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Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Hear, hear.

Mr. Davies: I am delighted to mention the names of two very fine parliamentarians and statesmen who did this country great service in their day. They would not have dreamed of using their majority in this fashion; it would not have occurred to them for one moment. They would have stood at the Dispatch Box and defended their legislative proposals and expected their colleagues in government to do the same. They would not have tolerated for a moment the suggestion from a minion that, because they had a large majority, they need not bother with this place very much and could table a programme motion to foreclose debate in two hours, or an afternoon. That is the situation we have been brought to at the dawn of the 21st century by new Labour and nothing but new Labour. It should be thoroughly ashamed of itself.

The uncharacteristic silence of Government Members suggests that they probably are thoroughly ashamed of themselves. I hope that they continue to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves until they discover the consequence that must inevitably flow from exhibiting such a degree of arrogance in our ancient democracy and from treating the public and Parliament with so little respect.

6.21 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I am speaking in the temporary absence of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). He has made many speeches in similar debates over the past few weeks, so he thought it appropriate to allow me to step in and perhaps mouth his words for him. I say in plain terms that we shall not support the programme motion, and my hon. Friend has put our view of such motions on the record time and again.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said that democracy meant providing the occasion for all points of view to be fairly represented. That suggests a conversion to proportional representation that I was pleased to hear. However, I wondered in all seriousness whether he could justify the view that this Government came quite where he claimed they did on the index of supreme arrogance. I refer to the previous Government, who abolished the Greater London council, introduced the poll tax and did a string of things that many people at the time thought represented the height of arrogance and indifference to democratic dissent and lawful authority.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has completely missed the point. It is perfectly true that previous Conservative Administrations put through controversial legislation. In retrospect, some of us are not entirely happy with some of it, but we are very proud of parts of it. Some of the legislation was extremely controversial; other Governments in the past have put

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through controversial legislation, too. The hon. Gentleman's party certainly did, and I mentioned the names of the statesmen who introduced it. Indeed, the Attlee Administration put through some momentous and extremely controversial legislation, but it never occurred to any of those Governments to foreclose parliamentary debate artificially by systematically introducing programme motions in the House. Programme motions were an exception--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman must sit down when I am on my feet. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) are both missing the point. The debate is about the programme motion for the Armed Forces Bill, so I should be obliged if arguments are adduced to that point.

Mr. Stunell: I certainly accept your reprimand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I have strayed, but I thought it appropriate to comment on some of the points that were made earlier.

I return to the central issue. Programme motions and guillotines involve work in progress. Liberal Democrats are willing and eager for an attempt to be made to have legislation introduced and considered systematically and for it to become done-and-dusted law after being satisfactorily scrutinised with a full degree of accountability. We openly say that a system of programming is essential to that. However, there has been a breakdown in the system that was originally approved by a majority of the House. Pending the outcome of the work in progress--it is no secret that the Modernisation Committee is currently debating a draft report to address some of these issues--we will certainly continue to oppose programme motions.

6.25 pm

Mr. Forth: By my calculation, the motion allows us 200 minutes to deal with the 20 discrete matters that represent your wise selection of amendments, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That does not strike me as an inspiring start to our proceedings, because that simple calculation tells us that we have about 10 minutes to discuss each group. If the Government seriously suggest that we should give a Committee of the whole House on such an important Bill 10 minutes to consider each separate item that you, Mr. Speaker, have identified, that sums up as well as anything the contempt in which they now hold the House.

It is curious but significant that, on the very day a generous Prime Minister has given us more parliamentary time than most of us might have expected before the weekend, or at least until the formal statement made earlier today, the Government should now seek to compress our business in such an arrogant fashion. We now know that more parliamentary time stretches ahead of us than we might have dreamed of. Surely, in those circumstances, any reasonable Government would have been prepared to say that they would not press the programme motion because they acknowledged that a Committee of the whole House on a Bill of such importance should be given a proper amount of time for deliberation? Even if we thought that we would not have time to do justice to the Bill, the Government might have

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been prepared, in the light of circumstances, to allow the Committee more time to deliberate on the Bill. That would have been a reasonable response.

Speculation in the press over the past 24 or 48 hours has suggested that Parliament will be embarrassed by the amount of time that we have on our hands. What are we going to do with it? I suggest straight away that the Government could withdraw this outrageous programme motion and say, "We the Government are now prepared to give the Committee a proper amount of time to consider the matters before us."

The Bill has 41 clauses and eight schedules and my hon. Friends have tabled new clauses and amendments which cover important issues. For example, amendment No. 8 deals with the functions of inspectors of constabulary, and that amendment alone would require a considerable amount of time to be properly considered by the Committee. Amendment No. 7 deals with protocols between the Ministry of Defence and the domestic police forces; even to a layman like me, who has not been involved in the detailed scrutiny of the Bill, that is patently an important issue.

In a Committee of the whole House, 500 or so Members may be present and they may all be eager to participate in the debate. If we did the arithmetic properly, we would consider not only the 20 discrete items that must be considered in 200 minutes--10 minutes for each item--but the fact that up to 500 Members may all be eager to speak. The House will readily be able to work out that 10 minutes divided by 500 does not give much time for individual Members to contribute.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) so eloquently said, we have been reduced to hearing the Government tell us that parliamentary scrutiny does not matter any more, that they can rush Bills through in a peremptory fashion, that time is no longer of any relevance, and that they can compress consideration of Bills to such an extent that proper scrutiny cannot possibly be given to matters as important as those with which the Bill deals. Even if we were to devote all the time left--the three hours from 6.30 to 9.30, when the guillotine falls on the Bill yet again--to considering the functions of inspectors of constabulary, it would not be sufficient time to enable many of my hon. Friends who have great expertise and knowledge to make significant and substantial contributions.

All in all, we have here the logical outcome of the process that even the Liberal Democrat spokesman was moved to describe as unsatisfactory. He stated, with all the vehemence that Liberal Democrats can muster, that his party would not be supporting the motion. Those are strong words from a Liberal Democrat--we had better all beware, because when the Liberal Democrats threaten not to support something, it is pretty serious. Of course, we Conservatives will actually oppose the motion.

Mr. Stunell: If the right hon. Gentleman refers to the Library, he will find that Liberal Democrats have a better voting record in the House than Conservatives, and that we have a very good record of voting against the Government when necessary.

Mr. Forth: I presume that they have an even better record of not supporting the Government. When the House divides, we shall see how many Liberal Democrats

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are present and what they do. Perhaps afterwards the hon. Gentleman and I can compare voting records to see whose is bigger.

The motion is an extreme example of a process to which the Government hope we shall quietly become accustomed and which we shall come to accept as routine--to the extent that we eventually give up our opposition. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford said, we shall not give up our opposition as long as the Government handle such matters in such a fashion and tell the House that consideration by a Committee of the whole House of a Bill of such size, complexity and importance will be allowed only a ridiculously limited time. That is not what the people of this country expect of their Parliament in its discharge of its role of scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account. When the general election takes place, whether it be on 7 June or at some later date, we shall draw these matters to the attention of the electorate and invite them to pass judgment.

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