers to the Bill and is describing its substantive purpose, yet we are considering the timetable motion. Will she argue for the timetable motion? In the light of Mr. Speaker's comments, I wonder whether she agrees that it is unnecessary and undesirable to timetable the measure and that it would be much better to let matters take their course. If the Prime Minister had an urgent statement to make this afternoon, Mr. Speaker would be able to then interrupt proceedings to allow that.

Jane Kennedy

The hon. Gentleman should have contained himself for a moment longer; I had intended to make a brief statement in moving the timetable motion. As I conclude my remarks that set the scene, he will realise that the motion is straightforward and that I have made the case for it.

As I have said, in postponing the dissolution date of the current Assembly to 28 April and the date of the election to 29 May, the Bill allows for a short delay. I know that the hon. Gentleman has said that that forms part of the substantive debate on the Bill, but, because the current dissolution date for the Assembly is this Friday, the Bill must receive royal assent by Thursday in order for the dissolution of the Assembly to be postponed and the way left open for the restoration of the devolved institutions prior to the Assembly election. I believe that that makes the case for the timetable motion that we are considering today, and that we can deal with all the substantive issues in the Bill in the period laid down in the motion. Regrettable though timetable motions are—I know that the hon. Gentleman's party always argues cogently, and from a very principled point of view, against their use—

Mr. Quentin Davies


Jane Kennedy

I am just about to bring my remarks to an end, but I will give way one last time.

Mr. Davies

Would the hon. Lady be good enough to respond to my proposition to make the matter a little more explicit? I am perfectly prepared to make a deal with her, under which she would not proceed with her timetable motion, and we would agree to proceed in a timely fashion—knowing that we have to get the Bill on to the statute book by the end of the week, for the reasons that she has mentioned—which would allow the statement to take place at 7 o'clock without the difficulty, which Mr. Speaker has explained, of his interrupting a Bill that is under timetable. I put that proposition to the hon. Lady. If she would like now to withdraw her timetable motion, I am sure that matters could proceed in a way that would meet the interests of the Bill and the wider interests of the House at this moment of international crisis.

Jane Kennedy

The hon. Gentleman makes a cogent point. Had I been dealing only with him and his party, it might have been possible for me to agree to his suggestion. Sadly, that is not the case. Given that there is an amendment to the Bill that we might consider at a later stage, and given the imperative upon us, if we are to achieve our objective of giving all the parties more time to consider the issues that arose from the discussions at Hillsborough, I believe that the compressed timetable for the Bill's passage through the House is unavoidable, unpalatable though that is to the hon. Gentleman and his party. I therefore intend to proceed with the timetable motion as it stands.

3.42 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

I am very sorry that the hon. Lady did not accept the proposal that I just made to her, particularly because she could have avoided the trap into which she is now falling. You would never say anything that had the slightest shadow of partisanship Mr. Speaker, but earlier, in explaining quite objectively the constraints placed on you once a Bill is subject to a timetable motion, you set out the nature of the trap into which the Government are falling. I gather that they wish to make a statement at 7 o'clock. In normal circumstances, Mr. Speaker, you would want to give the Prime Minister of the day the opportunity to make an urgent statement to the House, which is waiting anxiously to hear it, at the earliest opportunity. The only reason why that cannot take place, why common sense cannot prevail, and why the way in which the House has conducted the business of the nation satisfactorily for generations, if not centuries, cannot proceed, is that the Government have got themselves embroiled in this attachment to the idea of the automatic timetabling of Bills. They are suffering this afternoon because of that attachment. The Prime Minister will be sitting in No. 10, not knowing whether he is supposed to come to the House at 7 o'clock or at some later time because of this system, which the Government have gratuitously, unnecessarily and very regrettably taken it upon themselves to introduce.

We shall oppose this timetable motion; we always oppose them—[Interruption.] Let me say to Labour Members that this is not a perfunctory piece of opposition on our part. It is a deeply felt matter of principle that the legislature should be allowed to take the time that it needs to debate proposals introduced by the Executive in its own way and in its own time. We should not be forced into this Procrustean bed of a timetable motion.

