Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Garnier: Is not the word that links the debate, our objections to the guillotine, the substance of the Bill and the view taken by my hon. Friend, many Opposition Members and the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) the simple word "justice"?

Mr. Leigh: Yes, justice. That was put eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking when he went through the groups of amendments and asked whether we were doing justice to ourselves or to Parliament.

We have had a perfectly satisfactory guillotine debate. No one has sought to spin things out. We are coming to a conclusion now. There is just one more Back Bencher to speak. We have had a perfectly serious debate, but how

25 Jul 2000 : Column 970

long will we have to debate the issues? What is so sad is that if the Government had not introduced the guillotine motion and we had started the debate two hours ago, we could have disposed of the four groups of amendments in about five hours. So what on earth are we playing at? It is not for me to defend the Government's reputation, but they would not have had egg on their face. No one would have gone to the other place and said that there was not adequate time to debate the amendments. We would have had a perfectly serious debate.

The Committee is supposed to be the place where one filibusters. Many amendments can be tabled and we have great freedom to manoeuvre. Apparently, we want to delay the Bill, but we delayed it for only eight hours in Committee. So what are the Government playing at? Why on earth have they introduced this timetable motion? That is absolutely germane to the debate.

The only conclusion that one can come away with is that the Government do not want to have a vote on the second group of amendments, which deal with the key issue. I remind the House what that key issue is. Many of us believe that the present system is being abused. I give credit to the Home Secretary. Many sensible people ask why an old lag with 20 convictions who is accused, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking said in a conversation with me, of stealing a bottle of whisky from the local store should be allowed to waste the time of the Crown court. The public often come up with that point. Many people sympathise with what the Home Secretary is doing.

However, many people want to debate the issue back and forth. They say that in the case of the old lag, denial of the right to trial by jury is fair enough, but if the archetypal housewife of previous good character is accused of taking something out of the local store, it is a devastating moment in her life so her reputation should be taken into account. I remind the House that the Bill is explicit. It says in new section 19(2)(b) in clause 1 that the court can take account of

That is the most important issue, and we will not even have a vote on it. That is what people outside will find so extraordinary.

Let us suppose that a person of good character who has never done anything wrong walks out of a supermarket in a moment of absent-mindedness carrying something. They are accused of shoplifting and their character is on the line, and yet the House of Commons has never voted on the key issue of whether that person's reputation should be taken into account, or even properly debated it. Is that not extraordinary? The House of Commons is supposed to be the guardian of our civil liberties. It is just not good enough.

Why are the Government so determined to prevent a vote? What would it matter if there was a vote? What would it matter if the Opposition voted for the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking after a debate of an hour and a half? What would it matter if 10 or 15 Labour Members voted against the Government? Would it bring the Government down? Of course not, but we would have had a proper debate and Parliament would have done its duty. The duty of Parliament is to scrutinise the Government and we are not doing that tonight. That is a shame.

25 Jul 2000 : Column 971

7.57 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and for Woking (Mr. Malins) and the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), with whom I shared chambers for many years. The way in which they and other hon. Members have approached the debate surely confounds the arguments of those who have asserted that the timetable motion is necessary to prevent time wasting, prolixity or unreasonable frustration of the Bill. They have approached the matter in a serious and considered manner, and I believe that that would have been typical of the debate had we proceeded immediately.

One point that came out strongly from the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Medway is that many Labour Members voted for the Bill on Second Reading on a misunderstanding as to fact. That misunderstanding was about the opinion of the then Lord Chief Justice. That fact alone is an argument against the timetable motion because it is important that Labour Members who voted for the Bill on Second Reading on a misunderstanding should be aware of the nature of that misunderstanding, should have time to reflect on it and should have time to talk to Ministers. The way in which the Bill is being hurried through Report stage tonight means that they will not be able to do that.

