|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mrs. Spelman: I thank my right hon. Friend for his apposite intervention. Like him, I was fairly shocked by the strength of the reaction from the Leader of the House to one of my colleagues, especially because we are at an early stage of trying out the new procedure. I thought that she might like to stay and see how it is working. Surely, having been party to introducing the new method of dealing with the timetabling of Bills, it would be good for her to see how that is working out in practice. Perhaps her departure had something to do with the offhand tone and long-suffering air with which the Minister introduced the programme motion. Frankly, the motion is a waste of time and it is difficult to see why it has been given such importance on the Order Paper. It requires people to be present for 45 minutes to go through the motions of discussing a timetable which, in any event, has to be negotiated tomorrow or the next day.
Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that things are becoming curiouser and curiouser? Would it not be helpful at this stage for the House to be told whether the Government Whips have discussed the intended allocation of time, but have simply not vouchsafed that rather important information to the Minister herself, or whether--despite the fact that, in only a matter of days they will have to table a draft resolution--they simply have not got round to discussing the matter at all? Which sort of cock-up is it?
Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend has pointed out the confusion that reigns. I do not know the answer to his question. I suspect that we shall not get an answer, although it is highly pertinent to the question of whether or not we spend time on the matter. Certainly, the benefit or otherwise of programme motions must be properly assessed. I come from the business world, where we would not dream of introducing a new procedure without reviewing accurately, after a short period, whether or not it was effective. However, programme motions were introduced with very little discussion; we have been lumbered with them and they do not seem to work very well. If we are not careful, they will become one of the great institutions and traditions of the House, although not if my hon. Friends and I resume power shortly, when things, of course, will change once again.
Mr. Swayne: Having listened to the debate, my hon. Friend will be aware that a significant number of Government Members were critical of the Bill, which, they said, did not go far enough. Would it not have been proper for this debate to have been delayed by at least a couple of days so that the Government could take some account of what was said on Second Reading before gauging precisely the length of time needed to accommodate reservations expressed, even by their own Members, in Committee?
Mr. Leigh: I cannot help noticing the coincidence that the Committee stage of the Hunting Bill--I serve on that Committee--is also programmed to finish on 8 February. Perhaps it makes no difference how big or controversial a Bill is, as all Bills will end on 8 February. As we are now in a joke of a Parliament, why do we not just line up all Bills on 18 November and say that they will all end on 8 February--[Interruption.] The Minister is chatting to her colleague and is not interested in the debate. The motion has nothing to do with the Bill, but is to do with getting enough Bills through in time for the Government's pathetic general election. That is what they want.
Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend has correctly pointed out that we should be extremely worried about 8 February. The Government have continued the practice of being able to call a general election when they want. We are all trying to read the tea leaves for signs of when that may be. It looks as though 8 February may be of considerable significance.
Mr. Hogg: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the effects of an early finish date of 8 February is that it will preclude the small businesses that will be grievously affected by the Bill from making representations on its detail?
Mrs. Spelman: That extremely valid point was skirted over in the Second Reading debate. Labour as well as Opposition Members pointed out that the Bill will substantially hurt retailers and place them in a difficult, powerless position, because it does nothing to deal with the trade in illegal tobacco, which is undercutting their legitimate business. That point was raised on Second Reading, but it is difficult to see where that is reflected in the Bill.
The serious point concerning these programme motions is that the amount of time available in Committee will be hammered out between us in the Programming Sub-Committee--this debate puts the cart before the horse--which will take place behind closed doors and with no record of the discussion. I doubt whether Labour Members who objected to the flaws and lacunae in the Bill will be on the Sub-Committee that decides how much time we spend on this measure. We have no idea who will form that Sub-Committee. I doubt whether those who expressed concerns to their own Ministers will be hand-picked to take part in the important scrutiny of the Bill.
I invite the Minister to respond to the question repeatedly asked by Conservative Members about programme motions: why cannot transcripts of the Sub-Committee meetings be made available to Members? If hybrid Select Committees have transcripts of meetings, why cannot we have transcripts of the meetings that take place behind closed doors and determine the time that is to be spent debating legislation that we have been elected to scrutinise?
Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent example of how this process is not working. If the Government get round to reviewing the changes that they have made to the legislative procedure by introducing these programme motions, I hope that they will take on board that important example of why they do not work well. We should not forget that these motions replace a system in which the usual channels--Whip to Whip--used to agree amicably on what would be a reasonable time in which to scrutinise a Bill. That system worked perfectly well and was based on trust. The loss of transparency and the refusal to permit a record of these secret Sub-Committee meetings has undermined the trust. That is the difference.
Mr. Redwood: As a former Minister, I brought Bills before the House from time to time, and I never wanted them to be guillotined because we could not be sure at the beginning how many amendments would be needed to perfect them. It was only fair to give the Opposition reasonable time to debate substantial amendments. Does my hon. Friend fear, especially given the internet interests, that many amendments to the Bill, including some that the Minister has not foreseen, will warrant more time?
Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. My experience as a Whip in dealing with Bills is that it is difficult at the outset always to foresee precisely how much time will be needed to consider a Bill clause by clause. Mile posts were set for some of the longer Bills. That is not unreasonable. However, placing too many mile posts for the Greater London Authority Bill meant that substantial parts of the measure were not scrutinised properly before it was passed to another place.
Mr. Hogg: I want to build on the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) made. If there is insufficient time in Committee to table amendments, they may be tabled in another place. They will subsequently return to the House, where we will be denied proper time to consider them. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is yet another example of an undemocratic process that the Government are introducing?
Mrs. Spelman: My right hon. and learned Friend emphasises the damage that is caused when measures are not properly scrutinised at each stage of their passage. We are in a special period; the Prime Minister fired the gun on "Breakfast with Frost", and we all know that the sand is running through the hour glass and that our legislative debates may shortly be curtailed. The worst of all worlds would be to rush through a measure that is improperly scrutinised and unworkable. Several times on Second Reading, I emphasised to the Minister that some provisions are not workable and will require substantial amendment to put them right.
I shall finish the series of points on the general lessons that we have learned from the programme motions on several Bills in the past two or three weeks. The Government always assure the Opposition that they can determine the amount of time that is spent in debate. However, the new programme motion invalidates the offer. The Opposition may flag up to the Government the clauses that they regard as important while the Government are setting greater constraints on the time that is required for each stage. That will make it much easier for a Government Back Bencher to speak in Committee and prevent the Opposition from reaching the provisions that they wish to consider.
Perhaps the Government regard my view of their workings as too cynical. I was accused earlier of having a naive view of the tobacco industry. Any naivety that I have does not extend to the Government's workings--once a Whip, always a Whip. Of course, Whips look for opportunities to hasten or delay measures accordingly. The programme motion is likely to deprive the Opposition of the time that we need to scrutinise the measure properly.