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15 Oct 2002 : Column 257continued
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you are in a position to advise, guide or help us. We have had an extraordinary day, in which we have, quite rightly, had three important statements from the Government, which took a great deal of time. Mr. Speaker and your colleagues were correct to allow Members to take part in the questioning until 6 o'clock or thereafter. We have had subsequent business, and we are about to discuss a relatively uncontroversial but important measure and to give it its Third Reading. Then, we shall come to what we all supposed to be the main business of the day. It is quite clear that, because Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on all speeches in all debates, a great many Members want to take part in that debate. The matter affects all our constituencies in the greater part of the United Kingdom and rumour has it that about 60 Members have applied to Mr. Speaker to be called to speak. It does not take a mathematician of genius to work out that 10 minutes multiplied by 60 will be significantly longer than the hour or so that Back Benchers will have to speak in that debate. As this is such a crucial issue, affecting so many Members in all parts of England, and as it could equally well be debated on another day, would you, Sir, be in a position to invite the Leader of the House or his deputy to make a business statement so that we can defer consideration of the local government finance formula grant distribution until another day?
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A number of hon. Members on the Government side seem to find some cause for amusement in the point that my hon. Friend has raised. Many people outside the House will not understand our procedures, but it is right that they should understand them and their implications. The Order Paper reads:
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have a unique position in the House in your capacity as Chairman of Ways and Means, and you therefore have a unique influence on matters financial. You will, therefore, be aware that we are now in a doubly paradoxical position. Not only was it originally intended that this important matter of local government finance be dealt with on a debate for the Adjournment, which might have been bad enough, but we now see the prospect of that debate shrinking by the minute before our very eyes and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) suggested, there is a danger that it might disappear altogether.
My appeal to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker is this. Bearing in mind what you have just said, would you be prepared, together with Mr. Speaker, to give serious consideration to having discussions with the Leader of the House to see whether you can reassure the House that you will protect us from this diminution of the ability of the House properly to discharge its responsibilities in the important matter of local government finance? Otherwise, where do we turn? Are we now completely at the mercy of the Government, who are manipulating the business so that this important matter cannot properly be considered? We appeal to you for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: There is nothing that the Chair can do immediately about the situation with which we are faced as a result of the amount of business that is down for consideration by the House this day. Mr. Speaker is, of course, the protector of Back-Bench interests, and he will have observed what has happened today. Obviously, I cannot speak directly for him, but I imagine that, with his traditional concern for these matters, this issue might form part of the routine discussions in which he is frequently involved.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It may be for the convenience of the House if I say that we fully understand the importance that many hon. Members attach to the business that is to be taken later tonight. I also understand entirely that many Members from both sides of the House wish to contribute to the debate. It was necessary for the House to hear the statements that we heard this afternoon, and I do not think that any reasonable Member would object to those statements, which, necessarily, have taken time. We will look for another opportunity to extend the debate that will start tonight so that more Members may contribute to it.
Mr. Cook: It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman objects to that. Half of all the next 10 days are Opposition days. If the Opposition wish to substitute the debate for one of those days, I will consider that request sympathetically.
Mr. Forth: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not sure whether that was a point of order or a business statement. It sounded very like the latter to me, in which case it is subject to the usual procedures of the House.
Mr. Forth: I do genuinely appreciate what the Leader of the House has said and his sensitive appreciation of the difficulties that we face, but it would be helpful to Mr. Speaker and to you, Mr. Deputy Speakerand you have generously indicated that you will take a lively interest in the issueand to all of us if we could tease out of the Leader of the House whether he is prepared to consider proper time for a proper debate on this important financial matter on the Floor of the House and not to set a precedent by shoving the matter off to Westminster Hall where, with the best will in the world, it cannot be properly considered and given the weight that it would be given in the Chamber. I hope that the Leader of the House will not start usingI might even say abusingWestminster Hall as some sort of cheap overflow for important business that has been squeezed by the Government.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: The continuing discussion of the matter is, of course, taking away from the time that will be available. There may still be an opportunity for the usual channels to have some communication while the House proceeds with the next item of business. The Chair is not able to do anything other than proceed with the business that is set down for discussion. I suggest that it would be as well to move on to that.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I cannot continue the discussion by means of points of order, especially as they are getting slightly wide of the issue. I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern. Indeed, I understand the concern of the House, but I cannot unilaterally alter the business of the House in any way. I am a servant of the House and ensure simply that the business is conducted. Those points having been madeI am sure that Mr. Speaker has taken note of themit would be best to proceed with the day's business.