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4.17 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): It has become a ritual at the conclusion of each Second Reading debate and at the beginning of each Report stage that we spend 45 minutes debating not the merits of the Bill, however

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worthy and however urgent, but how long we will permit ourselves--or more correctly, how long the Government will permit us--to scrutinise the legislation.

The proceedings on the Bill are a classic example of bad management of the time that the House spends scrutinising the Government's legislation. We spent the permitted 45 minutes debating the programme motion after Second Reading on 15 January, then a further 15 minutes or so voting on the motion--all to what effect? We voted to conclude the Committee stage by 1 February--not an unreasonable target for an eight-clause Bill, but as the Government are the masters of the timetable of the House, did the House need to resolve such a date at all?

We also voted to set up a Programming Sub-Committee to timetable the Committee stage so that we might meet that target. As is the practice of such Sub-Committees, we met in private, with no record of our proceedings. We met early in the morning, two days after Second Reading, with the greatest display of amity that I have seen in the House for some time. We all referred to each other not by our constituencies, nor as Mr. this or Mrs. that, but by our Christian names, which is the practice in the National Assembly for Wales, where Members have a different way of conducting their business.

The Minister--I dare not call him Dave now--moved a motion that we should meet at 10.30 on a Tuesday and 9.30 on a Thursday, and that we should conclude our proceedings by 1 February. The Government Whip--may I call him Don?--then informally suggested that we meet for five sittings: twice on the first Tuesday, once on the Thursday and twice the next Tuesday. The Opposition protested that that might not be sufficient. "Ah. No problem." We could meet after dinner each Tuesday. "But that may not be sufficient, either," we protested. We were then told, "Oh well, maybe we could meet twice on the first Thursday, and if that isn't sufficient, we could meet twice on the following Thursday." The original five sittings had now been expanded to a possible 10 sittings.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): To help the Opposition.

Mr. Walter: Indeed, to help the Opposition. That is the point that I am coming to. We could meet as often as we liked, so long as we finished by a specified end date. It was concluded that we could come back to the House if there was not sufficient time and ask for more time. There was some discussion between the Chairman and the Clerk on that point, but the Committee concluded that we could ask for an extension.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): My hon. Friend will be aware that a motion asking for more time was dealt with earlier today, in relation to another Bill. He has obviously been preparing for the excellent speeches that he will make on the Bill before us, but will he confirm that we cannot consider or debate motions for further time? Such motions are simply slapped before the House, with or without consensus, and hon. Members who have not had the privilege of participating in the process are asked to take them or leave them. Does my hon. Friend approve of that procedure?

Mr. Walter: I do not. As my right hon. Friend points out, we were not permitted to debate a Hunting Bill

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programme motion that was dealt with earlier. Apparently, according to the Sessional Orders that deal with programme motions, no debate is possible on such extensions of time.

I left the Programming Sub-Committee wondering what purpose our meeting and the programme motion had served. It seemed that the usual channels were alive and well. The Whips could formulate whatever mutual agreement they felt to be necessary, and the rigid programme motion was completely superfluous. We must now consider whether the Government's proposed allocation of time is adequate for Report and Third Reading. As on so many previous occasions when we have debated a timetable motion, it is peculiarly difficult, if not impossible, to state with confidence whether the proposed time will be adequate.

One of the principal reasons why we can have no idea at this stage whether it will be adequate is that we do not know how many hon. Members will seek to speak on the new clauses or to what extent. Without knowing how many speeches will be made, how complicated they will be or how strongly held the opinions expressed by hon. Members on either side of the House will be, it is absurd to speculate on whether we will have sufficient time to consider the issues.

Even hon. Members who consider, as I do, that the Bill is sound in principle believe that the House should be able to consider its detail even at this late stage, before it goes to another place.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): My hon. Friend said that this was a late stage. Although he is correct in one sense, it is also the first stage at which the House as a whole can consider the detail. That is what consideration on Report is about.

Mr. Walter: My right hon. and learned Friend is right. This is the opportunity for hon. Members on both sides of the House who did not have the privilege of serving on the Committee to discuss the amendments and new clauses that they have tabled. That will be pretty difficult in the time available. Although Opposition Members have tabled a number of new clauses and amendments, only two of them--I am sure that the timetable was borne in mind--have been selected for debate. It is a great pity that the Government display so much haste and indifference to the rights both of the Opposition and of their Back Benchers, who were very active in Committee.

Mr. Hanson: I am greatly enjoying the hon. Gentleman's contribution, as I can tell from his eyes that he does not believe a word of it. Will he tell the House exactly when the Committee's sittings finished? As I recall, we did not use the time allocated for either the Tuesday or the Thursday sittings. And which hon. Members who did not serve on the Committee have tabled amendments for consideration today?

Mr. Walter: It is clear that other hon. Members have not tabled such amendments. However, I have discussed with my hon. Friends a number of amendments and new clauses, and given the limited time granted by the timetabling of this business, we plan to ask our noble Friends in the other place to table similar amendments.

Mr. Hogg: It may be right for amendments to be tabled in the other place, but does my hon. Friend agree that we,

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as elected Members of the House of Commons, should be the first to consider any substantive amendments? Does he further agree that if amendments have to be considered in another place because of a timetable motion, that is in itself a criticism of the process on which we are embarking?

Mr. Walter: Yes. We will have barely an hour or so to consider on Report what emerged from the Committee. That time is insufficient for us to give adequate scrutiny to the Bill.

I know that the Government are treating the measure with a degree of urgency, and that they want to get it through the House of Commons, to the other place and then back, so we can consider their lordships' amendments. I have no doubt that some members of the Government have a date in mind, maybe a month or so away, when they would like to tell the electorate that they have put the measure on to the statute book. Indeed, the Bill may be the only measure that they can claim to have introduced in the current Session.

The timetable that the Government are insisting on has not been discussed before today. Opposition Members will be content to vote against the motion because we do not believe that the business of the House should be conducted in such a manner. We do not know how much consideration will be required by hon. Members who have an interest in the Bill, yet the Government are insisting on the motion. We will oppose it for that reason, and ask them to reconsider it.

It is a flagrant abuse of the House to use programme motions on every Bill, but the Government have done so since the current Session began. However perverse they might feel it is for Opposition Members to complain at great length about lack of time, and while I do not want to detain the House, I must make it clear that we do not believe that such timetabling is the right way for business to be conducted. As has been pointed out on a number of previous occasions, the motion is a sign of the Government's discourtesy.

Paragraph 4 of the motion states:

Last week, when the House considered a similar motion in relation to the Vehicles (Crime) Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said that he was not familiar with that aspect of Sessional Orders. He made inquiries and discussed the matter with the Clerks, and discovered that the

That Government are now inviting the House to disapply that Sessional Order and to substitute for a Committee and proper cross-party discussion a brief motion that they doubtless intend to ram through on their payroll vote.

If the Minister is sincere about the need to be open-minded about the workings of the new procedure, it is extraordinary that neither he, as the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, nor the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), a Government Whip--who, as he should

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be, is currently silent--has made any attempt to communicate with my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who was the Opposition Whip on the Standing Committee, with me, or with any other Conservative who served on the Committee about the allocation of time for Report. They have ignored Sessional Orders, and devised a cheeky form of words enabling them to insist on devoting only an hour or so to the remainder of the Bill.

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