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Mr. Hogg: My right hon. Friend has touched on the question of amendments. Should the House not be reminded that, in the week permitted by the motion, the Government will not have time properly to formulate amendments in Committee, as is necessary, and will have to rely on amendments made in the other place--amendments which, inevitably, will not be properly debated in this, the elected Chamber?
Mr. Forth: That leaves me with a personal dilemma. Part of me naturally wants to ensure that the House of Commons, accountable as it is to voters--probably very soon now--will give the most effective scrutiny to, in particular, Bills with a financial or tax content or connotation. Another part of me, however, is beginning to recognise and almost welcome the fact that--given our increasing inability, under the guillotines that the Government are imposing on our legislative process, to scrutinise legislation fully and allow for amendments--the onus will be transferred to another place. It will be for another place to give even closer and more rigorous scrutiny to legislation, because the Government's constraints have prevented us from scrutinising it in the same way. So there is a glimmer of light.
I shall vote against the motion unless the Minister says something to persuade me not to do so, but I shall leave the Chamber with a spring in my step. I feel that there is potential for the other place to be encouraged to exercise its duties and responsibilities even more vigorously than it has in the past, as a direct result of the Government's attempts, through motions such as this, to restrict and limit the power of this House to scrutinise legislation effectively.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I want to focus on what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). This is the second occasion in a week on which we have considered a timetable motion of this kind, and once again the motion is, in my view, an affront. My right hon. Friend presented the arguments against it with great clarity, and I therefore propose merely to summarise them, although I hope to emphasise one or two.
For a start, we simply do not know whether an end date of 1 February is in any way appropriate. We cannot know that until we know how long the Committee will sit, what its members will deem to be important, and--perhaps even more significant--what people outside the Chamber will deem to be important, and will seek to communicate to those members. It is arrogant and wrong of the Government to put an end date on the Committee.
The measure precludes proper scrutiny. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, this is a complicated Bill with tax and national insurance connotations. It is inevitable that Committee members will look to those outside, constituents and interested bodies to make representations on the Bill so that they can table amendments to address the issues. Being realistic, we know that people take a little time to get moving and an end date of 1 February will make it impossible for people outside properly to address the Bill.
A further point is the status of the other place. Governments always amend Bills. I have been responsible for many Bills and I know that it is the practice of Governments to amend Bills in Committee. They must, because no Bill is perfect, particularly a complicated Bill of this kind. Thus the Government will determine that amendments are to be made and will not be able to formulate them within the time scale for the Committee. They will then seek to table amendments in another place, which is an unelected House dealing with quasi-financial matters. That is very unsatisfactory. The Government will come back to this House--probably on another timetable motion--and we, the elected Chamber, will never have a proper opportunity to discuss amendments.
Sir Nicholas Lyell: My right hon. and learned Friend said that detail would be left to an unelected House, which, by tradition and constitutional convention, has nothing to do with taxation. This Bill is concerned with national insurance, which is extremely close to taxation. Is the other place even entitled to amend such a Bill?
Mr. Hogg: Strictly speaking, it is entitled, as a matter of law and constitutional practice, but it is thoroughly undesirable. My right hon. and learned Friend is entirely right about the status of the Bill. When Bills of this House attract substantive amendments, they should be amended in this place and not in the other place, unless it is absolutely essential.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) reminded the House that, when our party was in government, we did not move timetable motions in Committee until a long period of time had elapsed. My benchmark was 100 hours; that is in accordance with my right hon. Friend's recollection, although a little short of that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. However, we recognised that there had to be
The Government are proposing timetables of but a few hours on matters of great complexity and importance. That is shutting down on the legislative process. If we do that, the country will discover in time that legislation is going through the House of Commons that has never properly been scrutinised. As the acquiesence of the electorate depends, at least in part, on a belief that legislation has been properly scrutinised, we will be tampering with the foundations of accountable government and democracy.
Sir Peter Emery: Two or three weeks ago, when the Government proposed the procedure, they gave the assurance that enough time would be given for the Opposition to table amendments and for each clause of the Bill to be properly debated. They are reneging on what they said to the House.
Mr. Hogg: My right hon. Friend is right, although I am bound to say that the fact that the Government are reneging causes me no surprise. We are dealing with an essentially despotic and tyrannical Government, although the country as a whole does not recognise that yet. Our business, as legislators, is to draw to your attention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and, through you, to the attention of a wider public, that democracy is being served ill by those on the Government Front Bench.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Sophocles was said to have walked around Athens talking to everybody he met and taking note of their opinions. He then sought to regale his fellow Athenians with exactly the degree of veracity that one gets from a wide selection of citizens.
What worries me about the increasing habit of timetabling everything is that any Parliament--however it is brought together--must rely on support from the citizenry. I am extremely worried that we are increasingly--for what the managers of Government business probably think are perfectly acceptable reasons--going ahead on the in-built assumption that legislation is simply here to be rolled through the House of Commons and the other place with the greatest speed and the smallest number of alterations that will be acceptable to the Government. I am afraid that I do not take that view, and I do not believe that it can be sustained for any length of time.
I do not entirely go along with the emotional and colourful language occasionally used on the Conservative Benches about the iniquities of the Government. While I am prepared to call them all sorts of things, despotic is not one of them. Despots, on the whole, tend to be reasonably efficient. Seriously, it saddens me that we are getting to the point where no Labour Member is prepared to say that the procedures of the House of Commons have been developed because there has to be give and take across the Chamber and an examination of various ideas. Above
I do not want to go on about this matter tonight; I simply want to record that, in the past three weeks, there has been a constant procession of timetable motions. We can call them what we like: guillotines, which is a more accurate description, or timetables. We can say that the House accepted all these "reforms" and suggest that somehow this is an improvement and a modernisation.
Some of my colleagues occasionally give me the impression that they would rather there were no debate on any subject at all--[Interruption.] That refers to colleagues on both sides of the House. There are people who, when they are in Government, think that it is a good idea that the House of Commons does not debate the iniquities of the legislation before them. When I listen now to those who protest most about why we are allowing this to happen, I remember what they were like when they were Ministers. Once we let a monster out of the pot it is very difficult to get it back in.
I do not believe that there will be a change of Government in the remainder of my parliamentary career, but such changes do happen in this country, and Conservative Members will be very quick to learn from our behaviour and to pick up those habits that they so roundly condemn. That is why I say to my Government colleagues: please think again. Do not assume that God is always in our corner; occasionally he may desert us. Do not assume that we always know right from wrong and always have absolute right on our side. That is not the case.
Above all, please remember that legislation that goes through the House like a runaway train frequently comes off the rails at considerable speed and does great damage. The House should bear that in mind. We are increasingly losing sight of the object that a democratic Parliament should keep closest to its heart: legislation works when it is thought about, when it is real, when it represents the views of the ordinary citizen and, most of all, when it is not imposed without real thought and proper consideration.