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Column 1200that this matter is unimportant ; it is that I am concerned that we should introduce only changes which are viable and not pomote changes which are simply unsustainable.
Mr. McAllion : What I fail to understand is that the Minister qualified many of the other suggestions that have been made by people outside the House as unviable, and particularly suggested that the prohibition of certain species was unviable because of the cross-breed problem. How does that apply to the suggestion that American pit bull terriers should be muzzled in public? How does that come into the problem of the cross-breeds in that respect?
Mr. Hogg : This is a slightly different point. If one is to have a prohibition order, one has in statutory terms to define the dog to which that order applies. For the purpose of an importation prohibition order, or for that matter a possession prohibition order, one cannot define the dog other than by reference to breed. One cannot simply say that everybody is prohibited from possessing a ferocious dog. One can say that, when a ferocious dog is kept in particular circumstances, an offence is committed. One cannot say that no ferocious dog shall be imported into the United Kingdom, because that is an unenforceable piece of legislation. One can say that Latin American pit bull terriers cannot be imported into the United Kingdom.
I do not want to go back to what I was doing previously with regard to the hon. Gentleman, but what is an American pit bull terrier? That is a serious question. Obviously, a pure-bred American pit bull terrier is an American pit bull terrier, but what about a half-breed or a cross-breed? How does one recognise a dog which has in it a sufficient quantity of Amerian pit bull terrier genes to give it the characteristics of an American pit bull terrier but also has different parentage? It loses the definitional character, and therefore the prohibition cannot operate because it is nonsense if one focuses on breeds.
It is the point about the 1847 Act that is troubling the hon. Gentleman. That Act provides in effect that where one has a ferocious animal one has to do certain things : for example, keep it on a leash and keep a muzzle on it. The question is : what is a ferocious animal? That is not a definitional question ; that is a question of fact.
I think it is possible, although I do not express a definite view on this, that the courts would be prepared to say that an American pit bull terrier, having regard to its pedigree and essential characteristics, was per se a ferocious animal. I do not think that such a finding would be applied to many dogs, but it might be applied to an American pit bull terrier.
With that exception, one has to apply the test in the context of any dog that is capable of falling within it. Any dog is capable of being ferocious. Therefore, under the 1847 Act, I think it is true that a very small number of a breed may per se be ferocious, otherwise one is looking at the characteristics of the particular dog in respect of which the summons is issued.
If the hon. Gentleman will reflect on it he will see why, on the one hand, it is impossible to prohibit possession and importation by way of breed, while on the other it is possible to express the view that perhaps American pit bull terriers would per se fall within the 1847 legislation.
The point that I am making, therefore, is that it is essential that any legislative changes we make should be measured, sensible and well aimed. They must also, incidentally, command the support of the public and not
Column 1201act against the large numbers of dog owners whose animals present no nuisance and therefore no threat. We think that the kind of changes--not going into detail, Madam Deputy Speaker--
We think that the proposals which my right hon. Friend outlined yesterday meet these criteria. Courts are familiar with the 1871 Act, and it may well be that the House will wish to give the courts the powers and discretion that they require. I recommend that approach to the House. Those who have a dog which is uncontrolled and has become dangerous, whether it be a rottweiler, a doberman, an alsatian, a terrier or the indefinable mongrel that bit me twice last year, should be in no doubt that they will be dealt with by the courts. In such circumstances their dog could be destroyed and they could be banned from owning another.
I very much hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will feel that this is the proper way forward.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone) : I am very grateful to have the opportunity to raise in the House tonight the subject of the control of itinerants as it is one of major importance not only to my own constituents but to the constituents of many hon. Members. It comes up time and time again in the House.
I am also very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for being available to reply to this debate. I listened with increasing admiration to the very thorough and comprehensive reply which he gave to the previous debate. I am indeed most grateful to him that after such a magnificent coverage of just about every aspect of the dog problem he should now turn his attention so willingly and readily to a completely different problem. He will, I hope, not suffer from a feeling of de ja vu if I turn briefly to the subject of dogs later in this speech because, unbelievably, since it has come up so often in our deliberations this week, there are also considerable implications concerning the control of dogs and illegal acts connected with them in respect of itinerants.
