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5.9 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): One advantage of having three children and 10 grandchildren is that I am used to people not listening to what I say. Indeed, some would claim that I have made an entire career of talking when no one listens to what I say, which is why I have been so long in the House of Commons. However, I want to make a serious protest about the growing practice--on the part of not just the Government, but Opposition Front Benchers--of reaching an agreement on timetabling.

The Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons has made a proposal, which has not, as far as I am aware, been debated in any real detail by ordinary Members of Parliament, to move towards the routine timetabling of all legislation. It is important that we put on record what that entails. If both Front-Bench teams agree a timetable--I am talking not about any particular type of legislation, but about all legislation--the right of Back Benchers to move amendments and the right of constituents to ask their individual Members to move an amendment that may not be agreed by their particular party will be, if not grossly circumscribed, then, even worse, lost.

As a democrat, I happen to think that the reason why the House of Commons works--indeed, the reason why our extraordinary system of government in the United Kingdom works--is because it is sufficiently flexible to allow any person who wants to write, to telephone or to

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visit an individual Member of Parliament to raise a matter that could form the basis of an amendment to legislation. If that is lost because of an agreement by both Front-Bench teams to get legislation through, irrespective of how many individual Members of Parliament have the right to take part in the debate, we are moving towards a juggernaut system that will destroy many of the rights of individuals in this place and in the UK generally. I am almost coming to dread the words "programme motion" or "the usual channels" because I have been here long enough to know that power always resides in the Whips Offices and with those who agree on the general programming of the material.

In my lifetime, legislation has not necessarily got better. This is not a party point. I think that all Governments are faced with the difficulty that, before Third Reading or, even worse, in another place, large drifts of amendments to Government legislation are tabled by Government managers. That cannot be acceptable.

When I was a junior Minister, the following was drummed into me: give parliamentary draftsmen enough time to frame good legislation, tell them the basis of it, argue with them on the way in which it is framed, bear in mind the general implications of the whole of the legislation and then--and only then--bring it to the House of Commons for debate. That is getting lost. To substitute for that the suggestion, "Well, it doesn't matter because Members have only so long to debate the legislation anyway. If it is not in the form that it will be in law after it is passed by both Houses, that doesn't matter. At some point or another, it can be amended in future." We must stop and think where we are getting to. As a House, we must seriously consider whether we are looking at what we are doing and are confident of the quality of the scrutiny that we are giving legislation. I do not think that that is the case.

The fact that Ministers and the Opposition Front-Bench team do not even feel nowadays that they must get up and defend at any great length the imposition of a timetable motion is in itself revealing. This is a massive Bill. It concerns local authorities across the UK. It has enormous implications. Simply to say that that is a very good reason for curtailing the debate on the various provisions does not seem to follow; it is a non sequitur. The longer and more important the Bill and the more serious the content, the more it should be looked at by all Members of the House of Commons--not just one group and not just from one particular political point of view.

The House of Commons needs very careful scrutiny. It is full of people who have high hopes and high standards, but that does not make them infallible. Civil servants are excellent and take brilliant direction, and we have parliamentary draftsmen who know superbly how to create legislation, but that does not make them infallible.

What we as individual Members of Parliament have to say--I accept that I have said this before; God help me, I may even say it again--is that it is important that the House does not routinely accept timetable motions as though they are the answer. Timetabling is not modernisation, but a retrograde movement. It takes away from the rights of the people of the United Kingdom to have on their statute book laws that work, laws that have been thought about and properly framed, and laws that the citizens themselves accept and want to uphold. When we forget that, we forget why this Parliament exists.

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5.16 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): I say hurrah and--to quote a famous 18th-century speech in its entirety--"ditto" to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). However, I shall not follow that 18th-century speech in like measure because, as the hon. Lady said, this is the 35th Bill in this Parliament on which debate has been truncated. The purpose of all guillotine motions, whether agreed between those on the Front Benches or not, is to prevent continuation of debate, and, therefore, in many instances, as the hon. Lady said, to deny hon. Members the opportunity to speak perhaps to their own amendments and to vote on amendments.

