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Mr. Hayes: Will my hon. Friend confirm that our point about credibility relates specifically to the timetable issue? If we do not allow sufficient time for the election of the person who personifies its credibility and legitimacy, hon. Members and the wider community will not regard the House and the lonely office of Speaker with the reverence that they deserve. Is not that a critical aspect of the timetable motion, as people will expect the House to give proper time and attention to its own affairs?
Mr. Blunt: If only people did regard the House with some reverence. I fear that it is not held in the highest regard outside. The reaction to the current proceedings for the election of a Speaker rather confirm that that is the case, certainly in respect of the response of the media and commentators.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): It is a great pity that we are discussing this important matter at this time of night. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are discussing whether sufficient time is being given for debating the method of electing a future Speaker, when
Mr. Blunt: My hon. Friend has made an essential point. This is, by definition, completely a House of Commons matter. It is outrageous that the Executive should table this motion to limit the amount of time, in principle, and also that they should seek to limit it to such an extraordinary extent.
We have just been through the process of an enormously controversial election of a new Speaker, which has generated this report. Given the report's recommendations and the fact that no sitting Speaker has been challenged since 1835, there should be no great rush to put the provisions in place before a general election on 3 May, if that is what is determining the Government's motion to constrain discussion of the matter.
This is an immensely important issue, and the views of Members of the House on the matter should not be constrained by an absurdly limited amount of time for debate. We should have the opportunity for our opinions exhaustively to be canvassed. The Procedure Committee has done that, to a degree, in the questionnaire that it sent out. However, that questionnaire, and the responses to it, raised as many questions as it provided answers. The Committee has made the best possible stab at a solution. It has not produced a completely prescriptive solution that would lend itself to a yes or no decision on the basis of the recommendations that it received. Some form of multi-option motion will be put before us.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I shall put this question in as unpejorative a way as I can. Does my hon. Friend agree that if this overbearing Executive carry on constantly producing these timetables, particularly on matters such as these, which are House of Commons matters on which Members may vote freely according to their diktats, they will ultimately bring the House into disrepute? Does he also agree that the public will, ultimately, not have the regard that they should have for their Parliament?
Mr. Blunt: My hon. Friend brings me to the context in which this debate is taking place. I hope that we have made the case on its merits as to why one and a half or two and a half hours are insufficient time for debate on this matter. That is because it is a House of Commons matter, because of the complexity of the debate, and because of the inability properly to canvass opinions of hon. Members in that abbreviated time.
Mr. Hayes: The motion is about the length of time that we shall have to debate the matter, and also about the time when it will be debated. We have not yet focused on that second point. It might be more appropriate to debate the matter in a new Parliament. Given that we face a likely general election--I put it no more strongly than that--it is possible that the new Parliament with many new Members, very many of them Conservatives, rather than the old one, should decide about the election of its Speaker. It seems odd to be debating this matter at the
Mr. Blunt: That is the point that I was trying to make. We could face a general election on 3 May, so perhaps the motion is being rushed through so that the House can agree to the new recommendations before prorogation. I understand that the House may prorogue on 5 April to meet the deadline for a 3 May election, with the Prime Minister seeking a dissolution from Her Majesty on 28 March.
Mr. Bercow: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has raised an interesting point in debate and has expressed his opinion about what would be the appropriate procedure in a new Parliament. May I seek your guidance on the constitutional position? Let us assume that the Government do not accept his suggestion, but take the view, entirely reasonably and properly perhaps, that the procedure should be determined in this Parliament. Would you be good enough to confirm whether a subsequent Parliament could revoke that judgment?
Mr. Blunt: The date in the motion--22 March--is important to our discussion. There has been wide speculation as to the date of the general election, when the Prime Minister will seek a dissolution from Her Majesty and when the House will prorogue to meet the deadline for a 3 May--
Mr. Clifton-Brown: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The motion refers to a specific date-- 22 March. I seek your guidance. Surely it is in order to consider that date in the context of a forthcoming election.
Mr. Hayes: Does my hon. Friend agree that it has emerged that--in your words, Madam Deputy Speaker--each Parliament is sovereign? We know that a Parliament can last a maximum of five years, so if we debate the matter according to the Government's suggested timetable, this Parliament's judgment on the election of a Speaker will last a maximum of about a year. Given that it is highly unlikely that we shall elect a new Speaker, the next Parliament will be saddled with rules agreed by this Parliament under which it will have to elect its Speaker. Indeed, it may want to change those rules, so debating the matter today according to such a timetable is nonsense. Let us wait until we have undertaken full consideration and discuss it in the next Parliament, which can take a view as to whether it wants a new Speaker.
Mr. Blunt: I profoundly disagree with my hon. Friend. The procedures and precedents established in previous Parliaments govern how we operate. It is perfectly proper to discuss the matter thoroughly in this Parliament and to set out the procedures for which future elections of Speakers. We must do that at some stage and there is no reason why it should not happen on 22 March. However, there is every reason why the debate should not be limited to perhaps an hour and a half.
Mr. Bercow: Rarely do I dissent from what my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings has to say, but does my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) agree that, at least on this occasion, there is a lacuna in his argument? There is an important distinction between constitutional impropriety--the existence of which my hon. Friend is, I think, wrongly suggesting--and the anti-social character of a debate held at this late hour. The latter may be undesirable, but in fairness to the Government--it irks me to be fair to Ministers--there is nothing constitutionally improper about it.
The point I want to make relates to the context in which the motion appears, in relation to similar motions tabled by the Government. It raises an important issue concerning the reputation of the House and its ability to do its job properly.
I am a member of Standing Committee F, which has been considering the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. Motion 67 relates to action that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and three other Conservative Members felt it necessary to take because of the curtailing of discussion of that important measure, which contains 130 clauses.
When the Government presented timetable motions relating to Committee stages, Third Readings and so forth, we had at least seen the Bill, because it had been published and had received a First Reading; but when the motion relating to this Bill appeared on the Order Paper, the Second Reading debate had not taken place and the Government were not in a position to change the
I think that the Government are making a profound mistake. I say that in all seriousness to Ministers, and to the deputy Chief Whip. This is not some silly point to be made at 1.30 am. I sincerely believe that to restrict debate on the process by which we are to elect a Speaker to, possibly, an hour and a half, in the context of the curtailing of debate on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill--that is one example, but it is now happening to every piece of legislation--is extremely deleterious to the reputation of this place. We are not doing our job as legislators or as scrutineers either of legislation or of the Executive, because the Executive are using their majority to prevent the rest of the House from doing that. The motion is another example--a most unfortunate example--of the Government's tendency to want simply to drive legislation through.
This is a House of Commons matter. The Executive should not be trying to limit time in such a way. I hope--although I am not sure that it is possible--that at some time and in some way the Government, if they have listened to the debate, will conclude that it is over-egging the pudding to expect the whole House to debate the election of a Speaker during a period of between one and a half and two and a half hours.
We have been much criticised in respect of our conduct of Opposition day debates. The Opposition Front Bench has sometimes decided to split Opposition days into two three-hour debates, to highlight two separate issues. In the case of home affairs debates, for instance, the result has been that the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary have managed to take half the debate between them. Once the two Front-Bench spokesmen have summed up, precious little time has been left for Back Benchers on either side to participate. That is what happens when debate on an individual issue is limited to three hours. I believe that it has been a mistake to use Opposition time in that manner. It has prevented us from addressing, at length and with full Back-Bench participation, the issues that we wish to raise. Similarly, in this motion, the Government are saying that we shall have at most two and a half hours for debate.