In looking at the problem of gipsies I should like to look first at the existing state of legislation. I would not dream of proposing any changes to legislation or even of speculating on possible changes since I am quite sure that I could not tack as subtly as my hon. Friend the Minister. But existing legislation is extremely relevant because it is one of the sources of frustration on the part of law-abiding residents who see a situation in which one law appears to apply to the settled population and another to the itinerant population.
I am also fully aware that my hon. Friend the Minister will not be able to respond in any detail to some of the criticisms that I will make, not only of existing legislation but of the way that it is enforced, because this is more properly the concern of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. But, although the Minister will not be able to respond to that part of my speech which strictly concerns planning legislation and enforcement, I hope that he will be able to pass on the concerns that I express to his right hon. Friend. I would ask him if he would deal with the points that I shall be raising on public order, which more nearly concern him. The problems of public order and the problem of frustration among the law-abiding community would not arise at all if we had a proper system of planning and enforcement and a proper set of planning rules which would make it possible to control the itinerant population. First, we have to look at the size of the problem. I have attended many debates in which hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised the problem of those who choose an itinerant way of life or who settle for long periods in illegal encampments and move on only when obliged to do so, or for reasons of their own. A count of gipsy caravans was carried out by the environmental health officer in Maidstone--on whose behalf I am largely raising this thorny problem--in January, so it is already out of date. Even then, there were 14 unauthorised caravans in the borough, 11 of which were in my constituency. In all those cases, the borough council was, and is still, taking action to resolve the breach of control.
Column 1203There are in addition 35 caravans in authorised council-operated sites in the borough and 76 caravans on privately operated authorised sites.
Of those authorised council encampments, 21 are at the village of Marden, and a further 14 at Ulcombe. That is a large count for a geographically small constituency. Marden parish council is now updating its figures, together with other parish councils, with a view to being able to assess the problem more accurately. The recent outbreak of illegal encampments at Marden has caused considerable problems of enforcement and public order. Planning enforcement is a lengthy process. Before taking enforcement action, the local authority is encouraged by the Secretary of State to resolve the problem by negotiation or at least to invite planning applications to be submitted. If this does not resolve the problem, an enforcement notice can be issued. Not only is it a long time before the notices can be issued, but if an appeal is exercised, it can easily be several years before the notice becomes effective, even if the appeal is ultimately dismissed.
Residents at Marden will be told that it could be several years before enforcement can be carried out. If my hon. Friend the Minister were to visit Marden to see the incredible situation that has developed, he would not find it easy to say that it is just and right, even if it is normal legal practice, for it to take several years to rectify such a situation.
Stop notice procedure is available where a local planning authority feels that the normal time scale embodied in an enforcement action is unacceptable, but such a procedure is not permissible or applicable in connection with a caravan that is used solely as a place of residence. The normal problems of enforcement action are compounded when dealing with gipsies, simply because Government advice is quite clear : the gipsies who have resided in the local area should receive planning permission unless there are compelling planning objections. Normal policy objections to the development of the countryside that would be applied to non-gipsies are seldom sufficient to resist proposals for gipsy caravans. Parallel action under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 provides a more expeditious way to deal with the problem in that immediate prosecution for the stationing of the caravan without a site licence is possible, but it seldom provides an effective solution as magistrates will inevitably dismiss a case or impose a minimum fine pending resolution of the planning permission. The will of the police to interfere where there are public order problems at gipsy sites and the will of the magistrates to enforce planning procedures and impose the necessarily deterrent fines are minimal. Therefore, at least part of the planning problem spills over into the responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister.
In layman's language, the planning situation is simple. Anybody can encamp himself illegally on any available land. He can then, unbelievable though it is, get himself connected up to local services--electricity and water-- and can have his rubbish collected. When the council then tries to evict him, it is faced with a lengthy process of inordinate delay. As a result, resentment builds up in the law-abiding community and this is much intensified where there is
Column 1204continued and blatant bad behaviour, lawlessness and acts of public disorder by the itinerants. In the village of Marden, some of my constituents have been assaulted.
We have a rather romantic view of gipsies. We think of people travelling in a painted caravan, telling fortunes and selling heather. The reality of the people encamped illegally is that they do not use their caravans purely for residential purposes. They are also carrying out a trade, quite often an illegal one, in the area surrounding the encampment. Breaking up of metal, tinkers' business and other such trades are frequently practised. They all cause a great deal of mess, particularly where there are no proper arrangements for disposal of sewage from the caravans or proper rubbish disposal. There is no proper arrangement for disposal of trade waste, which builds up and is extremely detrimental to the environment, particularly to a beautiful part of Kent.
