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Ms King: I assure my hon. Friend that that was not my assumption at all. I should like another assumption to be undermined--that there can be parliamentary scrutiny only if debates are allowed to proceed in an untimetabled fashion.

A further assumption is that Back Benchers, too, would not benefit from more timetabling. I would be astonished if I knew what was coming up and when. My goodness, how revolutionary that would be. I could plan what I wanted to speak on and when--the parts of the debate on which I wanted to make points that were important to my constituents.

I said that I should speak only briefly, so I shall conclude by reminding hon. Members that, earlier, it took 30 minutes to make two points. All MPs--including Back Benchers--will have to realise that we need to show a little more self-control and an ability to make our points more succinctly.

5.39 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The House is now in distinct danger of demeaning itself and denying its essential role in the legislative process. My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench who have apparently signed up to the timetable motion have not explained to me why they have done so. They may or may not do so subsequently, but it is beyond me to understand why they have connived in this grubby little parliamentary manoeuvre. That is a matter for them, but they cannot expect me to support it, and nor do I.

The Minister boasted that the Bill had spent 40 hours in Committee. Forty whole hours--I am supposed to be impressed. Frankly, I am not. I remind the few Labour Members who have been here more than three minutes that in the good old days when they were in Opposition and they took their job seriously, in the early 1980s, it was the convention that a large Bill was in Committee for approaching 200 and certainly 150 hours before a guillotine motion was even contemplated. That expectation has come down over the years, and that may or may not be correct, but the fact that the Committee spent 40 consensual and jolly hours apparently not doing a very good job of scrutinising the Bill should not impress those of us who were not members of the Committee when we reach Report stage. So we can dismiss that as an unsatisfactory and specious argument.

If we look in detail at this ghastly guillotine motion agreed by those on the so-called Opposition Front Bench, we see that the large number of measures contained in each group of amendments in the first set of groups gives rise to the extraordinary phenomenon that, were we to debate the first group--the structure of the guillotine will effectively diminish the time available--we would have six minutes for each of the items within that group. The group contains some important provisions about Wales, local authority powers, consultation and many matters which in normal circumstance would require proper debate and consideration.

When I say six minutes for each item, that is six minutes for the entire House and for all Members present to make the contribution that they want to make. That is

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not including the time that will be taken if the House decides to express its view in a Division. I know that Divisions are unfashionable on the Government side, but some of us still cling to the idea that casting a vote in this place as well as saying something is of some importance. The consensus between the two Front Bench teams may have eliminated that possibility, but some of us still hold it rather dear. We may want to divide the House as often as possible just to cling on to the power as long as we still have it, but I shall leave that idea to colleagues to contemplate.

The second set of groups of amendments is even more extraordinary. By my calculation, one minute is allowed per item selected by the Speaker for debate and consideration by the House. That is one minute in total for all Members of the House present who wish to participate. Even if we accept the strictures of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) to be brief, she surely agrees that a minute to debate an entire item is just a little restrictive.

We shall be discussing executive arrangements, overview and scrutiny arrangements, matters such as the resignation of a deputy mayor and the definition of the role of a mayor and of assembly members. I have picked just a few matters at random. Those are matters that surely justify more than a minute's debate, but apparently not. It has been agreed that a minute per item is all that is required in this ever more modern House of Commons. Those who have put their names to this measure apparently agree with that.

For the next two groups of amendments, three minutes per item has been allowed. For the one after that, one minute has been allowed. For the one after that five minutes, and for the one after that, three minutes. Then, bizarrely, we are apparently to spend two and a quarter hours on homosexuality. I leave the world outside to make a judgment about that priority. It strikes me as odd to say the least that we should dwell on homosexuals for two and a quarter hours while skipping lightly over tribunals, membership of the standards committee, investigative procedures, proportional representation, and procedures and timing for elections. All of those will be swept aside in a matter of minutes, while we dwell on homosexuals at length in a leisurely manner.

This cannot be serious, as one of the people I have been watching over the weekend, Mr. McEnroe, would no doubt say if he was here. I find it saddening and demeaning for the House that we are being asked to support a measure as grubby and disgraceful as this. I do not give it my support. If the House were to divide, I would want to vote against it. If the House does not divide, I want it to be very well known that I join my right hon. and hon. Friends in utterly opposing the motion and its like.

5.45 pm

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I will be very brief. I believe that in the very near future, if not during this debate, the House will have to decide whether there is any meaningful constitutional role and responsibility for the genuine Back Bencher in the House.

I believe that the position of Back Benchers is being increasingly eroded and made more and more difficult, and more and more irrelevant. As a Back Bencher of some

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standing in the House I deeply regret that, because it is not just a matter of Opposition and Government. As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has so often said in the House, with great commitment and great knowledge and great experience, there are divisions within the political parties in the House; and I believe that, if the House is to have any meaningful role in the eyes of the electorate at large, those views that differ within a party, let alone those on which there are differences across the House, should have a proper opportunity for expression in this place.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) spoke about wanting to be able to plan ahead as to when she was going to speak and to plan the other duties that, rightly, she has in the House. I must tell her that, given the volume of legislation--which was so well conveyed by my right hon. and hon. Friends--she is most unlikely to be called; and she was not elected to the House merely to trot through the Lobby in support of her party. Similarly, I remind those on the Conservative Front Bench that I was not elected by the people of Macclesfield to trot through the Lobby in support of everything that my party says either in opposition or in government; that is not what the House is about.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I just want to present to my hon. Friend evidence in support of his argument that the problem is not the fact that the Opposition's main weapon is time, but the progressive tendency of all Governments over time to compress Report stages. In the 1970s, multi-day Report stages were the norm; today, they are the exception. That is why half of all the guillotines and timetable motions in the past 15 years have occurred in the past three years, under the present Government.

Mr. Winterton: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he, too, has much experience of the way that the House operates. He has been a Minister. He currently chairs perhaps the most important Select Committee of the House and, I believe, is well regarded from all parts of the House for the contribution that he has made to the deliberations in the House. The point that he makes is absolutely right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) was absolutely right to point out the amount of legislation that the House is being expected to deal with. In this Session of Parliament alone, we are dealing with more than 2,500 pages of legislation. That is outrageous; and for the only opportunity that the whole House has to discuss the nitty-gritty of a Bill to be constricted and to be prescribed as is proposed in the motion before us is, I believe, absolutely outrageous.

I say to Ministers, there is also a severe problem in this prescriptive motion, because the Government could seek to persuade their own Members to speak at length on amendments, thus preventing the real, crucial issues that are of concern to the Opposition ever being debated.

The Government are neutering the House of Commons.

Ms Oona King rose--

Mr. Winterton: They are raping the House of Commons. They are castrating the House of Commons.

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They are doing so by denying the right of Back Benchers to contribute, virtually at any stage of the Bill's passage. I do not believe--

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