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4.12 pm

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham): I am also concerned about the way in which a matter of this importance has been handled. I should have expected some notice, but, given the situation, I can appreciate why we did not have it. I do not appreciate the fact that there has not even been an opportunity for members of the parliamentary Labour party to discuss the matter. I wanted to do some research to find out whether the United States Congress has any legislation similar to the Bill that the Government are trying to push through. That is important and it is germane. The Prime Minister says that he is walking hand in hand with the Irish Government. I want to know why, or whether, he is walking hand in hand with the American Government.

Madam Speaker: Order. Hon. Members are straying into a Second Reading debate. The Bill is available and we are ready for the Second Reading. We cannot marshal the amendments until this motion is agreed, so I hope that the House understands the position in which it is placing itself.

4.13 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): You indeed have a difficult task, Madam Speaker, in producing before the end of Second Reading a list of marshalled amendments that the House can use. However, the Government have got themselves into that difficulty, with their decision to add to the Bill provisions on conspiracy that are not confined to terrorism.

The conspiracy provisions are extremely wide, and in my view it would take more than their portion of the three hours referred to in the motion to consider them properly, bearing in mind the fact that the second half of the time allocated is for clause 5 and the remainder of the Bill, together with Report stage, if we have one, and any other proceedings. Within those three hours, all that has to be dealt with.

Many hon. Members did not expect to find those provisions in the Bill, and therefore have not had the opportunity to consult widely on them. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), our Chief Whip, attempted to negotiate a satisfactory outcome through the usual channels, but the view widespread among my hon. Friends is that it will not be possible to do justice to the important Northern Ireland provisions of the Bill and still leave enough opportunity to consider the rest of it.

We all have to recognise that some of our cherished procedures sometimes have to be cut short so that we can deal with emergencies. That argument runs for the first part of the Bill, but it does not run effectively for the second half of it, which could have been introduced at a later date. Precisely for that reason, I find myself unable to recommend that my hon. Friends support the motion.

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4.15 pm

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): In support of what has already been said to you, Madam Speaker, may I draw your attention to one matter of importance that has not been mentioned? The Bill affects the liberty of the subject, yet, because of the speed with which it has been drafted, the drafting is a lamentation. I have read a good many statutes in my time, and I have no hesitation in saying that this is one of the worst that I have ever seen.

By way of a soupcon, may I--it is a very short quotation, Madam Speaker--offer this delicacy from subsection (6) of the proposed new section 1A that clause 5 would insert into the Criminal Law Act 1977:

Madam Speaker: Order. I am quite capable of reading the Bill, which is now available in its final form. The hon. and learned Gentleman is raising minute Committee points. He has every right to do so, but at the right time.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman take his seat until I have given him a little guidance? We are discussing the business motion at this stage, not the Bill. No part of the Bill can be considered until I have the business motion.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: May I clarify the point that I am trying to make, Madam Speaker? I am not talking about the merits of the clause from which I quoted; I cannot do so, because I cannot decipher it. Having spent a great deal of time trying to read it, bringing to itwhat legal experience I have, I find it completely incomprehensible. One of the reasons why it is incomprehensible is the unseemly speed with which the Bill has been drafted.

That utterly incomprehensible clause--I invite hon. Members to read it at their leisure as, following your order, Madam Speaker, I may not read it myself--would have the most profound effect on the liberty of the subject in this country in respect of what are purported to be agreements to commit offences overseas.

The Bill is not in a fit condition to be debated by the House--

Madam Speaker: Order. We are not discussing the Bill at present; we are discussing the business motion. I hope that hon. Members will keep that in mind.

4.18 pm

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): I support the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), and I ask the House to oppose the business motion and not to give it any consideration. I am fortified in my contention by the fact that the deputy leader of the Liberal party has decided that his own party should oppose it--despite the fact that the motion carries the signature of his Chief Whip.

I would not seek to match the eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, but I would say that this is an example of the contempt in which the

2 Sept 1998 : Column 721

Prime Minister holds the Chamber, and which he has demonstrated almost from the first day we assembled after the general election. We are being used simply as a rubber stamp. The news is released by leak, by briefing, so that ordinary Members of the House read about it for the first time in the newspapers as they are on the way to the House. It has already been released to Lobby journalists; it has already been the subject of briefings. The meat of what is proposed has already been determined.

We are simply not being consulted, and we do not have time properly to discuss and debate the Bill. The whole House should reject the business motion because, in the fulness of time, this experience will be repeated on many occasions.

4.20 pm

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): I hesitate to question the judgment of hon. Members who have spoken, who, on my calculation, have between them more than 200 years' experience in the House. However, I must say, as a relatively new Member, that the broader population would be incredulous if we accepted the argument advancedby the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), in which he questioned whether we should have been recalled, and even more incredulous if we said that we were such slow readers that it would take us another week to consider the proposals.

I agree with some of the reservations that have been expressed, to which I should like to return during discussion on the Bill, but I believe that people expect us to march in step with the Dail on this and consider the issue today and tomorrow, because it is seen as an urgent issue and it requires an urgent response from Parliament.

4.21 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Some days ago I argued, in the light of what I believed was coming up in the Bill, that it was an outrageous contempt of the House for us to be treated in the way that we have been in the past few days. That feeling has been made even worse by today's occurrences.

The Government have determined on a course of action in the light of their extremely large majority. I say to the Prime Minister that I fear that, by attempting to railroad the Bill through, he may achieve the exact opposite of the objective that he seeks. I support the principle of the legislation, but I do not support the manner in which it is being enacted.

It is part and parcel of the procedures of the House that we have an opportunity to make amendments. I raised a point with you, Madam Speaker, concerning the long title. It is not enough for the Chairman of Ways and Means to exercise an attitude in the selection of amendments. The key question is whether it is within the order of the House for amendments that are inconsistent with the long title to be moved.

I believe that there is a serious problem, which goes to the heart of the Bill, and which the Prime Minister may not have fully appreciated. The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which we passed on 28 July, provides for the imposition of a series of conditions and tests when deciding whether prisoners should be released early. The Act clearly states that among those tests is whether the person in question is a member of a

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proscribed organisation. The Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill changes the burden of the test, in the early parts of the procedure, to the opinion of a police officer plus other evidence.

If the long title needs to be changed to allow us to guarantee that persons who, in the opinion of a police officer and on the basis of the related evidence, are members of proscribed organisations are not released early, the failure to change the long title may create a flaw that defeats the Bill's main objective--to ensure that members of proscribed organisations are not released early. Therefore, there are substantive reasons why we need to know what the Government have in mind regarding the long title.

The argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) made about the manner in which the Bill is being dealt with was absolutely justified. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary owe the House an explanation of how we can meaningfully propose or make amendments to the Bill.

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