Even where they are not directly responsible for assaults on the population, the behaviour of itinerants is a problem. Dogs and cats regularly disappear from nearby areas to these encampments. My distinguished predecessor, Sir John Wells, lost a pair of much-loved and valuable dogs about a year ago. They were not discovered by the police, who are alleged not to have shown a great deal of interest, nor by any official of the local council calling in to check up on planning procedures, because they do not do much of that. They were seen by a particularly alert constituent, who, walking past the encampment one day, noticed two dogs that were cleaner and fitter not only than the other dogs but the occupants. He decided that a discordant note was being struck and reported the matter to the police. I am pleased to say that the police took action and managed to restore the dogs to their owner. Others are not so lucky. Thefts of caravans often occur when these people move in, and it is not difficult to make the connection. This causes a great deal of resentment and that is where the question of order and control arises. Itinerancy in our society appears to be rising and more and more designated sites are being made available. There are obviously considerable social arguments about allowing itinerancy to escalate to too great a scale. It is bad for the education of the children of itinerants, which is greatly disrupted. It is bad for good social order because, on the whole, itinerants are resented by the law-abiding population. It is bad for law enforcement, because these people are seen to be blatantly getting away with it, as it were. It is extremely bad in promoting civil obedience in terms of planning orders when it is obvious that one section of the population appears to be especially favourably treated and appears also to be immune from lawful procedures.
Nevertheless, itinerancy is growing, and as it grows so we are having problems of public order and control. We have assaults in Marden. We have assaults elsewhere. We have reported threats in Hunton. We have mess and blatant disregard of the law in Shenley Park. For how long does my hon. Friend the Minister expect the law-abiding and settled population to continue tolerating this behaviour without being led to feel that they must take the law into their own hands or that the law is letting them down so entirely badly that it is not worth obeying and that instead it is worth trying to find some way round it?
I have never yet heard of an illegal encampment being moved on swiftly and legally. The two actions do not go together. If an encampment is to be moved legally, the
Column 1205move will take years before it is completed. If it is to be moved swiftly, assuredly the pressure will not be legal. That is not a happy situation. Indeed, I believe it to be an extremely dangerous one, and one that could develop further. Meanwhile, even if my law-abiding constituents, and my extremely law-abiding villagers of Marden, are prepared patiently to wait for the law to sort out this problem, is it fair that they should have to do so? Surely it is time, even under the existing law, for us to find a way of controlling the menace before it becomes a greater one, when it will no longer be so easy to bring it within the laws that apply to the rest of civilised Britain.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg) : My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) has made a powerful case for the position of her constituents in Marden. Essentially she has raised two matters. The first is the application of section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986. Secondly, she has raised the more general question of itinerants. I shall deal first with section 39. I think that it will be helpful if I summarise the legislation that is currently in place.
Broadly speaking, if a senior police officer present at the scene has reason to believe that two or more people have entered land as trespassers and are intending to reside there and that the occupier of the land has taken reasonable steps to ask them to leave, he may direct the trespassers to leave the land in any of the following circumstances : where damage has been caused to the property on the land, where the trespassers have used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards the occupier or his representative, or where--I suspect that this is commonplace in the circumstances described by my hon. Friend--12 or more vehicles have been brought on to the land. For the purposes of this part of the 1986 Act, a caravan is deemed to be a vehicle.
Section 39 was introduced into the 1986 legislation while it was passing through Parliament to provide criminal sanctions against a type of aggravated trespass that landowners suffered in the Stonehenge area at the time of the summer solstice. It has undoubtedly been used by the police when they have been dealing with gipsies. It was not intended to be used against gipsies, but if gipsies fall within the circumstances described in section 39 they can be dealt with under the Act. The Act provides the police with a power but it does not impose a duty. When we come to operational decisions, we are talking about the duties of the chief constable and those of his officers who are accountable to him.
If my hon. Friend's constituents believe that the provisions under section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986 are not being used in the way that she wishes them to be used, they should make representations to the chief
Column 1206constable for a more expeditious use of the powers that currently exist. We intend shortly to undertake a review of a number of sections of the Public Order Act 1986, including section 39, to evaluate how they are working. Inevitably we will consider the remarks which my hon. Friend has made so clearly in this debate. In essence, the legislation in place is sufficient to meet the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone is troubled by the fact that the police officers concerned do not act sufficiently expeditiously. If she will forgive me saying this, that is an operational matter for the police in her county, rather than for the Home Office.
