European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman knows me very well, and I can honestly tell him that none of this anger is synthetic. There may have been such occasions in the past, but the hon. Gentleman is a past master at participating in them as well. If he wants to talk about amateur dramatics, his last-minute appearance at the Whip's behest to prolong last week's debate on Second Reading was certainly such an instance, given that he had not heard any of the earlier debate.

Mr. Hoyle: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: In a moment. It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman, of all people, to talk about amateur dramatics and synthetic approaches, after his performance in the Chamber last week. I can honestly tell him that Opposition Members are genuinely concerned and genuinely angry. The concern that we always have about the Government rushing such matters through has been reinforced by our not having

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the opportunity to look at detailed papers, which arrived only this morning, from the very body that the Government set up to advise us.

Mr. Hoyle: I expect the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his comment. Had he been awake and looked around the Chamber, he would have known that I intervened earlier in that debate. I am sorry that he missed that—perhaps he requires a visit to an optician. We should remember that some of us are genuine, in terms of the constituents whom we represent, and do not need to run round the country for a new constituency. I hope that he will withdraw his remarks.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman's belated appearance in the Chamber was noted on both sides. I recognise that he may have made a brief intervention earlier, but we all saw the manoeuvrings that went on. He did not rise to catch the Deputy Speaker's eye until the last minute, after everyone else had spoken. He needs to understand that our anger is genuine.

I have made all the arguments that I want to make. This is a deeply unsatisfactory way to conduct our business, and the Electoral Commission will share my concern when it reads Hansard.

Mr. Heath: May I first correct the oversight in my earlier intervention and welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton? I also welcome other members of the Committee to this Bill, which brings us into double figures in terms of Bills in this Session from the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Some of us have served on an inordinate number of Standing Committees, so we are very familiar with this Committee Room and with other Rooms on this Corridor.

I shall not speak at length or repeat arguments that have already been made. This is an opposed Bill about which we have grave reservations. It is important, because it affects this country's democratic systems and the way in which we conduct our electoral system. It requires public scrutiny, and the programme motion is opposed because it does not give us the opportunity to consider the Bill with proper care. The point that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath made about the Electoral Commission material was well founded. I have yet to receive those documents, and I suspect that the majority of members of the Committee have yet to receive them, simply because our offices are in far-flung parts of the parliamentary estate and the post does not reach them at this time of the morning.

Mr. Wilshire: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the argument whereby some of the documents received have been in the public domain for some time is totally spurious? If every Member were to read every document published on the off chance that, in a year's time, we will be on a Standing Committee relating to the subject in question, we would do nothing but read documents.

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Mr. Heath: That is true up to a point, but it is reasonable to expect Members to prepare for a Standing Committee on which they serve when documents have been made public. I am worried, because without sight of the documents I have no idea whether there is any new material from the Electoral Commission. If there is, then I take the matter very seriously, because the Bill is based on the commission's recommendations.

The commission is not a pressure group or a body of individuals trying to affect the conduct of our proceedings. It is a statutory body, and Parliament seeks its advice and recognises its expertise. If we were to proceed without having a chance to scrutinise the advice that it has provided, the role of the Committee and of Parliament in scrutinising the Government's proposals would be seriously undervalued.

Mr. Hawkins: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that the Electoral Reform Society's response to last week's debate, which is undoubtedly new material, was not seen by any of us until this morning, and then by only one or two Members because it only arrived in today's post, is a matter of almost equal concern?

The Electoral Reform Society's document is not as bulky as that of the Electoral Commission—the hon. Gentleman's point about the commission has particular cause—but it is important to note that the submission of such a crucial, independent and respected a body as the Electoral Reform Society, which clearly contains new material because it is based on its response to Second Reading, did not come in until this morning.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman underlines the point that it is necessary to have a reasonable interval between Second Reading and the Committee stage, just as it is necessary to have a reasonable period between the Committee stage and Report, in order to ensure that Members who wish to contribute are properly informed and can make a reasoned contribution.

For those reasons, I am extremely concerned that the Government have chosen to rush the Bill through. I want to ensure that we at least use the time that is currently allocated to debate the important provisions, so I do not intend to prolong the discussion.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): I welcome you to the chair, Mr. Benton. It is the second time that I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship, and I am sure that this time will be equally enjoyable.

It is also the second or third time that I have been in Committee with the hon. Members for Surrey Heath and for Spelthorne. Both are doughty fighters and are well known for making a very good argument, although it seems to be the same argument every time we sit.

Mr. Wilshire: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that consistency is a great virtue?

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Mr. Leslie: It was Emerson who said that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for that line.

Mr. Hawkins: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Robertson: Can I answer the hon. Member for Spelthorne first? The hon. Gentleman is consistent, and Government Members hope that he will remain so, because he will then always be in opposition. If he and his party continue as they are, they will be filling the Opposition Benches for a long time yet.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne and me, and I thank him for that and reciprocate the sentiment. He will recognise that one thing is different from the debates on programme motions that my hon. Friend and I have raised during previous Committees on which we have both served. There has never before been such a squeeze in time: Second Reading on a Tuesday with the Government attempting to start the Committee stage the following Tuesday. We have always had all the material from outside bodies and lobbying organisations in plenty of time for us all to read it. The new point we are making explains what has changed between the Programming Sub-Committee last night and today. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that?

John Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I can honestly say that documentation and inputs from various bodies come in regularly during proceedings on every Bill. Unfortunately, sometimes they come in after certain elements have been discussed. Along with the hon. Gentleman, I sat on the Committee debating the Communications Bill, so he will know that some of the information came in late. That was not the fault of the Government. His opposition to the programme motion is a bit spurious.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): Does my hon. Friend agree that the opposition to the programme motion can be revealed to be even more spurious? We have discovered from an intervention that the documentation from the Electoral Commission apparently relates to information that has been in the public domain for up to a year.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for that. I was coming to that point. I have a filing cabinet in my constituency that is full of documentation from the Electoral Commission. I am sure that the documentation, although very interesting and important, would not add a lot to the discussion today.

I should like to put the record straight by speaking up for my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley, who made an excellent contribution on Second Reading. I did not realise Chorley was that informative, and I was very interested to hear of the trials that took place. He spoke at length about the first trial, and I would tempt

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him to speak about the second trial, on which he was cut short through lack of time. Those trials have already taken place.

We have heard such arguments before. Information has come in from various bodies during the proceedings on every Bill I can think of. I am sure that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath put forward a very similar argument during the debate on the Proceeds of Crime Bill. I could be wrong; I am quite happy to examine the record, and if I am wrong I apologise to him in advance.

I speak for Scotland on this issue, and I know that I have sentimental support from the SNP member of the Committee, the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart). The Bill is very important to Scotland. He and I, probably for the first time in Parliament, will be speaking together on this Bill. We want to get on with it; we do not like having these arguments about programme motions all the time.

 
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Prepared 28 October 2003