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4.26 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The core concern, as I see it, is that although the motion may be intrinsically sound and acceptable in itself, the fact that it does not have alongside it any timetable, programme motion or guillotine arrangements makes it extremely difficult to judge whether it is acceptable. For all we know, the Government may intend to bring matters to a conclusion at 7 o'clock or 11 o'clock tomorrow evening, or at 2 o'clock or 7 o'clock on Thursday morning. In those circumstances, it is extremely difficult for us to judge how the matter will be addressed in the House tomorrow.

Liberal Democrats have no problem with the motion, and I think that that is probably true of other parties as well. The key issue is whether we will be given adequate time to debate properly the amendments that will be brought forward under the motion and give the matter the scrutiny that it requires. I hope that someone on the Government Front Bench can give us an indication of the intended timetable. I have been in the Chamber for a couple of hours, and I may have missed something, but as far as I am aware there has not even been any discussion across the House through the usual channels.

Mr. Hogg: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman heard my point of order. I went to the Table Office and was told that no timetable motion had yet been tabled, so we must assume that the terms have not been drafted.

Mr. Tyler: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but that may not be entirely so. He will know

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from his experience in government that discussions sometimes take place through the usual channels before the final version of a motion is tabled. It has been known for programme motions to receive the support of all parties in certain circumstances. Given, as I understand it, that the Conservative party--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have spoken at length about the narrowness of the motion. Programming does not come into it--it is strictly about the time limit for amendments. That is what we must debate.

Mr. Tyler: I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. The importance of the motion--which we support--is not its intrinsic merit but how it fits with the business of the House. My concern is that we do not know how it will operate tomorrow, which will make it difficult to judge its merits.

I plead with the Government to ignore the fact that the Conservative party seems to be at sixes and sevens on this issue. After all, Conservative Members have wanted these elections to be delayed for some weeks, and now that the necessary motion has come before the House to make that a practicality, it is difficult to understand where they are coming from.

Will the Government give us an indication of what the timetable is? Without knowing that, it is extremely difficult to address the motion in a fair and balanced way.

4.29 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): The House should be aware of the immense part of the Elections Bill that refers to Northern Ireland. Four pages refer to England and Wales, but 12 refer to Northern Ireland. I would have thought it only right for a Northern Ireland Minister to be on the Government Front Bench, at least today, because the largest part of the Bill deals with Northern ireland.

The amazing thing is that Northern Ireland does not need to be included in the Bill, as our elections do not need to coincide. They are not even in the same month. We in Northern Ireland know why this has happened--the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister want it, whereas the other parties do not. To us, this is a political move for political advantage.

Elections are at the heart of democracy and there should be no interference, if possible, in the way in which elections are run. Part I of the Bill deals with parliamentary elections rules, about which I am supposed to table amendments. We then come to a large part about local election rules, about which I am supposed to table amendments. [Interruption.] I am looking at the motion, Mr. Speaker, and I am aware of what is in it; it is about tabling amendments, and I am sticking to that. I tried to get that through to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), but you cut me off before I put my question, Mr. Speaker. I am trying to stick to the subject of tabling amendments.

I always thought that we tabled amendments after we heard what the Government thought about a Bill and what it meant. I have written a three-page letter to the Prime Minister, by request from the Northern Ireland Office, in which I put all my views. It was not even acknowledged and I do not know what the response will be. How can I

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carry out my duty as leader of a party in Northern Ireland when I do not know the response of the Government to the Bill?

Mr. Hogg: Does the hon. Gentleman know of any discussion involving the Northern Ireland Office, his party or any of the parties in Northern Ireland--

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, in answer to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said:

As I understand it, the motion seeks to extend the normal procedures of the House. Am I right in saying that if the motion were to be rejected, we would fall back to the normal procedures of the House, which would be of lesser benefit to Members on both sides? Would it be in order to ask you to ask whether any Member of the House does not want the extension to the normal procedures, so that we can get on to some sensible business?

Mr. Speaker: It would not be in order to ask me because I am not here to say what the benefits would be of approving the motion. All I can do is to advise the House on how narrow the motion is. It is very narrow, and I would say to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) that he is nearly going beyond its terms. Perhaps he will assist me by getting back to the terms of the motion.

Rev. Ian Paisley: I am glad to hear that you think I am not beyond, but only nearly beyond, the motion, Mr. Speaker. I will not make any further comment and I will leave to your imagination what I am thinking.

In response to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), I know that all the parties in Northern Ireland have had discussions with either the Secretary of State or the Minister in charge of elections, and it is clear that the First Minister and his deputy want this delay, while the other parties do not. There are many within the Ulster Unionist party who do not want it either.

It is all right for those in the House who have only four pages to look at; Northern Ireland Members have the vast bulk of the Bill to look at. When we table amendments, we will not know whether we are tabling them with the right view of the Bill, because there is no explanation--not even in the Bill itself. That is a legitimate point to make on this motion, Mr. Speaker, because it concerns the tabling of amendments. How can we do that unless we have some idea of the Government's view, which would usually come out in a Second Reading debate? That is what Second Reading is for.

The matter is complex for Northern Ireland because it has different constituencies for local government. One constituency has four different--

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Mr. Speaker: Order. This is where the hon. Gentleman is going beyond the scope of the motion.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Perhaps I can ask for your help, Mr. Speaker. How can I table an amendment that will cover a situation in which, instead of one council, we have local government councils in four parliamentary constituencies?

Mr. Speaker: All I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that whenever I wanted to table amendments, I sought the advice of the Clerks. That is my advice to him.

Rev. Ian Paisley: The Clerks will have a long session, because there are great difficulties. As the largest part of the Bill concerns Northern Ireland, there should be adequate time to consider the amendments. We may get a bit of paper that says that the amendments will not be discussed at all. Even if they are on the amendment paper, with the guillotine we may never reach them.

4.37 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I want to reinforce what the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said. The motion is narrowly phrased but important, and I view it with dismay. I am perfectly prepared to accept that we need emergency legislation, although I would have put a date for the local council elections at the back end of this year--but that is not a matter for this debate.

This is a profoundly unsatisfactory state of affairs, for several reasons. Critically, the motion is only part of the process, and until we also see the timetable motion we do not know whether it is right to agree to it. We are told that we can table amendments until the Bill has its Second Reading, but we do not know whether there will be a substantial gap between Second Reading and Committee stage. If the Committee stage is taken immediately following Second Reading, and that is to be concluded very early tomorrow, in the afternoon sitting, the proposal in the motion is wholly inadequate.

Until we see the timetable motion, we are being asked to discuss an important matter of parliamentary procedure with only one part of it before us. That seems absolute nonsense to me.

Another reason for not liking the motion is that I have already raised with several right hon. and hon. Members--and with you, on a point of order, Mr. Speaker--whether amendments will be acceptable during the Committee stage. You were kind enough to tell the House that that is, in essence, a matter for the Chairman of Ways and Means. No doubt that is correct, but it would have been perfectly possible for the Government, when drafting the motion, to provide for the acceptance of amendments, new clauses and new schedules during Committee.

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