My hon. and learned Friend's point is extremely important and it is reinforced by the fact that
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there are no Government amendments, so the Government could have tabled the matter for debate at any time after it left Committee.
Of course they could, and the Home Secretary knows that, but he has not yet provided us with a reason for failing to do so.
He was negotiating with his hon. Friends.
That may be so.
The real reason is that the Government feared that those Government Members who had principled objections to the Bill would cause trouble. There is no evidence of that, nor is there any evidence that any Opposition Member would cause trouble, yet last night, out of sheer terror and complete chaos, the Government tabled this motion to curtail time. Had the Government had even the slightest self-confidence in their arguments on the Bill, they would have advanced their case for it irrespective of the Opposition's arguments, either within the Government party or outside it. Even without that confidence, they might have had the decency to allow the Leader of the House at business questions last Thursday to alert us to the fact that time would be curtailed.
Although the measure is not a manifesto Bill, we know that the Government have the votes, if not the arguments, to get it through tonight. However, their guillotining of the Bill without prior reference to the need for a guillotine, let alone reference last week by the Leader of the House to Government anxieties about its likely progress, demonstrates a lack of confidence in its merits, and the fact that the Government care little for Parliament or the democratic process and even less for our constituents.
The second report of the Select Committee on Modernisation was published in July. Paragraph 5 on page v states:
The basic requirements of a reformed system as identified in our First Report were:
The Government of the day must be assured of getting its legislation through in reasonable time (provided that it obtains the approval of the House).
The Opposition in particular and Members in general must have a full opportunity to discuss and seek to change provisions to which they attach importance.
All parts of a bill must be properly considered.
If the Government are as good as their word, why do not they accept that that could happen without a timetable motion? Despite the contents of the report, the Government have presented a half-baked and late timetable motion.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) and I wrote to The Times at the weekend. Little did we know that the anxieties that we expressed in that letter, which was published today, would be so quickly realised. [Interruption.] I am sure that the noisy little fellow at the back will have read the letter. It stated:
It is said that the Government is driving the Bill through without amendment, regardless of what one hopes will be the view of the House of Lords, in order that it may then use the Parliament Act to force it into law in the next session. How far away is tyranny?
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When we wrote that letter, we did not know that tyranny, in the shape of the timetable motion, was at the door. The Government have a great deal for which to answer on the substance of the Bill and on the timetable motion.
The Home Secretary tried to persuade us that the timetable motion was sad but inevitable. It is not. The Government have tabled numerous timetable motions to curtail debate. There have been 12 already this year, including four in July. The measures guillotined in July are: the Local Government (Lords) Bill, the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, the Football (Disorder) Bill and the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill. The Government guillotined those Bills because they cannot organise themselves properly to provide a timetable that fulfils the needs of the democratic process.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman make the same criticism of successive Conservative Administrations, which guillotined as many Bills in some years?
If the Home Secretary wants to check the figures, he might care to look at page xxvii of the Modernisation Committee report. Annex C shows that the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) tabled 17 timetable motions between 1991 and 1997. The Government have tabled 12 this year.
I suggest that we face a timetable motion today partly because of the allegations against the Home Secretary in The Guardian this morning. They relate to the questions that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) asked your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a moment ago. The article states:
The home secretary, Jack Straw, seriously misled the House of Commons and Tony Blair over the extent of support among senior judges for his revised plans to restrict a defendant's right of trial by jury, a Labour MP revealed last night.
The article continues:
The article goes on:
In a letter to Mr. Marshall-Andrews yesterday, the home secretary appeared to bluff it out, claiming that Lord Bingham still supports the change while admitting in the next sentence--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord):
Order. I am listening carefully to the hon. and learned Gentleman. I hope that he will now relate his remarks to the allocation of time.
Of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The article said that the letter claimed that Lord Bingham continued to support the change,
while admitting in the next sentence that the law lord will only back it if it includes a safeguard that Mr. Straw has specifically rejected.
This morning, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire and I received a letter from the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon.
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Member for Norwich, South. It is dated 25 July. The letter is addressed to my right hon. and learned Friend and copied to me. The second page states:
You also referred to the Prime Minister's reply to the question from David Lidington on 5 July. It seems to me that the Prime Minister was fully justified in his response. Both the Royal Commission and the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, supported the principle that defendants should not be able to choose to be tried by a jury in cases which magistrates have indicated that they would be content to hear. Lord Bingham is still, I understand, of the opinion that the decision whether an either way case should be tried in the Crown Court or by magistrates should be made by magistrates (subject to appeal to a Crown Court judge) and not, as now, by the defendant. He is, however, firmly of the view that in making their decision--
Mr. Deputy Speaker:
Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that he would relate his remarks to the allocation of time. I should be grateful if he would do it fairly quickly.
Unfortunately, you were not here during the early part of the discussions, Mr. Deputy Speaker--
Mr. Deputy Speaker:
Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman must not challenge the Chair, however moderately. I have heard sufficient while I have been in the Chair to advise him. I should be grateful if he would now relate his remarks to the allocation of time motion.
Not all arguments can be compressed. The Home Secretary is keen for the amount of time during which we can debate the Bill to be curtailed to prevent the hon. and learned Member for Medway and the 18 or 19 of his supporters of the Third Reading amendment from having sufficient time to discuss the Bill. We are all here to argue against limiting to five hours discussion, not only on Report but on Third Reading, of a Bill of huge constitutional importance. If the Government cannot recognise a huge constitutional matter when it stares them in the face, we are in trouble. On behalf of our constituents, Members of Parliament, regardless of party, have a duty to complain about an overweening, arrogant and overreaching Government.
It will not do for the Government, through the Home Secretary or the Minister, to claim the support of the former Lord Chief Justice in speeches in the House or in correspondence when we know that such support is qualified. The final passage of the paragraph that I quoted from the Minister's letter brings home to us all the slippery ground on which the Home Secretary bases his case. It states:
Lord Bingham is still, I understand, of the opinion that the decision whether an either way case should be tried in the Crown Court or by magistrates should be made by magistrates (subject to appeal to a Crown Court judge) and not, as now, by the defendant. He is, however, firmly of the view that in making their decision magistrates should be free to take into account all the circumstances of the case which they consider to be relevant. I believe that Professor Zander holds a similar view. The difficulty with giving the courts such a wide-ranging discretion is that it would create a perception that defendants would be treated differently on the basis of their social or economic standing in society.
That goes to the heart of the amendment that the hon. and learned Member for Medway has tabled. The Government do not want that amendment to be debated because they
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know that they do not have the support of the former Lord Chief Justice or of most right-thinking people in this country for the Bill.