Miss Widdecombe : I accept what my hon. Friend has said. The local police force has made excellent efforts and I in no way want to criticise it. However, the problems which occur happen on the spur of the moment. The police must then come back after some time to sort out exactly what has happened. It is not like a public order offence or a demonstration where there is a static situation. These are isolated incidents which are very difficult to police.
Mr. Hogg : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's analysis of the difficulties. She is right. However, I must re-emphasise that there is a distinction between the function of the Home Office and that of the police. We are considering an operational policing matter which is not within the authority of the Home Office. Consequently my hon. Friend must make it plain to her local police officers--and knowing my hon. Friend I rather suspect that she has done this--and in particular to the chief constable, that the matter is a very serious social problem and that the present legislation is appropriate to be used in those circumstances and should be invoked expeditiously.
I accept the point that the policing consequences are difficult in the sense that the incidents are isolated and may give rise to public disorder problems. Therefore, the police face implementation problems. However, that does not alter the fact that it is essentially a policing problem. I am afraid that I do not think that I can usefully go much further than that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone has been very generous to me--quite unusually so perhaps. She recognises my shortcomings in the sense that the broader issues which could have been debated are more particularly matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. She has given me the opportunity, for which I am much indebted, to reply exclusively on section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986. I hope that she does not think that I am discourteous when I say that she might feel that I would not bring a great deal of expert knowledge to bear on the rest of the points that she so helpfully raised. However, I promise that I will ensure that her comments about Marden and her constituents are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : In this Adjournment debate I want to raise the subject of the scrutiny of European Community business and the Madrid summit. It is a little ironic that I am raising this subject today of all days. The polling booths in the European elections are just about coming to the end of their day's business to elect to the European Parliament Members who will have an influence on legislation from the European Community.
This Parliament also has influence on such legislation through the Council of Ministers and the Ministers we send to Brussels to comment on the Commission's proposals and finally decide what those legislative proposals should be either through unanimity or by qualified majority. The debate is taking place at relatively short notice--only an hour or so. I thank the Economic Secretary to the Treasury for coming here at some personal inconvenience. I know that he will relay to the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House my concerns that have arisen exactly today.
I regret very much the need for the debate. The Select Committee on European Legislation and other people have held discussions with the Lord President on the matter. However, in view of the Lord President's statement on next week's business, I was obliged to ask for a debate. I emphasise that I had the support of the Chairman of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee in my questions to the Lord President earlier today--also, I hope, when I raised the matter under Standing Order No. 20 and in this rare third Adjournment debate. The Treasury and Civil Service Committee had been considering the matter in some detail in the expectation that there would be a debate before the Madrid summit the week after next, particularly on the Delors report on economic and monetary union. I had been confident that after pressure from two Committees and the precedents that have been set there would be a debate before that very important meeting of the European Council. However, at approximately 3.45 this afternoon the Leader of the House said that there would not be a debate--that no business next week related to that particularly important meeting.
Parliament provides procedures such as Standing Order 20 and Adjournment debates for the raising of grievances. I have therefore used those procedures. They are, as it were, fire extinguishers or alarm bells that are used when other people light a fire. The Government have certainly lit a fire today, not perhaps by an act of commission but by an act of omission in not arranging for a debate to take place next week on this very important matter. Some eyebrows may be raised when the Chairman of a Select Committee says that he finds it necessary to use these procedures, but I am sure that the Treasury and Civil Service Committee will agree with what I hope is a measured comment : there was every expectation that such a debate would take place.
I notice that the Lord President of the Council has arrived. I was not necessarily expecting him to be here. He could have read what I intend to say. Nevertheless, in view of his presence, I have to thank him for coming and I hope that what I have to say to him will not be too unexpected. I know that he has certain considerations to bear in mind, but the considerations that I intend to put to him tonight
Column 1208relate to the Parliament of which he is the Leader and not necessarily to him in his role as Lord President of the Council. I have pointed out on many occasions in the past that I am not sure that the habit of successive Governments in combining those posts is the happiest of habits. Sometimes it means that the same person has to balance conflicting interests. In our democracy, although it is a matter of contention on some occasions, split interests or conflicting interests should be avoided as far as possible. There are many points of view about the European Economic Community. There are different points of view about the merits of our membership of the EEC, about the conditions under which we joined it, about whether we joined it correctly, the holding of referendums, and all the rest. On one thing, however, there is absolute agreement : that this Parliament must play some part in EEC legislation. This country is subject by treaty to EEC legislation, particularly legislation that is brought about by a weighted majority vote, perhaps against the inclinations of any British Government or the House. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. There is no difference in principle between the right hon. Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), and the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) and myself.
