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17 Mar 2003 : Column 633—continued

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I am a little bemused. The Minister refers to the Bill and is describing its substantive purpose, yet we are considering the timetable motion. Will she argue for the timetable motion? In the light of Mr. Speaker's comments, I wonder whether she agrees that it is unnecessary and undesirable to timetable the measure and that it would be much better to let matters take their course. If the Prime Minister had an urgent statement to make this afternoon, Mr. Speaker would be able to then interrupt proceedings to allow that.

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman should have contained himself for a moment longer; I had intended to make a brief statement in moving the timetable motion. As I conclude my remarks that set the scene, he will realise that the motion is straightforward and that I have made the case for it.

As I have said, in postponing the dissolution date of the current Assembly to 28 April and the date of the election to 29 May, the Bill allows for a short delay. I know that the hon. Gentleman has said that that forms part of the substantive debate on the Bill, but, because the current dissolution date for the Assembly is this Friday, the Bill must receive royal assent by Thursday in order for the dissolution of the Assembly to be postponed and the way left open for the restoration of the devolved institutions prior to the Assembly election. I believe that that makes the case for the timetable motion that we are considering today, and that we can

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deal with all the substantive issues in the Bill in the period laid down in the motion. Regrettable though timetable motions are—I know that the hon. Gentleman's party always argues cogently, and from a very principled point of view, against their use—

Mr. Quentin Davies rose—

Jane Kennedy: I am just about to bring my remarks to an end, but I will give way one last time.

Mr. Davies: Would the hon. Lady be good enough to respond to my proposition to make the matter a little more explicit? I am perfectly prepared to make a deal with her, under which she would not proceed with her timetable motion, and we would agree to proceed in a timely fashion—knowing that we have to get the Bill on to the statute book by the end of the week, for the reasons that she has mentioned—which would allow the statement to take place at 7 o'clock without the difficulty, which Mr. Speaker has explained, of his interrupting a Bill that is under timetable. I put that proposition to the hon. Lady. If she would like now to withdraw her timetable motion, I am sure that matters could proceed in a way that would meet the interests of the Bill and the wider interests of the House at this moment of international crisis.

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman makes a cogent point. Had I been dealing only with him and his party, it might have been possible for me to agree to his suggestion. Sadly, that is not the case. Given that there is an amendment to the Bill that we might consider at a later stage, and given the imperative upon us, if we are to achieve our objective of giving all the parties more time to consider the issues that arose from the discussions at Hillsborough, I believe that the compressed timetable for the Bill's passage through the House is unavoidable, unpalatable though that is to the hon. Gentleman and his party. I therefore intend to proceed with the timetable motion as it stands.

3.42 p m

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I am very sorry that the hon. Lady did not accept the proposal that I just made to her, particularly because she could have avoided the trap into which she is now falling. You would never say anything that had the slightest shadow of partisanship Mr. Speaker, but earlier, in explaining quite objectively the constraints placed on you once a Bill is subject to a timetable motion, you set out the nature of the trap into which the Government are falling. I gather that they wish to make a statement at 7 o'clock. In normal circumstances, Mr. Speaker, you would want to give the Prime Minister of the day the opportunity to make an urgent statement to the House, which is waiting anxiously to hear it, at the earliest opportunity. The only reason why that cannot take place, why common sense cannot prevail, and why the way in which the House has conducted the business of the nation satisfactorily for generations, if not centuries, cannot proceed, is that the Government have got themselves embroiled in this attachment to the idea of the automatic timetabling of Bills. They are suffering this afternoon because of that attachment. The Prime Minister will be sitting in No. 10, not knowing whether

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he is supposed to come to the House at 7 o'clock or at some later time because of this system, which the Government have gratuitously, unnecessarily and very regrettably taken it upon themselves to introduce.

We shall oppose this timetable motion; we always oppose them—[Interruption.] Let me say to Labour Members that this is not a perfunctory piece of opposition on our part. It is a deeply felt matter of principle that the legislature should be allowed to take the time that it needs to debate proposals introduced by the Executive in its own way and in its own time. We should not be forced into this Procrustean bed of a timetable motion.

Above all, we in Parliament should not have to endure the humiliation of the Executive branch using their massive majority—there happens to be an enormous and overwhelming Labour majority of 200—to get such timetable motions through the House and to dictate to the legislature, as they have been for these past several years and will continue to do for another couple of years while this Government remain in power, how long it is allowed to debate their proposals. If there was a greater affront to the balance of powers on which any free constitution depends, I cannot think what it might be. This is a monumental scandal, and no Government in the history of this country, whatever their majority, ever dreamt of doing any such thing.

We are about to debate Irish business, and we know that timetable motions were introduced to the House in the 1880s in response to the filibustering of Irish Members, which brought all business to a halt. There was, indeed, a consensus in the House between the Conservative and Liberal parties on introducing the possibility of using timetable motions, but such motions were envisaged as exceptional measures to be introduced only exceptionally and only, in principle, according to a consensus between the majority parties in the House. They were to be justified on each and every occasion.

From the 1880s to the 1990s, that was how timetable motions were used—only exceptionally, only when proceedings on a Bill had begun in the House and only when there was a prima facie case that there was a delay in the transaction of Government business either in the Chamber or in Committee. On each and every occasion, the Government had to come before the House to argue for the necessity of a timetable motion or a guillotine.

This Government came to power in 1997 with a massive majority, feeling that they could do what the hell they liked with the legislature, as with everything else in the country. They pushed through this system and decided that they would then dictate systematically to Parliament, in advance, how long it would be allowed to spend on business and on debating Bills introduced by the Executive branch. That is an affront to every principle on which Parliament—any Parliament by any name—is based.

It is for us to decide how long we wish to take to discuss the Government's proposals. It is for us to decide, if necessary, what questions we wish to ask the Government and what explanations we require before we take decisions on their legislative proposals. I have to say that it must be in the interests of good legislation that that should be the case.

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What happens now, quite scandalously and quite regularly, as all of us in the House know and as the public are becoming increasingly aware, is that we get bad legislation, rafts of which—tens of clauses, sometimes—have never been subject to debate either on the Floor of the House or in Committee. That is entirely because of the Procrustean and artificial system that the Government have introduced.

We in the House have important matters on our minds, such as the prospect of hostilities in the Gulf and one aspect of the Northern Ireland peace process, which we shall debate later. These are great historical events, and few of us here will be in this place when weightier matters are debated, but there is no doubt that when people have forgotten debates on what accounts for 90 per cent. of the business of the House—even important matters such as tax rates, health, education and welfare, which are temporarily very important indeed—it will be remembered against this Government in decades and generations to come that they, in the whole history of Parliament, were the first and only ones artificially to curtail our opportunity to discuss Government legislation. They are the first and only Government to make such an attack on the liberties of Parliament.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): My only anxiety is that my hon. Friend, in characteristic fashion, if I may say so, is understating his case somewhat. Does he not agree that the Government, in rigidly sticking to their timetable motion, are guilty of not only an intolerance of dissent, but a failure of imagination?

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