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Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): I have something of a vested interest in the matter, having drawn No. 1 in the private Members' Bill ballot. I have been following what the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have been saying and their objections to the dates in the motion and the amount of time allowed. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question, and the other Opposition Members who have spoken might like to express their views, too.
If, theoretically--accepting that hon. Members have objections to the dates and the frequency--a private Member's Bill was introduced to the House that secured public support, and on which there was agreement in the House that it was a sensible measure, would it be sensible, in the interests of the dialogue that the right hon. Member is talking about, for that private Member's Bill to be blocked to make a point about procedure, even if the substance of the Bill was sensible?
Mr. Redwood: There are so many ifs in that question that I fear I cannot be tempted into giving either the friendly answer that the hon. Gentleman would obviously like or an unfriendly one, which would be unfair, given the number of hypotheticals that he has advanced. I believe that he should mainly address his remarks to Ministers. The reason that he is very unlikely to get his
I notice a pattern developing. When the Government began imposing guillotines on everything--obviously, wanting to limit the number of days for private Members' business is part of that--they were so arrogant that they would not tell the House anything about their thinking. Then they would just explain a little. Today we have had rather fuller explanation and a little bit of flexibility. That is welcome, but it is still nothing like the proper flexibility that a mature House of Commons has enjoyed in the past and expects from its ministerial team. Ministers should be prepared to engage in debate. They should not be shy of private Members' business having more days for debate, and they should not wish to carry on in this ridiculous fashion, believing that they can steamroller anything that they like through without proper discussion.
I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, who is normally a more reasonable and accommodating Minister than many of his more senior colleagues, will take this message away and think about it. There is a very strong feeling, which I suspect is shared on the Labour Back Benches, that Back-Bench private Members' business and Back-Bench private Members' views are not getting enough airtime, are not being taken seriously and are not being engaged in debate by the Government, and that the Government should mend their ways--otherwise, they might find that the feeling of hon. Members in this place that they are anti-democratic and authoritarian spreads into the country at a very sensitive time for them, when they are facing re-election.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I am surprised that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) is not seeking to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to participate in our debate, as he is the potential beneficiary of the ballot, which is the parliamentary equivalent of the national lottery. There is no constitutional reason for having a general election this Session: there are only political reasons for having one. The Government may well wish to cut and run before people catch up with all their misdeeds, including those of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, about which, I understand, we shall read more in tomorrow's newspapers.
The Government may well cut and run, but it seemed from the intervention of the hon. Member for Northfield that he is already looking for scapegoats. He is going to try to find a scapegoat for the eventual failure of his Bill in the interventions of my right hon. and hon. Friends. However, if his Bill fails, the Government should be the scapegoat, as they will have failed to provide sufficient time for it in this Session before running for cover in a general election.
Mr. Chope: I would always vote, as far as I could, on the merits of the legislation. Having considered, albeit briefly, the alleged merits of the hon. Gentleman's private Member's Bill, I am not sure that I am convinced of them. Obviously, if we had the chance of a full debate, we would be able to explore that more fully.
Mr. Forth: As we are talking about making law, I hope that my hon. Friend would always insist that every Bill was properly debated on Second Reading, received proper consideration in Committee, on Report and Third Reading, and was considered properly in another place. I hope that, along with me, my hon. Friend would insist that anything destined to reach the statute book went through all of those stages in detail.
Mr. Chope: I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend, as there are too many examples of legislation that has been cobbled together by the Government and supported by the Opposition--whoever they were at the time--only for us to find out that it is probably the worst legislation ever passed by the House. It is essential that legislation is subject to proper scrutiny.
I am concerned on behalf of all those who have been successful in the ballot. I do not know whether the Minister has the required authority, but the Prime Minister could certainly come to the House tomorrow and say that there has been a lot of speculation about a general election in this Session. He could say that, as the Government have the largest majority that a party in government has had in a generation, there is no need to go to the country on constitutional grounds this Session. He could therefore announce that there would not be a general election until October at the earliest.
Mr. Forth: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government could also have said that they would bring the process forward? We have already had non-sitting Fridays this month since we came back from the Christmas recess. Fridays have already been frittered away by the Government, yet the Government are delaying the consideration of private Members' Bills. Does my hon. Friend not see irony in that?
Mr. Chope: I am not sure that my right hon. Friend is right. Because we had a late Queen's Speech, strict timetables are laid down in the rules of the House on the presentation of Bills. I do not think that Bills could have received a Second Reading until they had been presented and printed.
Mr. Hogg: There is another way forward. My hon. Friend will know that members of the Government are always boasting that they will win the next general election. Well, we shall see about that. However, for the purposes of argument, let us assume that they will. It would be perfectly possible for them to promise the House that, in the event--however unlikely--of their winning the election, they would provide additional dates to consider private Members' Bills to compensate Members promoting such Bills for the dates in this Session that have been stolen from them.
Mr. Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. All that I need now is for the Minister similarly to say that my proposal will be discussed at the very highest levels. I hope that he will be able to give me that assurance when he winds up our debate. However, I thank him for his courtesy, as he did not open our debate peremptorily by saying: "This is the motion--take it or leave it." He spoke for five or six minutes and explained a bit about the background, history and importance of the issue. The Minister understands the importance of Parliament and the House in debating these issues. It is a pity that some of his friends in Government do not seem to have the same respect for the importance of discussions in the House.
The motion was tabled and consistently blocked: sometimes my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was involved in that and had to be in the House for longer hours than perhaps even the Minister. My right hon. Friend had to go to all that effort to enable us to have this debate today. Other hon. Members also participated in that procedure.
This is an important debate in what is, more or less, prime time. I hope that it will provide the Government with an opportunity to say that there will not be an election until October so that all of the Back Benchers who have been lucky in the ballot can exercise their lottery right to have their day out. Our debate also gives the Minister an opportunity to discuss extra opportunities for Labour Back Benchers in the next Parliament.