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4.46 pm

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): This is a sad day for the House and for Northern Ireland. This is not a timetable motion, but a straightforward guillotine. It is not up to the Minister to decide how long the House should take to debate the motion; it is up to hon. Members to decide whether they want to speak. It was unhelpful, and typical of the arrogance of this Government, that we were lectured on how long we should debate the motion.

The motion is deeply insensitive on a day when the Royal Ulster Constabulary is yet again bravely and professionally acting as the thin green line between the rule of law and the Province descending into anarchy. What a way to treat those officers, who have a natural vested interest in this legislation being right, at a time when they are risking life and limb and when so-called loyalist thugs only last night shot at them and petrol-bombed them when they were only fulfilling their professional duty and protecting the right of the ordinary decent majority of people in both communities freely to travel around the Province and to go to and from work. The very least that the House owes the Royal Ulster Constabulary is a proper and full debate on the Bill.

As an Opposition, we regularly acknowledge that the Government have a right to get their business. This Bill was in the Queen's speech and, after proper debate, deliberation and amendment, it is right that the Government should get it on to the statute book. We did not oppose the Second Reading and we will not oppose Third Reading, but we believe that the Bill is fundamentally flawed in a number of ways.

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A large number of amendments have to be considered--amendments tabled by individual Members on both sides of the House. I should like to think that my hon. Friends and I have tabled some significant amendments on the name and who sits on the bodies and partnerships. Significant amendments have also been tabled by the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists and important amendments by the Social Democratic and Labour party and by certain Labour Back Benchers, at least one of whom I can see in his place. We also have to consider a number of Government amendments--some on the name of the police that are very contentious, and others that are a response to concerns expressed by hon. Members in Committee.

All the amendments need to be considered properly on Report. To allow a mere six hours, which must include the debate on this motion, is hopelessly insufficient. It is an insult to the brave men and women of the RUC--[Interruption.] The Minister seems to think that is not the case, so I repeat: I sincerely believe that the motion is an insult to the brave men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and that it shows the arrogance of the Government, because they do not allow proper debate.

Let us consider the progress of the Bill. A full debate was held on Second Reading, when the Bill was not opposed by the official Opposition. When the measure was considered in Committee, the Minister rightly acknowledged that there was proper debate and that no member of the Committee had engaged in filibustering. After a mere 11 sittings, this detailed Bill left Committee with co-operation from both sides. In those circumstances, why on earth is a guillotine motion needed?

I have been a party to guillotine motions. Throughout the previous Parliament, I was a Whip, becoming Deputy Chief Whip. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), I had a record of supporting guillotine motions at certain times. However, only after filibustering and a long delay in Committee should there be a guillotine on both Committee and Report. On no occasion was a guillotine imposed when a Minister admitted that no undue delay had taken place, and that a measure had received proper professional consideration in Committee. There is no good reason for the motion.

Why has the guillotine motion been introduced? I suggest that it is because the Government--legitimately--want to send the Bill to the Lords so that it can receive its Second Reading there before the summer recess. Why are we in such a difficulty? Let us examine the chronology. The House will recall that Patten reported on 9 September 1999. On 17 November, the Prime Minister made it clear in the Gracious Speech that there would be legislation to reform the police service in Northern Ireland. The consultation period on Patten ended on 1 December. On 19 January, the Secretary of State made a statement to the House giving the conclusions.

What happened to that legislation announced in the Queen's Speech? From the moment that the Belfast agreement was signed, everybody knew that the legislation would be introduced. There was no sign of it in January, February, March or April. Finally, on 16 May, the Government staggered forward and published the Bill. On 6 June, the measure received its Second Reading and on 6 July its Committee stage was concluded after 11 sittings.

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If there is any problem in getting the Bill to the Lords in good time and then on to the statute book, it has been caused exclusively by the Government. They introduced the Bill so late that there was insufficient time to debate it. If it is so vital that a Bill introduced so late should go to the Lords for a Second Reading debate, which will probably be held in the last week before we rise for the recess, then we should consider it over more than one day. We should scrap some of the unnecessary legislation that the Government are introducing.

