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Mr. Denham: The Opposition had the opportunity to indicate, through the usual channels, how long they wanted to debate the Bill, and they did not do so. They could have tabled an amendment to the programme motion, and they did not do so. I am at a loss to understand how the hon. Gentleman can complain about a lack of time, when he has not at any stage said how long he would like to debate the Bill.
Dr. Fox: There is the rub. The Minister cannot understand that we object on a point of principle. We do not want automatically timetabled Bills. If our argument is that the Government cannot know what will come up in Committee and how much time will be needed, how could the Opposition possibly know in advance how much time would be appropriate? We need to get into Committee and then decide, on the evidence before us and the representations that we receive, how much time is required for proper scrutiny of the legislation. That is our duty towards our constituents, to ensure that Bills are of a proper quality and not fundamentally flawed or pushed through with undue haste by an arrogant and contemptuous Government.
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): For as long as all of us can remember, the House has worked on two conventions: that the Government are entitled to get their business through--none of us would challenge that--and, just as important, that the Opposition are entitled to challenge the Government's proposals. The only mechanism that the Opposition has to do that is time.
Most Conservative Members have served in Committee as Ministers or Back Benchers and we know that the Minister of the day is put up to bat and is challenged by way of amendments. In the past, Government Back Benchers were enjoined to be quiet because Ministers needed to respond to the challenges put up by way of amendment by Opposition Back Benchers and Front-Bench spokesmen. This device is a complete mockery of that system. If an amendment on the Order Paper is inconvenient to Ministers--for example, if Ministers find amendments in relation to community health councils which they would rather not address--they will have every incentive to put up their own Back Benchers simply to wallpaper over time. So in future, Government Back Benchers will make long-winded speeches in Standing Committees, filibustering to fill the time to ensure that Ministers are not obliged to address difficult points and answer difficult questions. It is particularly pertinent in respect of this very technical Bill, which has 66 clauses and five schedules.
The Secretary of State made a perfectly competent Second Reading speech, which was in broad terms, as one would expect. He did not deal with any of the detail of the Bill or any of the new organisations; nor did he explain why community health councils are being abolished or what they have done wrong. He did not deal
I have been fortunate enough to have been in the House for 18 years and I hope to be here for a few more. Many of us will have sat on both sides of the House during our time here. This place can work only if the Opposition respect the fact that, at the end of the day, the Government are entitled to get their business through--I do not think that any Opposition Member challenges that--and the Government recognise that the Opposition are entitled to challenge their proposals. If the Government of the day do not give the Opposition sufficient opportunity to challenge their proposals in detail by amendments, the system becomes a perversion and that results in far poorer legislation and public policy. The Government, the country and public policy are far weaker for that.
Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): I have listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), who speaks with considerable experience. I have been in the House twice as long as he has and a factor in the whole of that time has been the major criticism that Governments introduce guillotines to cut Bills in half so that massive parts of them are never discussed in Committee. The Opposition never have the chance of doing what my hon. Friend says and challenging the Government on particular questions. In the past, we were stopped by the old-fashioned guillotine structure. This motion attempts to make public what my hon. Friend and I knew as Ministers.
When I started in Committee, the Whips Office, which used to be at the end of the Corridor, knew exactly what day they would demand that a Bill was out of Committee. That was something between the Whips and the Minister. If, in fact, we were nowhere near the date when it should have left Committee, there was a guillotine and parts of the Bill were never even discussed.
The motion is at least an attempt--I am not certain whether it will work--to ensure that the whole House is told about the date, which the Government know. The Committee is told that, in order to debate all parts of the Bill, it can decide the amount of time and the way in which that time will be orchestrated in Committee. That is the concept of a Programming Sub-Committee of the Committee. The matter will thus not be decided by the Whips in a guillotine motion, but settled by the people who should debate it and who should know what it is about.
It is important--this is the crux of the matter--that the Opposition's demand for time should be accepted by the Government in order that that can be delivered. If the Government refuse that, we have every right to object.
We need to ensure that the Government behave as the Modernisation Committee expected them to do. If that can be achieved, there is an advantage for the Opposition because we shall be able to programme matters during Committee. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury will apply just as much whether we have a Programming Sub-Committee or whether we return to the previous situation when the Government spoke up to stop amendments being introduced. There is nothing new in that and I am not positive that we shall have got rid of that system.
The proposal would achieve at least two results, however. It would ensure that every part of a Bill is considered and that the Government give the necessary time for that in Committee. If that is the case, there will be an improvement in the procedures of the House.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): I very much agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery). However, our experience is not as has been described. Our experience is that the Committees that consider such matters have not listened to the Opposition. The reason is clear: under the old system, the Opposition had some power. They could refuse the time that the Government wanted--they could use the time--but that is no longer true.
The Opposition have no power. They depend entirely on the Government's willingness to behave in the civilised way to which my right hon. Friend referred. Some members of the Government want to be civilised, but the actions of their Whip during this debate do not suggest much civilisation--the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) has giggled throughout the whole debate. He has not actually listened to any of the comments that have been made, so I do not believe that there is much willingness to listen.
If the Government were willing to say that they were prepared to provide as much time as is necessary for the Opposition to propose their various views between now and that date, we should have a timetable motion. However, we do not have a timetable motion; we have a guillotine. The one thing we know is the end date. The Government are perfectly able to say that we will hold one meeting every week and that it will last an hour. We have to rely on them all down the line to allow the time needed.
Many Conservative Members would be happy with a system that enabled these matters to be debated in a civilised manner. That cannot be so unless the Government show a willingness to give all the time necessary and to listen to the arguments advanced. If the Government are able to use their Back Benchers to block
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): If the new system, of which the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) is, as much as anyone, the godfather, is to work, we must be given some assurance that when Conservative Front Benchers agree to a programme motion, the undertaking will be held to right across the House, even by the mavericks on the Conservative Back Benches.