How is that influence to be wielded? How should draft legislation be considered, and how will influence be exerted on those who will ultimately decide it? Those questions have echoed down the ages, from the 16th century and Simon de Montfort, and along the corridor between the other place and this House. At the heart of our country's democracy is the extent to which there shall be consultation prior to legislation.
In the Standing Order that gives my Committee its marching orders, the word that is used is "consideration". That provision is contained in a resolution passed by the House on 30 October 1980 after several years' consideration, which regularised the way in which it should operate. That is becoming increasingly important in the public gaze and in the media--and no doubt it will become increasingly important after the Madrid conference and with all that follows from it. Therefore, I shall read the resolution into the record :
"That, in the opinion of this House, no Minister of the Crown should give agreement in the Council of Ministers to any proposal for European legislation which has been recommended by the Select Committee on European Legislation, &c., for consideration by the House before the House has given it that consideration unless-- (
(a) that Committee has indicated that agreement need not be withheld, or
(b) the Minister concerned decides that for special reasons agreement should not be withheld ;
and in the latter case the Minister should, at the first opportunity thereafter, explain the reasons for his decision to the House."--[ Official Report, 30 October 1980 ; Vol. 991, c. 838.] In general, the operation of that resolution is relatively smooth. The problems of timing are neither the making of the Government nor of the House. However, problems occasionally arise and administrative slips occur in the best-run offices. Usually they are recognised as such and are smoothed out.
However, I regret to say that--subject to any subsequent correspondence-- the spirit of that resolution has been breached. I refer to the Government reply to the "First Special Report, Session 1983-84", HC 527, when the then Leader of the House wrote, on page xxv of HC 400 :
Column 1209"It is the Government's practice that debates on European documents should be held as far in advance as is practicable of the expected adoption of the proposal concerned. It is desirable that this should be at the point when the voice of the House can be most influential. As a general rule, this will normally be early rather than late in the life of a proposal. The Committee rightly notes that the selection of an optimum time for debates is very much a matter of judgment. The Government fully accept the Committee's view that, when making this judgment, it should be the rule always to err on the side of an early debate, and Departments will be instructed accordingly." I am glad that the Leader of the House reinforced that general sentiment in correspondence with the Committee.
In principle, there is no dissent from that general point. Therefore, the question must be asked whether there is any reason why the spirit of the resolution, and the spirit and terms of that letter and of a subsequent letter from the Leader of the House, should not apply to the particularly important document that will be tabled at the Madrid summit--the Delors report on European monetary union. I wish for a moment to be a devil's advocate and express what I would say if I were the Lord President or the Economic Secretary. I would say that it is not yet a matter for legislation. It is a report about feasibility--a very important matter. On the other hand, that report suggests that future legislation and future treaty change will be possible. There may not be a decision on Monday, Tuesday or on Wednesday week, but there will certainly be consideration, conceivably in principle. I might also ask whether the document comes within the ambit of the strict legality of the wording of the resolution on 30 October. One could argue that it does not. But if we are concerned about the principle of consultation before legislation and before important meetings which we all know will take place, it surely must, bearing in mind the words of the former Leader of the House and the confirmation of at least the principle by the present Leader of the House in current circumstances.
