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6.2 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The Minister very kindly told us that no significant extra costs would be involved, but under extreme pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), he then told us that he had made an allowance of £100,000, presumably per annum--

Dr. Moonie: Per inspection.

Mr. Forth: The Minister corrects me. Perhaps we shall find out how often those inspections are expected to take place in due course, but that figure is not stated in the money resolution.

One of the great difficulties with such money resolutions is that, unlike many of the other financial matters brought before us in which either specific amounts or upper limits are specified, we tend to face wording of the kind that we are considering now. The resolution states that

It one thing for the Minister to say in his characteristically open and honest way that he expects only £100,000 to be involved in this case, but that is not what the money resolution states. It states:

If I were a more cynical and unbelieving chap, I might say that the money resolution, if we were to approve it, would seem to give carte blanche to the Secretary of State to spend almost any sum that he wanted

The Minister looks perplexed, so perhaps he thinks that the money resolution will allow him to spend only the £100,000 that he anticipates will be spent on inspections, but the motion does not say that. We are faced with the difficulty that, in the current circumstances, this Minister, knowing what he now knows, envisages that an inspection will cost about £100,000, but, of course, circumstances and, dare I say, Ministers can change, and this genial and

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helpful Minister might not always be in charge of such matters. Indeed, this Secretary of State may not be in charge of them. So we are really being asked to say that, whoever the Secretary of State is and in whatever circumstances he finds himself, he will be authorised to pay any increase in expenditure that he sees fit in respect of the inspectors of constabulary. In effect, that is a blank cheque.

I should have been more reassured, frankly, if the money resolution had stated, "£100,000 per inspection"; or I might have been prepared to accept it if it had stated, "£150,000 per inspection", to provide some leeway and allow flexibility for any contingency. I am worried about the gap between what the Minister knows--he has told us, quite openly, what he envisages--and what the wording will allow. By agreeing to such a money resolution, I wonder whether the House is doing its job properly as the custodian of taxpayers' money and as the authority that can spend, which is the role that we have developed for ourselves over the centuries.

Perhaps this is not the right occasion to consider it because the amounts involved are not that great, but I occasionally wish that the House would reject a money resolution of this kind to force the Government to introduce more specific money resolutions. That would at least give us some sort of fig leaf which would enable us to tell our constituents, the taxpayers and the voters that, yes, we are looking after their money responsibly and, no, we are not allowing the Government to get away with murder and to spend as freely as they would, no doubt, wish to do. Unfortunately, this might not be the occasion because as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has said, it appears that the Government have accepted his inexorable logic and wisdom, have altered the Bill appropriately and, therefore, have asked the House to approve the extra expenditure.

I shall gloss over the fact that my hon. Friend seems to be contributing to an increase in public expenditure. He and I can perhaps have a word about that later. Perhaps this is not the occasion on which the House should make the gesture that I believe it should make on money resolutions, but I wanted to tell the House that, at the moment, we are issuing blank cheques and, however

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genial the Secretary of State and the Minister may be, I am not sure that I would trust them quite that far. So, as time unfolds, we shall have to keep an eagle-eye on the Minister to ensure that, somehow, we can hold him to his £100,000 and that there is no question of expenditure on Her Majesty's constabulary running riot as a result of this rather over-generous money resolution.

6.8 pm

Dr. Moonie: Given the number of resolutions to which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has spoken, I should have thought that he would understand their purpose. They are not intended to authorise the expenditure of specific sums; nor do they set a budget.

Mr. Forth: They should.

Dr. Moonie: No, they should not; there is another appropriate procedure for that. They are an authorisation to spend money under a particular heading when that heading is placed on a statutory basis. When the statutory basis of expenditure in the Department is changed under primary legislation, there must be a money resolution to cover it.

I do not have the figure for the cost of the old inspection because I did not imagine that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) would want to know it, so I suspect that I shall have to tell him in writing. The provision of £100,000 is for a non-statutory inspection where we meet the legitimate charges of Her Majesty's inspector of constabulary. In fact, under the new statutory basis, we shall, in turn, be obliged to supply officers to carry out inspections elsewhere, so we shall not be charged for the inspections. Nevertheless, a money resolution is necessary because there is a possibility of expenditure and because there is a change to our statutory responsibility. So the £100,000 that we have talked about will not be involved, but, alas, our procedures being what they are, a money resolution is required to cover the eventuality.

Question put and agreed to.

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2 Apr 2001 : Column 67

Armed Forces Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

6.10 pm

Dr. Moonie: I beg to move,

I may not get off so lightly with this motion. I should point out to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) that, in relation to his question in the previous debate, the expenditure was just under £100,000.

The Bill has benefited from the close and careful scrutiny of the Select Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire). The Committee made full use of the two months or so available to it, taking evidence on nine occasions in addition to its deliberations on the Bill. Against that background, the time proposed for the remaining stages of the Bill seems appropriate to the number of amendments tabled--including only one from the Government, I am happy to say; all the more so given that most of the amendments address issues that have had more than their share of exposure in the Select Committee.

