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4.41 p.m.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): We are just beginning to get properly to grips with the full horrors of this iniquitous new process that the Government have inflicted on the House. These debates play an important part in providing the House with the ability to explore what is now the relationship between the Government and the House of Commons, and to explore how the legislative process is supposed to work under the dispensation that is so wrongly called modernisation. The programme motions and the debates surrounding them have started to provide an important opportunity for the House to consider whether the Government's approach to the legislative process is acceptable or satisfactory.

The Minister said that, in his opinion, it would be sufficient for the Standing Committee to have completed consideration of the Bill by 1 February, and that he envisaged four Committee sittings. We do not know whether four sittings will be adequate; we cannot know that at this stage. The big difference that has taken place between the way in which the House used to work and the way in which it now has to work is that the Government take it upon themselves arbitrarily to decide how long a Standing Committee will take.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is another feature to this question? It is that very short Standing Committees make it much more difficult for those outside the House to make representations on the content of the Bill at a time that is relevant to the Committee's consideration of the Bill.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. It is typical that the Government do not care whether right hon. and hon. Members have a proper opportunity to consider a Bill. However, they care even

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less whether anyone outside the House has an adequate opportunity to make representations or to attend Committee sittings, thus allowing that iterative process, to which we had become used in the past, between members of the Committee and legitimate outside interests who wish to play their part in the Committee's considerations.

The Government say that, in their view, the legislative process--the scrutiny of legislation by the House--will be completed within a certain, very short, period of time. That is the new arrangement that we are supposed to accept. It is quite different from the arrangement that we knew before, in which it was assumed that the legislative process would take as long as was properly required for the Bill to be considered and amended before being brought back to the Floor of the House on Report. The Government now say that they know how long Members of the House will need to consider our legislation.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Was not that the most revealing remark by the Minister, to which my right hon. Friend has drawn the House's attention? It was--no doubt involuntarily--an extremely revealing insight into the Government's state of mind. Is it not clear that, in the Government's perception, the legislature will examine legislation only to the extent--and in a form--decided in advance by the Executive? What kind of balance in the constitution does that leave us with?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is correct. As we proceed down this path--we are still in the early stages of the new dispensation--we see more and more clearly the arrogance of Ministers in taking it on themselves to decide how long scrutinising legislation will take.

Mr. Hogg: My right hon. Friend was present last night when we debated another timetable motion and will remember the justification given by the Minister for Public Health for a time limit that will expire on 8 February. She said that, in her opinion, the House has sufficient time to consider that Bill. Does not that reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies)?

Mr. Forth: Yes. The legislative process is clearly being run on the basis of Ministers' opinions. Worse than that, although the Minister can say, as the motion tells us, that, in the Government's view, the House of Commons can have only until 1 February properly to consider the Bill, we have not even been given full information. We do not know what the secret Programming Sub-Committee--which, needless to say, will be dominated by the Government--will say about the time that the Government will allow the Committee to sit and deliberate. First, the Government tell us the end date for deliberations. Then, the Government-dominated Programming Sub-Committee will decide how long each day and each sitting will last.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Has my right hon. Friend noticed the different treatment that we receive from different junior Ministers who represent the Executive? Today, the junior Minister graciously let us into the secret of how many Committee sittings the Government want and even said that there could be another two, according to unspecified criteria. That is a

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slight improvement on what we usually get, which is no information at all about what the Executive have decided. We now have a little more knowledge of the time available and I am grateful for that, but I agree with my right hon. Friend that this debate should not be taking place because the Executive should not tell the House how long it can debate such matters.

Mr. Forth: My right hon. Friend is obviously in a generous mood today because he has been much kinder to the Government and the Minister than I am disposed to be. The Minister made the rather casual remark that only two Committee sittings are needed, presumably because these matters are so trivial and his Bill so good that scrutiny is not required. I do not consider that to be a concession; it is a gratuitous insult to the House, the legislative process and the members of the Committee. Of course, we do not yet know who they will be.

Another factor is that, given that we do not know who will be a member of the Committee or how much legitimate outside interest there will be, we cannot possibly know how many amendments are likely to be tabled. We do not know how long the sittings will be because the secretive Programming Sub-Committee has yet to meet--dominated as it will be by the Government. All in all, we are being asked simply to accept the Government's view of how their legislation should be scrutinised by the legislature. Surely that is an insult to both the history of the House and its every tradition.

As we know, the Government rammed the changes through, though they did not have all-party support by any means, and here we are, living with the results of that process. A lot of the principles behind and the approaches to scrutiny, which most of us have held dear for as long as we have had the privilege of being Members of the House, have simply been thrown overboard and replaced by procedures introduced by a Government who are apparently so afraid of their measures being scrutinised that they want to diminish the scrutiny process to an intolerable extent. That is the inevitable outcome of such motions.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Does my right hon. Friend agree that everybody realises that the Government have an enormous majority and can do exactly what they want in the House? Some of us were Members when another Government had a large majority of 144, which was not as big as the majority of the current Government. None the less, that previous Government recognised that the House had its rights and that the Opposition had theirs. Matters were resolved by agreement, but that has gone out of the window. Does my right hon. Friend recognise a constitutional change here?

Mr. Forth: Yes, I do indeed. Only by the House taking every one of the few opportunities left to explore those matters--which, fortunately, the motion allows us to do--will we be able to expose that change for what it is. It is part and parcel of a process that we have witnessed for nearly four years--the systematic dismantling of all the mechanisms on which our electors thought they could rely to ensure that legislative proposals were scrutinised.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): My right hon. Friend should perhaps remind the House that the motion

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constitutes a guillotine on when a Bill leaves Committee. Not so very long ago, no Government would introduce a guillotine until an issue had been debated in Committee for 90 or 100 hours. There is, I am afraid, no such criterion in the motion that we are discussing.

Mr. Forth: Memory tells me that in the 1980s, in the case of a substantial Bill, the benchmark was nearer 150 hours in Committee. Indeed, that was reckoned to be barely sufficient before a guillotine could even be contemplated.

I can only assume that the Government have introduced the measures with which we are now forced to live because they are both contemptuous of the parliamentary process and afraid of their legislation being properly scrutinised. The motion proposes, rather patronisingly, that

That gives us a flavour of what we now face.

In earlier times, a Committee would by convention spend the morning of its first sitting deliberating on future sittings and considering how much time it would need. It would then adjourn in order to give its members time to reflect on the Bill, and perhaps to table amendments. None of that will be possible now, because the Government are in such a rush and are so anxious to push the legislation through to prevent it from being properly scrutinised.

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