I also sent a letter to the Leader of the House--which I do not think he was surprised to receive--saying that there must have been some specific decision not to have this debate. It was not a matter of forgetful omission but an absolute decision not to do so. I now turn to the question of timetable recommendation. The Scrutiny Committee usually produces a report once a week. We sat on 10 May, and what a bumper meeting it was. We dealt with broadcasting ; procurement by water, energy and transport ; foreign language training--the Lingua programme ; freedom of movement and rights of residence ; economic and monetary union ; and irradiation of foodstuffs. That was rather a heavy week. I shall quote the final paragraph on the Delors document on economic and monetary union which we considered raises questions of legal and political importance and recommended it for further consideration by the House. I shall read out the last paragraph on page xii of that report. I had better read the lot. It states :
"The Committee notes that the Committee for the Study of Economic and Monetary Union"
--that is Mr. Delors' committee--
"was entrusted by the European Council with the task of studying and proposing stages leading towards an economic and monetary union and that its report concluded that Treaty amendment would be necessary to effect the transfer of decision-making powers from Member States to new or existing Community institutions to implement the latter two stages of its conception of economic and monetary union. It also notes that the Prime Minister has stated that the United Kingdom cannot accept the transfer of sovereignty that is
Column 1210implied in the report since economic and monetary union as spelt out in the report would in effect require political union, a United States of Europe, which is not, in her view, on the agenda now or for the foreseeable future, and that the Prime Minister has also stated that the Government does not believe that there should be further Treaty amendment as proposed by the report. Accordingly, in view of the evident legal and political importance of the report and the clear conflict between its proposals and the Government's views, the Committee recommends it for further consideration by the House. It considers that this debate should be held in good time before the European Council on 26-27 June, when the report is expected to be discussed by the Heads of Government."
We know from the press that many Heads of Government may go along with Mr. Delors' proposals. There may be changes in the last few days and it may be that there will not be a consensus. However, some people will go along with the statement made by the Government and the Prime Minister. Others--I will not name them since we know who they are and they have been expressing their views in print recently--may not go along with the statement. However, it is right and proper for the Government to seek to obtain support or otherwise--I am sure that they would receive support--for their view and expose it to debate. In that way when the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Paymaster General go to subsequent meetings they would have the view of the House. Surely that would strengthen their arm--or weaken it--and at least there would have been some consultation and consideration. Such consultation was expected by the Treasury and Civil Service Committee. Last week it had before it the Governor of the Bank of England who is a signatory to the report. We are not sure whether he was signing on the principles of the mechanics or the objectives. However, he and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were both witnesses before the Committee. I have been told by the Chairman of the Committee that it is preparing a manuscript report to be available early next week in the expectation that a debate will take place. Some people may say that we can find out what was said by reading the press. However, surely the idea of Select Committees--certainly departmental Select Committees--is that they are able to sort out and set out for the House in a reasonable and readable way the views and evidence provided by prestigious and well-informed persons. Unless one has had an opportunity to listen to what is going on, one will not know because no papers will be available for information other than through the Committee.
It is no use having material if it cannot be used in time for the deliberations that will take place. A great deal has been written and discussed recently about the departmental Select Committees. However, they are unable to be effective prior to the debate in Madrid. The debate in Madrid is not public. That is not a criticism. I simply want to place that on record. In fact, its agenda is not known. During Question Time yesterday the Foreign Secretary was not very forthcoming on its full extent. We know that the Delors report will be discussed ; as will matters relating to an equally contentious document on the social charter, on which there are different views. We are not having a debate on that but it is different from the document commisioned by the Heads of Government. Matters may be raised by the Presidency about which we know nothing. I am not suggesting that the Leader of
Column 1211the House should hold a debate on a speculative basis but I am throwing in some of the other problems we have in respect of scrutiny. The Presidency has an entire department within the EEC and is able to select matters at will. A great deal of initiative is left to the Presidency. We may hear from the Prime Minister on her return that this, that or the other has been discussed and that decisions of principle have been taken. We may not know that such matters were being discussed and, therefore, could not debate them even if we wanted to.
Another general point that has arisen in the past week relates to the time and the period of debate. Exactly a week ago I asked the Leader of the House to consider an exemption to the one-and-a-half hour rule in respect of a debate due to take place on Tuesday on broadcasting rules for television, which the Commission proposes should apply to the EC--rules that will be resolved in the end by majority vote. I anticipated that many people would wish to speak in that debate. It started just after one o'clock early on Wednesday morning and lasted until 2.37 am.
Despite the late hour and the fact that the speeches were relatively brief and to the point, there was no time for the Minister to reply. Various matters were raised in the course of the debate on which the Minister could not comment. I do not complain about the choice of day because the matter is being discussed at this minute, so it had to be dealt with when it was. But the House was constrained by the fact that the debate was limited to an hour and a half. I put it to the House and to the Leader of the House--he has heard it before but I cannot over-emphasise it--the one-and-a-half hour limit was originally the time designated for the consideration of British secondary statutory instruments. We are talking about super-primary legislation.
