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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): My hon. Friend will not have forgotten that the Government intend to take all stages of the Bill under a guillotine tomorrow. How does she imagine that the House will be able to judge what will happen in the Committee stage? Hon. Members may wish to table amendments for Report. How does my hon. Friend imagine that they will be able to do that if we are operating under a guillotine?
Mrs. Browning: That is exactly why I began by suggesting--and would have suggested, even if I had not heard the representations from other parties--that you might consider manuscript amendments for tomorrow's proceedings, Mr. Speaker. My right hon. Friend is right: we shall be taking all stages of the Bill under a guillotine. Indeed, the House will not need me to remind it that tomorrow we shall be taking all stages of two Bills under guillotine motions. Careful deliberation will therefore be needed to ensure that we have adequate time, especially for the Committee and Report stages of each Bill. That applies particularly to the Elections Bill, as we have had so little time to consider it.
Having had a few minutes on the Bench in which to flip through the Elections Bill, I immediately see many matters that are not only detailed but potentially controversial. Although there is agreement between the parties on wanting the Bill to proceed, it cannot do so at the expense of proper scrutiny on the Floor of the House, or of the right of people to ask questions and to have the right length of debate.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: My hon. Friend advances a coherent and constructive argument. Does she not feel that the Government are wrong to introduce a programme motion for the Bill? We are dealing with local government democracy in the Bill, and it is entirely inappropriate that there should be a programme motion. Bearing in mind the complications in the Bill, if the House needs to sit late tomorrow night, it should have the opportunity to do so and should not be inhibited by any programme or guillotine motion.
Mrs. Browning: I agree with my hon. Friend. I am concerned, because we shall be dealing with two important Bills tomorrow under those terms. During the business statement yesterday, the Leader of the House was asked whether we would sit late tomorrow night. I forget her exact words, but she implied that we would not. That suggests that the guillotining is going to be pretty ruthless.
My hon. Friend asked about the Government's intention to programme. Programming has become the hallmark of this Government. Although there is co-operation, and a need to see the Bill discharged, I none the less urge the Minister to allow the House--particularly its Back-Bench Members--to give the Bill the proper scrutiny that it deserves.
Mr. Hogg: Is there not a further problem? This is the first time the local government representatives and their associations will have seen the Bill. They may well want to make representations about its contents. In the ordinary course of events, no amendments would be taken after the House rises tonight. In those circumstances, how on earth are those people going to have their point of view properly listened to by the elected representatives sitting in this place?
Mrs. Browning: My right hon. and learned Friend is right. Glancing through the Bill for just a few minutes, I notice, for example, a provision about the extension of the nomination period in relation to individual candidates. There is also the matter of clause 6, which deals with compensation to local authorities or candidates. The House will want to probe exactly what is intended by that, and, in the absence of an explanatory note, I have not been able to second-guess it at this stage.
The programme for tomorrow's business includes two very important Bills. The Elections Bill will require a lot of debate and scrutiny. Mr. Speaker, may I urge you to consider being as flexible as possible, according to the powers available to you, in relation to representations from Back Benchers on both sides of the House, and to the ways in which amendments could be tabled to the Bill? Perhaps you could also give us guidance on how the Report stage will be handled, as we shall not have heard the relevant deliberations by the time any amendments would have to be tabled?
Rev. Ian Paisley: Does not the hon. Lady agree that the most difficult part of the Bill has to do with Northern Ireland? We have two systems of voting there. We have a system involving putting a straight "X" for electing Members to this House, and the "one, two, three" single transferable vote system in local government. That leads to all sorts of complications, because the constituencies for Westminster are not--
Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. We are not scrutinising the Bill at the moment. We are discussing the business of the House, under motion 3. That motion is very narrow, and deals with the ability to table amendments. We are, therefore, going wide of the motion if we start discussing the detail of the Bill. That will come later.
Mrs. Browning: May I pick up the thrust of the point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)? The measures dealing with matters pertaining to Northern Ireland are important and no doubt amendments to them will be tabled, which brings me back to timetabling. How will the allocation of time be dealt with? It is a great pity that a timetable motion is not before the House now, because we would have a clearer idea of how time will be divided up between the various parts of a Bill that we have only just seen.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The problem is that we have only part of the information. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, we know only the barest details of what confronts us and what is, after all, an extremely important and rare, if not unprecedented, event in our constitutional arrangements. We are discussing nothing less than changing election dates. I should have thought that even this Government would want to ensure that the House has a proper opportunity to consider those matters in detail, yet we do not know how much time they will deign to give us tomorrow.
The Leader of the House was kind enough to say yesterday that an allocation of time motion relating to the Elections Bill and, indeed, another Bill would be tabled. We have been told that two Bills will be considered on the same day.
The Leader of the House told us yesterday that there will be proceedings--plural--on the Elections Bill. Until the motion was tabled, that was the only hint that we will have debates on Second Reading, in Committee, and on Report and Third Reading.
Mr. Forth: Regrettably, that is true and my right hon. and learned Friend is correct. I hold out no great hope or optimism that we shall be able to amend the Bill in Committee. It has been in our possession for only a few minutes, but even a glance at it suggests to me that there is ample scope for amendment. Therefore, we should be concerned about the opportunity given to us by the motion properly to amend the Bill.
Mr. Forth: Of course, my right hon. and learned Friend is correct, although I had not quite reached that point in my reasoning. When considering any Bill, never mind a Bill of such gravity and importance, we would usually expect the opportunity to consider what had been said on Second Reading, take soundings, undertake consultations, accept representations from outside and table amendments in Committee.
That would be the normal process, but we are faced with an absurdity in this instance. Apparently, we are expected to engage in a truncated Second Reading debate under a guillotine; we will vote on Second Reading; then, and only then, the shutters will come down and it will no longer be possible to table amendments.
I might want to delay submitting my amendment until I have heard the whole of the Second Reading debate. If time permitted, I might well want to hear the Minister's winding-up speech before considering what amendments to table for the Committee stage.