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Mr. Shepherd: I have weighed that up, but the point is that the Bill came back for debate on the narrow focus of Lords amendments. I never spoke during the entire consideration of the Bill. There was only one major discussion of it--Second Reading--and because of time constraints, I did not get called. That is not unusual, but what came back from the House of Lords were the narrow Lords amendments. That is what we have been discussing five times.

Now the Bill has been re-presented in a new Session of Parliament in its entirety but, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), there is an omission from the amended form--the Government's only amended form: the review mechanism after the elections. That is now omitted, for reasons that we understand. The Government may wish to include it again, but they cannot because they are trapped by the 1911 Act. We understand that, but it is not us who have made the fuss. It is the Government.

I understand why the Government may want to obscure the issues behind this matter with their intentions on the House of Lords, but they have their mandate on that. They will get what they want on the House of Lords; no one doubts that either. Our question on that has always been where is the check and balance, and what will be the second stage of that reform? That is a perfectly reasonable question to pose in political debate.

As I said at the start, in the middle and towards the end of my speech, this is a thoroughly bad guillotine. If we do stand for something, and we are all judged, as I tried to show, as individual Members of Parliament, we should have a word to say about the proper processes of this House. Leastways, let us have amendments and properly discuss the matter.

The amendments that were mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) are worthy of discussion. I hope that the House has respect for that and that the Government reflect that this is nonsense. Even at this late stage, they can move to make the process more acceptable to all hon. Members.

7.6 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): Although I have missed some of the debate, for which I apologise, I have heard more than enough to convince me that there is a case to speak on the guillotine motion, which is causing so much distress among Conservative Members. I will refer to the comments of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) in a moment. I know his views on this very well; I have some sympathy for the general thrust of his argument, although not on this issue.

If anything, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should stand condemned for doing too much to help the

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Conservative party by getting the Bill through as fast as possible. If the Leader of the Conservative party in the House of Lords has resigned because he is trying to do a deal to try to cope with the problems that the party in here has caused him--

Miss Melanie Johnson: He was sacked.

Mr. Soley: Sorry, he was sacked; that is right. I am never sure whether they use a guillotine in the House of Lords, but, if he has been sacked, fair enough. What we knew full well is that the leader of the Conservative party in the House of Lords was saying one thing, and the leader of the Conservative party in here was saying something entirely different. I would have thought that the guillotine would do them a favour by getting the Bill through as fast as possible and out of the way, with the least possible embarrassment.

Let us consider the Back Benchers' role, which is what genuinely concerns the hon. Member forAldridge-Brownhills. As we all know, this is a battle between the Lords and the Commons. It involves the rights of this elected Chamber on a certain issue, which the Conservative party in the House of Lords, using its in-built majority, has sought to push back here time and again. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), was accurate in his intervention. This Bill has already been debated in the previous Session.

I think that one Conservative Member referred to that debate being in the previous Parliament. If that had been the case, Conservative Members would be right about providing adequate time for debate because Parliament would be full of new Members--or there would be many new Members. The previous Session, however, was attended by the same people as are present during this one; they had the same debate on the same issues for more than 30 hours. People outside do not understand it when hon. Members spend 30-odd hours on a fairly narrow issue: in this case, proportional representation.

There are many different forms of proportional representation throughout the world--closed lists, open lists and others--all of which have their advantages and disadvantages. They are all relevant. None is totally bad, any more than the first-past-the-post system is totally bad. They all have merits and problems, but the point is that to debate that matter over and again is nonsense and we know it.

There is one problem for Back Benchers; the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills is an example of it par excellence. I know that he has frequently been in a minority of one in his party and I respect him for that. The problem for Back Benchers is that they want to use time to challenge the Government. I have had this debate with the hon. Gentleman before, but tonight I extend it to his party, to which I offer some advice. It has had about 18 months in opposition. I had 18 years of it and much of that time was spent trying to prove that time was the best weapon that I had against a Government with a big majority. As the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) knows full well, it very rarely worked. As for my contributions on the issue of time, even when I was making the best case possible, it was the painful elaboration of the obvious. I would

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repeat it time and time again in the hope that one day the Government would say, "My God he's right. Why don't we do what he says? It is so sensible." Of course, it does not work like that. Sometimes one can get a Government to change but very rarely by the exercise of time, unless they are up against the end of the Parliament or Session.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: The hon. Gentleman's expositions were always excellent, they just were not persuasive.

Mr. Soley: The right hon. Gentleman is kind but if they were excellent, I should have had some credit for it. Even one or two amendments would have been appreciated.

As the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills knows, I sympathise with his frustration about the declining power--not role, but power--of Back Benchers. He is right that there is a problem, but as I have told him elsewhere, the issue is about timetabling. As I have said before, having learned the painful lesson over 18 years, there is a real advantage for Back Benchers in good timetabling. That needs to be agreed between parties. The problem in this case is that we cannot have a normal timetabling programme because of how the matter was handled in the previous Session and because it is part of a much bigger battle between the House of Lords and House of Commons. We need to get the Bill through, and without any more messing about.

Given all the debate in the previous Session, and as we know full well what the issue is, and as the issue has already caused enormous problems in the Tory party, the Opposition should be trying to get the Bill through. I was in Brussels the other week at the European Commission. Conservative Members of the European Parliament were saying, "For God's sake, don't give us first past the post at the European elections." One reason is that many more of them would lose their seats. The other reason that they are worried about what is happening here is that they fear that the Conservative party is trying to marginalise those of its members who are sympathetic to Europe, such as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). He referred to institutionalised anonymity. For a terrible moment, I thought that he was referring to the Leader of the Opposition.

The problem for the Conservative party with its MEPs is real because they do not want first past the post. They would like this Bill to go through and to have a list system precisely because they know that in large constituencies where Members are not known, it is better--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Some hon. Members have been given some leeway, so I have given the hon. Gentleman some. However that leeway must finish because we must get on.

Mr. Soley: I had anticipated your intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, though not quickly enough. I simply note that Conservative MEPs would like the guillotine to work to get them off the hook.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills has a genuine point about the power of Back Benchers. As I have told him often before, constantly talking at Governments does not work. I have 18 years of intensive

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experience to prove it. What works is good timetabling of Bills, giving plenty of allowance to the Opposition, taking evidence about Bills and all the other things that we have discussed on the Modernisation Committee, on which we both serve. They also make more sense to people outside.

We have had more than 30 hours of debate on the issue. The fact that this is a new Session does not mean that those words were wasted or that those who spoke had nothing to say but that we have had that debate and need to move on. I end as I began: we need to move on, if nothing else for the sake of the Conservative party and its various parts in the House of Lords.


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