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Business of the House

7.30 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement.

The business for tomorrow will now be progress on remaining stages of the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which will be brought to a conclusion next week. I will give the normal, full business statement tomorrow.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): The Leader of the House has announced that the Government have lost one of the days that they had earmarked for their legislative programme. They have lost it because they did not respond sensitively to legitimate issues raised over the past two days.

Today's Bill, which has provoked the statement, was not in the Queen's Speech. The mode of trial Bill, which will have to be reintroduced following its defeat in another place, will put additional pressure on the Government's programme. Does not all that show that the Government are mismanaging the business of the House trying to get 28 Bills through, and that they should now drop some of their ill-considered and unpopular measures?

Mrs. Beckett: I can only say that the right hon. Gentleman must be well aware that his remarks are in no way borne out by the events of the past couple of days. On Second Reading of the Disqualifications Bill, the Conservatives said that they were not opposed to it and did not vote against it. The shadow Home Secretary said that the Opposition would give the Bill a fair wind. If the right hon. Gentleman's idea of a fair wind is almost two full days' debate, I have to tell him that it is not mine.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Leader of the House will agree that I raised that issue at an early stage, because I saw no reason why the Bill should be rushed. When minority parties express an opinion, it should be taken into consideration. Instead, the Bill was rushed through, like a steamroller trying to get ahead of business. Plenty of time could have been taken, rather than wasted, as it has been today.

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to say that he raised that point, in a way that Conservative Members did not. However, I believe that I am right in saying that, like them, he complained about the two days' proceedings being so close together, not about the amount of time given. I do not recall anyone complaining about the amount of time offered at any business statement in which the business was announced.

As I told the hon. Gentleman on a previous occasion, I understand his concerns and we considered the matter. However, as I am sure he is well aware, it is not at all unprecedented for a Bill to be taken through the House in one day, or, indeed, two.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): In emergencies.

Mrs. Beckett: Not necessarily. The Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 1996 was taken through the

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House in one day, in May 1996. The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Act 1996 was also taken through in one day, in October 1996. I shall not bore Opposition Members by listing their sins, but one further example will be regarded as relevant by those hon. Members who have enjoyed the past two days: the last occasion on which a Bill was taken on two consecutive days, as was the Disqualifications Bill, it became the Protection from Harassment Act 1997; the Member in charge of the Bill was the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean).

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Does the right hon. Lady agree that the way in which business has been handled today, the 1,000th day of the Government's term in office, is symbolic of the way in which business has generally been handled over the past two and a half years? That is, with a lack of respect for our traditions, incompetence and overweening arrogance.

Mrs. Beckett: I completely agree with one thing that the hon. Gentleman has said, and that is that it has been quite characteristic of the past two years. It has been gross misjudgment and mishandling on behalf of the Conservative party which has been successful beyond our wildest dreams in talking at considerable length on a Bill that it said it did not oppose. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was a three-clause Bill. As a result, the Conservative party succeeded in losing its opportunity to question my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Question Time. It lost also an opportunity to make progress on a Bill that its few remaining supporters in the City want to see on the statute book. I call that three whammys in a row.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Will the right hon. Lady make time for a statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, so that he can explain to the House and the country--there will be general concern--the answer to the question that we have been posing for the past 26 hours: has a grubby deal been done with Sinn Fein, known terrorists, to pass the Bill that we have just debated?

Mrs. Beckett: I will simply say to the hon. Gentleman that I am sure he heard my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State say that most of us in the House do not wish to do or say anything that in any way jeopardises the peace process. I hope that he shares that view.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): May I say to my right hon. Friend that I think that we handled the Disqualifications Bill excellently? Last night we called the Tories' bluff and won the legislation.

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The sad fact is that the Conservative party has lost control of its Back Benchers, and it shows.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): The right hon. Lady was kind enough to refer to the highly successful Protection from Harassment Bill, which the previous Government put through the House with the full agreement of all the Opposition parties. I do not think that anyone suggests that that was an important constitutional measure which deserved to be treated in a different way from the way in which the right hon. Lady has abused the

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House over the past 24 hours. It was the Government who lost control; it was the Government who did not bother to move closures; and it was the Government who failed to expedite the Bill in as sensible a fashion as they could. The Government could have simply given sufficient time between Second Reading and remaining stages, including consideration in Committee. The Bill could then have proceeded in a more sensible fashion. That is the right hon. Lady's fault.

Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman was not here on any of the occasions when we discussed timing and the amount of time given to the Bill. On no occasion were the Government pressed to give more time for the Bill until yesterday.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Surely there are two possibilities regarding the loss of Prime Minister's questions. One is that the Leader of the Opposition wished to avoid them today. The other is that the right hon. Gentleman has lost control of his party.

Mrs. Beckett: There is much in what my hon. Friend says. Either the Leader of the Opposition consented and was happy to see Prime Minister's Question Time lost because he knew for several hours before the deadline fell that that would be the effect of his party's behaviour, or he had lost control of it. He has another characteristic that has been evident over the past two and a half years, which is that he is inclined to make short-termist judgments, such as the letter to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, which I can assure the Conservative party will come back to haunt it on many occasions. As so many of the right hon. Gentleman's gestures come back to haunt him, I think that he should be known as Boomerang Bill.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am not going to play the game of blaming either side. However, I emphasise that the way in which we dealt with the Disqualifications Bill does no credit to the Government or the main Opposition party. I draw the Leader of the House's attention to the unanimity on several occasions in the Select Committee of which she is a distinguished Chair, on seeking more programme motions so that we can deal with business in a business-like fashion. The games that have been played recently do no credit to the House, the Government's business managers or the official Opposition.

I ask the right hon. Lady again to ensure that, when we approach measures in future, efforts will be made to distinguish issues about which there is a clear difference of opinion--between the Front Benches or with the minority parties--and that proper time will be given to debate them. Having done that, we should try to ascertain whether we can determine an agreed programme to tackle them in a business-like way. Having done that--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. I hope that this will be the hon. Gentleman's last point.

Mr. Tyler: I could hardly hear what you were saying, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because of the noise that Conservative Members made.

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