With today's motion, the Government hold out the prospect of certainty in the finishing of business and the rising of the House. The motion certainly would enable the House to conclude the debate, if not the votes, at 10 minutes to midnight.

The timetable motion is Government business. It is not being driven by the Opposition, although they have agreed to it. There is clearly a very firm intent by many hon. Members to go down the route of programming legislation. All I want to know about that route is, who ever consults Back Benchers?

I was not told by my Front Benchers that there was to be a guillotine on this legislation. Undoubtedly--I defer to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions on this--Labour Members were fully consulted on it. Undoubtedly, Labour Members who had signed non-Government amendments were sought out, and a calculation was made on whether there would be adequate time for them to speak as the voice of their constituency or of our country. I have no doubt that Liberal Democrat Members fastidiously went through that process. Perhaps I am making a slight criticism of my own Front Benchers for their failure to determine whether this agreed timetable motion meets the criterion required of every motion that binds the House.

The problem, of course, was demonstrated again today. Another piece of legislation has been announced on the hoof; apparently, it is to be completed by July. I should simply like to know what has happened to the Disqualifications Bill.

In truth, we have simply to examine the pattern of legislation in this Parliament to understand why there is a crisis, and the mood seems to be to accept the Government's continual guillotining of Bills. In the very first and long Session of this Parliament, there were 1,901 pages of legislation. In the second Session of this Parliament, there were 1,590 pages of legislation. In this Session, so far--not even counting what the Home Secretary has in store for us--there have been 2,537 pages of legislation. That is putting not a quart but a gallon into a pint pot. Motions such as this truncate the Government's mandate when it comes to consideration of important Bills, and hon. Members must reflect on what the Government are doing to them.

The Minister said that the 40 hours spent in a jolly little Committee upstairs covered all the dimensions of the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said, that does not tally with the number of Government amendments tabled in Committee, in the Lords and now on the Floor of this House. Those amendments amount to a huge number of additional pages of legislation on top of the two and a half thousand

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already brought before the House this Session. They reveal that the Government have not even prepared the legislation.

The system is breaking down. The Government write legislation as it goes through the House, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich made admirably clear. The practice is improper, but yet again the House is being marched to a guillotine.

The motion contains an element that strikes against the function of Back-Bench Members. Paragraph 3 is entitled "Conclusion of Proceedings". All hon. Members want to table amendments on matters about which they feel strongly, and hope to get an opportunity to speak to them in the ordinary course of business. However, I draw the House's attention to the terms of this agreed timetable, of which paragraph 3(1) states:

Paragraph 3(1)(c) makes a special category of

Paragraph 3(4) states:

That means that one vote will cover almost all Government amendments to the Bill. No other amendments will be taken, regardless of how much they represent the opinion of Back-Bench Members from the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat parties. The motion gives the Government power to abolish all the subsidiary amendments that Back-Bench Members may want to raise. The tightness of the guillotine, which allows just six and three quarter hours for debate, will not even give us an opportunity to speak.

Many hon. Members have commented that being jumped with legislation means that we cannot anticipate how we fulfil our role or function in the House. There were 52 Bills in the first Session of this Parliament--one Bill a week. Invariably, people interested in matters such as civil liberties, over which the Home Secretary rode so gaily a few minutes ago, bring their concerns to the detailed examination of legislative proposals.

I apologise to the House for the fact that I tabled amendment No. 221, to clause 60, only yesterday. It appears as a starred amendment, because it was tabled too late to be selected for debate. In a reasoned, measured debate, there would have been every possibility that I would get to speak to the amendment, which deals with matters of freedom of information and the Bill's creation of a criminal offence without any test of harm.

I am speaking up today, along with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, in order to stand up for Back Benchers. We should not give the Government the right to mandate all the amendments necessitated by the fact that they did not draw up the Bill correctly in the first place. That amounts to writing legislation on the hoof. The Government will get their amendments, but what about the voice of every diligent Back Bencher in the House who feels that he or she has a contribution to make or argument to put that may command a majority of the House?

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