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Government of Wales Bill

[1st Allotted Day]

As amended (in the Committee), considered.

4.45 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Hon. Members will be aware that, in the regional lists set out in clause 4, the Bill provides for elections for a registered political party, defined in that clause as

Hon. Members will also be aware that a Bill for the registration of political parties will shortly be introduced and that it will govern not only this Bill but the Scotland Bill, the European Parliamentary Elections Bill and--if the statement that we have just heard about the White Paper is correct--the London Bill.

We are to debate a clause and an amendment--amendment No. 183--about an aspect of registration on which the registration of political parties Bill could have a crucial effect, either in remedying a fundamental flaw that we have identified and raised earlier, or in failing to remedy it. To make any sense of today's debate, which is crucial to the integrity of the Bill that we are considering, it is necessary to have detailed sight of the forthcoming legislation.

I have already asked for that formally. On 2 March, I said:

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), led me to believe that he had some sympathy with my view, although he qualified what he said. He said:

    "I am not in a position to give a guarantee about when the details on registration will emerge."

He could, however,

    "assure Opposition Members that we want to see whether it will deal with these issues."--[Official Report, 2 March 1998; Vol. 307, c. 803-5.]

The hon. Gentleman also accepted that the matter was crucial and central.

The point is that we have not had sight of the legislation. I have made inquiries of the Table Office and the Library, but I have been told that it is not ready even in draft. It is not possible for the House to see it, although--as the Government have acknowledged--whether the fundamental flaw that I have mentioned would be remediable is central. Surely the House has a right to information that would allow it to understand the implications of a vital element of legislation such as this Bill before it completes its passage.

I do not believe that today's debate on the proposed electoral process should take place until hon. Members have had a chance to give proper consideration to the

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details--even if only in draft--of the registration of political parties Bill. Without a sight of it, we will be asked to complete our consideration of this Bill in the dark. At the very least, we need to debate this extraordinary situation, which has been caused by the Government's failure to provide crucial information.

I therefore ask whether you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will accept a motion, That further consideration of the Bill be now adjourned.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have listened with care to what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I appreciate the notice he gave of his concerns and his arguments, but I have to tell him that I am not prepared to accept such a motion. However, I understand that amendment No. 183, to which he referred--which is tabled in his name and those of his hon. Friends--is broadly connected with the matter that he raised. I would be prepared to permit a separate Division on that amendment. However, I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that, in terms of the programme motion, I will not be able to do that if the amendment cannot be moved before 11 o'clock.

Mr. Ancram: Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for your ruling. I shall take on board what you said about amendment No. 183.

On another point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you will be aware, we are proceeding in this business on the basis of a uniquely agreed programme, which was agreed among all the parties at the beginning of the Committee stage and which settled on a given number of days for Committee and Report.

As you will understand, such an agreement is based on the time that Opposition parties believe they need to do justice to important legislation being taken on the Floor of the House. In this case, it was agreed that there would be seven days for the Committee stage--now completed--and two days for Report and Third Reading.

If, on Report, the Government bring forward substantial new clauses and amendments in the knowledge that they will take precedence over any other business--thereby reducing the time available to the Opposition parties to discuss matters that they wish to discuss--should there not be a duty on the Government to allow extra time, as provided for under the original business agreement?

As the protector of Back-Bench rights in this House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will understand my concern that, unless this is resolved as a matter of principle, future agreements of this sort could be defeated by Governments effectively hijacking Report stages, in the way that the Government have sought partially to do on this occasion.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is a most serious matter. I for one have long advocated the timetabling of very important Bills such as this. This is the second occasion on which we have encountered problems during devolution debates. A few weeks ago, a very important debate on the West Lothian question was seriously curtailed because the Government chose to make a very long statement--as, indeed, they have done again today.

Another problem, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) has not mentioned, is that, because the many amendments before us were tabled

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so late on Monday, it has been impossible for us to table amendments to those amendments. That is surely a very serious matter. The House is being held in contempt by the Government not allowing a proper debate on these important matters.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The Chair cannot rule on agreements made between the usual channels. If an agreement is made but then becomes unsatisfactory to one or other of the parties, that matter must be pursued through the usual channels once again. The responsibility of the Business Committee was to consider the matter, and it did so in the way laid down. Now, the House has approved the Business Committee's motion, so we are encased in that motion for our consideration of the rest of the Bill.

I am sure that everyone recognises that we are on a learning process on programmed Bills. Satisfactory progress in the way the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons wants obviously relies on good will between all the parties, through the usual channels, and ensuring that adequate time is made available so that all parts of a Bill receive the scrutiny that is thought right for each of those parts--if this practice is to be applied more widely in future.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are all grateful to you for those wise words, but you are the Chairman of the Business Committee. Although I fully appreciate that what you can and cannot do there is carefully circumscribed--and, as you rightly said, the House has approved the motion--we are most anxious that programming should work.

We have tried to show that in every way--but today the programme has been turned into a guillotine. We find that utterly unacceptable and we cannot guarantee that, on future controversial Bills, we shall want to co-operate as we have sought to do on the Bills in question if adequate flexibility and injury time are not allowed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Again, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we are on a learning curve with such matters. I am sure that, so long as there is sufficient good will across the House, if the situations that have arisen in respect of Bills that have been programmed so far appear to one or more parties to be unsatisfactory, that will be examined. That would be in the spirit of the report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons.

The Committee was anxious that the House should accept the idea, and an attempt has been made to use the programming system for two very complex and important Bills, which may for that reason have been more likely to throw up difficulties. I hope, however, that we can overcome those difficulties, so that what is seen as a useful initiative can still be employed in future.

Mr. Ancram: Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not want to take up any more of the House's time, but what my hon. Friend said relates in particular to Government new clause 31, which was, I understand, tabled late on Monday. It was starred yesterday, and we sought to amend it but, obviously, our amendment is starred today and is therefore not eligible to be considered for selection.

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I raise that matter because what you have just said reminded me that, on 26 February, the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary had a short interchange on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill--their words are recorded at column 546 and I shall not bother the House by quoting them in full--in which they both made it clear that they felt it right for amendments and new clauses to be tabled in sufficient time for amendments to them to be tabled by Opposition parties. That has not been the case in this instance, and I hope that you can tell us that the process outlined between the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary should form the basis of good manners for such proceedings in future.

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