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Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett: No, because I do not want to take more than a minute or two longer. I am following the precedents set in the House in the past by moving an amendment to the motion.

Mr. Arbuthnot: Is the right hon. Lady aware that the purport of those sections of that Act is precisely whether or not Fiona Jones is allowed to stand in the by-election?

Mrs. Beckett: I believe that the right hon. Gentleman will find that he is mistaken and that it is a matter of whether or not a vacancy exists.

It is a breach of convention for the Opposition to move the writ. It is extraordinary that they have done so when the verdict to which they refer was given only 10 days ago, on 19 March; when an appeal is pending; and when an early date has been set for that appeal, which will be taken not only on the conviction, but on a point of law--on the interpretation of the Act, which the right hon. Gentleman apparently wants to prejudge.

Mr. Duncan: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett: No, I shall not give way. The Lawrence debate is much more important than this childish nonsense.

Given that the appeal will be held in the near future--indeed, in almost as short a time as has elapsed since the case was first heard--it is in the interests of the House to move on from this business. I recommend--[Hon. Members: "Contempt of the House."] Yes, I think that the way in which Opposition Members have behaved is a contempt of the House. It seems to me and to the Government that it is right to hold a by-election in Newark when a vacancy has been properly called. However, an appeal is outstanding, so I invite the House to accept the amendment, enable that appeal to be heard and allow the by-election to be called in a proper manner, if that is the outcome of the court's decision.

4.43 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I find it incomprehensible that, on the day on which we have discussed the conflict in the Balkans and we are to debate

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the Lawrence inquiry report, we should involve ourselves in a matter that is little more than party political manoeuvring in its worst sense.

If Conservative Members had one inkling of the meaning of parliamentary democracy or of empowering the people of Newark, they would have waited until after the Court of Appeal decision on 13 April. In fact, their motion has nothing to do with empowering the people of Newark. The Liberal Democrats feel strongly that the people of Newark should have a Member of Parliament in whom they have faith and confidence and that, if a by-election is necessary, it should be fought as soon as possible. However, it is ludicrous for the Conservatives to be baying for a by-election before that Court of Appeal decision is given on 13 April; it simply shows how low the Conservative party has sunk.

4.44 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I represent a constituency which adjoins Newark. Therefore, and to that extent, I am rather well placed to report to the House the feeling in the constituency of Newark. I think that the electors of Newark will be extraordinarily dismayed by the disdain that has been shown by the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, for the proposal that we should have a by-election.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hogg: Not at the moment, no.

The suggestion that we should move to the Orders of the Day rather than discuss parliamentary democracy and a by-election is frankly an affront to this House. The tradition is and the basic principle must be that people are not deprived of a parliamentary representative a moment longer than necessary. That must be especially true when the vacancy has occurred not through misfortune, but as a result of culpable behaviour. When there is culpable behaviour by a Government Member, there is a very special obligation on the Government forthwith to move the writ. The fact that they have not done so is, I suspect, a measure of their cowardice and their disdain for Parliament.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hogg: No, I am not proposing to give way. I am adopting, in this respect only, the example of the Leader of the House.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hogg: No, I have made my position quite plain.

The electors of Newark have a very special local reason for wanting an early by-election. For example, for 1999-2000, Nottinghamshire county council will have the highest band D council tax of all the shire counties.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hogg: No, I have made my position plain.

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Indeed, the Nottinghamshire county council tax payer is facing the second highest percentage increase--9.9 per cent.--of any shire county. Even more particularly, in the Newark and Sherwood districts band D council tax will be the highest of the English shire counties.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can it be in order for the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) to engage in blatant electioneering under the pretext of talking about the by-election?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): That is not a point of order; it is a point of argument. This is an important House of Commons matter. Whatever the merits of both sides of the argument, they should be heard in a sober manner.

Mr. Hogg: I always welcome protection, and I am grateful for it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The allegation that I was electioneering comes a bit rich from a Government who do not want an election in this constituency because they are fearful of the consequences.

There is the general matter of principle, but there is a local point, too. Local electors want a chance to express their opinion on council tax rates. Incidentally, they might also want to express their opinion on the level of policing in the county. In contrast to March 1997, the number of police in Nottinghamshire county council has fallen by 54--a significant number if one happens to live in Newark.

The explanation advanced by the Leader of the House is essentially an unworthy one. She does not want the by-election, to the prejudice of the electors of Newark, for the personal convenience of Mrs. Fiona Jones. I have nothing against Mrs. Fiona Jones, and do not want to be particularly critical of her--except that she has been found guilty of a criminal offence by a court. We must not lose sight of that.

We have been told that we are to await an appeal. For how long are we to await an appeal? [Interruption.] I know perfectly well that the legal process takes a long time; nobody is in a better position than I to know that. An appeal goes to the High Court. It might then go to the House of Lords. After that, I anticipate that it would go to the European Court. Months and months would pass--perhaps years. Are the electors of Newark to be deprived of representation for the personal benefit of Mrs. Fiona Jones?

Mr. Michael Foster (Hastings and Rye): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is well versed in the law. Does he agree that Pinochet should have been sent to Spain immediately after the initial hearing?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That cannot possibly be a point of order.

Mr. Hogg: In any event, Pinochet should have been returned to Chile immediately, and should be returned there now.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Hogg: I shall not give way.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House is descending

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into disgrace. The Lawrence family are in the Chamber for an important debate on the Lawrence case and the issues surrounding it. The two Front-Bench spokesmen each spoke on the motion for two to three minutes, but the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) has been speaking for longer than three minutes and is extending the debate to issues that are not related to the question. Will you ask for brevity on this question, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that we can proceed to the next debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. First, I say to the hon. Gentleman that there is no one in the Chamber apart from right hon. and hon. Members. Secondly, this is a serious debate and there is no control over the time that may be taken by an individual Member in making a contribution. I have, however, asked the House to deal seriously with the matter, and I hope that my request will be observed by all hon. Members.

Mr. Hogg: The point of order from the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) seemed to me to demonstrate two points, both of which we have come to recognise. The first is Labour Members' reluctance to allow full and free debate in the House. They want to truncate the debate on this motion and proceed to the next business. It is perfectly true that the next business is important, but this business is also important, as you made apparent, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a disgrace that Labour Members are trying to curtail debate on what is essentially a matter of parliamentary principle.

The second point, with which Conservatives are already becoming familiar, is that Labour Members are afraid to meet the electorate when there is a good chance of them being rumbled. There is a good chance of them being rumbled in Newark, so they hope to conceal both their embarrassment and the arguments during the European and district council elections. That is a disgrace and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Opposition Chief Whip, will push the motion to a vote and that my right hon. and hon. Friends will support it.

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