Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman some leeway for his preamble, but I remind him that we are discussing the allocation of time motion. His remarks seem to be more suited to a debate on Second or Third Reading.
Mr. Ross: As you will appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the opportunity to make such remarks on Second Reading has passed and, as a consequence of the motion, time will be so severely restricted that it will be impossible to make them on Third Reading. If I am not to have an opportunity to make such remarks, does not that show that the Government's timetable motion is creating serious defects and that Members of the House have difficulties in calling Ministers to account over how they deal with policing matters in Northern Ireland, which are matters of life and death to many of our constituents? Those matters should receive detailed consideration, which clearly will not be possible as a result of the severe restriction of the time available.
The Government also need time. We are prepared to make the most constructive suggestions and we want to be helpful. We want to explain where they have got it wrong and to give them an opportunity to correct their mistakes. We want them to respond in the fullest and most detailed terms, but, unfortunately, their own motion will prohibit that. It is only right that we should bring those matters to the attention of the House and, in particular, of the Government in the hope that they might go away and think again.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office and the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who are on the Front Bench, have been in Northern Ireland for some time. They know that the Bill represents a serious issue in the Province and a problem that will not go away.
At this stage in the proceeding, the Government have put before the House 46 pages of amendments. Surely we require more time to consider them than is being given to us, especially as the Bill is only 65 pages long. The Government say that not all the amendments are in their name, but the size of the Bill in relation to the number of amendments tabled shows the Government's willingness to say to Sinn Fein-IRA and the SDLP, "Tell us which way you want us to jump and we'll see what we can do for you." I cannot come to any other conclusion about why there are so many amendments.
I read somewhere that there were 258 Government amendments, and today I heard that there were 220. The figure of 254 has also been mentioned. There is such a multitude of amendments that I have not had time to count them. I may get an hour this afternoon to do so, and discover how many there are. I was not a member of the Committee, and may have a different point of view from that of my hon. Friends who were on it. It is well known that I believe that most of the RUC's problems with policing parades and other matters should have been resolved during the discussions on the agreement rather than at this late stage. The Minister tells us that these are mainly technical amendments. If they are technical amendments, the drafting must have been very sloppy in the first place. We should not have to consider technical amendments.
The Minister told us that the amendments were related to the change from "force" to "service". I have never thought that the police's job was to service the law. I thought that their job was to enforce the law, and to use the minimum force necessary to ensure that the law was kept. Now they will have to service the law, but I am not clear what that term is supposed to mean. No doubt the Minister, in his long-winded approach to the subject, will tell us what it means--at least I hope so, but I am living in hope rather than in expectation.
Given their majority, the Government will steamroller the Bill through the House this evening no matter what is said. It will go to the other place and may return to this House amended--or perhaps not much amended--presumably in the autumn. One thing is certain, when today's debate is over, the people of Northern Ireland will not be satisfied. They will not be happy about what the Government say about the Bill or with the Bill at all, because they understand that the Bill was created as a consequence of terrorist violence and nothing else. That was the only reason. If there were reasons to make minor changes to the police, that could have been done in the natural course of events. The Bill was unnecessary, and the Government know that. They are trying to conceal the failure at an earlier stage fully to appreciate the reasons for the Bill by steamrollering it through and driving it on regardless of the opposition of those of us who live in Northern Ireland. We have to live with the consequences of the Bill, and we are well aware of the problems that it will create downstream.
As is apparent to every hon. Member, the Government treat the House and the legislative process more and more as if they were running a commercial business, in which the directors and the management decide on a course of action and then go ahead with it. If business men are wrong, only the business suffers. Legislation is not like that: it deals with very different circumstances. Sometimes a measure that at first seems simple and straightforward turns out not to be so. Everyone in the House remembers the poll tax and what a wonderful idea that was. The basic contention was to connect the payment of taxes--
Mr. Ross: I respect your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am content to comply with it. I was trying to draw an analogy with what happened with the poll tax legislation, which seemed simple and straightforward at first, but which led to riots and all sorts of problems. That was also driven through the House with a large Government majority and had unforeseen consequences, although some foresaw them. Those who were in a minority in the House were eventually proved correct, as I believe they will be on this occasion. I simply wanted to draw the House's attention to a past error of judgment, and to ask hon. Members to reflect on whether an error of judgment has been made on this legislation, as I believe it has.
On matters relating to Northern Ireland, I am usually in a minority in this place. I have been in the House longer than most: only the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has been here longer than I. Like me, he can recall many occasions on which legislation was passed by acclamation. Those of us who objected were subsequently proved to be correct, and I am certain that the same will happen with this legislation. Any hon. Member who has been in the House for a few years realises that a debate in this Chamber is not a light matter: it serves a useful and fundamental purpose. When a Government introduce a Bill, they always have a natural and understandable desire to see that it is passed as soon as possible, no matter how long it is. Time and again, I have seen that the longer the debate goes on, the more likely it is that flaws in the legislation are exposed, and slowly but surely changes take place. When a Bill disappears from this place and then comes back, frequently changes have been made that improve it. Everyone applauds that, but that is not happening with this Bill.
Timetable motions, especially on Northern Ireland matters, should be opposed. Many hon. Members have never set foot in the Province, and know nothing about it. Their perception has been gained from media reports, newspapers, snapshots on the television, which is a poor way to build a policy or an opinion of a place, and above all from journalistic opinion. Journalists rarely sit in the middle of the road trying to give a clear and accurate picture of what is happening. They are always
I believe that the Chamber is a counterweight to outside influences. It is the place where these matters must be discussed in detail, and that takes time. I remember when a Member of the House changed his mind after long discussions in Committee. If the debate is long and detailed enough, perceptions and opinions can change. Given the nature of the Bill, it is completely wrong to impose a timetable motion. We should have considered the Bill earlier in the week, and we should continue for much longer than will be possible. If we had more time, we could discuss the Bill in greater detail, change people's minds and end up with a more effective law enforcement agency in Northern Ireland.
It is no secret that I believe that the Bill is wrong. It will diminish the effectiveness of the RUC, and a debate would have exposed that. The time we are being allowed for debate is far too short. It is only when a Bill is considered calmly, logically and at length that people come to understand it and change their opinions, and support the necessary changes. The Bill will not fulfil its stated objectives. Whether the Government have unstated objectives, I do not know, but I am certain that time will reveal them.