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Mr. Lidington: I wish that I could explain to my hon. Friend the Government's machinations in handling the Bill. As he implied, it is clear that, even if the Bill is considered in an exceptionally speedy fashion in the House of Lords, it cannot complete all its stages in both Houses before the expected general election in April or May. One is therefore tempted to assume that the Government are engaged in a charade in an attempt to impress some of their own Back Benchers and some of the animal rights groups to which the Labour party has looked both for support and for money in the recent past.
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Would not the best interests of the countryside and all those who support countryside issues be served if we were to truncate the debate and have a Division within the next few minutes? We could then proceed to discuss amendments. The Gallery is full, the country is watching and people want to hear the debate on the amendments so that Parliament can decide. Why do we not get on with that right away?
Mr. Lidington: The best service the hon. Gentleman could perform for the countryside would be to support the Opposition in the Lobby in trying to reject this programme motion. That would enable the House to proceed at the pace it considers appropriate to discuss all the groups of amendments that are before us.
Mr. Campbell-Savours: I would willingly do that, but there is a problem: if we do not proceed on the basis of the programme motion, Conservative Members will filibuster throughout the night and wreck the Bill, when what the public want is for us and the other place to reach a decision. Why does not the hon. Gentleman just concede my case?
Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman is frustrated by the fact that the Bill illustrates the problem that far too little time is being allotted to scrutinise and debate legislation. Programme motions are an impressive procedural device that Governments use to try to constrain Parliament's ability to scrutinise legislation. They allow them to ram through as many Bills as they choose.
Mr. Lidington: I not only agree with my hon. Friend, but think that even Labour Members would do themselves some good by taking his comments seriously. He has been consistent in his criticism of the way in which successive Governments of both parties have treated the House of Commons and has championed the rights of Back Benchers during his years in this place.
Mr. Gummer: Will my hon. Friend return to the fact that the measure is not party political and has been trumpeted by the Government as something on which we have a free vote? A programme motion imposes on Back-Bench Members of Parliament a restriction that I cannot recall being imposed while I have been a Member of Parliament. We should be entirely free to debate the Bill for as long as necessary. The Minister seems to have missed the curious fact that he is stopping Back Benchers from speaking on a Bill on which he admits that there is a free vote on both sides of the House.
Mr. Lidington: My right hon. Friend is correct. The Minister let it slip that he was unwilling to face up to the limitations that the motion imposes on the rights of Back Benchers. In praising the part of the motion that allows for separate votes on the main Government amendments, he said that Standing Committee debates had allowed the Government to identify the key issues. I agree that the Government amendments cover some of the key issues that arose from those discussions, but, as there is a free vote on the Bill, it is plainly wrong for debate to be constrained by their views on what constitutes the chief issues that are worthy of discussion and Division. On such a Bill, Back Benchers have as much right to have a say as Front Benchers and, if necessary, to insist on Divisions on issues about which they feel strongly.
My right hon. Friend will no doubt recall from our Standing Committee debates that the Bill is in great need of thorough, detailed and meticulous scrutiny. Many ambiguities and uncertainties still need to be explored.
Sir Peter Emery: Will my hon. Friend take up the argument of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department who said that, having analysed consideration in Committee, he had gone to great trouble to identify the issues that he felt should be brought to the House on Report? There are 68 amendments in 11 groups, and the hon. Gentleman is not ensuring that the issues that he considers should be debated will be debated. We shall have only five and a half hours of debate. If he thinks that we shall get through the 11 groups of amendments that have been selected in that time, given that many Members who were not in Committee are vitally affected in their constituencies by the Bill, he is in "Alice in Wonderland". There is no need for such a programme motion.
Mr. Lidington: I agree completely with my right hon. Friend. He brings to bear his experience as a senior Member of this place and as a former Chairman of the Procedure Committee. We are right to listen with attention to his criticisms on issues of procedure.
I was referring to the way in which the Committee flushed out, if I may so put it, some of the inherent ambiguities and uncertainties in the Bill. Some of them arose because individual Members had a constituency or other interest in certain details in the Bill. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) has been a consistent supporter of the need to control mink. She put the Government under great pressure on that issue. No doubt one Government amendment is in large measure a response to what the hon. Lady said in Committee.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, like myself, raised issues connected with deer stalking. It was astonishing that on the final day in Committee--the additional day that the Government offered the Opposition, as it became clear that the time provided in their original programme motion was inadequate--the Government admitted that the Bill would prohibit the stalking and flushing out of deer, even though that was not the Government's intention. I found it extraordinary that after the Bill had been drafted in the Home Office, scrutinised in the Home Office, presented on Second Reading and taken through Committee, it was discovered in Committee that the Bill meant something different from what Ministers asserted they wished it to mean.
Mr. Lidington: We need later this afternoon to discuss matters relating to rabbits and rodent control. However, there are other ambiguities, which were demonstrated as a result of scrutiny in Committee. I contend that they demonstrate beyond doubt that there is a need for further rigorous scrutiny on Report and during further stages of the Bill's passage.
Mr. Mike O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman may have forgotten it, but I sent him a letter yesterday saying that Deadline 2000 initially wanted deer stalking to be included in the Bill. I should make it clear that the parliamentary draftsmen complied with the policy set out by Deadline 2000, which is now content that deer stalking should be taken out of the Bill. I do not want the hon. Gentleman in any way to traduce the parliamentary draftsmen, as I am sure he would not wish to.
Mr. Lidington: I wish to make no imputation against the conduct of the parliamentary draftsmen or civil servants, who, in my experience, obey the instructions of Ministers. One of the most unsatisfactory points about our proceedings has been that we have made repeated criticisms of the detail of the schedule only for Ministers to resort to saying that the Bill had been drafted not by them, but by Deadline 2000. They could not, therefore, explain or justify its ambiguities or the apparent gap between the Government's political intent and the wording produced by their subcontractors, Deadline 2000.