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1.32 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I shall reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has said in opposing the motion. I have but a few points to make.

First, it is lamentable that the Minister who has charge of the motion should not have explained why he is introducing it. We are entitled to know. The fact that he has not told us, or even advanced an explanation, shows either a lack of mastery of his brief or a contempt for the House, which I find deplorable.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I notice that a note has now arrived from the Box to assist the Minister. Perhaps we might get an answer now. The Minister appears to have received it.

Mr. Hogg: I am sure that the Minister will need notes and advice. He will also have to learn to treat the House with something approaching respect. If he wishes to be, as I understand he is, the deputy Leader of the House--

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): What?

Mr. Hogg: I suppose that the hon. Gentleman is the deputy Leader of the House. He will have to take more care with the House. The purpose of the Leader's office is to represent the interests of the entirety of the House. If the junior Minister in the Leader's office does not have the courtesy to tell us why he is laying a business motion before the House--

Mr. Swayne: The hon. Gentleman does not know.

Mr. Hogg: I suspect that he does not, and that suggests that he did not properly prepare himself before speaking from the Dispatch Box. That shows a contempt for the House that I find wholly lamentable.

Secondly, it is not good enough that a debate of this sort, which is of some importance, should come out of the time that is allocated for the substantive motions that are to be debated. It is not necessary, either, because the House's business could be ordered so that we took the substantive motions in a way that ensured that full time was preserved for debate on them. The Government have chosen not to do that; they have taken a course of action that could result in questions on the substantive motion being put without any debate at all. If the House chose to debate the business motion until 7 o'clock, questions on deferred voting and programming in the substantive motion could be put to the House without any discussion. I suspect that that is deliberate; the aim is to try to curtail debate, which again shows contempt for free speech.

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There is a related point to do with voting. If we are minded to press for a Division on the business motion, which we are perfectly entitled to do, that too will come out of the time allocated for the substantive debate. If we are to do our job properly, press the Government on why we have a business motion and ask for a proper explanation--which, if we find it unsatisfactory, we shall vote against--the time for all of that comes out of the substantive motion. That is yet another example of a tyrannical Government trying to confine the House and prevent proper discussion, and it is a disgrace.

1.36 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): This is a rather sad and sorry beginning to what will be a sad and sorry parliamentary day, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) reflected all too well.

The spectacle of a Minister coming to the House with no explanation at all for the motion on the Order Paper indicates all too readily the current relationship between the Government and the House of Commons, which is one of arrogance and total mastery. The Government's attitude is that the House is an irrelevance, inconvenience and nuisance to be swept aside; its role is to be minimised.

We shall shortly explore those matters further when we debate the main motion but, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham has already pointed out, the business motion illustrates only too well the difficulties that we now face. Ministers no longer regard it as their responsibility or duty to the House even to attempt to give any sort of explanation of their proposals. After all, technically at least, the motion is a proposal from the Government, to be considered and disposed of by the House. The sad fact is, after four years of the previous Parliament, in which the Government had a majority of 170, we now have to repeat the exercise. The Government believe that they have an absolute right to do what they wish in all circumstances and without even giving an explanation of their motives and what the consequences may be.

As Members, we are reduced to making a judgment on whether to curtail our remarks on this part of the day's business to preserve something of what is left. That is obviously the Government's intention; they are happy and think that they have been clever. In a sense, they are; the motion, together with the result of the motions that we have still to debate, is a relentless diminution of the opportunities available to Members, not just to question the Government and hold them to account, but to irritate them, delay them and cause them inconvenience. There is a new constitutional departure--the belief that the House of Commons exists for the convenience of Government Members.

That should be spelled out. At the start of what will no doubt be a distinguished and lengthy career, it would be helpful if the Minister set the stamp on it in a manner uncharacteristic of a Minister. Will he lay out for us with honesty and transparency the fact that the Government now regard the House of Commons as a necessary inconvenience, whose role they wish to diminish as far as possible so that the business can simply be got through as expeditiously as possible?

We hear from the babes on the Government Benches--and from other hon. Members--that they believe that being detained inconveniently in the House is

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unacceptable in this modern age. They believe that the legislative process should be reduced and diminished to something that is quick, easy and efficient. Hon. Members would then be able to leave the House as soon as possible to get on with I know not what.

Mr. Hogg: My right hon. Friend is right, and does not that make it all the more scandalous that the House is likely to rise at 7 o'clock tonight? There is no reason why even the babes should not stay here a bit longer.

Mr. Forth: It remains to be seen how much time the Divisions later today will add--and, in the hope that hon. Members will be able to plan their busy day, I can assure the House that there will be Divisions later. We will then be able to assess how many hon. Members--and of what gender--will be present to vote.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I am as perturbed as my right hon. Friend by the Minister's failure to offer a rationale for the motion in his unnecessarily truncated speech. My right hon. Friend has a track record of penetrating the inner recesses of ministerial minds: does he believe that the motion is an example of knavery or of folly, or is it a hybrid of the two?

Mr. Forth: The House should show its traditional generosity to the Minister, who has not been in his post long. He has not been in the House long, but I do not hold that against him. His opening remarks were brief, but I am sure that we will get a comprehensive and penetrating analysis from him after this debate. That will re-establish our confidence in him, which was dented by the way in which he stuck to his notes in his short speech. I hope that I can persuade Conservative Members to join me in being generous towards the Minister.

For hon. Members who love the House and believe that it should still have a role, this is a sad and depressing day. I fear that today's debates will show that a large step has been taken towards the House's demise as a true instrument for holding the Government of the day to account. I should like to think that I was wrong, but I suspect that I will have been proved all too right by about 7.30 this evening.

1.43 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone): I share the view that the motion reveals the Government's contempt for the House, but it is equally true--and just as important--that the Government have contempt for the electorate. At the recent general election, voters sent hon. Members to the House to represent them. They deserve better.

I spoke in yesterday's debate on the constitution about parliamentary reform, and the motion reveals why that reform is needed. It is inconceivable that ordinary people could understand the verbiage and gobbledegook that today's Order Paper contains. I defy anyone to come up with a rational explanation for today's proceedings.

I have no sympathy for the Minister, who treated the House with contempt from the Dispatch Box. Equally, however, I severely censure those--in particular the Leader of the House--who are responsible for the disgraceful way in which today's debates are to proceed. The motions, if approved, will effectively cause debate on treaties and other important matters to be truncated and driven underground.

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I want to comment briefly on the motion. It calls to mind Dunning's famous motion of 1780, which stated:

For the word "Crown", we should substitute "Executive"; for "Executive", we could substitute "Ministers of the Crown". That includes the Prime Minister.

The motion shows contempt for the House. More than that, it shows the contempt of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House for the people who recently voted in the election. No wonder there was a low turnout and such cynicism. Any electors who were confronted with such ridiculous gobbledegook and verbiage would have every reason to question why they should vote. Ministers should take the responsibility and the blame for that.

I would have expected the Leader of the House to rise above what we are witnessing today.

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