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Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I share the Minister's desire for what he described as smooth progress into law for what I hope will be a substantially amended version of the Home Secretary's Bill. We are discussing not whether it should pass into law, but the timetable. I am not sure that I completely understood the import of the Minister's statement, so I encourage him to intervene to clarify the matter. Did he say that if, as it happens, the House and the Lords are not in entire agreement by the normal end of our sitting on Thursday 13 December, the House will move into a continuous sitting, subject to such suspensions as the Speaker may determine, between then and such time as we reach full agreement? Is that the import of his statement?
Mr. Stephen Twigg: That certainly is not the intention, but clearly the House cannot absolutely determine whether there will be agreement between it and the other place. There are many precedents for such a motion, which provides that, because this Chamber and the other place work to slightly different time scales each day, we shall await messages from there on that day.
Mr. Twigg: The hon. Gentleman tempts me to discuss a hypothetical situation. At this stage, we do not know how many amendments there will be, but the intention is clear in our proposal. We seek to resolve those matters on that day.
Mr. Hogg: Does not what the Minister said make it plain that the Government seek to coerce the House and the other place so that the Bill clears Parliament by Thursday 13 December? Does not my hon. Friend think that deeply offensive to both Houses?
Mr. Letwin: The honest answer to my right hon. and learned Friend is that I am still not quite sure. The Government may hope to coerce the House or they may hope, on the contrary, simply to make us work extremely hard between 13 December and such date as we and the Lords agree.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): Judging from my hon. Friend's experience of the conduct of proceedings on the Bill in the House, which of the two hypotheses proposed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) does he think more likely? I dare say that he need not think long about that.
Mr. Letwin: I must tell my hon. and learned Friend that our experience on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report and Third Reading suggests an attempt to coerce and limit time, but the Government may not have succeeded in achieving that, if it is their aim. I think that what the Minister told the House means that, if we have not reached entire agreement by Thursday 13 December, the House will sit thereafter, subject to suspensions determined by the Speaker, and continue to be able to debate matters between the House and the Lords under the heading of Thursday 13 December ad infinitum. If so, we face an interesting situation, but as the Minister has so far been unwilling to confirm whether that would be the effect of the motion, I agree that an important element of doubt remains.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): It may well be true that we could be debating these matters until a late hour. Does my hon. Friend gather that the Government would allow a vote to take place after 10 pm? I understand that, if the debate continued beyond that time, the Standing Orders would allow only a deferred Division, which would take place on the following Wednesday. Has he considered what that would do to the proposed timetable?
Mr. Letwin: I want to give the Minister as much opportunity as possible to clarify the position, and I will give way to him immediately if he signals that he is willing to do so. It would certainly assist the House if he did.
The present state of affairs is clearly unsatisfactory. We need to ensure that, as far as possible, this House and the other place can reach agreement in an orderly fashion, and will have time to continue debate on both sides until such agreement can be reached. Until and unless the Minister can give us a much better explanation of what is meant by this apparently small but, I suspect, rather large proposalin terms of its implicationsI cannot possibly ask my hon. Friends to support it.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): We are grateful for the opportunity to debate this part of the proceedings, at least, because so much of the Bill has not been debated at all. I suppose that that is some consolation.
I remind the House that, subject to any as yet unannounced intervention by the Government, the debate could continue until Thursday of next week. It could therefore become otiose, because we might pass the end date specified in the motion. Some of us have had a little practice in at least testing such margins in the past.
I want to ask some serious questions about the process. I accept from the Minister that motions specifying dates by which consideration of amendments should be completed, and dates until which we must sit to allow the other place to send us its reasons, have been put before us on other occasions. I am not aware, however, that it is common practice for a date for Royal Assent to be set in such motionscertainly not a date so many days before the scheduled end of the parliamentary Session.
Simon Hughes: That is a strong argument for sensible timetabling of business, for which my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and others have long argued. Surely one of the prerequisites is knowing what must be dealt with. One of our arguments in the past, when the Government have tabled timetable motions immediately after Second Readings, has been that no one could reasonably think about how much time was needed until they had had a chance to consider what had gone before.
Throughout our debates on the Bill, we have argued that its stages should be taken in turn. It must be the case that until Tuesday night, when the House of Lords ends its consideration, we cannot know what amendments there will benot least because in the Lords the Bill can be amended on Third Reading as well as on Report. There may therefore be amendments of which we shall not be aware until Tuesday night, and which we cannot possibly consider until Wednesday.
It really must be for Parliament to say to any Government and in relation to any Bill that, politically and administratively, the common-sense way of proceeding is to allow time between each stage. If the Lords finish their consideration of the Bill on Tuesday, we should have at least one clear day before we consider their proposals. Subsequently, if our views differ from those of the other place, the other place should have some time to consider our views, especially as there would still be several days left before the recess.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Is there not yet another argument for the course of action being proposed by my hon. Friend? If compromise between the two House is being sought, is it not quite likely that the other place will suggest amendments in lieu of the proposals that are sent to them by this place? A form of judicial review of the detention provisions, for example, is precisely the type of matter for which amendments in lieu might be appropriate. However, surely such amendments will have to be discussed with people outside the House to determine whether they deal with the concerns that have been expressed.
Simon Hughes: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. However, in the two Houses, we have already had intra-party discussions, inter-party discussions and Opposition-Government discussions. After those latter discussions, the Government have always said that they have to talk to civil servants, for example, to check the drafting. Let us therefore put aside the Bill's serious purpose for a moment and consider the serious practical objections to the motion in its current form.
Whose convenience is the motion supposed to serve? Badly drafted legislation that has been rushed and cobbled together is clearly not for the country's convenience, and asking Parliament perhaps to sit through the night on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to consider proposals from the other place is clearly not for hon. Members' convenience. We must therefore conclude that the motion is entirely for the Executive's convenience. Governments should not propose and insist on such motions so early in a Session simply for their own convenience and without a backstop deadline of the end of a Session.
On Saturday, the Minister and I spoke in a debate on how to make Parliament more acceptable to the public and how to encourage public support for it, and we agreed on what needs to be done. He therefore knows well that Parliament must agree laws, and that ultimately it is Parliament that should seek to determine timetables. It is of course for the Government to propose, but it is for Parliament to dispose. That applies above all to important legislation such as the Bill.