Above all, we in Parliament should not have to endure the humiliation of the Executive branch using their massive majority—there happens to be an enormous and overwhelming Labour majority of 200—to get such timetable motions through the House and to dictate to the legislature, as they have been for these past several years and will continue to do for another couple of years while this Government remain in power, how long it is allowed to debate their proposals. If there was a greater affront to the balance of powers on which any free constitution depends, I cannot think what it might be. This is a monumental scandal, and no Government in the history of this country, whatever their majority, ever dreamt of doing any such thing.

We are about to debate Irish business, and we know that timetable motions were introduced to the House in the 1880s in response to the filibustering of Irish Members, which brought all business to a halt. There was, indeed, a consensus in the House between the Conservative and Liberal parties on introducing the possibility of using timetable motions, but such motions were envisaged as exceptional measures to be introduced only exceptionally and only, in principle, according to a consensus between the majority parties in the House. They were to be justified on each and every occasion.

From the 1880s to the 1990s, that was how timetable motions were used—only exceptionally, only when proceedings on a Bill had begun in the House and only when there was a prima facie case that there was a delay in the transaction of Government business either in the Chamber or in Committee. On each and every occasion, the Government had to come before the House to argue for the necessity of a timetable motion or a guillotine.

This Government came to power in 1997 with a massive majority, feeling that they could do what the hell they liked with the legislature, as with everything else in the country. They pushed through this system and decided that they would then dictate systematically to Parliament, in advance, how long it would be allowed to spend on business and on debating Bills introduced by the Executive branch. That is an affront to every principle on which Parliament—any Parliament by any name—is based.

It is for us to decide how long we wish to take to discuss the Government's proposals. It is for us to decide, if necessary, what questions we wish to ask the Government and what explanations we require before we take decisions on their legislative proposals. I have to say that it must be in the interests of good legislation that that should be the case.

What happens now, quite scandalously and quite regularly, as all of us in the House know and as the public are becoming increasingly aware, is that we get bad legislation, rafts of which—tens of clauses, sometimes—have never been subject to debate either on the Floor of the House or in Committee. That is entirely because of the Procrustean and artificial system that the Government have introduced.

We in the House have important matters on our minds, such as the prospect of hostilities in the Gulf and one aspect of the Northern Ireland peace process, which we shall debate later. These are great historical events, and few of us here will be in this place when weightier matters are debated, but there is no doubt that when people have forgotten debates on what accounts for 90 per cent. of the business of the House—even important matters such as tax rates, health, education and welfare, which are temporarily very important indeed—it will be remembered against this Government in decades and generations to come that they, in the whole history of Parliament, were the first and only ones artificially to curtail our opportunity to discuss Government legislation. They are the first and only Government to make such an attack on the liberties of Parliament.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

My only anxiety is that my hon. Friend, in characteristic fashion, if I may say so, is understating his case somewhat. Does he not agree that the Government, in rigidly sticking to their timetable motion, are guilty of not only an intolerance of dissent, but a failure of imagination?

Mr. Davies:

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That failure of imagination clearly extends to a lack of sensitivity—until I intervened to make the point rather cruelly and blatantly—about the embarrassment that would be caused to the Prime Minister himself if the timetable motion were pursued.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and especially reassured to learn that I was understating my case. It is always right to proceed by subtlety, so I am glad that I have that reputation among my colleagues and hope that I shall retain it. Equally, however, I hope that I did not leave the Government in any doubt whatever as to the seriousness of the points that I was trying to make and, indeed, that my language was not so mild as to nourish any illusion on that score.

Once again, important business is subject to a scandalous artificial timetable imposed by the Government. Again, there has been a breach in the equilibrium and balance in the powers of the constitution between the Executive and the legislature, which is the price our country continues to pay for the terrible error of having elected a Labour Government.

Once again, we face the prospect that serious and important legislation will leave this House without having been properly considered, and that we shall not have been able to discharge our responsibility to those who sent us here. Again, that is the result of explicit deliberate decisions taken by the Government, who are so intoxicated by the vast majority that they happen, temporarily, to enjoy that they feel that they can even get away with violating some of the essential principles of our constitution.

