HC Deb 13 September 2004 vol 424 cc983-6 3.30 pm
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement.

The business for Thursday 16 September will now be consideration of Lords amendments to the Employment Relations Bill, followed by a debate on HIV/AIDS in the developing world on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will of course make his usual business statement on Thursday.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)(Con)

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for the business statement, but does he recall that last Thursday I asked for extra time to be allowed so that hon. Members on both sides of the House could put forward motions under section 2 of the Parliament Act to accompany the Hunting Bill to the other place? It is most unsatisfactory that we have a highly draconian procedural motion on the Order Paper today that will not only guillotine the business of this House, but provide for the Parliament Act to be used on the other place. Given that the two outstanding issues of compensation and the breadth of the offence were never properly debated or tackled in this House and that the business on Thursday has now gone, surely it would be possible for us to deal with the Hunting Bill properly on Thursday.

Mr. Woolas

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It might assist the House if I explain the background to the statement. As hon. Members will know, last Thursday my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announced that the Second Reading of the Civil Partnership Bill was due to take place this Thursday. Since then, hon. Members have asked for that date to be changed to accommodate the needs of those who wish to participate in the Northern Ireland talks that are due to take place at Leeds castle in Kent this Thursday—I am sure that the whole House agrees that we want those talks and negotiations to be successful. As ever, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House wishes to ensure that all views in the House are protected and that all hon. Members with strong points of view on matters of principle and conscience regarding the Civil Partnership Bill have the opportunity to raise them in the debate.

On the Hunting Bill, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has ensured that the moment of interruption will be put back. The House has debated the matter on five occasions and we have been generous in allocating time for the business motion. [HON. MEMBERS: "Too generous."] My hon. Friends say that we have been too generous in allocating time for the motion, Second Reading and the amendments. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will ensure that there is sufficient good debate on Wednesday for us to take a decision.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)(LD)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the amplification of his statement, which makes it clear that the change was due to a request from those who will participate in the Leeds castle talks—we certainly would not want to stand in the way of that. Does he accept that it is a constant puzzle to hon. Members that business is immutable and inflexible on occasions when the Government do not want it to be flexible, and highly flexible when they do want that? Will he convey to the Leader of the House the concern among Liberal Democrats that such flexibility should not be shown exclusively in favour of the Government?

Mr. Woolas

That is slightly unfair if one considers the matter from the business managers' point of view. The postponement of Second Reading at this stage in the Session makes our job more difficult, not less. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my assurance that our intention in suggesting the change is entirely honourable.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)(Lab)

Is not what the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) is complaining about something called "being in power", which will never trouble his party?

Mr. Woolas

As ever, I concur with my right hon. and senior Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). Of course, the time available for debate under any system during this Parliament is finite, and somebody has to decide. Thank goodness, it is not the Liberal Democrats and nor, I imagine, will that ever be the case again. If it were, I imagine that we would have 24/7 Parliament and no decisions would be made.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)(Con)

But can the Minister tell us how long the Government have known about the meeting at Leeds castle? How committed are they to these September sittings? We found out last week that we were only sitting for three days when we were supposed to be sitting for four, and the new business for Thursday is technically an Adjournment debate. Twenty-five per cent. of the September recall will therefore be taken up with our dealing with insubstantial matters. Does the Deputy Leader of the House wish to comment on that?

Mr. Woolas

I would say to all hon. Members that a debate on HIV/AIDS in the developing world is hardly insubstantial. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the September sittings will encompass two Second Readings—I am sure that he appreciates that that is important core business for the House—the Lords amendments that I have just announced and which the other place asked us to consider, and important matters such as the prevalence of HIV in the developing world. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not like the September sittings, but as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has announced, the House can make a decision on them in the new year.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)(Con)

But it seems to me that the Minister is avoiding the core point. Over the past couple of years, every time that there has been a major issue on the table for the Government, and on which large numbers of hon. Members have wanted to have a say, debate is curtailed. Why, then, do the Government manage to find time for full-day Adjournment debates?

Mr. Woolas

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's premise. The Government business managers and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House have to ensure, and they do, that all parts of the House have their fair share of debates. My right hon. Friend has to ensure that time is allocated to debates on Select Committee reports, Second Readings, amendments, Report stages and Third Readings, and he does so. The charge that insufficient time is provided is negated by the facts, as reported to the Procedure and Modernisation Committees, that prove that, under the current regime, more time is devoted to scrutiny than was the case in previous Parliaments.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda)(Lab)

Will the Minister confirm none the less that the delayed Second Reading of the Civil Partnership Bill does not mean that the Government are withdrawing their commitment to a measure that they want to reform into a proper shape after the Lords tried to dismantle it earlier this year? In fact, carry-over time is allowed for it, so it does not have to complete its passage this Session.

Mr. Woolas

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has made an important point—the Civil Partnership Bill is part of our legislative programme, and is a flagship Bill. It helps to build the case for equality in this country, and ensures that many citizens will be given rights that at present they do not have. As my hon. Friend has suggested, our decision should not be taken in any way to mean a diminution in its priority.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)(Con)

It would be churlish not to welcome flexibility by the Government whenever they are prepared to show it, but could I encourage the Minister to exercise that flexibility rather differently? It is true that the Hunting Bill has been scrutinised extensively in the House, but not in its current form, and many issues concerning its practicality, its enforceability and intellectual consistency deserve greater scrutiny. The Government should at least have a chance to put the answers that we have not heard. Perhaps an extra day for that Bill is the best way forward.

Mr. Woolas

I disagree. We have taken a decision and believe that we have allocated generous time on Wednesday to deal with the motion, Second Reading and any amendments that might be proposed. We have put back the moment of interruption, with your permission, Mr. Speaker. It is time to take a decision. If the hon. Gentleman does not want to take that decision, but prefers to continue to delay it, he can make that point on Wednesday.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)(Con)

May I reinforce the points made by my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House? No one can suppose that generous provision has been made for discussion of the Hunting Bill: it is five hours for Second Reading, inclusive of the procedure motion. Surely we have another day available. We should use that second day to discuss in Committee the detail of the Bill and to debate further the use of the Parliament Act. We have a right to discuss those matters, because the Bill is an intolerant, illiberal measure. We have the time to debate it further, and we should do so.

Mr. Woolas

I am beginning to feel that we are preempting Wednesday's debate. The points that have been raised are ones for the debate on the Hunting Bill. I emphasise that Lords amendments to the Employment Relations Bill—a Bill to which a commitment was made in the Employment Relations Act 1999, in response to a request from Conservative Members—have to be debated within this Session, and Thursday seems to provide a good opportunity to do so.