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Select Committee

1. The Bill shall be committed to a Select Committee.

2. The Select Committee shall report the Bill to the House on or before Thursday 15th March.

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I shall be brief. It will come as no surprise to those Members who attended today's Second Reading debate that the Bill is to be committed to a Select Committee. The motion proposes that the Committee should report by 15 March.

The House values the procedure whereby armed forces Bills are examined by a Select Committee. That can encourage the development of a consensual approach to the proposed legislation, which is appropriate when we consider the maintenance of the services' disciplinary procedures. A consensual approach is, of course, not at all the same as an uncritical approach. The Select Committee's report will inform the debate on subsequent stages of the Bill in the House and in another place.

We consider it appropriate for the House to ask the Select Committee to complete its important work by a certain date. The date of 15 March proposed in the motion will allow some two months for the Committee to conduct its inquiries and to examine the Bill.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): What assurances can the Minister give the House that, in the event of an early general election, which would mean dissolving the House before 15 March, this important measure would have made progress by then?

Dr. Moonie: There has been an occasion when an early general election precluded completion of a Bill until after it had been brought back. There is very little chance of that event happening. [Interruption.] That is not the Government view; it is my view.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): May I ask the hon. Gentleman the opposite question? If, as the discussions go on, the Government consider that a number of alterations ought to be made and that more time is needed, will it be possible to defer the date proposed, if the Government think that that is necessary? I ask merely as a matter of practicality.

Dr. Moonie: Clearly, we would examine any eventuality, but were consideration of the Bill to be delayed, the Committee would sit for longer to ensure that the Bill passed by the requisite time.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. On the model of a Select Committee and in the absence of witnesses, is it intended that the Committee will sit in private or in public? Between now, if the motion is passed, and 15 March, for approximately how many hours is it intended that the "Select Committee" will sit?

Dr. Moonie: Those are matters for the Committee, once it has been properly constituted. It will come to its conclusions at the appropriate time.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is being very tolerant. It is unusual for Select Committees to sit without advisers, particularly with a cut-off date. The Bill is important, and the House of Commons is ill served by Select Committees that rush through their work without the proper support staff. Can my hon. Friend

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assure me that the Committee, which has already been criticised for its membership, will perform the task that it is meant to perform?

Dr. Moonie: I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. We will ensure that the Committee performs its task. If my hon. Friend stays for the start of the next item of business, she may well hear something that will please her. She knows what I am speaking about.

The date of 15 March proposed in the motion will allow some two months for the Committee to conduct its inquiries and to examine the Bill. In my view, that is adequate for a 41-clause Bill, the main purpose of which, I believe, the House is united on.

Needless to say, the Ministry of Defence will do what it can to assist the Committee in its work. I commend the motion to the House.

10.48 pm

Mr. Key: The Government have a number of problems with the motion. We should remember that the guillotine that we are considering, for that is what it is--the euphemism "programme motion" will rarely pass my lips--is the fruit of the labour of the Modernisation Committee. It came to the House without the Opposition's support, for sound reasons. We mind very much about the imposition of the guillotine procedure on this Bill of all Bills, which is unique in terms of the way in which the House works. It is the only Bill that has always had pre-legislative scrutiny and it sets a fine precedent for other legislation.

We agree that we must have the Bill. That is the basis of our armed forces. However, the Opposition have never been happy with the guillotine motion. I have already informed the Minister for the Armed Forces that we shall have great difficulty in getting through all the work involved in the tight time available. We shall do our best to assist with proper scrutiny in the circumstances, but the time that has been proposed overall is short compared with that for previous Quinquennial Bills.

I served on the previous Bill, which had a much more relaxed time scale in which to take stock of the situation and make recommendations to the House. The Bill received its Second Reading in December 1995 and, as far as I recall, it received Royal Assent in July 1996. That was proper consideration. The Select Committee met in January and reported at the end of April. That also was a reasonable time. On that occasion, we were able to agree with the then Opposition on roughly how long proceedings might take. However, no one could predict that, because we could not predict what the Government of the day would wish to add to the Christmas tree that a Bill such as this always is. The Opposition could not predict exactly what would turn up as a result of the depositions made, the evidence taken and the correspondence with the Committee during the period in question. It is never possible to predict precisely what will happen.

We recognise the arithmetic of the situation, but it is still not appropriate to impose strict time limits. There are a number of reasons for that. The first is that the terms of the Bill were set out before Second Reading and before the arguments had been deployed on both sides of the House. We regret that, too, but it was a fait accompli.

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Several Government Members even talked about what they would do when they were on the Committee. Considering the strong representations from the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, about the composition of the Committee--much more will be said about that later--the Government have built for themselves a stack of problems on the issue. They should be under no misapprehension about the deep sense of unhappiness in the House, not just on the Opposition Benches, about this procedure. Perhaps a number of hon. Members thought that, under the new regime, we would all go home at 10 o'clock. On current reckoning, they could be six hours out, but we shall see.

However reasonable the Bill--much of it is reasonable--it should receive proper scrutiny. Another reason why the Government have problems is that no provision has been made in the inflexible guillotine motion that has been imposed for any new clauses or amendments to be properly considered at any stage.

One of the huge benefits of the pre-legislative process is that it makes the defence community feel empowered and enfranchised. This is the one occasion in the course of five years when they can all make representations, not just to the Ministry of Defence but to the people who pay for the Ministry of Defence--the House of Commons on behalf of the taxpayer--and they are losing that. It would be bad enough if they were losing that enfranchisement in a normal Standing Committee; it is worse when we have what is alleged to be a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, and they have lost all that too.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) rightly asked whether the Government could ask for more time. As I understand it, the Government could do that, but there is a delicious irony here. If the Government come back to the House and ask for more time, that is debatable. If they come back to shorten the length of time, it is not debatable, which is an extraordinary situation.

The first question must be whether the Government will add anything at all--one phrase, one letter, one comma--to the Bill. If they do, we hope that they will extend the time within which the Committee must report back to the House.

If we abide by the motion, there will be 28 sitting opportunities between next Tuesday and 8 March, which is the last reasonable date on which we could sit before reporting, with a printed report appearing on 15 March. That is more than 14 sitting days, and would involve a considerable break with precedent. When the previous Quinquennial Bill was considered, the Select Committee met on Tuesday mornings and occasionally Tuesday afternoons, but not Thursdays, which was when it went out and about to take evidence and to pay visits, as is envisaged under the motion before us.

However, we cannot have it both ways. Are the Government saying that we must sit in Committee and that people must travel to London? Are they saying that we must not go out into a service atmosphere if the timetable is to be achieved? Or are they suggesting that we should get out, as has been mentioned? The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) said how valuable it was to go out to the defence community and listen to it, but that is incompatible with the Committee remaining here.

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