Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I appreciate many of the problems that my right hon. Friend outlines, but given that the issue is fundamental and there will be nowhere other than the House of Commons to debate democracy in Northern Ireland, why is it necessary to timetable the Bill?

Mr. Murphy: I shall address that issue as soon as I can.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): It relates to the motion.

Mr. Murphy: I am aware of that. I shall come to that point in a second.

The second argument for dealing with the business under the terms of this timetable motion is the electoral timetable itself. The Assembly was dissolved on 28 April; at that point the statutory electoral timetable began to run. Nominations have already closed, and as the polling date currently set in law draws near, preparations have to be made for an election unless Parliament determines otherwise. That of course is quite proper, but it makes no sense to incur additional expense or to prolong uncertainty for any longer than is necessary. The Bill to deal with those matters therefore had to be dealt with today.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that part of his argument, which may or may not convince the House. However, why do we have to finish at 10 o'clock tonight? Even if it was necessary for the reasons given by the right hon. Gentleman that the matter be dispatched in the House today, that is no reason why we must truncate all stages of the Bill. We have not yet started consideration of the measure at nearly 5 o'clock in the afternoon, when we shall finish arbitrarily at 10 o'clock. Why cannot we continue to deal with the Bill after 10 o'clock, in proper consideration and detail?

Mr. Murphy: The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am not responsible for dealing with the workings of the House. However—

Andrew Mackinlay: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Murphy: No, I will not.

For the proposed legislation to go through the House this week, and through the House of Lords, where generally speaking legislation has to take two days, and

12 May 2003 : Column 46

in the event of messages coming back from the House of Lords, it was necessary for us to deal with the Bill in the way that we have.

Andrew Mackinlay: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Murphy: I will not.

For these simple reasons, I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that a compressed timetable for the Bill's passage through the House, while regrettable, is unavoidable in these circumstances.

4.45 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): First, I echo what the Secretary of State has just said about the attack on the offices of the Ulster Unionist party. Thank God no one has been hurt. It is an unacceptable and shocking event. Everybody who stands for public office in Northern Ireland lives against the background of a potential threat. They are all particularly brave men and women. I have come to admire them all in all the parties that are represented in this place in the course of the two years that I have been doing this job. Many of them have had, on occasion, to resist serious intimidation. Many of them have experienced attacks on their own homes and properties. The most recent attack is just one more such incident.

I am sure that the House hopes that the Police Service of Northern Ireland will be able to apprehend the culprits as soon as possible, and that the courts will handle them in an exemplary fashion if, indeed, anybody is found guilty of the attack. In the meantime, on behalf of the Opposition, I extend my concern and sympathy to the UUP and to all those people who work in the UUP's offices, which have been under attack, and to express my confidence and assurance that once again these brave men and women will not allow themselves to be deflected by this utterly contemptible act.

I turn to the situation that has been opened up by the exchanges during the statement on Iraq, which were eloquently confirmed in the memorable critique of the moral and ethical basis on which government has been conducted by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). I think that we have reached a new depth of cynicism in the management of our affairs when we are told of the difficulties—we shall come on to them in a moment—about an election that the Government want to call off but which has already started.

We are told that there is so little time and so much urgency that Parliament cannot have even two days to debate the measure, which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) asked for last week. It is inexplicable that Parliament—we have had no explanation in response to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the shadow Leader of the House—cannot even sit beyond 10 o'clock. There is so little time that we are told that we must timetable consideration of the Bill. Then we are told—it has been dramatically revealed this afternoon—that the Government have been caught in the most distasteful, mean and snivelling type of trick, which is to bring forward a statement on Iraq, which

12 May 2003 : Column 47

was unscheduled, merely to try to push the statement made by the right hon. Member for Ladywood further down the headlines. That really is a depth of cynicism.

I do not think that anything that I can say on this subject would be so convincing, so eloquent, so memorable and so likely to stand in the record for an extremely long time as the words that we have heard from the right hon. Lady.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Secretary of State used a rather strange set of words when he said that his understanding of the necessity for today's timetable was that the other place needed two days in which to consider legislation? Is the Secretary of State telling us that an unelected House can have two days to discuss legislation, but that the elected House of Commons can have only a day's debate? Is that not a disgraceful statement from a Secretary of State?

Mr. Davies: I fear that that is precisely what the Government are telling us—indeed, it is the only possible interpretation. They are telling us that they have a majority of 200 in the Commons, so they can do anything that they like here. They can overturn the procedures of the House and its Standing Orders any time that they see fit.

Mr. Forth: And they do.

Mr. Davies: Indeed, they have done so, as my right hon. Friend says, both on this occasion and countless other occasions. Poor Northern Ireland, however, has been the victim recently. An emergency Bill was introduced in March to postpone the elections, we thought, by a month. The Government, for reasons that we shall no doubt go into later, decided that they wanted more time. They have not actually said how much more time they want, so they introduced a new Bill simply to postpone the elections indefinitely. They think that they can get away with that—they think that they can get away with anything. If we do not do something about that, the situation will continue for, I fear, two years. I hope that over that period the Government will experience a sense of guilt and that a residual democratic conscience will be awakened in them. However, I can see no trace of that whatsoever, and I fear that Parliament is being abused so systematically that, after two Parliaments with a massive Labour majority, it will emerge with its credibility permanently eroded and its procedures taken much less seriously by the electorate, who will have less faith in them as objective procedures on which they can rely or which demonstrate the basis on which public business is done here. That is deplorable, and I share the sentiments of my hon. Friends and, I am sure, many Members on both sides of the House, about today's state of affairs. As I have said, those sentiments were eloquently expressed by the right hon. Member for, Ladywood.

12 May 2003 : Column 48

Mrs. Dunwoody : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will be aware, and I am sure that you will want to remind the House, that personal statements are not only listened to in silence but are not commented on.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have not been here as long as the hon. Lady, so this may be an unnecessary comment. However, my understanding is that there is no comment on personal statements once they are concluded but they are often referred to in subsequent parliamentary debates.

Andrew Mackinlay: Or during a guillotine motion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. A generalised reference post facto is permissible, but I was about to suggest to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) that, having made a generalised point, he should perhaps nudge his focus on to the allocation of time motion before the House.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, personal resignation statements are an important part of our political history, and a great many of them have been referred to many years and, indeed, generations after they were delivered.

Next Section

IndexHome Page