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3.57 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I rise not to filibuster, as may have been the intent of the Conservative spokesman; in fact, the record will show that filibustering is not an attribute of my party. The links between the Irish parliamentary party and my own party are very tenuous indeed—perhaps nationality is the only common element. However, I have expressed great frustration in the House on the timetabling of Bills, especially in relation to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 and the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, which we found extremely frustrating.

As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has said, it is anticipated that all parties in the House will agree with the Lords amendments, probably without Division. That is the only substantive

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issue and we were to debate it for four hours, which would have been adequate, especially when compared with the fact that 212 clauses and amendments to the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill were debated in four hours not so long ago. The hon. Gentleman gave a good illustration of a mini-filibuster to protract this debate, which I do not intend to do; we have already used up half an hour of the time that he deemed so precious.

3.59 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Judging by the comments of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), it seems that we have consensus on the measure. Although I do not want to put words into the hon. Gentleman's mouth, it seems obvious that he does not believe that we need to debate the Bill until 7 pm. As I understand it, that is why he feels affronted: he feels that there is no need for a provision to curtail the debate at 7 pm because it will be finished before then.

I have often felt uncomfortable about programme motions because they have curtailed debate, although on one occasion I supported a programme motion that was opposed by the Conservatives and I was wrong to do so. As I said in private and on the record, the Ministers in charge of the Bill on that occasion took so long to respond to the points made that we ran out of time, and that has made me wary of supporting programme motions.

Nevertheless, when we consider those two facts—that we oppose programme motions when they curtail debate and that everyone seems to accept that we shall be finished long before 7 pm—it seems reasonable to accept the programme motion. I understand that there may be a point of principle for the Conservatives, but being a principle it is not open to debate.

The question about choreography is interesting. I am sure that Ministers would not be so disrespectful to Members as to waste our time and that of others—including Officers—by stringing out a debate that has no need to continue until 7 pm just for the convenience of the Government. We shall see what happens—history will be the judge.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): If there were some cosy consensus between the Front Benches, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) would, on past form, be exactly the man to raise it. However, I do not believe that there is such a consensus. When we debated the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill—I choose my words carefully, Mr. Speaker, so as to remain in order—there was a great deal of argument and rowing about its programming. The Opposition made robust points at that time so, from our perspective, there is a pattern and it is entirely right that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) should reiterate those concerns.

Lembit Öpik: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that insight. I, too, am sceptical that there is consensus between the Conservatives and the Government deliberately to string the debate out until 7 pm. I take the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford at his word so I address my comments to the Minister: we do not really need to debate until 7 pm two groups of amendments with which every one agrees, but we shall have to see what happens.

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I am, however, aware that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) will want to raise issues about the amendments but I suspect that even she will not need three hours in which to do so—time will tell. I accept that there are inconsistencies and shall be interested to hear her arguments on them. The amendments were controversial only when the Government opposed them. As the Government now agree with them, most of that controversy has gone.

I respectfully point out that the motion could have been avoided had the Government been more flexible on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report. The only result of the Government's pointless intransigence in the face of cross-party support—from the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Conservatives, the Democratic Unionists, the Ulster Unionists and the Liberal Democrats—is the embarrassing fact that there are ministerial speeches on the record pointing out that the very proposals that the Government have now accepted are a bad idea.

Such contradictions could be avoided if Ministers genuinely showed flexibility when such proposals are made. I do not condemn the Under–Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—I have much respect for him and we are, after all, about to discuss the amendments—but it is a waste of parliamentary time to be considering Lords amendments that were previously tabled by Members in this place and could thus have been included in the Bill before it was debated by the Lords.

If I may humbly suggest improvements to the Minister, perhaps in future he might be willing genuinely to embrace the mantra of flexibility and of being a listening Government. If he had done so, instead of debating a programme motion at this stage of the Bill's passage, we would not actually be debating the matter at all.

4.5 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): I realise that the choreography of the Liberal Democrats makes it impossible for me to convince them to change their view. However, I want to explain that for many of us the timetable motion is a matter of the most severe principle because the ability to trust Parliament is threatened by the Government's insistence that we have such motions at every drop of the hat.

There is no reason to have a timetable motion today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said, we must ask why it is necessary to have one at all. With all due respect, however, he missed the fundamental reason for it: unless the Government introduce a timetable motion when it is not necessary, it makes it harder for them to introduce one when it is necessary—for the Government's purposes rather than those of Parliament. To get out of the embarrassing situation in which timetable motions are proposed in order to stifle debate, the Government need to make them a regular necessity. If they always happen, the Government do not have to answer that deeply disturbing question about the use of such motions as a mechanism for preventing embarrassing subjects from being raised.

You, Mr. Speaker, have been extremely forthright in allowing debate when the Government have not been forthcoming about providing the time. For example, tomorrow we are to debate something that the

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Government would have preferred not to discuss. That is part of the problem that we face. The Speaker is in the special position of defending Back Benchers and, indeed, Labour Members when the purposes of Parliament are subverted by a Government who are much more interested in getting their way than in providing the proper forum for democracy.

Although I often disagree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), it is much more common for me to agree in principle and spirit on the nature of Parliament. The Minister is a man of principle. He has tried hard to help those who have difficulties with the Bill so that we have legislation that is acceptable to both sides of the House. However, he does himself no good by going along with the fundamental plot devised by Government Whips. The plot has not been choreographed by the two sides: it is entirely a minuet by Government Whips.

The line is simple: unless we dance this same dance when it is unnecessary, people will ask why we dance it at all when it is necessary. The answer is that we do that in normal circumstances because the purpose of the timetable motion is to avoid difficult questions and awkward speeches, not just by the Opposition but increasingly by Labour Members.

It is crucial for us to oppose this timetable motion above all others. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) should realise that this is an issue par excellence on which the Liberal Democrats, given their history, can express their concerns. It is precisely because the motion does not matter that this is the time to say that the principle is wrong, and it is wrong because it is designed by the Executive to control Parliament in an unacceptable way.

I have the same difficulty as the hon. Member for Thurrock. If our constituents were to peruse the report of the debate, they would wonder what the blazes we are talking about. Why do we have to discuss for 45 minutes something that should not be discussed? Without this debate, we could raise the relevant issues and conclude our public business by 6 o'clock. The motion has nothing to do with today's business. It is to do with a mechanism increasingly used by a Blairite Government who seek to control us lest we say something out of line.

Few members of the governing party are present—if I exclude Front-Bench Members and the PPS, there are three Members on the other side of the House who are recognised for their individuality, and no one else. If more Labour Members were here, I would remind them that the motion is designed not to keep us under control, but to control them. That is true not only on this occasion, but on others too. The motion is designed to ensure that there are not too many Members talking about the idea that we should bomb Saddam Hussein or whether invading Palestine is a useful way of dealing with terrorism. The motion is not to do with the issues to be discussed today.

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