Mr. Forth: Yes, but the issue that arises has been mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and for Sevenoaks: the casual assumption about whether my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition will be squeezed out by some combination of events that we cannot foresee. With their usual arrogance, Government Front Benchers are saying that they want to arrange the business of the House to protect the Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech, but they do not give a damn about the contributions of my right hon. Friend and--let us be charitable just for a moment--of the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
One way or another, the House is being asked to change its own arrangements, including even the Sessional Orders that were thrust upon us only a few months ago, because the Government cannot get their act together or organise their business properly. For that reason, they are asking us to sweep aside for their convenience not only longstanding Standing Orders, but the Sessional Orders that they imposed to deliver this ghastly sham of deferred Divisions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks said that the proposed arrangement was designed to protect the Prime Minister. I wonder whether that is the case. On the face of it, it is designed to enhance the Chancellor's glory, but whether that is to the benefit of the Prime Minister is another matter altogether. Some people--admittedly they would be uncharitable--might argue that the glorification of the Chancellor would not benefit the Prime Minister. However, the question of whose benefit the arrangements are designed to serve is significant and deserves exploration. Are they for the benefit of the Prime Minister or the Chancellor? I shall not dwell on that question; I leave it hanging in the air, as it is relevant to the motion.
All in all, the new arrangements now appear to be a complete shambles. There are conflicts of Standing Orders and Sessional Orders, and the Government want simply to move things around to suit themselves and the Chancellor. They are arrogant enough to ignore one of the great longstanding traditions of the House: the guaranteed opportunity of the Leader of the Opposition to respond immediately to the Chancellor's Budget statement. That task is always acknowledged as one of the most difficult to be faced by a Leader of the Opposition. It was regularly mangled by Commissioner Kinnock, but has been carried out with some brilliance by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), so I can see why the Government might want to conspire on this little plot. They are afraid of him and they might want to squeeze him out.
We are not afraid of that, but, in the context of granting the Government ever more frequent opportunities to play fast and loose with the traditions of the House and its Standing and Sessional Orders, we are afraid that the motion is merely yet another example of how they regard the House of Commons and way in which it works. That is deplorable. The Parliamentary Secretary tried, as Ministers now routinely do, to say that this was a small technical matter of little consequence. He seemed to suggest that it could be dealt with late at night and nodded through, and that nobody need be concerned or interested. We are concerned and interested, however, and I hope that we will hear from him some more substantial and persuasive reasons for the Government's actions than he has so far been prepared to provide.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I rise to support my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).
I have particular and general reasons for opposing the motion. My particular reasons are those identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. The motion makes provision to protect the Chancellor, but Government Front Benchers entirely overlooked the need to provide time for my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). They also overlooked the need, if that is the proper word in this context, to provide time for the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Three possible conclusions can be drawn, and they probably overlap. One is that Government Front Benchers are plain selfish; another is that they are plain discourteous; and another is that they are wholly incompetent. Indeed, there is another--that they are all three together, which I suspect is the truth.
The Government's decision was probably taken this way: "Oh, we must protect the Chancellor." They did not initially think of the Opposition's response, because they never think about the Opposition. They do not want to hear a response; they simply want to ram their business through. Someone probably then said, "But what about the Opposition?" to which they said, "Damn the Opposition", as they usually do in one way or another, and "Wouldn't it be funny to see their Members going out to vote while the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks
We should not be conferring respectability on deferred Divisions. The Parliamentary Secretary is doubtless worried that none of his right hon. and hon. Friends will vote in a deferred Division. If that happens, I say jolly good show. We should not be having deferred Divisions. It is profoundly humiliating to see right hon. and hon. Members with their little pink forms in their hands, scurrying around to see a little Whip to say, "Oh do tell me how I should vote", when they had not attended the debate, know nothing about the subject, care not about it all--
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I must remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we are not discussing the principle of deferred Divisions but the particular deferred Division that is to take place next week.
Mr. Hogg: Indeed; I am talking about the particular as well. I was theorising that the Parliamentary Secretary was concerned that Members would not vote in the deferred Division on 7 March. I was saying that it would be a jolly good thing if they did not, and was explaining why, not in general but in particular terms--the particular term being that the process is a disgrace. Therefore, on 7 March, if Labour Members choose not to vote or are unable to vote, that will be a jolly good thing.
I shall be careful not to vote on Wednesday 7 March because I do not wish to confer respectability on the process. I was very cheered by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton saying that we would bury the practice. If she had not said it, I would have done so. When we are in government, let me make it plain that I shall never, ever vote in a deferred Division because I think that the practice is a disgrace.
Mr. Hogg: That is a good thing because if I were asked, I would not do so. Little pink forms and little Whips, running around asking how I propose to vote on 7 March or, indeed, at any other time are an absurdity.
There is the final point, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst drew attention: this Government's fast and loose practices. Not so long ago, we laid down the Standing Orders that provided for this nonsense. In order to placate or accommodate the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or the Prime Minister of the day--here today, gone tomorrow--we are being asked to change our rules again. Why on earth should we? Here we are in this old, established legislature, and we are being made a monkey of by monkeys.
Mr. Tipping: This has been a lively debate. It has become more lively and enthusiastic as the evening has progressed. I do not wish to curtail the debate, but hon. Members who have opposed the motion opposed in principle the issue of deferred Divisions. They have made their position very clear. The position of the House is very
A number of points have been made about the time available for deferred Divisions. The No Lobby will be open until 7 o'clock, which will give Members ample opportunity, if they wish, to listen to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to the Leader of the Opposition's reply. The shadow Chancellor may reply to my right hon. Friend after the next general election when a new leader of the Conservative party is in place.
The point has been made by Members who are well versed in the traditions of the House that it is traditional for a Budget statement to be made on a Tuesday. If they looked back at the record they would see that Budget days are not always on a Tuesday. In 1997, it was on 2 July, which was a Wednesday. In 1980 and 1963, it was on a Wednesday. In the 1960s, it was always on a Monday. There is nothing in particular about this year's statement being on a Wednesday.