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Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: I shall give way in a moment. The right hon. Gentleman should listen to my point. He regards this debate as a leisurely Committee stage, but this is a debate on a guillotine motion. He is forcing the House to pass all the Bill's stages in four hours. We do not regard this as a leisurely Committee stage in the way that he would like. There have been precedents, but this is probably the most severe guillotine that has ever been introduced, and I shall tell the House why.

Under the Government's proposals, the guillotine motion could be debated for three hours, but that would come out of the total of four hours that is allowed for the whole debate. The Government would be content for the debate on the guillotine motion to run its full course. I assume that even they do not believe that we will nod it through without a Division, so they would leave the House 40 minutes to debate the Second Reading, the Committee stage, the Report stage and the Third Reading of the Bill. Even if the guillotine debate could be finished earlier, it is unlikely that we shall have any more than two and a half or three hours to complete all the Bill's stages. One does not have to be a paid-up member of the Conservative party to find that unacceptable.

Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: I shall give way in a moment. The right hon. Gentleman should restrain himself.

Many hon. Members will regard the Government's proposals as entirely objectionable. One point that is clear about the Bill is that it is highly controversial on both sides of the House. Much of the criticism of the Bill has come from Labour Members. The measures are as disliked by many on the Government Benches as they are by Conservative Members. That is demonstrated this afternoon by the fact that only three Labour Back Benchers are present.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth): There are five.

Sir Norman Fowler: I was not counting the Parliamentary Private Secretaries. If the hon. Gentleman is down to counting them, he really is in difficulty.

I hope that, on the issue of the guillotine we will, for once, have the support of Liberal Democrat Members. They have taken an extraordinary view throughout the entire debate, and I hope that they will at least have the courage to say that we should be able to debate the Bill for longer than the four hours that the Government have given us.

The time that has been allocated to the Bill is totally inadequate to do any justice to it. We are once again considering the whole Bill because it has been

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reintroduced. We are considering not only open and closed lists but the abolition, in effect, of European by-elections. We all know why such a proposal might now attract the Labour party. Having been beaten into third place in the by-election in Scotland last Thursday, it may well want to avoid such contests. By-elections, for Europe and Westminster, have been an important part of our political system.

Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: I shall give way in a moment. The right hon. Gentleman need not keep bobbing up and down.

If the Government think that forcing unpopular legislation through the House without giving us a realistic opportunity to debate it will restore their political fortunes, they are in for a surprise north and south of the border. I shall now give way to the Home Secretary.

Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. Gentleman name another Bill, including constitutional Bills, of only six clauses which was the subject of more than 34 hours of detailed debate in the House?

Sir Norman Fowler: There must have been constitutional Bills that were so well debated, but that is not my point. My point--this is the Government's proposition--is that this constitutional Bill has been reintroduced. It is therefore a new Bill and the Government are allowing four hours of debate, including the debate on the guillotine motion. I cannot think of a precedent for that, and if the Home Secretary can think of one, I will gladly, in my generosity, give way to him again.

Mr. Straw: The simple point is that the Bill has already been the subject of lengthy debate. The four hours allocated to it today must be added to the 34 hours of extraordinarily detailed discussion that have already taken place, and the Bill is exactly the same as it was then.

Sir Norman Fowler: The right hon. Gentleman's answer is that he cannot think of a precedent, because there is none. The guillotine motion is the most severe since the war and, as far as I can tell from the extent of my research, the most severe that has ever been moved.

Mr. Shepherd: I do not entirely understand the Home Secretary's point because, although the House has debated the Bill many times, it has done so only on a particular, narrow issue. We want to debate the entire Bill, which is understandable.

Sir Norman Fowler: That is exactly the point that I was about to make, and I thank my hon. Friend for making it in his usual skilled way.

The Bill makes a fundamental change in our arrangements for European elections. We are, for example, abandoning the first-past-the-post system. That is a profound mistake, and many people will resent the abolition of the constituency system. They want a Member whom they can call their own and with whom they can take up issues. That will be lost under the Bill.

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It is not merely a case of open and closed lists. That issue has dominated the debate because of the action of the House of Lords, but there are many other issues.

The Bill raises the issue of the balance between the party and the public, and that is the issue at stake between the two Houses. The Lords rejected not the whole Bill--again, the Home Secretary is wrong--but the closed list system, in which people vote for the party and not the candidate. That stand has been widely applauded, and not only by the Opposition. The Government Benches are not crowded because one Labour Member after another has spoken against closed lists. Let us have no nonsense about closed lists being a manifesto pledge; they are not and never have been.

Mr. Cash: Does my right hon. Friend accept that, as we have rightly endorsed the principle of first past the post, we should gently persuade their Lordships to do the same and return the Bill or at least seek to amend it, including the long title, so that we can debate first past the post rather than the difference between open and closed lists?

Sir Norman Fowler: On Second Reading, we can debate exactly that point, which is very important. That is why it is false to say that, because we have debated closed and open lists, we have disposed of all the issues in the Bill. We clearly have not.

For all those reasons, the House needs substantially more time than has been allocated. We should remember that, until the debate had developed, the public did not know about all the issues that were involved and, today, those are better understood. The result is that, even in the past few days, major points have been made, such as the point of conscience. Before some people vote, they want to know the candidates' stance on the major moral issues that we all face. We all know that that is the case, because all hon. Members are elected according to that system, and when we stand for election we must answer questions on our beliefs. One report said:


That argument has developed during debates on the Bill. It is therefore nonsensical to say that opposition to the Bill is confined to the Conservative party and the House of Lords. There is a very wide coalition of opposition to the Bill.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a need to scrutinise a further aspect, concerning the nature of the European Parliament? Unlike the House, it does not have a system in which one party is in power as such, but, if the Government's proposal for the European elections were implemented, the work carried out by individual MEPs might be influenced by whether they were assiduous, and attended and had responsibilities on committees, or whether they chose not to. Obviously, their role in a particular constituency, especially where there was no

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affiliation between the electorate and a specific Member, might mean that some MEPs could spend all their time doing constituency work, building up profiles and so on, while others carried the responsibility of committee work. If that position were mirrored in this House, Members of the party in government could be disadvantaged.

Sir Norman Fowler: My hon. Friend makes a strong and powerful case. I shall not, if she will forgive me, develop it, because there are such obvious and unsatisfactory time constraints on the debate.

The Government have unquestionably and undoubtedly lost the argument on the Bill. They have been unable to persuade their own Back Benchers; they have been unable to persuade the press. I was delighted to hear my old newspaper, The Birmingham Post, being set up as an example of the massive press support for the Home Secretary. He said that I used to be chairman of the company; that is true, but he omitted to say that it is now owned by the Daily Mirror. The Government have been unable to persuade the public or the press.

I say in all seriousness that I believe that it is insulting, not only to the House but to the public, to truncate discussion of the Bill, as is proposed. I hope that, during the debate, we shall not hear from the Government great complaints about the constitution, when they are forcing through a Bill under the severest guillotine measure that any hon. Member can remember. It shows that the Government have lost the argument and the debate. The motion should therefore be rejected.


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