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Mr. Key: First, Thursday is a normal sitting day, and the sitting may finish at 7 o'clock. Come to that, as my right hon. Friend will know, Friday is a normal sitting day. The only assumption I have made so far is that precedent suggests that we should sit on those days. However, if that precedent is not kept--which would be no surprise--it would be for the Committee to decide when it sits. On this occasion, the arithmetic is that the Committee equals the Government.
Mr. Gummer: Will my hon. Friend help me? Precedent is based on the principle established when the Government knew that they had to come to an agreement with the Opposition to carry through their business. It was necessary to have more sitting days and the Government had an interest in achieving that. I am sure that the Minister would not do this, but there is now a system in which the Government could say that there is only one sitting day, even though they never mentioned that in debate. They could say, "That's it. That is how we are going to do it." I do not think that any other institution would accept a timetable motion that did not state what the timetable was. This is truly a guillotine: we are underneath it, waiting for it to fall.
Mr. Bercow: With reference to the observation made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), is my hon. Friend aware of, and does he share my disgust at, the fact, that, so far as the Government are concerned, the working day in a Committee considering a Bill is not comparable to a working day in the House? The Government have the audacity to propose that the Committee should conclude its deliberations at 5 pm on Thursdays. Are we part-timers or what?
Mr. Key: Well, there was a good reason--[Interruption.] I am sorry, the Minister was not here when that procedure took place. We should not accept his interpretation of this matter, as many of my right hon. and hon. Friends were here when that procedure used to happen.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Is my hon. Friend aware that many of the Government's measures have required several hundred amendments? Sometimes half--or more--of a Bill has to be rewritten. Will my hon. Friend insist on behalf of the Opposition parties that if that happens to the current Bill, the time for its consideration must be extended? Otherwise, it will be impossible to accommodate such detail.
Mr. Key: The Ministry of Defence is modest about such matters. It has a bite at the legislative cherry about once every five years, unlike some other Departments, which wage a constant battle with the House. I have never known the Ministry of Defence to produce hundreds of amendments to such a Bill, but there is always a first time. As I suggested earlier, if it introduced many amendments, we would insist that the Government returned to the House to procure an extension of time. The next couple of months are wholly unpredictable.
Five years ago, the previous Select Committee was due to visit the resident garrison for Cyprus. For local reasons that prevailed at that time, we were unable to go. Instead, we went to visit garrisons in Germany, where we took formal evidence on courts martial procedures and other matters that were relevant to the Bill. We believe that it would be appropriate for the Committee to visit garrisons, not exclusively abroad, but, for example, a garrison centre that hosts a court martial centre. That would entail quite a lengthy visit. I cannot think of anywhere better than Aldershot for such a visit; I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) would welcome the Committee there. However, we may not have time to do that. We need to take a lot of evidence.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): With the benefit of his experience, will my hon. Friend explain what sort of Committee we are considering? A Select Committee is traditionally very different from a Standing Committee. The former comprises independent-minded members and no Whips. The proposed membership of the Select Committee that will consider the Bill bears more resemblance to a Standing Committee: it will comprise Ministers and Government trusties. What is it? Will it be genuinely independent, do what the Minister wants and examine the Bill critically?
We need to take a lot of evidence from the Adjutant-General, the head of the Army Legal Service, and groups of private sector lawyers who make up the Forces Legal Network. Several provisions will affect service life. We shall therefore need to take evidence from the Army Families Federation, Airwaves, which covers the Royal Air Force, and naval families. We shall also need to take evidence from the Commission for Racial Equality, Stonewall, the Chaplain-General, the Equal Opportunities Commission, Liberty, Combat Stress--I could go on, and I shall. All those groups have an important contribution to make. My fear is that they will have no opportunity to give evidence to the Committee.
In connection with parts II and IV, the Committee will want to take evidence from the Royal Military Police, the MDP, the Defence Police Federation and the Police Federation of England and Wales. I think we shall need to visit the MDP headquarters at Wethersfield near Braintree, and those of the Royal Military Police; and a visit to the corrective institution in Colchester known as the glasshouse would no doubt be extremely valuable.
All this will put great strain on the timetable, but further matters must also be examined. In that regard, the Government are in difficulty and disarray, and there is as yet no sign of their putting matters right, apart from their reference to a new tri-service Act. I am thinking particularly about the whole question of increased "purple"--in other words, tri-service--activity, and tri-service activity with other nations. That is the direction in which we are moving. There is no doubt that we are engaging in more such activity, not just with NATO and the United Nations but with other European nations.
I suspect that any defence Minister who sends forces into action overseas crosses his fingers several times, takes a deep breath and hopes that there will be no problems with local law. We currently have something called a status of forces agreement, which--as its name implies--determines the status afforded to forces visiting this country. When our troops go to Germany, for example, we have to negotiate memorandums of understanding with the German Government in regard to what will happen if British troops infringe, say, traffic legislation in that or another country in which they are not used to driving. The Visiting Forces Act 1952 is relevant here.
The issue is extremely complex. It was flagged up as a problem area in a letter to me from the Under-Secretary of State, dated 2 April 2000, but we have been given no indication of the point at which it will arise. The letter states:
UK forces operating under NATO or the UN in the Balkans
This is a huge area of complex international law, and other parts of British military law are lost in the mists of time--a phrase used by the Minister in another letter. If we are to commit our forces overseas to increasingly difficult and dangerous activities, it is the House's responsibility to establish a firm legal basis for their actions. If we have no time to do so because of a programme motion of this kind, otherwise known as a guillotine--I said this twice earlier--we are doing a disservice to Her Majesty's forces. I do not consider that a responsible course.
I have outlined our concerns about the programme that has been set before us. I am deeply concerned about the imposition of any sort of guillotine, particularly in the case of a Committee of this nature. I do not think that the Government have justified it so far, and I shall be interested to hear the views of my right hon. and hon. Friends.