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4.5 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I do not want to detain the House for longer than is necessary because we want to get to the substance of the amendments.

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The timetable was negotiated through the usual channels and there is a good reason for dealing with the most contentious items at the beginning of our debate, not least because that will cause the relevant Minister, who should be present, the least inconvenience. The relevant Minister is, of course, the Deputy Prime Minister himself, but he is not in the Chamber and has no plans to come here to discuss these matters. That raises the question whether the timetable is relevant.

The Deputy Prime Minister's absences have become something of a regular occurrence. He ducked our debates on the fuel crisis and, on Monday, on the London Underground public-private partnership. As I predicted then, he is now ducking this debate. On Monday, I drew attention to the Deputy Prime Minister's remarks made a fortnight ago:

In fact, the right hon. Gentleman was in the House a few moments ago during Prime Minister's questions, but he is not here now. His private office does not even try to offer an excuse for his absences. I thought that the Government were against truancy, but he is playing truant. The situation is getting beyond a joke.

On Monday, we welcomed the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), to the Dispatch Box. He at least has responsibility for London and railways. I like dealing with him but, as I said on Monday, he is not the organ grinder of his Department.

I understand that we shall later enjoy debating with the Minister for Housing and Planning, but, with regard to transport responsibilities, he is not even the monkey--he comes from a different zoo. I have a document issued by the Cabinet Office, entitled "List of Ministerial Responsibilities", which states that the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich is

His responsibilities, which are clearly highlighted with bullet points, are for "Housing and planning" and "Construction". By no stretch of the imagination could he be held responsible for the policies that we are likely to debate when we consider the most contentious amendments that were introduced in the other place and which relate to National Air Traffic Services.

The document states that the Deputy Prime Minister has

but he is not here. We cannot cross-examine the Minister for Transport, who is responsible for integrated transport policy and strategic responsibility for all transport matters, because he is a Member of the other place. The Minister for Housing and Planning serves, to put it not too kindly, as the ventriloquist's dummy. I leave it to the House to decide whether the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Transport or the Treasury is pulling the strings on this occasion.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I do not think that personal abuse helps to make a serious case.

Mr. Jenkins: I do not regard my comments as being particularly personally abusive, so I reject the hon.

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Gentleman's charge. However, I am sure that he would be the first to agree that it is one thing to accept timetabling of such debates and another for the Deputy Prime Minister to snub the House and, of course, the British people--that we cannot accept. The Deputy Prime Minister is snubbing right hon. and hon. Members, who have a constitutional duty to express their concerns and those of their constituents about NATS privatisation to the author of that policy.

This is clearly an important debate. According to the front page of The Daily Telegraph:

It goes on to report that the Whips have

That makes me wonder whether the Deputy Prime Minister is one of those who have been let off--or is he just out of control? This occasion was important enough to have dragged him from his Department to a private meeting to address Labour Members this morning, so where is he now?

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): As one who, in fact, will not be supporting the Government tonight, may I observe that the hon. Gentleman is trivialising the issue? We want to deal with the substance. We will reach our own views and vote accordingly, or abstain, as the case may be. The petty stuff that the hon. Gentleman is dishing out does not impress anyone. It certainly does not seem to impress his own side--the four Back Benchers sitting behind him, that is.

Mr. Jenkin: That intervention took up extra time needlessly.

As we discuss the motion, Members should bear in mind the fact that it relates to the Deputy Prime Minister's policy, and that the Deputy Prime Minister is not here to discuss it. He--not the Minister for Housing and Planning--bears responsibility for it. This occasion is marked by yet another denial of proper scrutiny and proper accountability. I know that that does not matter to some Members, but it should matter to all of us.

Who is the Deputy Prime Minister hiding from? Who is he more frightened of? Is he hiding from the public, or just from the House--or, indeed, from some of his own Back Benchers? The Government are avoiding democratic accountability to the House.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I agree with my hon. Friend. The Ministers who are present are a couple of very agreeable Members who work hard, debate matters extremely courteously and thoroughly, and give proper answers when they can. Today's unanswered question, however, is, "Where is the Deputy Prime Minister?" We do not doubt the Ministers' integrity or their quality; it is just that they do not hold the job of the man with whom we wish to debate.

Mr. Jenkin: My hon. Friend is right. The Government shelter their Minister for Transport by appointing to that post someone from the other place, and prop up the

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Secretary of State who has increasingly become a stooge Deputy Prime Minister incapable of carrying out his proper duties in the House.

Mr. Hill rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. Other Back Benchers wish to speak.

4.13 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): I agree with the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) that we do not wish to delay the proceedings unnecessarily, but, as he says, there is a great deal at stake. This is an important debate, and I think that rather more time should have been provided for debate on the Lords amendments. The air traffic control set-up could jeopardise safety, if the privatisation goes ahead. It involves major issues of national security. No other country apart from Fiji has privatised its air traffic control system. I do not think that the House doubts the significance of what we will shortly debate.

I welcome the deliberations in another place, which have given the Government a window of opportunity--a chance to think again before making what is potentially a big mistake. No matter what happens in the Chamber today, that window will still exist, and I hope the Government will take advantage of it. However, although I think we should have been given more time, I do not intend to vote against the motion, and urge others not to do so either, so that we can begin the main debate as soon as possible.

4.14 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I endorse what was said by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) about the need to get on with the substance of the debate, but, as a signatory to the motion, I want to say a word about its significance. First, however, let me say that I find it extremely difficult to take seriously the comments of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). I can only imagine that his diatribe was intended to disguise the fact that he was the only Conservative Member who had the honesty to admit guilt about the privatisation of the railway system. All his colleagues seem to have disappeared. He talked about others hiding, but he was trying to disguise his own integrity and honesty by going off on that extraordinary tangent.

We, too, regret the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister is not here to debate this extremely important issue.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler: No, I will not give way; I want to get on.

We acknowledge the fact that the two Ministers who carried the burden of the day in Committee are here, and I hope that they will listen carefully to the concerns of many Members on both sides of the House, including distinguished Labour Back Benchers.

The programme motion is indicative of the way in which the House can improve its consideration of legislation. As has been said, there is a consensus about

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several measures in the Bill, not least those on lane rental and penalties for the way in which the now privatised utilities can hold us all to ransom. I pray in aid the chaos that has been caused in my own county, Cornwall, by the cable contractors--profit-making utilities that are nothing to do with public services in the old sense. That is why a programme motion is so helpful in concentrating on the matters about which opinion is still divided.

I acknowledge the fact that some Conservative Members are here in support of the motion, and it is helpful for us to reach agreement on the proper way to debate the issues that remain contentious. That is why it was such a lot of hot air the other night when Members said that occasionally reaching agreement on the proper way to debate such Bills was an outrageous affront to the dignity and proper responsibilities of Members of Parliament. We welcome the programme motion. More time could have been allowed, but there will be opportunities to consider the big issues, such as public safety.

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