Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Is the Leader of the House suggesting that the Government have some right, divine or otherwise, to present any number of Bills in any given Session and then to subject them to this timetabling procedure? The example that she just gave may or may not be relevant, but it occurs to me that two things could happen: either the Government could present a large number of Bills, or they could introduce many Bills during a Session and then use the right hon. Lady's logic to ram them through in a virtuously timetabled way.
It is, of course, the case now that the Government can present as much or as little legislation as they choose, although it is up to the House to decide whether or not to accept it. It is also the case that the Government can, and from time to time do, impose a guillotine on any proposed legislation.
The advantage of a guillotine to Government is that it gives certainty about when discussion of a Bill will end. The disadvantage, for the whole House, is that it is a timetable imposed by Government for the convenience--if you like--of Government, and consequently need not take account of the range of items included in a Bill, or indeed of issues on which the Opposition, as opposed to the Government, might wish to concentrate.
I have looked at some of the evidence given to the Jopling Committee. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has done the same, for he is assiduous in his research. If so, he will know that many members of his party--including the then Minister for women, Mrs. Angela Rumbold--argued for programming of this kind. That was not least, Mr. Deputy Speaker--[Interruption.]--I beg your pardon, Madam Deputy Speaker. Let me be the first to welcome you to the Chair.
Further to the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), why does the right hon. Lady not plainfacedly acknowledge that she is proposing less debate on more Bills of greater length? How does she justify presenting such a proposal at a time, and during a Session, when no fewer than 2,537 pages of legislation have been dealt with? That represents an increase of 947 on the number of pages dealt with during the last Session. It simply does not make sense.
Mrs. Beckett: First, I am not proposing less debate. There may be amendments on the Order Paper that suggest some curtailment, but we are not proposing less time for debate. Secondly, nothing in these measures suggests that there will be more Bills--or, indeed, that Bills will be of greater length. Indeed, as I hope to show the hon. Gentleman, I believe that the proposals will have the opposite effect.
The right hon. Lady is again missing the point, which is unlike her. The fact is that many of us would be very willing to discuss programming, so long as the Government were willing to discuss rationing--rationing, that is, of the number of Bills that they present. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), however, has made an unanswerable point. If we are submerged in reams of legislation, programming equates to guillotining.
Mrs. Beckett: I believe that we have made no specific provision for constitutional Bills. The hon. Gentleman will know, however, that all the provision that has been made includes a procedure to weigh the importance of the issues involved, and to decide how much time is needed. Precisely such considerations would need to be taken into account if a constitutional Bill were discussed on the Floor of the House.
The detailed provisions needed for programming are set out in the orders. Each motion on a Bill will be able, within the framework set by the orders, to specify clearly what time will be allowed for business. The essence of what is proposed will then be put to the House, which will have a much clearer picture than is provided by the long and complex motions currently used to specify proceedings with regard to any guillotine. The programme motions will be debatable for 45 minutes, as such debate will now be focused on the detail of proposals for each Bill, rather than on the principle of timetabling at all.
The Committee expects these procedures to enable the Opposition to identify parts of legislation that are of particular concern to them, and to concentrate debate where they wish. The Opposition have, as always, made much of the power to delay, but it has always been the case that that can, if necessary, be overridden by the guillotine. There has been no mechanism for ensuring, and no pressure to ensure, that members of all parties make considered decisions on how legislation should be dealt with, which Bills are most important, and which provisions in those Bills require most scrutiny. The Modernisation Committee's Report gives us the framework to do just that.
Does the right hon. Lady accept that we would take what she says in good faith rather more if she understood the mood of the House on this important issue? If she is to let the Opposition debate issues that really matter to them, why can we not have the two-stage discussion for which many Members on both sides of the House have asked--one debate on the principles, and one on the detail?
Presumably the right hon. Lady will recommend that we break up for the Christmas recess at least two or three days before Christmas Eve. Could we not have a one-day debate just before that--on a free vote, so that Members who were not interested would not have to attend--enabling us to settle the issues, and enabling Members to express their own views?
We are well aware that there are those who would wish to separate the decision that we make on the orders from the discussion that we are having today. Let me repeat what I have already said: we have been discussing the issues, and the principles that underlie them, for many years, so I do not think that the notion that these proposals are new to the House bears scrutiny.
What today's report offers the Opposition is worth far more than the power to delay or simply to block debate. It is the power to choose to focus debate on the parts of legislation that the Opposition believe deserve most scrutiny, and to expose the weakness of the Government's arguments--if they can.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): What my right hon. Friend emphasises is the very thing that worries me about this programming. She is saying, quite simply, that those on the Opposition Front Bench will have a chance to agree whatever programming motion they want--that they will have a chance to decide the order in which Bills are debated. The whole point of the debate about programming, however, is that it is Back Benchers who will be unable to decide either the order or the importance of the matters that they are debating.
Mrs. Beckett: I accept my hon. Friend's point completely. She will be pleased to know that that matter was aired, discussed and thoroughly considered by the Modernisation Committee when we discussed the proposals, as there was concern that such a problem could legitimately arise. Obviously, we all try to make provisions to cover all those matters, but any Opposition who are aware of concerns that Government Back Benchers want to be aired, but make sure that they are not aired, are a very stupid Opposition indeed. I go no further than that, but it is evident that there is an interest.
Mrs. Dunwoody: I am terribly sorry, I must be very dim tonight--but is my right hon. Friend saying that if I want to raise a certain matter as a Member of Parliament, and the Opposition are in control of the programming, they will automatically assume that what I wish to raise as a Government Member is sufficiently important to be given precedence? If that is the case, I must tell my right hon. Friend that that has not been my experience over the years.
Mrs. Beckett: It is possible to programme discussion and debate so that different points of views can be aired and heard as often as is normally possible in the House. Of course, my hon. Friend is right that it is not open to any of us to guess what is in the mind of another when that person is called to speak. On the other hand, there are sometimes indications, which are used in the House.