The Government are in a mess, although I feel slightly sorry for the Secretary of State and the Minister of State. It is not entirely their fault that Parliament has been overburdened with a huge number of Bills--more than have ever been introduced in one sitting. Bills are being presented desperately late in the sitting--for example, the measure on football hooliganism. That Bill should have been introduced several months ago, when the problem was identified by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). Instead, apparently it is to be rushed through in just a couple of days.

This is a Government whose legislative programme is totally out of control. It is a shambles. They are not just an incompetent Government; they are also an arrogant Government, and we, as an Opposition, will not encourage them either in their incompetence or in their arrogance by supporting the guillotine motion this afternoon.

4.55 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) said that the motion was not a timetable motion but a guillotine, because it had not been agreed beforehand by other parties.

I do not feel that this guillotine is disrespectful to the RUC or to its record of courageous achievement in Northern Ireland. I say that because anyone who spent in the Committee the 40 hours that the Minister described will have seen that Members from all parties were obviously committed to making a better police service while being respectful to the RUC and the contribution that it has made. Therefore, I feel that some of the criticisms made by the right hon. Member for Bracknell were slightly out of kilter with the debate that took place in Committee. I am not criticising him; I just have a different view.

Mr. MacKay: At no point did I suggest that there had not been proper scrutiny in Committee. In fact, the only thing on which I agreed with the Minister of State was that there had been proper scrutiny and no filibustering in Committee. Surely the hon. Gentleman would agree that the RUC and the whole country deserve proper scrutiny of the Bill not only in Committee but on the Floor of the House. A large number of Members are present on both sides of the House who did not serve on the Committee, and they have a right to debate, consider and discuss the amendments. That is the reason for our objection. We are simply saying that there should not be a guillotine on Report, and that there should be the opportunity to discuss properly all those important matters of reform.

Mr. Öpik: I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, which he makes quite clearly, but I am

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sure that he would agree that this is not a matter of principle but a matter of judgment about what the Government were trying to do with what I would imagine that they intended basically as a timetable motion, regardless of whether they agreed it with the other parties beforehand.

On that subject, I must simply agree to differ with the right hon. Member for Bracknell, for two reasons. First, the 40 hours of debate in Committee were comprehensive, and the Committee was one of the most effective Standing Committees that I have ever worked on--not least because the Government showed some willingness to modify their position as debate progressed, although obviously not in all regards. We shall come to those issues as today's debate progresses. In fact, we could have taken more time in Committee, but there were occasions when, the debate's having concluded early, people were satisfied that it had been as extensive as was required at the time.

The second reason why I am of the judgment that the time that has been allocated is probably sufficient is that many of the Government's amendments were tabled specifically in response to points made by non-Government Members during the Bill's earlier stages. Various proposals that the Liberal Democrats made, and proposals that the official Opposition made, are now being carried out.

However, there are issues to which I know that we shall have to return. It is no surprise to the House that I continue to be extremely unhappy with the use of quotas, and I hope that, in the time available, we shall be able to raise that and other issues of substantial importance to myself to other hon. Members and to other parties.

On balance, therefore, I draw the conclusion that, as long as we do not spend the next three hours debating the programming motion, we shall have enough time to get on with it, and to have the debate in the fullness that it needs.

It is worth remembering that, by the end of the Committee's deliberations, those Members who served on it were apprised of the importance of getting the Bill passed; and if, by twenty minutes to 12 tonight, we have not debated all the important outstanding issues sufficiently deeply before the Bill passes on to the other place--whether or not the Government accept the wise words that will be presented to them from other parts of the House--I shall be extremely surprised. For that reason, as a matter of judgment rather than a matter of principle, we consider that the Government's attempt to timetable the debate is basically common sense.


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