Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.50 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): There is an element of deja vu about these debates. What goes around, comes around. It is cheering to see Conservative Members solidly opposing the guillotine with such fire, and the extraordinary spectacle of the Home Secretary defending what I genuinely believe to be the worst written guillotine motion that has ever been put before the House.

To support his contention that this motion is desperately necessary, the Home Secretary invoked the words of Lord Biffen, when he was Leader of the House of Commons, during the passage of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986. I voted against the guillotine motion on that legislation, and I seem to remember that the Home Secretary also did so. The Home Secretary referred to it not because of his voting record, but because it was a constitutional measure. He wanted to show that this business motion is in tune with many previous business motions.

Many parents tell their children that, if something that was done before was wrong, doing it again does not make it right. That is an evident truth. However, the basis of the Government's argument is that the Conservative Government were wrong to impose that guillotine motion, but now that they are doing it on a constitutional issue it is right to do so. That is nonsense.

The difference between the European Parliamentary Elections Bill and the European Communities (Amendment) Bill of 1986 is important. This motion imposes a guillotine before we have had Second Reading and before we have had a stumble in Committee. It is not being imposed because the Report stage is manifestly being delayed wrongly. It is being imposed before we have even come to debate the issues in the Bill. That did not happen under what I believe was a profoundly wrong guillotine on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, and that is the difference.

When has there been a similar guillotine motion?

Mr. Allan: I have listened to the hon. Gentleman with great care, because he is, by repute, good on such matters. I can point to another difference. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) announced before the Bill came to the House that he would show zero tolerance towards it and would do all that he could to obstruct it. How could we have had agreement on a sensible timetable given the Leader of the Opposition's comments?

Mr. Shepherd: The hon. Gentleman refers to a "sensible timetable", and that is the point. I am addressing the timetable motion before us--I hope within the terms of the Standing Orders. My proposition is that it is not a sensible timetable. As it is the only timetable I can refer to, the hon. Gentleman will understand why there is no way I can row in his boat.

What were comparable motions? I regret that the Home Secretary is following in the footsteps of my noble Friend, Lord Baker. The great precedent is that sterling piece of

2 Dec 1998 : Column 939

legislation, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989, which was guillotined before Second Reading. That was an outrage. Under the terms of that motion, six hours were allowed for Second Reading, which included--as this motion does--the guillotine. The Committee of the whole House lasted for five hours and Report and Third Reading took one hour, so 12 hours were allowed to debate the Bill's contentions.

That Bill also had something that this Bill does not have; I regret to say that it had the support of all parties in the House. Lord Baker put to us an imperative, sent to him by those two trusty, Labour-supporting papers, The Sun and the Daily Mirror, which assured him that the nation was at risk of being consumed by dangerous dogs. As I recall through the mists of time, he wanted action this day on all stages, because he had identified that the summer was when bitches were in heat, and that a new breed would assault us before Christmas.

The Government have grasped the worst possible way of constructing a guillotine. I accept that the House does not necessarily share my reservations about guillotines. The Home Secretary has allowed three hours for debate on the guillotine motion and a vote. The Government are prepared to countenance the possibility that the debate on the guillotine and the vote will reduce the time allocated for Second Reading, Committee of the whole House, Report--we know that that will not be allowed--and Third Reading to 40 minutes. The Home Secretary's opening speech took half an hour. He was generous in giving way, which is proper because these are sensitive and difficult matters, but that was at the expense of the debate and vote. That is why this is a vile and outrageous motion. The Government are seriously contemplating taking all the stages of this Bill in the short time of 40 minutes.

Assuming that we get through Second Reading, we would then consider the reasonable amendments that have been tabled, such as those dealing with by-elections. That matter is relevant and concerns many people. We may want to divide on such an amendment. The Home Secretary has barely stood up; we will have a vote; the business will be over and the Bill shipped to the Lords. That cannot be right. We are adults.

We represent people, and we understand the processes. I understand the fight between the Opposition and the Government, because those matters touch on the electoral process, on the people whom we represent and on why we are chosen to represent people. The Government are prepared to condense the debate into 40 minutes at the most. That is the proposition on the Order Paper. They may have hoped that the debate on the guillotine would be over in a minute or two, so that we would have had four hours for the rest of the proceedings. We should reflect on that. We would have had four hours to debate a Bill affecting our parliamentary electoral system and the nature of representative democracy in comparison with 12 hours devoted to the Dangerous Dogs Bill.

That legislation never did the Conservative Government much good. Some hon. Members may remember the long line of people who came to tell us that their favoured and loved mutt was not what other people claimed it was. The new law bedevilled the courts. I do not think that Lord Baker of Dorking would include in his

2 Dec 1998 : Column 940

learned range of interests on his curriculum vitae the fact that he introduced the guillotine on the Dangerous Dogs Bill.

I do not want to think of the Home Secretary in that context, but he has introduced the Dangerous Dogs European Elections Bill, and it does not do him justice. This process has become almost farcical, and it denigrates the Chamber. I am seeking to get just some glimmer of sympathy from Labour Members. We know that there is no problem on the Bill. The 1911 Act is being invoked, which is in accordance with the constitution. That is the Government's position.

The previous Government acted in a similar manner with the War Crimes Bill and that did not create great excitement. This Government have insisted on playing ping-pong with the House of Lords. After the second time the Bill returned they could have announced their intention to invoke the 1911 Act and the Bill would have proceeded on a proper course, in accordance with both our written constitution and the conventions of that constitution, but this is a play. [Interruption.] I am sorry, I do not understand. If the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), the Labour Whip, wants to interrupt, I am prepared to sit down and listen to him. [Hon. Members: "Come on."] There is no point in making that comment. We have a Deputy Speaker who keeps good order. Even during the worst days, when I was in fear of my life from my side, the Whips showed some form of courtesy in the discussion across the Floor of the House. I point out to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there is a role here for you.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: There is definitely a role for the Deputy Speaker. I ask hon. Members on both sides of the House to be quiet, but particularly the Whips.

Mr. Shepherd: I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

This is part of a bigger game, a bigger play, to which we mere Back Benchers are not party. The Government's actions are an attempt to grab public opinion. Remember that part of the role of an Opposition is to try to cause delay; Oppositions have done it in the past. That is understandable because, ultimately, we will all stand in front of the electorate and be judged on the way in which we conduct ourselves. Unfortunately, many of my former colleagues have already been judged. That, in turn, will be the fate of this Government, so we should be more mindful about the processes in which we take part because they protect all the interests of all the people here.

It was only the Government who brought the Bill back, not the Opposition. The Government are invoking the 1911 Act. Given that the Bill had been rejected twice in the Lords, it would have been right to invoke that Act then, but we went through the farce five times, backwards and forwards, trying to see down their lordships. Now we are going to go through it again with the nonsense of trying to assert that there is a constitutional blockage. There is none and the Home Secretary knows it. That is why we have this outrageous, truly humiliating guillotine. It cannot be a serious guillotine.

Like most of the people of this country, I trust the Government. By and large, we want our Governments to succeed. We do not want them to fail, but to see such contempt for constitutional propriety is extraordinary.

2 Dec 1998 : Column 941

Mr. George Howarth: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in the previous Session--I accept that this is a new Session--the Bill, which is six clauses long, was debated for 34 hours and that the identical Bill has come back again? Does he not think that that should have some bearing on the way in which we deliberate on the matter?

Next Section

IndexHome Page