Standing Committee B
Thursday 30 October 2003
[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move,
(1) during further proceedings on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, the Standing Committee, in addition to its sittings on Tuesday 28th October and Thursday 30th October at 9.30 am, do meet—
(a) on Thursday 30th October at 2.15 pm; and
(b) on Tuesday 4th November at 9.00 am and 2.30 pm;
(2) further proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely Clause 1 (so far as not already considered), Clauses 2 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 5.00 pm on Tuesday 4th November 2003.
Good morning, Mr. Cook, and welcome to the Chair of this experienced and interesting Committee. I have a slight sense of déjà vu. The programme motion states that we will sit from 2.15 this afternoon, and that we will sit on Tuesday at 9.00 am and 2.30 pm. It also sets out the order of consideration.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Good morning, Mr. Cook, and welcome to your chairmanship of the proceedings. As you are aware, we had an exciting but rather truncated and abortive first day because of the Government's significant defeat. I believe that that was the first time that the Government have been defeated anywhere in the House of Commons since 2001. Of course, they then used their majority in the Chamber to ram through a revised programme motion against our opposition. We object to all guillotines. To call it a programme motion is entirely inappropriate as it is simply a guillotine. We are against guillotines in principle, and we voted against them on the Programming Sub-Committee.
For those of us who were here on Tuesday, it turned out to be a rather more exciting day than might have been expected. Similarly, the week turned out to be a rather more significant political week than expected. I am indebted to my colleagues for their support, and also to the two Liberal Democrats, the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), and to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) from the Scottish Nationalist party. All Opposition Members were here, as we should have been, and the Government were defeated on the casting vote of your fellow Chairman, Mr. Cook, in the finest tradition of the Chairmen's Panel.
We still oppose guillotines despite the fact that we now have a revised programme motion in which the Government have given us the further time that we
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argued for in the original Programming Sub-Committee and in the original debate on programming. We will oppose that guillotine this morning.
Having had two extra days, those of us who were interested have had time to peruse in detail the Electoral Reform Society's observations, which came in Tuesday's post, as I pointed out then, and the papers from the Electoral Commission. I am sure that that information will inform hon. Members from both sides of the Committee who wish to make contributions.
Despite those extra two days and the fact that we now have extra sittings next week, we oppose the programme motion because it is well known that the Opposition object to the way in which the Government use their huge parliamentary majority to ram through guillotines and curtail debate when they have all their people in the right place at the right time, as they did in the Chamber yesterday.
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): I am sorry to interrupt. My hon. Friend says that he will oppose the programme motion, but I am still trying to understand it. It states that we will sit at 2.15 pm today. There are important debates in the Chamber today, and I want to know when I can get down there. I cannot see from the motion when we will finish tonight. Does it mean that we can go on for ever? Do we go on until 5 pm? Might we go on through the night? If we were to continue through the night, who would determine when we stop? Are the Government saying, ''Well, look, so long as we want to go on, we'll just go on''? I do not think that that is a proper way to run things when hon. Members have other obligations. Has my hon. Friend had any guidance from the Government? One of the problems that I have experienced in Parliament is that there can be secret deals.
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman should be brief when making an intervention.
Sir Teddy Taylor: I will be brief. Has there been a secret deal on when we are going to finish today?
Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. We shall have to see. Unfortunately, Opposition Members are not in control. The Government may find that their Members do not turn up again, as on Tuesday, no doubt because of the huge doubts on the Government Benches about the legislation. Those doubts were apparent in the speech made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) on Second Reading. Mysteriously, despite his enormous ability, expertise and interest in the legislation, he was excluded from the Committee. The Government are in control, and they are determined to ram through the legislation and to stifle debate. So we shall have to see.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) that the clashes between the timing of Committees and the business of the main Chamber are unfortunate. As he knows, at every stage, I opposed from the Front Bench the ridiculous new hours that the Government sought to inflict on the House, because they exacerbate the
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clashes. Many of my hon. Friends have opposed them as well.
Although the previous Leader of the House and former Foreign Secretary, who is now on the Back Benches, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), was keen on the new sitting hours, the new part-time Leader of the House—who is also part-time Secretary of State for Wales—the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) indicated in an exchange with the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), that he was not so keen on the new Committee hours. That was in September at business questions. I was on the Front Bench, next to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and I heard the Leader of the House say that.
There must be some hope—this is the only long-term comfort that I can offer my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East—that if the new Leader of the House is allowed full rein in his view, as he is not keen on early starts to Committees or the new revised hours, we may return to the more traditional hours in Committee and in the House. [Interruption.] I am delighted that the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice), supports me on the issue of hours. She is being unusually vocal for a Government Whip, and I welcome that.
Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): It is important that the hon. Gentleman's comments are corrected. There was not a Government motion to change the hours of the House, but a free vote. Members on his side of the House voted for the new hours. As he probably knows, I am one of the Members who voted for the new hours and deeply regret it. However, it was not a Government motion.
Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman is quite right, but had he listened carefully to what I said, he would have been aware that I did not say that it was a Government motion. I said that it was the Labour party, and the right hon. Member for Livingston in particular, who inflicted the hours on us. The proposal was bought forward by the then Leader of the House.
Mr. Harris: It was a free vote.
Mr. Hawkins: Yes, it was a free vote. However, as the hon. Gentleman has openly admitted, and has said publicly in the House—I respect him for it, as he knows—he has changed his mind. I opposed the changes all the way through. I have looked carefully at which of my hon. Friends, in that free vote, supported the new hours. I am pretty sure that, of all those who voted for the new hours on the Tuesday and the Wednesday, which was the proposal carried by the narrowest majority, only six of my colleagues—out of 169—voted for it. It was carried by the votes of a huge number of Labour Members, including the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris). He has had the great courage to admit that he was wrong, as have many of his hon. Friends.
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The issue came up again at business questions last Thursday. The hon. Gentleman may have been in the Chamber then, as I was. The new Leader of the House said that despite his personal reservations, expressed in September, on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East, we have to stick with the hours for the rest of this Parliament. When he said that, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) intervened and put her views firmly on the record. Like me, she has always opposed the new hours. She said that it was absolutely crazy for the House to carry on with an experiment that clearly is not working. I urge the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart—he knows how powerful a personality the hon. Lady is and how much a focus for leadership she could be—to join her in organising a campaign. They could lead a huge movement from the Government Back Benches and put pressure on the Leader of the House to get back to common sense.
Those comments are relevant to today's programme motion because of the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East. We must get away from all these clashes between Committees and the Chamber. Unfortunately, the Government are in control of the situation at present. They have a majority on the Programming Sub-Committee and on the Committee, although they did not have their expected majority on Tuesday morning. We will have to wait to find out how late we go on this afternoon. I know that you, Mr. Cook, have a personal interest in the matter, as does my hon. Friend. As for the other Conservative spokesmen and me, we would be happy to go on all night.