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Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): My right hon. Friend is being too generous to the Government. The chances are that the House will be dissolved at the end of March. Private Members' legislation has to get through the other place, so it is probable that none will become law in this Session. Is not the motion therefore bogus?
Mr. Forth: If so, it would cause me no loss of sleep. My right hon. and learned Friend is right to remind the House that a private Member's Bill, like any other, must be dealt with in another place. If necessary, it must return to the House of Commons before it reaches the statute book. My point is that holding a general election in April or May--or even June or July--would put at risk all the private Members' Bills that have been balloted.
So casual is the Government's attitude in this matter, as in so many others, that they have allowed a month to pass since the motion first appeared, since when no attention has been paid to it. If we end up with no private Members' Bills in this Session, we shall know whom to blame--the Government. Their attitude to such Bills is hostile, and they kill about 30 or 40 of them every year. I should be happy to provide any hon. Member who so wishes with an analysis.
The Government have dealt with this piece of business very casually. They have assumed that the House will accept everything that they do, but that assumption is false. The debate allows us to say to the Government that they should not assume that they have killed the House of Commons. They have done a pretty good job of strangulation, but the body is not yet quite dead. The House is still capable of exercising some of the powers that have been left to it.
The other message to the Government is that they should not think that they will get away lightly with treating private Members' Bills so casually. My analysis shows that the Government have left private Members' Bills with little or no chance of reaching the statute book. To many hon. Members, that will seem a great pity.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for, in effect, triggering this debate. He has exposed the fact that the Government do not want any private Members' Bills to pass through the House in this Session.
The motion first appeared on the Order Paper before Christmas. I was among those hon. Members who objected to it. We wanted the matter to be brought to the Floor of the House much earlier, so that it could be discussed fully. However, the Government waited for a month before the opinion of the House could be heard. The result is that no private Members' legislation will succeed this Session--unless the Government approve of the Bill involved.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst analysed the timetable, and he is right to say that the House would be dissolved near the end of March if there is to be a general election in May, which seems probable. Any legislation would have to get through Second Reading, Committee and Report stages, and then go to the other place. Lords amendments, if any, would then have to be considered in the House of Commons, and then Royal Assent would have to be granted. It would not be possible for any private Member's Bill that was one whit controversial to get through that process by the end of March. The Government are seeking to frustrate the passage of private Members' legislation. We need to identify the bogosity--if that is a word--of the Government's attitude.
My right hon. Friend and I agree about many things, such as the hateful nature of the Government, but we differ about the desirability of private Members' legislation. My right hon. Friend is a great strangler of such legislation, and would say that he is broadly against it. I am broadly in favour of the process, but I am careful about which Bills I support. I am in favour of the process because it gives hon. Members the opportunity to identify issues that are important to themselves or to interest groups.
Mr. Hogg: My right hon. Friend, the great strangler, makes it less probable than it used to be, and I am very glad that he does, but it does not alter the fact that the private Members' process is a good one for identifying issues. Usually, private Members are wrong when it comes to the expression of those solutions in statutory form, but they are often right in identifying the issue, which then triggers debate and may trigger more sensible legislation. Occasionally, the private Members' process is a good vehicle for passing very minor measures, which otherwise would not attract Government time, but which are passed because the private Members' system provides an opportunity. For those reasons I am in favour of the process, although I view with concern many of the Bills that emerge from it.
That brings me to my next point. Thirteen days on which private Members' legislation will get precedence is not enough, especially as we have a Government who are over-mighty and oppressive of the interests of minorities. I would like private Members' legislation to get precedence on more days, not because I particularly want the Bills to be passed, but because I want private Members to have an opportunity to articulate their concerns on matters that arise from their constituencies or matters of national interest.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has given us the opportunity to highlight these issues. The motion could have gone through on the nod. The Government would have preferred it to do so, because they do not like debate. We on the Back Benches, who are standing up for the privileges of Parliament, do like debate, and because debate in the House is being so severely truncated by Ministers, they must expect us to take every opportunity to debate issues of importance.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) was responsible for the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill. She will remember that I strongly disagreed with that when we debated it, but it was an example of a matter that it was proper for a Back Bencher to raise. I disapproved of the outcome, I disapproved of the Bill, I protested against it and I protest now, but that type of thing should be encouraged because it enables Members to express their views and those of their constituents.
I am extremely glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has triggered this debate, and I hope that he will trigger many more such debates. I am playing my modest part in encouraging that debate.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) to the extent that they were saying the same things--which, on the whole, they were.
Most of the legislation that is passed under the present Government is vexatious, regulatory, meddlesome, intervening and interfering, which is why my right hon. and hon. Friends usually vote against it. I would not welcome the introduction of much more similar legislation in the shape of private Members' Bills connived at or encouraged by the Government.
However, if I had to choose whether the time of the House should be a little more occupied by the ideas of private Members or by those of the Government, I would prefer the former, because it is just conceivable that one of my colleagues would come up with an interesting idea that did need attention in a legislative way, whereas I find that Her Majesty's Government usually comes up with ideas that are vexatious, meddlesome and intervening.
Mr. Redwood: My right hon. and learned Friend was ahead of me in my argument. The great advantage of allowing more private Members' days is that it might limit the number of Government days, and so reduce the amount of meddlesome and unnecessary legislation that is introduced.
I object to the way in which modernisation has been steamrollered through the House. The motion could have been discussed before Christmas or two or three weeks ago, when the debate would have been more relevant and timely and more options would have been available to the Government in the light of the feelings of the House. We are discussing it today because the Government have decided to steamroller and dragoon; to cheat the House of Commons of proper debate and scrutiny; and to decide, of their own initiative, what we shall discuss and when, instead of allowing the usual channels--the normal dialogue between the main parties in the House--to settle what is important and what is not so important and to make progress with Government business, given that the Opposition have a right to a certain amount of choice as to what to highlight and what to debate.
The normal procedures have broken down because the Government have behaved in a typically arrogant and overweening way, and some Opposition Members will continue to debate these procedural matters until the Government understand that trust has been broken and needs to be restored.
I regard it as part of the Government's cynical plot to sideline the powers of the House, and the rights of the individual Members of the House, to choose a very limited number of dates for private Members' business before a likely general election at the beginning of May, and to choose another series of dates that will obviously fall, given that the election now looks almost certain to be on that date or slightly earlier.
The Government have allowed the expectations to build up. They have not attempted to dampen those expectations or to suggest that there are other serious dates, so this afternoon the House must conclude that they have cynically chosen a series of dates so that, as my right
It is all part of the pattern of a party that thinks that, because it has so many seats in the House of Commons, it has the right to do what it likes when it likes, without courtesy, without discussion, without proper debate and without asking those of us who represent the other interests and viewpoints of the nation what we consider to be relevant and how legislation might be improved or modified.
One thing that I used to value, as a Minister of the Crown, was that dialogue in Committee and in hard-fought debates on the Floor of the House, when the Chair would allow--and the Minister was happy to accept the ruling of the Chair--the debate to run on because the Opposition had a serious point. I thought that it was my job as a Minister either to have what I thought was a better argument and argue it through, or to give a bit of ground because I or my officials had missed something important and the legislation needed to be modified. I never thought that it was my job to get angry with the Opposition and say that they had no right to a life or existence and no right to a view, and that we would immediately impose a guillotine to ensure that we could not debate those things.
The art of being a good Minister is to tempt, persuade and cajole the House into agreement, and work out a way of living with the Opposition, so that the Opposition may have their day or two in court on the things that really matter to them and, as a result, are more prepared to allow the Government's business to pass.