My next point is one that I have made on previous timetable motions. It is regrettable that this should be the fourth timetable debate in as many weeks. The passage of legislation depends for its legitimacy on consideration of the detailed measures in this place. Let us remind ourselves that the Report stage of a Bill is the first occasion when the House as a whole considers what my hon. Friend the Member for Woking described as the nuts and bolts of a Bill. We cannot do that in Committee because, understandably, the membership of the Committee is constrained; nor can we do so on Second Reading because the House is concerned about the broad principles of a Bill.

The Report stage is the moment in legislation when the House as a whole has the opportunity to address specific issues. A timetable motion, such as this one, prevents the House from doing that. If the House is prevented from doing its business, the legitimacy that attaches to any legislation that comes from the House is undermined.

On a similar point, you will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the intervention made by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn). I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not in the Chamber because I am about to say something complimentary. What he was doing--albeit on the timetable motion, although I am sure that he would have wanted, and perhaps will try, to do the same thing either on Report or on Third Reading--is to articulate, within the context of the broader debate, particular constituency anxieties or policy issues. For example, he holds a particular view on drug taking. I do not share his view, but it is important that the House should so construct its legislative processes as to enable such views to be articulated. The effect of the timetable motion, however, is to preclude him from doing so and I deeply regret that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough talked about the importance of the second group of amendments. I agree entirely with the substance of his remarks. He said that it is greatly to be regretted that we are unlikely to

25 Jul 2000 : Column 972

vote on that group. He is probably right and I share his view. However, the vote is not the most important part of the process. The vote is a foregone conclusion in this House today. What is important is the weight and balance of the argument and how many hon. Members express their anxiety about particular parts of the Bill.

It is essential to keep in mind the fact that 18 Labour Back Benchers have put their names to the reasoned amendment against Third Reading. In an ideal world, those hon. Members would be able to express their views as to the reasons they tabled that amendment, because the weight and diversity of opinion is relevant to the question of whether the Bill should make progress. Furthermore, it is extremely relevant to what their lordships' House will want to make of the Bill when it reaches them.

Is there a need for the motion? The argument for there being no need has been eloquently deployed by, for example, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Woking. No one has been filibustering the Bill. There were weeks during which this stage of the Bill could have been dealt with and the House could have discussed it at our leisure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough pointed out, if we had made a clear start at 4 o'clock or half past 4, we would have finished by 10 or 11 o'clock at the latest.

If there is any doubt on that point, the House should bear in mind that we can move closures. There are only four groups of amendments, and the practice--although it is not universal--is to allow closure after two hours of debate.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): Three hours.

Mr. Hogg: It varies a bit. In any event, we would have got through the business. There is no need for the motion.

I have two further points of substance. First, there is the question of Members who represent Scottish constituencies. I urge Labour Members not to approve a timetable motion when they will want such Members to go with them into the Lobby. The Bill applies only to England and Wales. What is the propriety of Members who represent Scottish constituencies, who will not be affected by the Bill, voting to guillotine a motion that Members representing English and Welsh constituencies want to debate? Some people would call that a scandal; I do call it a scandal.

Secondly, I hear hon. Members muttering, "Why are you debating the timetable motion and not getting straight to the substantive motion?" That way liberty falls. If it be true that a timetable motion truncates a debate in an improper way--which is my view--then we must say so. If we do not, we will be said to have acquiesced in the process. It will become yet another precedent on which the Government will rely.

The motion is an abuse and it is my duty to say so. The fact that this debate takes time from the substantive motion is part of the blackmail that the Government want to exert on us. It is wrong in principle. At the end of the 1970s, my right hon. and noble Friend, my father, Lord Hailsham, wrote an important article in which he referred to the elective dictatorship. In all seriousness, I tell the House that he was right. Not only was he right then--he is right now. A Government with a massive majority can

25 Jul 2000 : Column 973

do whatever they please--unless their own Back Benchers tell them, "Enough is enough." The hon. and learned Member for Medway has struck out boldly and rightly. I commend him for what he did tonight. I very much hope that at least some of those with whom he sits will follow his example.

Next Section

IndexHome Page