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4.20 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): This is indeed an unusual procedure, and I am against it. I am against asking this House to enact an important piece of legislation in a constrained and hurried way. I am not against the agreement. I accept that there are many unpalatable things about it, but I also accept the view that it must be taken in the broad, looking at the alternatives. Viewed in that way, I support the agreement. I will also support such legislation as may be necessary to give expression to the agreement--but I am opposed to this timetable motion.

I want to do two things--first, to draw attention to the nature of the timetable motion; secondly, to emphasise that we are depriving ourselves of the ability properly to

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address a number of questions that need to be asked. The timetable motion gives us, in effect, four hours to debate Second Reading. That is simply not sufficient for such a Bill.

Much worse, the House will then go straight into Committee. Usually, there is a gap between Second Reading and Committee stage, which enables hon. Members to consider what has been said on Second Reading and to receive representations from outside the House on the Bill's clauses. We are about to deprive ourselves of that time for reflection.

Furthermore, we are depriving our constituents and the wider community of the ability to influence the thinking of hon. Members on the terms of the Bill. More than that, we are actually limiting the time spent in Committee. Usually, the House could spend as much time as it wished in Committee, subject to timetable motions, yet today we are being asked to constrain the House and to deal with all the procedures on the Bill within seven hours. That is thoroughly bad practice.

The Report stage, which usually exists when dealing with an important Bill, has been removed from the procedure on this Bill, so the House will not have the opportunity to amend the Bill if it be amended in Committee. We will have put that outside our ability. Again, that is thoroughly undesirable.

Perhaps right hon. and hon. Members will say that, if there are any glaring anomalies, they can be dealt with in the other place. That is an illusion. The House knows that those on the Government Front Bench will be extremely reluctant to bring the Bill back to the House with Lords amendments, so they will do their utmost to prevent any amendments from being made there, however respectable the arguments for them may be. That is why I am against the process.

In a sense, I am making a general argument, but it is also a particular argument relating to the Bill. I will not go into the pros and cons of the Bill's contents, because that is a matter for Second Reading. However, it is right to identify one or two questions. We should at least ask ourselves whether it is right effectively to deprive the House of the ability to amend.

I do not believe that the Bill is self-evidently perfect, and that it should proceed into law as it stands. I want to highlight--I shall do no more than that--some aspects. First, there is the term for which the assembly will be appointed. Nothing in the Bill time-limits the assembly. It is true that it may be limited by function, but it is not limited by time. In a sense, we could be creating a long assembly, in the way that our predecessors created the Long Parliament. That is a matter for debate. Then there is the question whether there should be an amendment.

Secondly, what about vacancies? The Secretary of State has reserved to herself the ability to determine how vacancies shall be filled, whether they shall be made up by the electoral process or by appointment. True, that is subject to the affirmative procedure, but surely it is the kind of thing on which the House may wish to express an opinion and then perhaps amend the Bill.

Thirdly, we know from the Bill that the procedures of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which govern membership of this House, are being applied with some relatively minor modifications to the assembly. It is for question whether it is right to import that Act to the

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assembly. Again, it is a matter which needs to be debated in some detail, so that the House can, if necessary, amend the Bill.

Fourthly, the Secretary of State has in the schedule reserved to herself the right to determine what salary, if any, Members of the Assembly should be paid. That money comes out of public funds, and I believe that the House should have the opportunity to determine those sums, and to specify them in the Bill. However, we are effectively depriving ourselves of that ability.

Finally, and perhaps most important, I must mention the appointment of the Presiding Officer and his or her deputy. The Secretary of State has reserved to herself in the schedule the power in the first instance to appoint the Presiding Officer and the deputy. It is for argument whether the House might wish to include in the Bill a provision that Presiding Officers and deputies who are associated with organisations that have not delivered on their commitments are ineligible to serve as such officers.

I am not saying that the points I have made are right or wrong; I am merely saying that there are serious issues that ought to be debated in the House, that we should have the opportunity to debate them in the usual way and then amend the Bill.

I know that the big battalions are against me. When I see cross-party support for a measure, I know that my chances of making any progress, in any sense probably, are slight. It is not my intention to detain the House, because I know that this time is being taken from that allowed for the substantive debate. I remind the House that the same applies to the time taken for Divisions, so if anyone decides to dissent by voting, the time taken reduces that available for debate.

For general and particular reasons, we should not accept the motion. I hope that hon. Members who reflect on parliamentary procedure and who feel that I am right will protest this process, even if they feel that they can only do so privately.

4.27 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I may have reached a different conclusion from the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) as to the nature, if not the desirability, of the agreement, but I do not dispute the logic of his remarks about the procedure on which the House is about to embark. Indeed, it is grossly unfair that we will be punished for objecting. The time we take to put down a marker about the House's departure from standard procedure is to be taken out of the time that we have to debate the Bill as a whole. In other words, the longer we object, the worse things become. That cannot be right.

I make it clear that my colleagues and I believe that the procedure in question is wholly unacceptable, and it is unacceptable for the very reason that the Leader of the House told us we should accept it. She said that these are exceptional circumstances, and that this is a very important matter. Of course it is, and it is for that very reason that we should be taking the utmost care--we are dealing with a matter of the utmost importance and moment.

The Order Paper states that a number of amendments have been tabled. They are all intelligent, studied and considered. Indeed, amendments are still being tabled,

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as many of us did not know until late last night that the business was to be conducted today. Some of us did not see the Bill until this morning, so we did not have the opportunity to table amendments until then. We would have welcomed more time to do that, but the Government ram stam to get the business through the House with the same dilution of democracy that is depicted in the agreement. It does no service to the House or the people of Northern Ireland that such important business should be dealt with in such a disgraceful manner.

If the Government wanted to ensure that the measure went through, but also wanted to protect the rights of hon. Members to table considered amendments, they could have allowed the business to continue through the night if necessary. Although we do not enjoy staying up all night, many of us would have been prepared to do so rather than allow the Bill to go through with many of our amendments not being called. Let us be clear that some amendments will be passed over because of the guillotine, and that cannot be good for democracy or the House of Commons.

Like the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, I have done my arithmetic. It is clear that there is little chance of the House reversing the Government's decision. However, the Government should think again, as their message is very clear to the people of Northern Ireland: "It does not matter what rules and procedures have been standard practice in the past, or whatever the people of Northern Ireland may think. We are pushing this through, come what may."

4.30 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): The Liberal Democrats support the motion, and want to get on to the substance of the Bill. The people of Northern Ireland, and indeed the United Kingdom, want progress to be made in Northern Ireland. I hope that, by the end of today, progress will have been made.

4.31 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Sometimes progress can mean two steps forward and three steps back. I am not altogether surprised by the guillotine motion. There was a time when Opposition parties automatically voted against guillotine motions, so that they would have more time to examine Government legislation. However, I suspect that those on the Conservative Front Bench have it in mind that they have a debt to pay.

I recall that there was a guillotine on the legislation in respect of the last Northern Ireland assembly, and that it was carried only when the Opposition of the day decided not to vote against it. We knew that the 1982 assembly would fall because it was based on false foundations, and I regret that today we are moving in the same direction.

On Saturday, a woman said to me, "Were you at the wake last night?" I looked at her in amazement for a moment, and she said, "It is the death of democracy." The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) spoke about wanting to move on to examine the legislation, but there is not enough time to do so. I hope that we are not slipping into carelessness knowing that, traditionally, when the House panics into a cross-party agreement, ultimately we reap the whirlwind and have to rectify it.

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