European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

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Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Does my hon. Friend agree that many views on the unsuitability of the new hours that hon. Members of all parties express are to do with the amount of parliamentary scrutiny that they afford? This may be the first opportunity for Labour Members to strike a blow for parliamentary scrutiny by opposing the programme motion this morning.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend is right that to say that it would be an opportunity. Perhaps we can tempt the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart.

Mr. Duncan: He is a reasonable man.

Mr. Hawkins: He is a reasonable man. I know that not only from his speech this morning but from other speeches.

The Chairman: Order. Perhaps I ought to remind the Committee that it is customary for hon. Members to contribute to the debate through the Chair and, not by turning their back on the Chair and addressing comments to the wall.

Mr. Hawkins: I apologise for any unintentional discourtesy, Mr. Cook. I shall ensure that I speak through you and your fellow Chairman, Mr. Benton, when he is in the Chair. As you will appreciate, I was responding to the helpful intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan).

I hope that in response to my hon. Friend's helpful suggestion, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart

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will take this opportunity to vote with us. Perhaps we will once again see, as we did after the sitting was suspended on Tuesday, the welcome site of the Government's deputy Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), rushing to the Committee Corridor with a face as black as thunder to find out what on earth was going on. We on the Conservative Benches would be very pleased to see that again.

We shall oppose the motion not only because we succeeded in opposing the programme motion on Tuesday but because we still believe that guillotines are wrong in principle. I hope that we will be able to persuade courageous Government Back Benchers such as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart to vote with us.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Thank you, Mr. Cook. I welcome you to the Chair this morning. My contribution will be slightly shorter than that of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins).

The Government were entirely humiliated on Tuesday. Their defeat in Committee was caused by the rather lackadaisical approach of some Labour Members. However, since then, we have had a coming together of minds. The Government have shown some common sense, in that at last they have been prepared to negotiate and discuss the Opposition parties' timing requirements rather than take them as read.

We object to programme motions when we are not consulted and are told what is an appropriate time for the Opposition to give proper scrutiny to a Bill. The Government then push through the measure on a majority vote. That is unacceptable. It is not the way to conduct effective business in this House. That is why we opposed the programme motion before the full House, and we opposed it on Tuesday for precisely the same reasons.

As I said, since then we have had consultation. I have made representations, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. We said that we felt that we needed a full Committee day in addition and that we wanted normal starting times to give us the time to do our work properly. The Government, having been forced into a humiliating defeat, realised that the game was up and that they had to retreat. They have done so, and it therefore seems entirely ridiculous now to oppose what we asked for. I have to say to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that I was very surprised to see the Conservatives voting in the Chamber yesterday against an additional day of sittings for this Bill. It seems perverse to vote against the extra time allocation for which we asked.

9.45 am

Mr. Hawkins: I was grateful for the support of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends on Tuesday, but does he accept that our party has made it repeatedly clear in Programming Sub-Committees and in debate that we are against guillotines on principle? Of course we argued for extra time, but had we not voted against the Government's programme motion a Minister might have stood up in future and claimed that we were not against all guillotines because we had voted

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in favour of, or abstained on, a programme motion with a guillotine on this occasion. We are simply sticking to our principled position.

Mr. Heath: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is rather a sophistical position because the motion before the House yesterday was to increase the amount of time by one day and had it been defeated, we should have been back to the original timetable. For that reason, we supported it then and I see no reason to oppose it now.

I look forward to a very long sitting this afternoon, because we clearly have to get the work done and it is in the interests of Opposition Members to take as long as we need to discuss the important matters under consideration. I hope that the Government Whip and the Conservative Whip will not collude at any point to bring matters to an early end. That would be a quite disgraceful truncation of our proceedings, and I am anxious to have every opportunity to give the Bill the scrutiny required to improve it.

Sir Teddy Taylor: I want to make two brief points. First, I hope that the Government will bear in mind the fact that their defeat happened for a good reason. We had the emergence of a popular front, with parties that differ enormously on many issues coming together because they felt so strongly on this issue. Another reason for the defeat was the absence, to which I referred, of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart. He is one of the most conscientious Members in the House, and I now understand that he was not present because he was attending the funeral of the wife of a dear colleague. Obviously, I am sorry for any misunderstanding over that. My first basic point to the Minister is that people felt very strongly, and were united in saying that the timetable was wrong.

My second point is to ask why we cannot alter the timetable to try to get agreement between the popular front and the Government. Why can we not meet next Thursday as well, rather than have an open-ended meeting tonight? My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath is so committed to politics that he says that he will wait here all night if need be but, quite honestly, many of us have other obligations. There are other obligations in the House of Commons, and I have an obligation in Southend tonight. I am meant to be there at 9 o'clock, and I should like to be able to let my people know whether I will be there. It would be useful if the Government could either say that we will stop at 5 o'clock tonight and meet next Thursday as well, which would be ideal, or give us some idea of what work they want to get done by 5 o'clock. I should like to know. It is not satisfactory for you, Mr. Cook, and it is not satisfactory for hon. Members and their parties to be told that we might be going all night, but we have no idea. It would be far, far better if we could simply alter the timetable and have a sitting next Thursday as well.

The Chairman: The hon. Member is a long-serving and very experienced Member, and as shrewd as anyone in the House. However, I have to point out to him that the motion before the Committee is about starting times, not finishing times. The only advice that I can offer—believe me, I shall probably be pursuing a similar line of inquiry—is that he sees the usual

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channels between now and this evening to find out just what they have in mind.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Cook. Had you been here on Tuesday, you would have found the Government's defeat a very interesting and informative occasion.

My office is just off the Members Lobby, so I spent Tuesday afternoon and part of yesterday—while not involved in other things to do with my party—listening for the screams coming from the Government Whips Office of those who were unable to attend the sitting or attend it on time. I hope that Government Members were not injured too badly.

It is interesting to note that a popular front is emerging in this Committee. I would be happy to be a member of the popular front for the liberation of the United Kingdom from this dreadful Government.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): There is a leadership challenge from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway).

Mr. Wilshire: I would love to explore whether it was right for the Labour party to expel the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin, but I am sure that you would rule me out of order, Mr. Cook, so I shall resist the temptation.

The Chairman: I do not want to inhibit the flow of debate, and I positively encourage good humour, but for heaven's sake let us make the comments pertinent to the business in hand. Can we get on with the motion?

Mr. Wilshire: We can. I was just about to observe that I am sure you would not have let me go down that route, Mr. Cook. You have confirmed that my assumption was absolutely correct.

The Chairman: So you are not going to?

Mr. Wilshire: I am not going to.

I shall respond to some of the comments that have been made. It was suggested that a deal had been done, but it has not. If consultations had taken place, that might have avoided what happened yesterday morning. Knowing of your predicament later on that day, Mr. Cook, I indicated on behalf of the Opposition that we would do what we could to assist the Chair. However, that is not up to the Opposition, unless the Government again finds that Members cannot be bothered to turn up and we are able to defeat the motion. We would then be able to provide such assistance.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that it was wrong of us to oppose guillotine motions. If he thought about that, he would understand that it was right. He joined us in opposing a guillotine motion on Tuesday morning, and we defeated the Government and got them to concede something. The logic is always that, sooner or later, if we oppose in principle, the Government will not get a majority or they will admit that they are wrong.

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Prepared 30 October 2003