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6.10 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): This is a thoroughly unsatisfactory situation. Day after day, night after night, the Government move programming motions to attempt to tell Parliament, the legislature, how long the Executive think is appropriate for us to consider their proposed legislation. That is an appalling pretension on the part of the Executive branch of the Government, and it is unprecedented.

We have had provision for programming motions in this House for about 120 years. It was necessary to bring in those rules because of the systematic filibustering by Irish nationalists in the 1880s. However, it was always considered that such motions were exceptional, used only in response to deliberate filibustering. They were a necessary weapon in our armoury to prevent Parliament from coming to a complete standstill.

Even when I got to the House--in 1987, 100 years after the introduction of the provision to "Erskine May" and our Standing Orders--those procedures were used too frequently, in my view, by the then Conservative Government, as I remember arguing on occasion. Nevertheless, the procedures were used sparingly at that time. It was taken for granted that the Government had to have some evidence of abuse and of deliberate time wasting; for example, if a Standing Committee examining a major Bill had only managed to get through four or five clauses in 100 hours. It was only when the Government could make such a case that they came before the House with such a programming motion.

That procedure was adopted by the Labour Governments of the 1970s and the Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s. In my view, even on that basis, the procedures were used too frequently by Conservative and Labour Administrations. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)--who, sadly, is not in his place--arguing forcefully against the excessive use of programming motions by the then Conservative Government, and I remember supporting him in the Chamber.

There was a balance between the Executive's desire to get their business through this place and the feeling that they should be able, at least, to enact legislation for which they had an electoral mandate without being held up indefinitely, and the strong feeling of the House that it was an exceptional, dubious and problematic procedure for the Executive to use their majority to dictate to the legislature the timetable under which they were going to do their job.

I have come to know the Under-Secretary well in the past year, and he is not at all an arrogant human being; that is not his natural stance or character. However, he has been imbued with the atmosphere of the new Labour Administration. Their feeling is that if they have an army of spin doctors and cannon fodder on the Back Benches who are prepared to vote through anything at the beck and call of No. 10, Parliament, does not matter and can be steamrollered whenever required. Increasingly, legislation is simply drafted in Whitehall and enforced on this place by Ministers and the vast voting power that they have at present; I hope it will not be there for much longer.

As a result, we are at real risk of passing legislation that simply has not gone through the proper legislative process. The Under-Secretary said that, given the number of amendments, he thought that two hours was perfectly

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adequate to consider the Bill. That is a pretentious and arrogant thing to say, even though he is not by temperament a pretentious or arrogant person. It is sad that someone like him should have been pressed into this procrustean mould of new Labour and come out with such a thoughtless remark--it was, contemptuous of the role of this place. It is important that we have proper time to conduct our procedures; it is far more important than the substance of any particular clause of any Bill.

There are important matters to be discussed in relation to the Bill. On the basis of the record that is before the House, we are concerned that the Secretary of State may have seriously misled this House. I will seek to raise this point later in connection with one of the amendments. It is a serious matter, and if such a serious charge is made, it is important that it be documented. Such a charge must not simply be tossed off frivolously in debate; it should be supported. There must be time to read the relevant quotations--subject to the indulgence of the Chair--and the Government must have time to refute the charge, if refute it they can. I sincerely hope that they can, because the charge is an unpleasant and serious one. It is not in the interests of Parliament--or the Government--that such a charge should lie on the table without being refuted. The Government may be denying themselves the opportunity to do that.

We have a lot of amendments tabled for discussion this afternoon and the Under-Secretary does not know how long we need to discuss them, because they are not Government amendments. The Government said that they had about four amendments and told the House of Commons that we needed two hours to deliberate. I object to that. They do not know how long we need and it is absolutely wrong to try to tell us how to do our job. We would not be doing our job, by definition, if the legislature simply did what the Executive told it.

How much more outrageous and offensive it is--to logic, as well as to the constitutional principle--of the Government to tell us how long we need to present our amendments. They do not even know what lies behind them, or the arguments that we will adduce in their support. They pretentiously and arrogantly assume that, just because they have a majority, we cannot have an argument. Democracy is not based on the principle that because one side has a majority, the other side does not have an argument. Democracy is based on the principle that everybody has the right to say something, even if they are, from time to time, in the minority. They should be heard and considered.

Frankly, that fundamental principle--on which the procedures of this House have been based, which has been around for centuries, and under which we have been the wonder of the world and an inspiration to many nascent democracies around the globe--is being steadily but surely subverted.

My party will continue, in principle, to oppose this form of Executive tyranny. We must: not out of any narrow party political interest, but because it is vital that new Labour's four or five years with a crushing majority do not do permanent damage to the way in which this place does its job. That would be precisely the situation if the Conservative Opposition lay back and let the Government go ahead. We will not do that. We will use whatever means we can to make sure that the public

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realise what is going on. What is going on is that we have the most arrogant of Governments and they are the most contemptuous of Parliament in historical memory.

Many parties had substantial majorities in the past; we remember the great majorities that Baroness Thatcher, Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Attlee, and Asquith and Gladstone had in their day.

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