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Lady Hermon (North Down): May I draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention the fact that, although I think that we agree that the Lords amendments about national insurance numbers are most welcome, they have thrown up inconsistencies with the rest of the Bill? There is also a question mark over whether those amendments are compatible with our EU obligations, on which we might debate for a considerable period today.
Mr. Davies: The hon. Lady may have the basis of a speech, which she will deliver to the House when we get on to the substance of the Bill. This timetable motion, however, is being introduced when it is known in advance that there is no substantive disagreement between the Government and the other parties in the House. I understand that that goes for the hon. Lady's party as well, and that she has no intention whatever of voting against the Lords amendments; indeed, she has indicated from a sedentary position that my assumption is correct. In those circumstances, it is extraordinary to introduce a timetable motion. It makes no sense at all, because, far from confronting the threat or the slightest hint of a filibuster, the Government know that they are going to have a very easy afternoon.
The only possible explanation that I can imagine for wanting to curtail debate in Parliament in such circumstances is that the Government are embarrassed that they have had to admit that their judgment is flawed and that they must finally concede that the judgment of the other parties in the House was correct. They feel humiliated by thatfor a very arrogant Government, it is a humiliating situationso they are anxious to restrict to a minimum the time available for Members of Parliament to comment on that and to rub salt in the Government's wounds. After thinking through any rational purpose for trying artificially to constrain and constrict parliamentary discussion of this matter this afternoon, that is the only hypothesis that I could form.
If one sets aside the hypothesis of mere perversity or a mindless ideological belief that timetables should always be imposed on Parliament in principle, there is perhaps a desire on the part of the new Labour Government, with their vast majority, to show everybody that they are the master, and that the legislature can be kicked in whichever
It is ironic that the Government should attempt to limit Parliament's time, even though their operating principle, throughout the range of our legislative activities, is to constrain Parliament artificially in this way. In this case, however, it is clear that, if a time discipline should be imposed on anyone, it should be imposed on the Government. I remind the Under-Secretary that it is four years and a month since the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs made its recommendations in relation to electoral fraud, which, more or less, have been encapsulated in the Lords amendments. If anybody, therefore, needs to have a timetable motion imposed on them, the Government do. Were you to give us leave to table an exceptional motion this afternoon, Mr. Speaker, we should impose a timetable motion on the Government to make sure that they deal with Select Committee reports in a more business-like and timely fashion in future than they have done on this occasion. We might therefore speed up the Government's bureaucratic procedures, focus their minds, and impose on them some of the constraints that they are trying to impose on the legislature. They are abusing the vast majority that the new Labour party hastemporarily, I hopein the House. Timetabling is the last thing that the Government should be talking about in Parliament. The dialogue should be going in the other direction.
I do not want to end my remarks without acknowledging positivelythe Minister knows that I always try to see the best in everything, including the best in even the new Labour Governmentthat the Government's change of heart is very welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) was assiduous in Committee and I heard him arguing eloquently. Every other party represented on the Committee also made the arguments that are now represented in the Lord's amendments before us. The Government would not listen in Committee, because they were in their arrogant mood and thought, "We have a vast majority and we don't care what you think. We'll do what we like. Get lost." That sums up the attitude of the Government, and not just in the Northern Ireland Office but right across the board.
I am glad to say that wiser counsels have now prevailed. After the issue has been discussed at great length in this House and in the other place, the Government have come forward with extremely important proposals. Electoral fraud has been a major problem in Northern Ireland for a long time and it is wrong to suggest that only the Unionist parties suffer from it. The SDLP has suffered just as much, if not more, from electoral fraud. All the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland suffer. By definition, they have scruples and are genuinely committed to the democratic process. They are not prepared to go in for cheating or for electoral fraud.
We have discussed the problem and particularly the use of national insurance numbers. Like all brilliant ideas, their use seems obvious in retrospect, but it has been agonising trying to persuade the Government that national insurance numbers should be used in Northern Ireland. The Government have now accepted one of our ideasand not quite for the first time. I draw attention to the fact that, before Easter, the Government made a small gesture in amending provisions of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill in relation to the display of the royal coat of arms on the outside of courthouses. I acknowledge and appreciate that gesture.
Mr. Davies: You are absolutely right to remind me of that, Mr. Speaker. I was glad to be able to touch on the other concession that the Government have made, but I recognise that it is not strictly germane to the timetable motion.
Although the Government have taken a long time and although theyand not the legislatureshould have been subject to a timetable or guillotine motion, it is clear from the Lords amendments that the opposition of my hon. Friends and the Northern Ireland partiesthe SDLP and the two Unionist partieshas proven to be correct. Indeed, we have received supportwe much appreciate itfrom the Liberal Democrats, so there has been complete unanimity. We have been right, and the Government have been wrong. I do not want to be churlish because, on an occasion that is all too rare, we must acknowledge that the Government have made a magnanimous gesture.
It is a pity that this entirely gratuitous, unnecessary and unjustified timetable motion should destroy the good will that the Government might otherwise have created. It is not justified by anything that the Minister said or by anything else that anyone can conceive of.
Andrew Mackinlay: From time to time, we need to interrupt the cosy consensus between those on the two Front Benches. The real truth behind the timetable motion is the nonsense of parliamentary choreography, which means that Government Back Benchers will be here dead on the button at 7 o'clock, so that they can deal with a matter that was the subject of a point of order earlier. That is the real truth. The hon. Gentleman knows it; the Minister knows it; and, more important, so do the Whips.
When people read our proceedings and the hon. Gentleman's remarks, they probably think that they are very interesting. The truth is that proceedings have been choreographed so that we arrive at the next business at 7 o'clock, when the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill will be discussed. That is the reason for this charade. The hon. Gentleman and the Minister know that.
The hon. Gentleman and I sing from the same hymn sheet on that subjectwe have done so in the past and we will do so againbut it is pretty extraordinary that he should characterise my remarks on the Government, which the Minister did not think particularly friendly, as exemplifying a consensus between myself and the Government on this matter. I am conscious that I am speaking from the Front Bench and that colleagues on the Front Bench will listen to this part of my remarks with particular attention, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no truth whatever in the suggestion that the official Opposition wanted a timetable motion on the Lords amendments or that we have colluded on this or any other occasion to impose on Parliament such a timetable motion.
I do not pretend to have a better understanding of parliamentary procedure than the hon. Gentlemanhe is a well known and distinguished parliamentarianbut, frankly, I do not believe that even his technical, practical explanation holds water. In no way is it helpful to keep hon. Members here until 7 o'clock, supposing that it had occurred to anyone on either side of the House who thought it desirable to keep hon. Members here until 7 o'clock that introducing a timetable motion would help to do so. I can think of other things that might help in that way, but not a timetable motion on the Lords amendments to the Bill. For once, the hon. Gentleman has been carried away into a conspiracy theory and proceeded to build castles literally in the airthere is not a grain of sand on which that allegation can possibly be built. I hope that he will accept that assurance.
No doubt, my party and I will be accused of many things, but no one who looks at the constitutional record of the two latest Parliaments can ever maintain for one second the allegation that we have been complacent in this abuse of our parliamentary procedure, which is exemplified by this Government in introducing timetable motions even when they are self-evidently utterly unnecessary in the exigencies of getting Government business through the House.