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9.36 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): It seems, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that yet again no one has sought to catch your eye with the intention of explaining a motion.

Rather worryingly, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council has just expounded a new doctrine--at least, I think that it is a new doctrine. It seems to be along the following lines: if something called "the usual channels" agrees to a measure, it need not be debated in the House, and it is assumed that the House must automatically accept it. I think that that was the tenor and the substance of what the Minister said.

If that is so, it lays bare for the first time, and in a graphic way, the new philosophy that has been adopted by the Government in the House of Commons that a quick fix behind the scenes by self-appointed people is sufficient for the conducting of our business. I do not accept that doctrine for a minute, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope that you--a renowned custodian of the rights of the House and of Back Benchers--do not wish to accept it either. It borders on the sinister; yet the Minister deemed it to be sufficient and adequate to satisfy me, and any others who might share my worries, that we should proceed to the next business.

The Minister said, rather complacently, that the proposal had been agreed through the usual channels, so what was all the fuss about? I will tell the House what the fuss is about: it is about not just the motion that we are discussing, but all the subsequent motions, in the context of the dramatic new doctrine that has been revealed to the House. That doctrine states "Do not bother with debates or votes; the usual channels"--whoever they may be--"have fixed it all up, and that's your lot". That seems to be the basis on which we are now expected to conduct parliamentary business. It may be good enough for the majority of Members, but right now it is not good enough for me.

Let us examine the motion in a little more detail. It is an important motion; if anything, it is even more important than the previous one, which was intended for the convenience of Members. That is what we were told, and it was deemed to be a sufficient explanation. It is, of course, a seductive argument: there will not be much opposition to a proposal that is intended to be for the convenience of Members. You will have observed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I did not after all seek to divide the House on that motion.

This motion, however, is altogether different. It deals with the Consolidated Fund, which is crucial to the relationship between the House and the Executive. The Consolidated Fund Bill is a key part, and one of the most historic elements, of our parliamentary democracy, and of the relationship between the House--as the provider of funds--and the Government of the day. I hope that there will be no suggestion that the House would want to skimp, or to deny itself the fullest possible opportunities to debate the Consolidated Fund in detail and at length.

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I want to try to untangle the wording of the motion. It demands:

To help the House, I shall quote Standing Order No. 56:

    "When a motion shall have been made for the second reading of a Consolidated Fund or an Appropriation Bill, the question thereon shall be put forthwith, no order shall be made for the committal of the bill and the question for third reading shall be put forthwith; and the said questions may be decided at any hour, though opposed."

I begin to wonder what the motion is all about and what lies behind it. When I read the phrase,

    "any Consolidated Fund Bill ordered to be brought in and read the first time shall be proceeded with as if the Second Reading thereof stood as an Order of the day",

I wonder whether, on a measure as crucial as the Consolidated Fund Bill, the House will have proper notice of what we are expected to approve. On a superficial reading, the motion appears to attempt to telescope the First and Second Readings. That would make it difficult for the House to give proper consideration to such an important and all-embracing measure.

The motion is worrying because it may constitute an attempt by the Government to slide a measure as crucial as the Consolidated Fund Bill through the House without proper consideration. We would usually expect a First Reading, which would give the House a general idea of the measure that we were being asked to approve. After some pause for consideration, Second Reading would be deliberated in the House and subsequent stages would then be tackled.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): I am listening carefully to my right hon. Friend. He will remember that, a few years ago, all hon. Members regarded the Consolidated Fund Bill as such an important measure that they used to debate it for many hours, sometimes through the night, which allowed approximately a dozen hon. Members from each side to participate. Yet it is now regarded simply as an Order of the Day to be nodded through after 10 o'clock without debate. It is worrying that the most powerful Government in history want extra dictatorial powers over the Consolidated Fund Bill. Does not my right hon. Friend find it worrying?

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who may wish to explore some of those thoughts further if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not want to be rushed; I believe that my right hon. Friend is trying to move me forward, but I am not quite ready for that. However, my right hon. Friend has helped me with the context, for which I am grateful. Perhaps I did not emphasise it sufficiently in my preamble; I rushed through my preliminary thoughts too quickly.

My right hon. Friend is right about the importance of the Consolidated Fund Bill--its scope, magnitude and the extent of the deliberations that the House gave it. In recent years, and especially since the Government achieved their massive majority, we have received increasingly fewer opportunities properly to consider those matters. The motion is a good example of that phenomenon.

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There is plenty of time available and no need for matters to be rushed. The House is not even sitting on Friday. Although we are not pushed for time, we are ramming First and Second Readings of the important Consolidated Fund Bill together and not giving ourselves sufficient time for consideration in between those stages.

That would be bad enough, but Standing Order No. 56 not only confirms but multiplies my suspicions, because it refers to when

The motion states that

    "any Consolidated Fund Bill ordered to be brought in and read for the first time shall be proceeded with as if the Second Reading thereof stood as an Order of the day".

We are being asked to accept that First Reading becomes Second Reading as if by magic--without any due deliberation in between and just because the motion says so. It goes on--impudently, in my view--to invoke Standing Order No. 56--[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) want to intervene? I thought that he had something to offer.

Mr. Maclean: He lost that years ago.

Mr. Forth: No, no. Knowing the hon. Gentleman, and admiring and respecting him as I do, I thought that he might have had a valuable contribution to make to these deliberations. As my thoughts unfold, I might be able to give him some ideas on which he may want to elaborate. I shall watch him out of the corner of my eye to see whether he might want to intervene. He is trying to put my off me stride--I can tell because he has a mischievous glint in his eye--but fortunately I have a copy of the Standing Orders in my hand. I am working my way gradually through Standing Order No. 56 and have reached the point at which it says,

[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] That gives the game away. It is obvious that Labour Members are no longer interested in proper debate or deliberation or votes in the House of Commons; they want to rush through business and go home. That, surely, is not the object of business. I thought that the House of Commons deliberated on these matters, held the Government to account and examined their proposals, but the Government themselves are suggesting that proceedings should be abbreviated and telescoped, that the Question should be put forthwith and that no order should be made for the committal of the Bill. Even the question for Third Reading will be put forthwith.

The combination of the motion and Standing Order No. 56, to which the motion refers, represents the astonishing revelation that the Government are suggesting that legislation as crucial and comprehensive as the Consolidated Fund Bill should go through First Reading, Second Reading and Third Reading all in one go. [Hon. Members: "You have said that."] We are beginning--just beginning--to see the whole picture. The Bill will obviously not receive anything like the consideration in the House that it deserves, but it gets worse.

Standing Order No. 56 says that

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    On the face of it, it appears that the House will be denied the opportunity properly to deliberate on this matter.

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