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5.41 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The Leader of the House has heard representations from both sides reflecting how strongly right hon. and hon. Members feel about the two motions before us.

The House will recall that only last week, the right hon. Lady proposed that our deliberations tonight should be curtailed at 8 pm, rather than 10 pm. I ask her to reflect carefully on the reason that she gave me at business questions on Thursday for the timetabling of debates of such importance to the House:

From the contributions that she has heard tonight, the Leader of the House must know that there is a world of difference, particularly in respect of parliamentary representation of the democratically elected representatives of the people. There is a world of difference between motions of the magnitude of those before us, and the arrangements for Westminster Hall and the parliamentary timetable.

I hope that the right hon. Lady has taken on board the feeling of the House. As several hon. Members on both sides have said, this is not a party political matter; it is a

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matter for Parliament. It is at the heart of our democratic proceedings. The way that we deal with it tonight will be seen as a reflection of the extent to which the Government, of which the right hon. Lady is a member, respect the right of individual hon. Members to challenge the Executive, and the right of an official Opposition to have sufficient time and opportunity to challenge the Government of the day, whichever party is in government.

I see the right hon. Lady's papers on the Dispatch Box. I hope that she will address that issue. No doubt the House will want to consider other important matters of a constitutional nature, and it would be wrong of the Modernisation Committee--I say this as a new member of the Committee--to give equal weight to matters such as Westminster Hall and the motions before the House tonight.

There is one litmus test that should be applied to our deliberations tonight, whether in this debate or on the substantive matters to follow: do the proposals strengthen the Executive, or do they strengthen the right of hon. Members to scrutinise, question and debate? That is the test. It is not a matter of hon. Members' personal arrangements for attendance in the House. The fundamental question has been reflected in many of the contributions that we heard.

I shall not take up any more of the time of the House, but I hope that there will be an opportunity later to make a more substantive contribution to the discussion of matters that will change the House and our proceedings in the next Session, to the detriment of hon. Members on both sides, who are here to represent their voters.

I hope that the right hon. Lady will reassure us that she understands the importance of the motions and that, as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, she will reflect carefully on the differences between matters that have constitutional significance and those that are simply procedural and deal with the efficient running of the House.

5.45 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I shall speak briefly because I want the substantial debate to begin as soon as possible. The past hour and a half has demonstrated to my mind beyond doubt how much better it is for the House to come to an agreement between the parties, including Back-Bench Members as far a possible, on the programming of business.

Over the past hour and a half we have taken up time when it is important to discuss substance, not the ethereal issue of whether we think that a guillotine is a guillotine or a programme motion. To my mind, a programme motion is the sensible way to make our business more orderly and to provide opportunities to Opposition Members to ensure that their issues are properly addressed. There have been occasions when we have managed to do that.

I shall be advising my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against a timetable motion that is a guillotine. We should not use a guillotine for business of this sort. However, I believe that a programme motion is a proper way for us to undertake our business, and to do so in an orderly fashion. I am extremely disappointed that we have spent an hour and a half discussing the various merits of these different procedures, and during that time have not heard from the Leader of the House. I hope that we shall hear from her now.

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5.46 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): In line with the many injunctions that I have received, I do not propose to detain the House for long. It was because I thought, and still think, that the substance of what we are here to debate was what was really important, that I did not take the time of the House to explain the business of the House motion. It is unfortunate, to put it no higher, that the use of the word "guillotine" has become so commonplace that it is used for any motion of any sort that seeks in any way to curtail debate.

I am aware that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who I am sorry is not in his place, takes and expresses the view that any curtailment of the length of speech that an hon. Member wishes to make is a guillotine and something which he regards as an abuse of our procedures. We all know that we would never complete any business if that were the approach adopted by the House as a whole.

I shall repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) last Thursday. We are not dealing with a guillotine. Before us is a business of the House motion that is designed to ensure--[Interruption.] It is a normal sort of motion that appears on the Order Paper every day of the week. It is designed to ensure that the House can come to a view on the orders that are before it at a sensible time.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett: No, not for a moment.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton quoted some of the examples that I gave about time. To be frank, I am astonished that the House thinks that an ordinary full parliamentary day is wholly inadequate to discuss the business that is before us, all the more so given the precedents that I gave the hon. Lady from this Parliament and the previous reports from the Modernisation Committee. In addition, I am sure that she will recall an occasion when the previous Administration made changes to the Welsh Grand Committee. Those changes were of such weight that they were considered an alternative to devolution.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett: Not for the moment, please.

That was the importance and the weight that the previous Administration put on those changes, and they were debated for only half a day. In allowing a full parliamentary day for the processes of the debate, the Government were not acting in any way that was out of the ordinary.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I ask the right hon. Lady to reflect on what Opposition Members have been saying. The debate is not about programming. We are asking for a proper debate on the principle of the Modernisation Committee's reports, such as the right hon. Lady is providing for on Thursday when the Liaison Committee's report can be debated in principle, so we can later address in detail the specific orders.

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As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) has said, even the members of the Modernisation Committee have not seen the terms of the orders. They have not had a chance to discuss them in that Committee. Can the right hon. Lady not accept what so many of us are asking for in the interests of the House, and allow us to have the debate in principle and then allow us to debate the orders at a later date?

Mrs. Beckett: I shall return to that point in a moment, but first I want to discuss another matter. Inadvertently, I am sure, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) gave the House what I understand to be incorrect information. It is not the case that the greatest number of guillotines in a Parliament or in one year occurred during this Government--that record continues to be held by a Conservative Government.

Mr. Redwood indicated dissent.

Mrs. Beckett: It is no good the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head. The facts, I fear, are not on his side. During the Parliament of 1987-92, there were 27 guillotines, and more were used during one of those years than during any year of this Parliament.

Mr. Shepherd: The right hon. Lady is misleading the House.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not think that the right hon. Lady is misleading the House. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) may wish to withdraw that statement.

Mr. Shepherd: The right hon. Lady is mistaken.

Mr. Speaker: To say that the right hon. Lady is mistaken is better.

Mrs. Beckett: I simply inform the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills that that is my information, which I have had checked and cross-checked. He believes that any motion that curtails debate, whether by agreement in a programme motion or by imposition by the Government, is a guillotine. The distinction that I use is recognised by the Clerks of the House and everyone else. If he has other information that he wants to share with us, I would be happy to give way to him.

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