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5.5 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): In a sense, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is wrong: the Government have moved to a certainty about procedures. The matter is no longer open to debate. The Government are about swank and spin; through their measures on the procedures of the House, they demonstrate their complete contempt for the very existence of the House of Commons.

Such measures owe nothing whatever to reasoned thought. How do we know what Back Benchers think about the legislation that the Committee will discuss in what the Minister decides will probably be no more than two sittings? Nevertheless, through the Government's graciousness and their relentless and overweening majority, they may give us four sittings. I have not been consulted; in truth, no Member has been consulted. We have not been asked whether aspects of the measure cause us concern, whether we want to develop any points or to take soundings among interested groups in our constituencies.

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All the arguments that are being made are old ones. We used to impose guillotines because there was an insuperable blockage in normal procedural matters. During my time as a Member of the House, such motions have moved from being the exception and have become accustomed procedure. Before Christmas, at the behest of the Government, the majority party imposed on us these ludicrous and contemptuous arrangements for the review of Bills.

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend puts most eloquently the arguments against timetable motions. Will he remind the House that he makes those arguments from the perspective of someone who actually approves of the Bill? Perhaps that adds greater force to his comments.

Mr. Shepherd: In the House, we all know that the matter is not whether an individual approves of a Bill; it is to safeguard the processes whereby a Bill is scrutinised. Other points of view may be brought to bear on measures and that may convince me that my original position was wrong. That is the tolerance in our legislative process.

The Government are now so divorced from the House of Commons that they do not need the House at all. They have reduced us to the absurdity of trying to forecast magically the course of a Committee--the amendments that will be tabled and the length of time to be taken up in debate. In truth, they are not interested. Indeed, the process on motions such as this has been truncated from the intolerable length of three hours to 45 minutes for the discussion of the grievances of hon. Members who think that they may not be able discuss a Bill during its proceedings. That is one of the great modernisations and improvements.

This procedure is a farce. It is an absurd assertion by an arrogant Government. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich made a misjudgment in her comments; the attitude and arrogance of the Executive are beyond redemption. There are many decent Members on both sides of the House. There can be no pleasure in the fact that the House has been dragooned into a 45-minute debate; in essence, to approve the motion.

One can see the exasperation on the faces of Ministers and Government Whips--this is all so trivial. They ask: why do we not nod the motion through? Why bother to seek approval? Why do we not conceive, in the brilliant Modernisation Committee, a Standing Order that gives the Government the right--because they have claimed it--to get their business? That was never an historic concept of the House. The House examined and consented to business, but it could also reject it.

Such ideas do not even enter the mind of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, as he proposes these arrangements without ever having asked for the views of Back-Bench colleagues on either side of the House. That is why I oppose the motion. It crystallises something that I have resented and regretted all my life. From being an occasional necessity, such arrangements have become the instrument of the Executive's dominance over the Chamber and show their contempt for the House.

5.10 pm

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): This is a very serious matter indeed, and the country needs to understand it. I entirely agree with what the hon. Member

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for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said, and the tone in which she said it. I have a high regard for the Minister and have served with him on a long and carefully thought-through Committee on the financial services. I am sure that he would not propose such measures if they were not being forced on the House from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer downwards, given the Government's attitude.

It has been said that the Government are despotic and tyrannical, but those words sound old fashioned and out of date. The Government are certainly arrogant; they are bullying the House. It is unnecessary for them to bully the House. The Government are also bullying the country and the other place, and they are producing very bad legislation.

Why have the Government introduced the Bill? There can be no argument about the fact that they are incompetent. They are amending legislation that they introduced only in past year or so, because provisions that were not properly thought through now have to be changed. To some extent, the changes that they propose are sensible and, therefore, we suggested in our reasoned amendment that they needed modifying, but we did not oppose the whole Bill. However, the Bill needs to be carefully scrutinised not only by the House--as can be seen on television around the world, by those with Sky and so on--but by those in the City of London, the CBI and financial services generally, as well as by those in all the places where small businesses congregate and consider such matters. They must have time to propose amendments.

Let the country know what is proposed in this small, technical, but important Bill. The Government will ram the Bill through. The Committee is supposed to consider the Bill carefully and constructively, but it must take no more than eight days to do so. This week will be taken up in trying to determine exactly when the Bill will be debated in Committee. That effectively leaves only 30 January and 1 February for the Bill to be considered in Committee. That is five and seven days, or six and eight days ahead, so the small business groups, the City groups or the taxation accountants, who have already helped us on Second Reading, have no chance to consider whether the Government have got it right and to propose constructive amendments. That is very bad government indeed.

Let everyone know that the Government are thoroughly unreasonable and that, day after day, they are timetabling--guillotining--every Bill that they introduced in this short Session before the general election. They are throwing aside the traditions that have existed for the 22 years that I have been a Member of Parliament, when my party has had two very large majorities.

Let us not consider the proposals blindly. We can modernise sensibly. There have been some suggestions for sensible modernisation. In the past, Committees used to sit for 80 or 150 hours in Committee before a guillotine motion was introduced. Those hours were often used stupidly. The then Opposition felt that they could do nothing but ramble on indefinitely because time was their only weapon, and only the first or second clause of a Bill was debated. However, we have exactly the same amount time available proportionately--there are the same number of days in the weeks and the same hours in the day as there were in the 1980s, when such a Bill would

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never have needed to be guillotined. We could have used those 80 hours constructively on getting the legislation right.

From the top, the Government--from the Chief Whip, the Leader of House and the Prime Minister himself--are unnecessarily denying Parliament the opportunity to give legislation serious scrutiny. That is a disgrace. The country is being misgoverned; the House is being mismanaged; the Government are responsible, and the country should hold them to account for it at the election.

5.15 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I strongly agree with all that has been said so far in the debate, including that by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). However, something she said should perhaps be corrected, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) could have done so, but from personal modesty, which we all know is one of his qualities, he refrained from doing so. It is not true that to say there was no opposition to the introduction of timetable motions under the previous Government. Indeed, such motions were opposed in principle.

My hon. Friend courageously opposed the principle of the programme motions introduced by the Administration formed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). However, those motions had been introduced after perhaps 100 or more hours of debate in Committee. Such arrangements have existed since the 19th century, but they were emergency provisions intended to deal with abuse. They were used to timetable Bills that were clearly being obstructed. The Government have turned those emergency powers into a weapon. They were intended to be used exceptional circumstances in response to abuses, but the Executive now use them regularly. Just as Governments around the world have abused emergency provisions to seize power, overthrow democracy and so on, those powers are being similarly turned into a regular, routine procedure, which the Government effectively use to suppress the legislature's rights.

Those hon. Members in the Chamber this afternoon--indeed, those in the Public Gallery--have been here on an unfortunate, but memorable occasion. I could hardly believe something that the Minister said; I have never heard the like in my 13 and a half years as a Member. Speaking from the Front Bench on behalf of the Government, he suggested that the Committee would need only two sittings to deal with the Bill, but in a moment of generosity, the Government were prepared to concede to four.

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