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Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Indeed, I thoroughly enjoyed debating the merits

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of the International Criminal Court in the forum of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference last summer. When other hon. Members were in recess, the hon. Gentleman and I were working on behalf of the United Kingdom.

Frankly, as I said in my opening remarks, this is happening by luck, not by judgment. I have no doubt that the Government are trying to slip the Bill through the House, but the fact that the general election date has been delayed to 7 June gives us an opportunity. Why has the Minister chosen the arbitrary date of 3 May? What arrogance leads him to think that he can decide the date on which we shall finish the Bill's scrutiny? What does he know that the rest of us do not? What is he privy to that he is not sharing with the House?

We must find out how the timetable fits in with the general election being called on 7 June, which we all know is the current intention--at least before something else blows the Prime Minister off course. The Bill is to leave the Standing Committee on Thursday 3 May. Monday 7 May is a bank holiday, so there will be no chance of business being conducted in the House, unless the Minister wants to change that convention. The Government think that we will be able to fit in the debate on Report on 8, 9 or 10 May--the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday--on a very tight timetable, in time to call the election on 14 May for 7 June.

In fact, the arbitrary date--3 May--that the Minister, like Solomon, has proposed in his wisdom, is the exact date that fits a possible parliamentary timetable to try to slip the Bill through quickly before an election on 7 June. How convenient. How artificially constructed. The Government have callously arranged to get whatever legislation they want, irrespective of the will of the House. To see the callous objectivity that the Government bring to the scrutiny of legislation, we need only look at the date given for the consideration of the Adoption and Children Bill. Was the date given to that Bill 3 May? That Bill was expected to fall; the general election was expected to occur before it was considered, so an arbitrary date of 12 June was set.

It is obvious that the Government are happy to allocate dates outside the timetable that they have set to Bills that they do not think essential and in reality want to block. We all know that they want to plan the political timetable to their own advantage. That can be seen clearly in this disgraceful timetable motion.

How on earth can the Minister choose the date before we know how many amendments will be tabled? What arrogance makes him think that he can second-guess the will of Members? During the Bill's consideration in another place, more than 100 serious amendments were tabled, and they took many hours to debate, raising some of the most complex and unresolved issues. Those issues still stand unresolved today.

The Minister should hang his head because despite the fact that, according to him, the Bill is supposedly perfect, after the enormously elaborate process of scrutiny to which he referred, the Government still had to amend it in the other place. That shows the irony of having an unreasonably short consultation process and then introducing a Bill that had to be amended in another place because the Government had not thought of everything. Who is to say whether more fundamental flaws in the Bill will or will not be identified? However, before we can see

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the amendments, the time allowed for the Bill's passage will have been decided by a Minister who has only just taken on this brief. The hon. Gentleman is the third Minister to have handled this business since 1998. The fact that he is the third Minister to have tried to get to grips with it may explain why the Bill has not been introduced in a more timely fashion.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is developing a cogent case against the way in which the Government intend to proceed. Does she not agree that it is further evidence of the importance of changing the procedure whereby a Programming Sub-Committee meets in private and has its composition polluted by virtue of the presence of a Government Whip?

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend panders to my prejudices. My first Programming Sub-Committee, which met in secret, was a deeply unsatisfactory occasion. A powerful case has been made for re-examining the procedures that have been thrust on the House and for changing them, so that the will of the House and Members' representations are taken into consideration.

The Bill has six parts, 84 clauses and 10 schedules. By its very nature, it involves serious constitutional issues. Its fundamental aims are not the source of acrimonious dispute within the House or between the parties, but it is a large Bill by any standards and serious concerns were aired on Second Reading, by Government as well as Conservative Members.

Introducing a Bill such as this at the eleventh hour and imposing a timetable motion at this stage is quite inappropriate. The motion flies in the face of the assurances that the Foreign Secretary gave to the House. In a debate on the International Criminal Court, he said:

It certainly has not been a swift or fast-track process because the Government themselves have delayed it. However, the right hon. Gentleman added:

What price that assurance today? We have a timetable motion that will give the Committee a maximum of 10 sittings before 3 May, the marvellous date that has been plucked out of the air to suit a political timetable and the convenience of the Government.

I agree with the Foreign Secretary that the Bill should not be rushed through. As the right hon. Gentleman said, five weeks of difficult and intensive negotiations led up to the Bill. The Minister is chatting away and is so disengaged from the debate that it is unbelievable, but may I ask him whether any restrictions were imposed on those negotiations at the time? Were they curtailed by a programme motion? Of course not, because that would have been ridiculous, but yet again the House faces the indignity of a forced timetable from this rotten Government.

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The erosion of the democratic process under this Government seems to be inevitable. In the House these days, we are asked to deem that we have scrutinised Bills that we have not scrutinised; we truncate the scrutiny by elected Members of legislation that can affect the lives and deaths of individuals; and we refuse to allow elected representatives to fulfil their obligations. All hon. Members are obliged to contribute and do their best to improve legislation. The principles behind the programme motion show the contempt in which the Government hold the parliamentary process and the Chamber. Once again, without an apology, we have a second-rate proposal from a second-rate Government. It will come as no surprise to the Government that we will vote against it.

10.20 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Although the Bill may be lousy, it is substantial. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) said, legislation that contains 84 clauses and 10 schedules should give us pause for thought. Without wanting to go into detail, a mere perusal draws my eye to important matters such as requests for arrest and surrender, bail and custody, entry, search and seizure, fingerprints or non-intimate samples, detention in the United Kingdom in pursuance of an ICC sentence, genocide and "mental element". There is more than enough material to require proper lengthy and detailed consideration, not least, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) explained at the outset, because the Opposition want to draw the Standing Committee's attention to substantial matters. We will want to persuade the Government that serious and proper amendments should be made before the Bill can receive our support.

If the past is anything to go by, the Bill's size, the nature of its content, and what my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham said all make it clear that the Committee's consideration will take some time. I assume that the Committee of Selection will meet tomorrow and the Standing Committee will sit next Tuesday. As that will be one of those funny early bunk-off days, it will not be able to deliberate at length and will not sit again until 24 and 26 April and 1 and 3 May. That leads us into interesting and worrisome territory, because 3 May might be too distant.

Let us turn the argument on its head. If the Government are serious about getting the Bill enacted, and given the Prime Minister's intention to hold the elections on 7 June--if we can believe anything he says--and hence the day when dissolution will have to take place, there is a distinct risk that it may not make progress. Frankly, that would not cause me a minute's loss of sleep.

Mr. Maude: Many of the concerns that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) raise involve the connection between the timetable and the date of the general election. As the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) is in the Chamber, would it not be simpler to ask him to confirm the date? We understand that he is pulling the strings from behind the scenes and he could clear the matter up for good.

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