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Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): Can the Home Secretary give any precedent for a constitutional Bill being guillotined with only four hours for debate, including the three-hour guillotine motion?

Mr. Straw: The simple answer is that no Opposition since the war have suffered from the madness that infects the current Opposition. This is the first constitutional measure on which a Government have been forced to use the Parliament Act 1911 procedures. Every other constitutional measure, however controversial it may have been and whether it appeared in a manifesto, has eventually been accepted as having received the authority of the elected House and been allowed through by the unelected House. Given that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) has raised the issue, he may wish to learn that the only Bill that has been the subject of the Parliament Act procedure since the war--three started out, but agreement was reached on two--was the War Crimes Act 1991. The guillotine motion on that Act provided for no Committee stage.

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Conservative Members have only themselves to blame for tearing apart fundamental conventions on the constitution, as I will show in a moment. We are having to debate the matter again, despite the fact that the Bill and its principle received the overwhelming endorsement of the British people in the manifestos of not one but two of the major parties. It has also received majorities of more than 150 on every occasion that it has been the subject of debate, not only on its principle but on its detail. It does not lie in the mouth of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield--or any other Conservative Member--to complain that the Bill has not been subject to the most thorough debate. I myself have always sought to answer any question raised with me in the time that is available.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does the Home Secretary accept that one of the clearest pieces of evidence that he does not have overwhelming support for what he is saying is the tiny handful of his parliamentary colleagues who have bothered to take their places in the Chamber this afternoon? Another is the fact that there were so few speeches in our earlier debates in support of what the Government are trying to ram through. In effect, the Bill has no support at all.

Mr. Straw: As I have explained to the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends before, the best indication of support is not only the substantial majorities that we have enjoyed in this House, but the fact that we have put the principle of the issue to the vote of the British people. Of that, there can be no doubt.

I am very happy for the available time to be used up principally by Conservative Members. Four hours have been allocated for completion of the measure, and the longer they spend on the guillotine motion, the less time there will be for the detail, even if that detail needs further examination. That is a matter for the Conservatives, not for us.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Does my right hon. Friend accept that whether or not we started by supporting an open-list system or a closed-list system, many of us on the Labour Benches now firmly hold the view that the Bill should go through as we are arguing about the elected House versus the unelected House? My right hon. Friend has the overwhelming support of Labour Members.

Mr. Straw: I accept that, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for anticipating my next point. I expect that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield will work himself up into a fury, implying that the motion is an abuse of the procedures of the House. He should, however, be rather cautious given the record of the previous Administration, particularly in the 1980s when they never sought agreement on Bills and used guillotine motions with gay abandon. There has, indeed, been an abuse of Parliament over the Bill, but it did not occur in this Chamber. The abuse was the responsibility of the Conservative party, which relied on its inbuilt three-to-one majority in the other place. It relied on the votes of hereditary peers to frustrate the wishes of the democratically elected House.

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None of us on the Government Benches--and precious few Members on the Conservative Benches, if they were allowed to speak their minds--believe that the hereditary peers have a right to block Bills introduced by the Government. I have never objected to the other place seeking to revise Bills. Far from objecting, I have welcomed revisions, and I have never suggested that a Bill introduced even by my Front Bench colleagues represents a paradigm of perfection that cannot be improved in any way. That would be an arrogant impertinence, and it would plainly be untrue.

On two major Bills out of the several brought forward by the Home Department during the past session--the Human Rights Bill and the Crime and Disorder Bill--the other place entered serious reservations. We did not say, "Damn them, they are Conservative hereditaries so we should ignore their arguments." We sought, on press freedom and, particularly, on the protection of the churches, to listen to what was said in the other place, and to seek to accommodate it, as I believe we did.

A number of detailed amendments were made to the Crime and Disorder Bill, such as that made when the Lord Chief Justice expressed reservations about the breadth of what was then clause 40 on the powers of justices' clerks. Many noble Lords backed him, we listened to what he had to say and we changed the Bill. In the particular case of the age of consent, the whole House knows that we accepted the view of the other place that that measure should not come before the House for a free vote without its having alongside it associated offences where people were in a position of trust that they might abuse.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): The Secretary of State has made the accusation that what the House of Lords did was somehow an abuse of procedure. Has he not heard of the Parliament Act 1911? Does he realise that its whole purpose is to deal with situations such as this one? In fact, the House of Lords acted completely within the conventions and within the statutory provisions for matters of this kind.

Mr. Straw: It would be rum if I had not heard of the Parliament Act since that is precisely what we are using. I heard of the Parliament Act as a schoolboy, and I remember the history of the Budget in 1910--more accurately, the Budget was in 1909--

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I did not realise that the right hon. Gentleman was that old.

Mr. Straw: I have a considerable affection for the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), but I shall lose it if he questions my age. I was not present during the passage of the Budget of 1909, but I learned about it at school. It will be remembered that Mr. Lloyd George moved his Budget, that the Lords blocked it, that not one,

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but two elections were required in 1910, and that the Parliament Act followed in 1911. It is worth bearing in mind, too, that there was then a general agreement that the Act should be the first part of a two-stage process of reform of the House of Lords, but the Conservative party consistently blocked the second stage, a point that Conservative Members should note.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): I am interested by the reasons adduced by the Secretary of State in relation to the Parliament Act, but I do not understand what he is saying. The House of Lords acted perfectly constitutionally. The Government disagreed, and the Chamber disagreed on a vote. The Bill was returned to the other place, and the Government are now invoking the Parliament Act. Is not that the proper constitutional arrangement? Has not every party acted within the terms of the Parliament Act and the constitution?

Mr. Straw: The difference, and the central burden of what I must say, is that the Parliament Act has not previously been needed even for the most controversial of proposals. In addition, there has been an expectation of its use only when there has been a Labour Government. It has never been raised against a Tory Government--

Sir Norman Fowler: The War Crimes Bill.

Mr. Straw: The only case is the War Crimes Bill, which was not an issue of extreme controversy between the parties.

Sir Norman Fowler: The Home Secretary just cited it.

Mr. Straw: I cited the Bill to answer a different point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, which was whether there had been a Committee stage on a guillotine under the Parliament Act. There had not.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) asked whether the action of the House of Lords was not consistent with the Parliament Act, and with the conventions and understandings that amount to an important part of our constitution. It would be tautologous to say that that action was consistent with the Parliament Act, as that is a simple statement of fact. It is wholly wrong, however, to claim that the procedure followed by the Conservative party is in any sense consistent with the conventions of the House of Commons and the other place, or of the understandings between parties that form an essential part of our uncodified and unwritten constitution. I shall explain in considerable detail why that is so.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield was, until recently, the non-executive chairman of Midland Independent Newspapers. He ceased, I believe, to be chairman not so long ago.


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