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Session 2002 - 03
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Standing Committee Debates
European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 28 October 2003

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

9.30 am

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): On a point of order, Mr. Benton.

The Chairman: Order. Does the hon. Gentleman's point of order relate to the programme motion?

Sir Teddy Taylor: No.

The Chairman: Will the hon. Gentleman bear with me until we get the programme motion out of the way? I am quite prepared to accept his point of order then.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move,

    That—

    (1) during proceedings on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, the Standing Committee, in addition to its first sitting on Tuesday 28th October 2003 at 9.30 a.m., do meet—

    (a) on that day at 2.30 p.m.; and

    (b) on Thursday, 30th October 2003 at 9.30 a.m. and 2.15 p.m.;

    (2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely Clauses 1 to 8, the Schedule, Clauses 9 to 13, New Clauses and New Schedules, and remaining proceedings on the Bill;

    (3) the proceedings, so far as not previously concluded, shall be brought to a conclusion at 4.45 p.m. on Thursday 30th October 2003.

On behalf of the Government, I welcome the Committee. We discussed the Bill on Second Reading relatively recently. As hon. Members will know, it is relatively short compared with other legislation, having 13 clauses in total. The Programming Sub-Committee met yesterday to discuss a likely timetable, and the agreement was to have two sittings today and two on Thursday.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): The Minister uses the word ''agreement'', but does he accept that it was not an agreement? There was a majority vote by the Labour party to force that timetable through.

Mr. Leslie: As Conservative Members know about votes and counts, they will also know that a majority is a majority; we shall see whether they appreciate that point later in the week. Ample time has been allocated to consideration of this Bill, and in saying that I pay advance tribute to you, Mr. Benton. With your skill and dedication, I am sure that you will be able to see us through the myriad clauses and amendments in ample time and according to the provisions in the Programming Sub-Committee motion. I hope that the Committee will support that motion.

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Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. I also welcome all members of the Committee and offer an advance welcome to your co-Chairman, Mr. Frank Cook, whom we will see later today.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) pointed out, there was a vote—indeed, there were two votes—in the Programming Sub-Committee yesterday, and a decision was reached based on the fact that Labour members of the Programming Sub-Committee voted in favour of the programme. The Opposition voted against it, but there is a new factor that I discovered only this morning. When I went to the Members' Post Office at about quarter to 9 this morning to collect my post, I found an enormous pile of documents relating to the Bill and the Committee, which had been sent to everyone by the Electoral Commission. It may be that other Members have yet to have the good fortune to go to the Post Office, so they will not realise that those documents have been sent to everyone. In addition, there is a slightly smaller, but nevertheless significant, bundle from the Electoral Reform Society.

I want to make several points that are relevant to the programme motion. There used to be a convention in this House—no doubt you, Mr. Benton, or through you your Clerk, will advise us on this matter—that when a Bill went into Committee, a complete parliamentary week was provided after the week in which Second Reading took place, and Committee proceedings did not start until the following week. The reason why was fairly obvious. Organisations outside the House, such as the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society, that wished to inform members of the Committee about important points for debate would need such a length of time—a clear week between the week in which Second Reading took place, and the week in which Committee proceedings started—to get the information to all Members, and to ensure that they had time to digest it and to take further advice. Unfortunately, the Government have started to ignore that convention. This is the first Bill with which I have dealt that has had such a short time scale.

The Conservative party voted against carry-over, but despite that fact, the Government secured it as a safety net. They are absolutely desperate—I do not use the word lightly—to rush the Bill through with what I can only describe as indecent haste, before the Queen's Speech for the new Session. There will probably not be enough time to ram the Bill through the other place, in the way that they are ramming it through here. None of us will have had time to read the huge pile of documents to which I referred—never mind to digest them properly—or to ask the Electoral Commission about them before today's two sittings, which account for half of the sittings. Had members of the Committee known about the documents, we might have approached the Programming Sub-Committee, which met last night in front of Mr. Cook, in a completely different way.

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I do not blame the Electoral Commission—on which I shall have some comments to make when we have a substantive debate on it and its work—for the fact that we had no warning of the documents. The covering letter is dated 27 October, and because Second Reading took place only last Tuesday, the commission has obviously had little time to put together the information. In fact, the commission has done well to make this morning's post, and the same point applies to the Electoral Reform Society.

It is wholly unsatisfactory to be faced with material, on major legislation that will affect next year's elections and perhaps future ones, that none of us will have time to look at. I would certainly have spoken at length during last night's Programming Sub-Committee, had I known that the information was on its way. I would have said that four sittings are wholly inadequate, and that we ought to go into a further week. Actually, there is no reason why we should not do so. The Government would still be able to get the legislation through Committee and back to the House for Report and Third Reading, before the House rises. They have their carry-over, despite our opposition, so they could take further time to get the legislation through another place. The Government's final deadline is December because they want the Bill on the statute book in order to put in place the plans for next year's European elections.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Has my hon. Friend had a chance to consider the correlation between people's understandable cynicism about the Government and the process of deciding on legislation, and this guillotine motion? Are we not discussing the very problem that the Bill is purportedly meant to resolve?

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. If the electorate are to understand what is being proposed for elections, and to have faith in the Government's proposals and what the House decides, they ought to be made aware of whether MPs—Front Benchers or Back Benchers, from whichever party—have had a proper chance to digest all the information. This material weighs a ton. [Interruption.]

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) comments from a sedentary position on the stage-effect of a few small pamphlets falling on to a wooden table. The documents in front of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) are Electoral Commission reports that have been in the public domain for some time. They are not particularly voluminous—in fact, it is not a particularly burdensome pile of paperwork. If he looked through it, I am sure that he would manage to polish it off in a short time.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister says ''a short time''. Before the sitting began, the time available to me—however fast I may try to read—was from 8.45, when I opened my post, until now. Indeed, many members of the Committee may not even have had the chance to open this morning's post. The Committee will begin

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discussing the Bill as soon as we finish debating the programme motion. That shows, even if some of the documents have been in the public domain, that the Government's haste is indecent, and that this is not the proper way to conduct parliamentary proceedings.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): It may not be over-burdensome for the hon. Gentleman to read the documents, although I question that notion, but those of us who have yet to receive them have to read them over his shoulder from the far end of the Bench. That is quite a difficult feat.

Mr. Hawkins: I agree entirely. The people who make up the Electoral Commission will, I am sure, read the Hansard account of this debate with great interest. They will be pretty angry at the way in which Parliament is being asked to rush the Bill through with indecent haste, without any member of the Committee's having had the chance to read the documents that the commission and the Electoral Reform Society have provided for us. That is simply not an appropriate way to carry on. Had I known that the documentation was coming, I would have spoken about it last night, but it arrived only this morning. It would have completely changed the nature of the Programming Sub-Committee debate.

My party has always opposed guillotines, but what has happened this morning gives us a much stronger reason for saying that this programme is unsatisfactory, and that there should be debates for a further week.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): There would be a lot more sympathy from our party if there were less synthetic anger from Opposition Members, and more genuine belief in what they were saying. We all recognise that the hon. Gentleman came into this Room with fixed views, no matter what document came through the post; that was never going to change anyone's mind. With fewer amateur dramatics and more seriousness in the debate, we might be able to get on.

 
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Prepared 28 October 2003