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Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): The Secretary of State seemed to hint that the usual channels had agreed today's arrangements. Can the hon. Gentleman assure the House that the Conservative Whips did not agree to a cut in the time for debate? No Member from Northern Ireland, as far as I am aware, whatever party they represent, was consulted in any way about today's time limit.

Mr. Davies: It does not surprise me in the least that the Government did not consult any of the Northern Ireland parties about the timetable motion, as they do not appear to consult the democratically elected Northern Ireland parties about the substance of their proposals on Northern Ireland. We shall discuss an example of that very shortly. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks—no deal has been done between the usual channels, and I have not discussed the timetable motion at all with the Government. They do not know what I am about to tell them—what the attitude of the Opposition is towards the timetable motion.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given the importance of communicating to the people of this country the extent of the Government's contempt for Parliament entailed by the allocation of time motion, will my hon. Friend confirm that, if we start the Second Reading debate at 5 pm, continue for an hour and have a further hour on Third Reading at the end, it means, in practice, that fewer than 10 minutes will be available to debate each of the 19 tabled amendments?

Mr. Davies: My hon. Friend always does his homework impressively and I am sure that his calculations are right. As he says, it is a disgraceful and also an extremely sad state of affairs.

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Let me set the curiosity of the House at rest. Had there been some consultation and had we not had such an egregious example this afternoon of an attempt to manipulate Parliament and deliberately waste even more time—the Government acknowledged that it was scarce—I might have been open to the idea, because we accept the need to take a rapid decision on whether to hold elections in Northern Ireland, of accepting some form of timetable motion. However, in view of the circumstances, the Government's attitude and their squalid tricks this afternoon, there is no question of that. We must stand up for what we believe in—that Parliament deserves to be and must be treated with some respect, and that the Government's treatment of Parliament is nothing less than a constitutional disaster. I shall therefore urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the motion. At this 11th hour, I do not have any great hopes, but I would like to see some last-minute repentance when the Government come to understand the impact of their actions, as viewed not just on this side of the House, but by distinguished Members on their own side.


Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I shall enter the Division Lobby against the guillotine motion, which is an outrageous example of the House being brought into disrepute by the charade of our lawmaking process. It is the ultimate example. It was within the competence of the Government to have accorded some extra time for the Committee stage—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State, from a sedentary position, says nonsense, but he was not prepared to give way in his speech. I wanted to intervene on him and I believe I am correct in saying that when he was challenged, he said that he did not decide on Government business. Before coming into the Chamber I tried to inquire who was the guilty party and the Whips told me, "It is not us, Guv". The fact remains that someone somewhere in Government arrogantly decided that all stages of debate would be concluded at 10 pm. It is a shameful exercise, and I am not prepared any longer to acquiesce by my silence in this charade of lawmaking.

If the Secretary of State can contain himself, I shall take him back to 10 minutes to midnight last Tuesday evening, when I asked him when he would publish the Bill. He told me, "Thursday", but as he sat down, the blood drained from his face because he realised that he had screwed up: he did not mean Thursday and it was, in fact, published on Friday. The reason it was published on Friday is that it is a complicated Bill and the parliamentary draftsmen did not have enough time to complete it sooner. It is all right for the Government to have as much time as they need to prepare for a complicated Bill, but it is of no consequence to Parliament. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State should be more sensitive to the legitimate requirements of the House to see a final Bill properly printed, to be able to consider amendments and to consult other people and parties about them.

To buttress my case, I draw attention to clause 6—a catch-all clause lobbed into the Bill, which it makes it even more complicated. Basically, it provides that if anything in the Act needs altering, the Secretary of State has absolute power to alter it. That is a total power, which I believe requires the utmost scrutiny. It means

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that the Secretary of State can alter anything by statutory instrument without an affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament. That demonstrates how the rivets have been put on the Bill as it has been going down the slipway. No one else has time to consider it and I am not prepared to go along with this charade. It is a thundering disgrace.

5 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): I associate myself with the remarks of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in relation to the bombing this morning at the Ulster Unionist party's headquarters.