To add farce to those serious considerations, the Government are proceeding so blindly on the course that they have adopted, against the background of their massive complacency, that they do not even realise that it is their own Prime Minister whom they will embarrass and inconvenience. Further words of mine about the great mistake—the grievous error—that the Government are making by introducing this motion would be superfluous. I have generously given them every opportunity to withdraw before we have to vote on the motion. They have declined to do so and have obstinately continued on their set course.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

I should hate to suggest that further words from the hon. Gentleman would be superfluous, but if his offer was genuine, why has he chosen to spend the past 10 minutes taking up time unnecessarily when he could have tested his proposition by finding out whether other hon. Members would co-operate so that we could move on to the main business, which is what he said he wants to do?

Mr. Davies

The offer was genuinely made and, it seemed to me, equally genuinely rejected. If the hon. Gentleman does not realise that when an offer is rejected its benefits have to be forgone by the rejecting party, he does not know the first thing about negotiation. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been living; I thought that our fellow citizens sent men and women of this world to the Chamber to bring experience and wisdom to bear on our proceedings, so I am slightly surprised by his apparent naivety. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's defence would be that he was desperately trying to stem my flow so as to save his Front-Bench colleagues from further embarrassment. The Government Whip grins, so I am glad that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) has scored a few brownie points where they count.

We shall oppose the timetable motion, irrespective of our views on the substance of the Bill. Whether this motion is passed or rejected, we shall continue to reject timetable motions on the same firm principles as long as the Government remain in power, which I trust will be for only two more years. Then Parliament will be able to return to conducting its business properly.

3.54 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) may well be right—a Liberal Democrat Government may well be elected in two years—but that is not the issue.

The Conservatives, understandably, seem to get annoyed about everything. What annoys me is the assumption that Conservative Front Benchers have authority to negotiate on behalf of all the Opposition parties. The Liberal Democrats take a different view. I recognise that when I am Secretary of State for Northern Ireland I shall have to decide whether, by not imposing a guillotine, I will bring about a terrible compromise, and Conservative Members will try to generate mischief and delay the proceedings inordinately—as often happens, I might add, in Standing Committees considering related matters.

Perhaps the most serious arrogance is the hon. Gentleman's assumption, in seeking to negotiate for others in the Chamber, that it is acceptable simply to sweep away the Bill—to postpone it from 7 pm, or whatever time a statement is made, until 8 pm, rather than completing an important debate before proceeding to other matters. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) made a similar case in his point of order. I am pleased with your judgment, Mr. Speaker: we should focus on this issue and resolve it before, if necessary, moving on. It is a shame that the hon: Member for Grantham and Stamford appears to confuse the importance of Northern Ireland business with the importance of other matters.

It seems to me that if there are those who have a right to complain about the guillotine, they are the Unionists sitting behind me and—when they arrive—the SDLP Members sitting opposite. The people whose opinion on the guillotine I really respect are the representatives of Northern Ireland parties. They may not persuade me to oppose the guillotine on this occasion. Given that there is one amendment and there are only two clauses, one of which consists of the name of the Bill, we shall probably have enough time to complete our discussion while allowing reasonable time for Northern Ireland speakers, who are not in the habit of procrastinating or pointlessly stringing out debates and will not, I am sure, be guilty of any such behaviour today.

I agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford on one thing: enormous majorities to tend to create bad and arrogant Governments. I hope that the current Government will bear that in mind as they look back on the dark days of Thatcherism, when a majority of 144 brought the country to its knees.

3.57 pm
David Burnside (South Antrim)

My understanding is that we have three hours in which to debate the guillotine motion before the statement that is expected to be made at 7 pm. If two statements are made, at 7 pm and 8 pm, the substance of the Bill will be squeezed into the time between 9 pm and 10 pm. Let me explain my opposition to the motion, and to the fact that we are even debating it.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I understood you, Mr. Speaker, to say that we should proceed with the debate, that if we finished early there would be an opportunity for a statement, but that we would not interrupt business between the debate on the guillotine and the Second Reading debate.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct. That is exactly my position—we should dispense with this business first. The House may decide in favour of the timetable, in which case we shall dispense with this business and any statements will follow. Nothing will interrupt the business if the House so decides.