The Prime Minister and the Leader of the House talk about the need for greater scrutiny and better procedures, a matter with which many people are now grappling. The Procedure Committee is having a go at it, the Leader of the House and I are having fruitful conversations on it and there is proper correspondence between the Scrutiny Committee and the Leader of the House. All that is helpful, but there are certain things that should and could happen now which need no change in the Standing Orders, simply the use of the Government's powers and responsibilities to Parliament.
We do not just have a Government to produce legislation on the basis of one philosophy or another, and I hope that I am making a constitutional rather than a party speech. Every Government have a responsibility to parliamentary democracy. We know just how much the Prime Minister is wedded to that. She is always telling us how important it is, particularly in relation to the European Community. There is a moral and a constitutional obligation on the Government, as well as on the Leader of the House, who has particular concerns in this matter, not only to see that parliamentary democracy and representative government go on, but are seen to go on. But in respect of EC legislation, alas, that is not yet the case. That matter does not relate simply to this Government. My esteemed predecessor, Mr. John Davies, a Cabinet Member and the first Chairman of the Select Committee of which I have the honour to be Chairman, got into dead
Column 1212trouble with the Labour Government of the day, or they got into dead trouble because of what he was doing. On one occasion, he had to get all the members of his Committee to put down an early-day motion, headed by a former Cabinet Minister and well-respected gentleman who had strong views in one direction about the European
Community--perfectly honourable and right ones. He had clashes with the Government, I think in good spirit, but in the spirit of parliamentary democracy.
I hope that I have not gone over the top today but rather have used those procedures which parliamentary democracy provides--which have ancient origins and which are there to be used on occasions--to draw attention to the matter, particularly to those who will read what we say, as well as the Leader of the House, whom I am glad to see here, and the Economic Secretary, who has been put to some personal inconvenience to be present.
I do not expect a long reply because the Minister has had only short notice, but the debate has illustrated the profound dilemmas that now confront Parliament and Government in the practice of representative democracy and in making sure that conversations on major matters, such as economic and monetary union, can be read about in the press in yards of articles, or in the form of speculation, argument or debate on the radio, of which we have heard quite a lot and will hear even more after the election results on Sunday. It may have some influence on what appears in the papers on the summit. But for Parliament not to be able to discuss such matters even on Adjournment debates--I am not asking for a substantive or amendable motion--would be seen as something strange by people outside. As the former Leader of the House, Lord St. John of Fawsley, often told us, it is not this place that is the mother of Parliaments, but Britain. That this Parliament is unable to discuss major matters of European and constitutional issue prior to our representatives going to Europe to speak on our behalf would be judged by any constitutional textbook as something that should not be tolerated--I fear that history will judge it so.
I know that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury will make a short reply ; I do not expect a long one. The Lord President has been present and I know that he will draw this speech to the attention of others. There is yet time for something to be done. It has been known for business to be changed and there are other people who may exercise an influence--sometimes they are described as "the usual channels".
I hope that I have used the procedures of the House correctly. Unfortunately, it has been necessary for such a person as myself, with the backing of the Chairman of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, to exercise those procedures. I believe that I have done so in the spirit of parliamentary democracy and I look for a response in exactly the same fashion. 9.36 pm
The Economic Secretary of the Treasury (Mr. Peter Lilley) : First, I thank the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for his characteristic courtesy in giving me the maximum possible notice of his intention to raise this matter in the third Adjournment debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his Committee on the vigilance with which they pursue the scrutiny of the
Column 1213legislation that comes before this House or is in prospect and on the diligence with which they seek to ensure the House can scrutinise such legislation.
I was intending to assure the hon. Gentleman that I would convey to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House the contents of his speech. As it is, I can assure him that my right hon. Friend has heard the cogent and powerful arguments that he has deployed. He knows that my right hon. Friend will consider them seriously. The fact that my right hon. Friend is here tonight is an indication of the importance he attaches to the hon. Gentleman, to
Column 1214his Committee and to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee and its Chairman who, I understand, joined with the hon. Gentleman in the points he raised tonight.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me for not giving a fuller and more substantive reply, but I believe that it is more important that such matters are considered by the Leader of the House and those associated with him.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Ten o'clock.
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