Since taking an interest in Northern Ireland matters in this place, I have been struck forcefully by the extent to which elected representatives in the House, in other councils and in the legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland require a great deal of courage to go about their day-to-day business, doing things that many of us on this side of the water have always taken for granted.

The Secretary of State, in introducing the timetable motion, referred to the need for urgency. Given that this is a mess of the Government's own making, no one on either side of the House could possible dispute that there is an element of urgency to today's proceedings. However, urgency is one thing, indecent haste is something quite different, and the terms of the timetabling motion, insisting on a conclusion by 10 o'clock, constitute indecent haste.

Having said that, I am mindful of the fact that it is already past 5 o'clock and that we are eating into valuable time. I in no way disagree with the hon. Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), but I wonder whether, even at this late stage, everyone having put their objections on the record, it might be possible to recognise the inevitable and deal with this without a Division, which would be an unacceptable use of exceptionally precious time. It would be a good example of responsible opposition, which, I regret to say, would stand in stark contrast to the attitude displayed by the Government.

5.2 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Members representing English constituencies who get themselves involved in Northern Ireland affairs are not usually those who seek general popularity. Indeed, some might say that they are not even very sensible. But the reality is that we are a United Kingdom, and Parliament, inadequate though it may be, represents every member of it, of every political party and every shade of view.

I have the greatest respect for the Secretary of State. He is an honourable man who fulfils a difficult task very well indeed. But I am today very concerned by the fact that it is felt necessary to timetable such important legislation in this manner. It has become a habit of the Government to treat the passing of legislation as merely a question of spending sufficient hours in a way that can be properly marshalled, and it is not good enough to come to the House of Commons and say, "It is true that the House of Lords must have two days, but despite this being a matter of such importance I intend you to have only one."

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I am very disturbed. I dislike the timetabling of Bills anyway, but on a matter that is of almost constitutional importance, I have to say that, in my political experience, Members, however discursive, ill informed or sadly misinformed they are, and from whatever part of the globe they come, have the right to express their views in the House of Commons in a proper way. To do that, they must have time, and we must have the time to disagree with them. Those who seek to curtail debate, whatever their reasons and whatever the so-called urgency, do democracy, and certainly the House of Commons, ill, and I am sad to see it today.

5.4 pm

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): I thank the Secretary of State and other hon. Members for their comments on the incident at my party's headquarters this morning. As hon. Members may know, an envelope containing a device and addressed to me was being opened by one of my researchers when the device was activated. Had it operated in the way in which the people who made it planned, that gentleman could have received fatal injuries. What happened was a very serious incident in itself. I say to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who speaks for the Opposition, that I, too, hope that, like those who sent a letter bomb to my constituency office some time ago, the people responsible for today's incident will be apprehended. I am sure that the police will spare no effort in that regard.

We have always been opposed, and we continue to be opposed, to guillotines. They are wrong in principle and in this case. However, we are realistic and we know that the Government have a majority. We welcome very much the comments and support of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), but even reinforced by that formidable support we would be unlikely to defeat the Government were the motion pressed to a vote, so I shall not speak at great length. Two points will suffice.

First, the Bill is unnecessary and should not have been introduced. It would not have been if the Government had thought the matter through clearly. There is a conflict between the Northern Ireland Acts of 1998 and 2000. Conflict has been clear, and inconsistency has been clear for some time. Any simple thought by the Government from October onwards would have made them realise that there was a problem that could and should have been resolved. There was plenty of opportunity to resolve the problem, but rather than doing so, people waited to the last minute, hoping that somehow it would go away. It has not. That is unnecessary; with a little bit of thought, the Government could have dealt with it.

As the Government failed to think the matter through and to act, it is unfair that hon. Members should be penalised by lack of time. The Government could either have given more time after 10 o'clock or followed the good example of the other place and allocated another day. There is plenty of time for that, given the business that the Government have scheduled for the rest of the week.

Secondly, until a few minutes ago, I was under the impression that the Opposition line was to make their point on the guillotine, but not to divide the House.

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That will only penalise us, as we will lose another 15 to 20 minutes. I ask the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford to think.

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