David Burnside

I thank Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), for his wise words!

I will oppose the timetable motion because we should not even be discussing the subject in the House today. A democratic election was set in legislation for 1 May. May I explain what the Government perhaps do not wish to explain openly and honestly to the House and to the people of Northern Ireland—why we are here today debating Northern Ireland business to postpone the Assembly election from 1 May to 29 May? It sums up the Government's total mismanagement of a political process that they call the peace process.

We are having a one-month delay, and perhaps even more—who knows?—because the Government have accepted a 100 per cent. veto from the representatives of Sinn Fein-IRA on the operation of any form of democratic local government in Northern Ireland. Following the signing of the Belfast agreement, an Assembly was established in 1998. It has come on and off—

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) in order in discussing what is essentially the substance of the Bill when we are discussing the timetable motion?

Mr. Speaker

Sometimes hon. Members get a little elbow room from the Speaker. The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) should take that point on board. He has made passing reference to the Bill, but it is the timetable motion that we are debating at the moment.

David Burnside

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The timetable motion means that we are limiting the time to discuss why the Government have postponed the Assembly election. I hope that I am within order in trying to outline why that guillotine motion has been put before the House: it is because of the clear mismanagement of the peace process. It is worth while stating why that process has stalled again.

The Minister referred—I assume that she was in order—to the recent discussions at Hillsborough. I assume that she was referring also to the discussions at Weston Park. Those are relevant to the motion, because of the substance of the negotiations between Her Majesty's Government, the Government of the Irish Republic and four, sometimes five, of the political parties in Northern Ireland, with one or two parties being excluded from that process, especially the Democratic Unionist party. An effort is being made to cobble together an agreement with Sinn Fein-IRA to try to restore the institutions in time for the election.

The House deserves to have considerable time to debate why that has happened. It is not because my party did not adhere to its obligations under the agreement. It is not because the other democratic parties in Northern Ireland did not try to adhere to the institutions as set up and as they operated in the Assembly and the Executive. There is no Executive or operational Assembly in Northern Ireland at the present time because one party, Sinn Fein-IRA, will not adhere to totally democratic methods.

Today is St. Patrick's day, when all Irishmen, I hope, can celebrate our patron saint. It is one year ago to this day that Sinn Fein-IRA broke into Castlereagh police station under the authority of Mr. Storey—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order. He must stick to the timetable motion.

David Burnside

I will conclude.

I have stated my opposition to the timetable motion. I believe that we need more time. I will try, if I can catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, to speak in the main debate later in the day. We do not need this legislation. It should not be put before the House. It is another example of mismanagement of the peace process, a political process, by the Government.

4.4 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

We are short of time. Everything we say prolongs the debate and leaves us less time to deal with something that needs to be dealt with and the people of Northern Ireland need to hear about.

The Minister says that the Bill and the need for it comes from what happened at Hillsborough. The majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland were not represented during the final voting at Hillsborough: add them up, and see how many were represented. A large section of the people were cut out—we knew nothing about it—yet the police were able to visit some Unionists to tell us that we were about to be attacked, and that we should be careful because the IRA had information on us as a result of its having broken into Stormont. That organisation—the very organisation accused of doing that—knew what was happening at Hillsborough, but I, a public representative, did not.

So this is all news to us; we do not know what is happening, and no one will tell us. I asked the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to let us see what they were talking about, but they said, "You will not see it; you will not even have a peep at it." I know people—people who are no friends of the well-being of law-abiding citizens—who not only saw it, but who were, for a time, put out of free access here, there and yonder, because of what they knew.

All that I am saying is that we need to get down to discussing the matter at hand, and that we should leave this subject. I do not believe that there should be a timetable, and, as I said in my initial statement, this is an awful guillotine that goes far too far. We should have time, but we will not get it, so what should we do? We should take the time—as you said, Mr. Speaker, which satisfies me—to get into this debate as hard as we can.

If the House divides as a result of a particular Member's speaking for such a long time during this debate, I, of course, will vote against this timetable, because I oppose it. However, I believe that we need to get on with the main subject before the House.

Question put and agreed to.