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6.12 pm

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I have accepted the manuscript amendment for debate.

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I beg to move a manuscript amendment:

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have certainly not been informed about the change of business or the manuscript amendment and we have been sitting here quite calmly for a considerable time waiting to debate the Education Bill, half of which was not discussed in Committee. Therefore, I respectfully ask whether it is in order for the Minister to propose a new timetable without allowing us to consider it.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): Will you make it clear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether we are now debating the amendment?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: We are debating the manuscript amendment that I have just put to the House.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I have the greatest respect for my hon. Friend the Minister, but I am slightly startled by this change of procedure. Is it common for the Chair to accept a manuscript amendment when there is a clear statement on the Order Paper of the order in which the Bill is to be debated? If that is the case, may I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when you received notice of that manuscript amendment?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Lady is now opening up the debate. I accepted the manuscript amendment

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simply for the convenience of the House, because it appeared sensible, and it has now been moved. Hon. Members are entitled to speak to the amendment and to vote against it.

6.15 pm

Mr. Timms: I wish simply to explain the reasoning behind the amendment and I to apologise to hon. Members. The amendment resulted from recent hasty discussions. The difficulty is that, under the motion on the Order Paper, we would need to delay votes on a number of matters that we shall discuss this afternoon until the end of all the debates on part 3. The amendment would allow us to vote at the conclusion of the debates on those amendments rather than all together at the end of the discussion of part 3. It is a helpful proposal and I hope that the House will accept it.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): All hon. Members are bemused by this new development. Many of us have been in the Chamber for quite some time, following the statement from the Department for Education and Skills. We have read the timetable motion on the Order Paper and feel that we have a right to expect it to be followed.

Surely it is bizarre for the Minister to give us no notice of the manuscript amendment and to make no attempt to circulate it. Surely it is outrageous for him to bring it before the House in this way. Opposition Members can only protest in the strongest possible way that the Minister has not even attempted to give hon. Members notice. Surely the fact that Ministers and Labour Back Benchers seem unable to organise their business in a rational and coherent way does not make it acceptable for us to be faced with absurd changes to procedure without notice or adequate explanation. I really do protest and I wonder whether any steps could be taken now to allow the House an opportunity to see the amendment before we vote on it.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At this stage of the debate when we have a little more time, it would be helpful if copies of the manuscript amendment could be circulated while we are in the Chamber. In my experience, most manuscript amendments are brief and can easily be understood when they are read out. They usually involve the substitution of one name or something similar. This is the most complicated manuscript amendment I have ever heard in 28 years in the House. Is it beyond the wit of the Government to circulate some photocopies of it while the debate continues?

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It would also be helpful if you would explain whether the amended order of consideration would have any effect on Mr. Speaker's selection of amendments as already circulated and the order in which they are to be considered.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: If we are not careful, hon. Members will be making debating points on points of order. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's latter point is no, it does not.

Mr. Willis: I am quite outraged that we find ourselves in this situation. The Bill was handled disgracefully in

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Committee and we were looking forward to two days of debate to address some of its core issues. Members of the public are particularly interested in some of the key aspects of the debate that was expected today.

Earlier today, I asked the Committee Clerk about the order in which the amendments were to be debated and voted on. I was assured that there would be a vote on each group of amendments. I even informed the Clerk that that was our intention this evening. Now, at the last minute, having sat here for the past three and a half hours, we find ourselves having to respond to a manuscript amendment without having sight of it. We are now told that all of a sudden the way in which we debate the amendments and vote on them has changed. If the Government are prepared to show such contempt for the House when it is considering legislation that engages us in a good debate, heaven help us when we consider provisions that are far more tricky politically.

We hope that the explanation for the manuscript amendment and this change of heart will allow us to understand the Government's thinking, and will reassure us that we can debate the current marshalled list of amendments in the existing order and vote on each string of amendments, depending on whether the Opposition wish to press them to vote.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I draw your attention to page 473 of "Erskine May". Even though the Secretary of State and the Minister of State were present this afternoon for an education statement, at no time did the Government tell the Opposition about their intention to table this manuscript amendment. Given the total and utter contempt for the proceedings of the House that we have witnessed this afternoon, I ask you to consider carefully the passage in "Erskine May" that states:

That clearly states that, in all practical circumstances, notice should be given. An education statement was made and the Secretary of State was present, but no attempt was made to notify the House of the Government's intention, so I ask you whether it is right, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we should accept this manuscript amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have already accepted the manuscript amendment and we are now debating it. This is not a matter of the content of the amendment; it was simply that I understood it to be for the convenience of the House to consider the matter in this way.

Mr. Fallon: I make it clear that I am not raising a point of order but speaking to the debate. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who spoke very strongly, has every reason to feel aggrieved by the way in which he and new clause 5 have been treated by this procedure. Given that it is now some 10 minutes since the manuscript amendment was moved, I should have expected the Minister at least to have had the courtesy to circulate copies of it or place them in the Vote Office. I wonder whether that can still be done, even at this late stage. It is extraordinary that a manuscript amendment of this nature has been moved without giving any notice to the House, and with no discussion between Front

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Benchers, let alone with those who have tabled new clauses and amendments. The Minister will find it hard to justify that extraordinary procedure.

What lies behind this procedure is an attempt by the Government to rig the way in which Divisions are held. The Minister needs reminding that the purpose of our presence here today is not to arrange the timing of Divisions but to consider legislation—

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to my hon. Friend for interrupting him, but I want to appeal to you as the protector of Back Benchers. It is hard enough being a Back Bencher under this Government. I for one would like more time to consider this matter, so I beg to move that the House be adjourned for one hour, so that we can study it further.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: No, I am not prepared to accept a motion for the Adjournment of the House at this time. We are dealing with the amendment and the debate must continue.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have just checked with the Vote Office and there still is not available to us any version of this extraordinary amendment, which has been thrust upon the House. Can you please instruct that copies of it be circulated to Members? It is intolerable that our proceedings should be so extraordinarily diverted at this stage, without us knowing what we are being asked to do.

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