Mr. Hendrick: The hon. Gentleman seems extremely concerned about the wishes of the people of Ireland. Will he tell us what concerns he has about the wishes of the people of the other 14 member states of the European Union?
Mr. Bercow: As you know, Mr. Speaker, I am naturally very well behaved, but just occasionally I need a prod from you and I am always exceptionally grateful to you for it. I shall not be tempted down the path of unvirtuous behaviour by the hon. Gentleman.
The people of Ireland have made an important decision, and we should treat it with respect. There is a real argument as to whether it is constitutionally proper for the House to proceed with consideration of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill at all. I subscribe to the view, which has also been enunciated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), that we should not consider this measure at this time. It is disrespectful to the people of Ireland and a violation of the principles that govern consideration of these matters. If one country chooses positively not to ratify the treaty, the ratification procedure should not proceed. Eminent lawyers are of that opinion, as well as many politicians.
If we are to proceed, however, let me be characteristically generous-spirited and accept that there is an argument for proceeding, although it is not an argument that I accept. Surely Labour Members can see that there is at least as strong an argument for proceeding more cautiously, for allowing more time, for recognising the case for greater reflection and for acknowledgingand thereby paying tribute tothe fact that hon. Members might wish to table more amendments as the debate proceeds.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Will he address the issue raised by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) about delay? Does he agree that delay is the precursor of detailed scrutiny, because as the Bill continues its progress through the House, ideas develop and further amendments arise as a result of discussions?
Of all the observations that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made, I thought that the most offensive was the description "realistic amendments", which tripped effortlessly off his tongue. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a distinguished parliamentarian and a distinguished lawyer, but it is not for him to decide what constitutes a realistic amendment. I do not recognise the accuracy of that description save in one particular, and that is your judgment, Mr. Speaker, that an amendment is in order. If that is your judgment, Mr. Speaker, it is perfectly reasonable for hon. Members to hope that there will be a chance to debate it. It is not for the right hon. and learned Gentleman breezily to dismiss amendments that he does not like as unrealistic.
I am a little worried about my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, who is an exceptionally diligent parliamentarian, because so far he has tabled only 250 amendments. That is a magnificent performance, but he is capable of a great deal better. As he observes the progression of the debate, it is very likely that he will decide to table further amendments.
The Minister for Europe is a brainy fellow. He can make the calculation quite readily. Let us suppose that on each of the three days of parliamentary debate that we are to be permittedthese crumbs from the table which have been flicked in our direction by an arrogant and supercilious Governmentthere are seven hours to debate the Bill. Let us assume that there will be approximately 20 hours or 1,200 minutes of debate.
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is very rarely in error in these matters, but I fear that on this occasion he may be because the proposed programme measure sets an absolute end time for each period of deliberation. My hon. Friend does not knowand nor do any of us, including the Ministerwhat other business may precede our deliberations on the Bill before that absolute end time to which we are now invited to agree. So does my hon. Friend agree that whatever calculations he has made may already be in error because the allocated time could be encroached upon and reduced by as yet unknown business?
Mr. Bercow: My right hon. Friend is entirely correct in that observation. I was offering my own surmise of what we are likely to get from the Government. It is perfectly true that I might have erred on the side of optimism and generosity towards Ministers. It is perfectly possible, and indeed quite likely, that although the Government have chosen not to make any statements today, there may be statements on one or otheror bothof the two remaining days set down for considering the Bill in Committee. If that were the case, my calculation would be that we would have fewer than 20 hours of debate.
If we are to have 1,200 minutes for debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone has tabled no fewer than 250 amendments on massively important matters, and if the bulk of those amendments are open for debate, it logically follows that there will be fewer than five minutes to debate each of them, on the extremely generous and unlikely assumption that there will be no Divisions. If we have a completely uninterrupted debate, that is how much time we shall have.
Do Labour Members really think that that is an adequate allocation of time, when we are talking about matters of profound significance such as enhanced co-operation, the future of European defence, the arrogation of powers by the European Union and the extension of qualified majority voting? If they consider that adequate, and most of them do not bother to turn up to debate the issues at stake, I do not know why they troubled themselves to go grovelling to their electors, begging to be voted in, when as soon as they are here they are only too happy to denude the House of its remaining powers.
Mr. Cash: Will my hon. Friend take this argument a little further, but not necessarily to its ultimate conclusion, by reflecting on the fact that the important thing is not that we are debating the issue here, albeit with so few Members in the House, which I deplore, but that we are providing information for people outside, to enable them to make a decision about the merits of what is before us? It is a disgrace that such a programme motion should prevent those people from knowing.
Furthermore, on Second Reading, there was no reference whatever, to my knowledge, to the fact that the principle of the Bill was being acceded to by the House of Commons on the BBC. There was no reference either to the speeches that were made, or indeed
Mr. Bercow: It might have been long but it was both valid and pertinent, as usual. My hon. Friend is entirely correct. All the evidence demonstrates that the public are broadly Eurosceptical, but we delude ourselves if we suppose for a moment that the mass of the British public are knowledgeable about or have yet developed an interest in the detailed contents of the treaty of Nice. It is our responsibility fully to debate the issues, to set out the arguments and to demonstrate to the public what the implications are and what the irrevocable loss of the power of self-government that the Bill inevitable entails will mean. That is what we want to do, and it is from that that Labour Members seem so suspiciously anxious to shy away.
Mr. Miller: Will the hon. Gentleman log on to his server and dig into the massive database that he carries around with him to advise the House when the Conservative Government allowed approximately 40 minutes per line for debate on a Bill? We are dealing with a 34-line Bill.
Mr. Bercow: That is an entirely spurious point, and the hon. Gentleman knows it. He has tossed me a bone, and with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I intend to maul it. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Bill contains 31 extensions of qualified majority voting; that