Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Richard Younger-Ross: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may be aware that only eight Back Benchers were selected today, and that last week and the week before we reached only Question 7 or 8. There appears to be a growing trend for the Leader of the Opposition to take an ever greater proportion of the time.

Mr. Speaker: I simply say to the hon. Gentleman: look at the big picture.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you possibly ask the Clerks to look back a couple of decades and more, when it was quite frequent for the Leader of the Opposition to table a private notice question on a major, substantive issue? That is the way to protect the Back-Bench interest.

Mr. Speaker: Once again, the Father of the House has been able to give us some wise counsel. Perhaps that will be noticed now that it is on the record.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you make any comment about the Prime Minister's growing practice of prefacing the answer to the first question with a statement? Does that not add unnecessarily to the whole process?

Mr. Speaker: I think that we will move on to the main business, before I get drawn into criticism of either the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1599

Higher Education Bill (Programme) (No. 4)

12.45 pm

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson): I beg to move,

The motion will allow a full debate on the parts of the Bill on which amendments have been tabled. I look forward to listening and responding to the points that are raised, and I expect that we will continue the high quality of debate that was consistently demonstrated by representatives in all parts of the Standing Committee.

12.46 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): It is surely a matter of agreement in all parts of the House that, in allocating time, it is sensible to provide the most time to the most important and most controversial legislation. There can be no doubt about the importance of the Bill. The Prime Minister himself said that it is

    "a very major flagship reform of the Government."

There can surely be no doubt about the controversial nature of the Bill either, given that it scraped through on Second Reading with a majority of only five. Opposition Members therefore regret that the motion will permit only four hours' debate on the most important and controversial elements of the Bill. We believe that two days should have been provided for Report and Third Reading, just as two days should have been provided for Second Reading, given that a large number of hon. Members in all parts of the House want to speak.

As far as the Bill's consideration in Committee is concerned, I agree with the Minister. I am happy to repeat on the Floor of the House what I said at the conclusion of the Committee stage. The Minister was a model of openness and candour in his deliberations in Committee, and he provided information in advance on draft regulations, genuinely answered points that were raised in the debate and listened to views expressed from all parties. He established a precedent that it would be

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1600

highly desirable for Ministers to follow on all future legislation. He is right to say that we had lengthy and high-quality debates in Committee, not least because, unusually, Government Members took a full and active part throughout. I appreciate, too, the fact that, no doubt owing to decisions made by the Minister, the Government provided some additional time in Committee.

However, the Minister himself acknowledged in response to a parliamentary question that 25 clauses and seven schedules were not debated in Committee.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab): If so many Opposition Members want to speak in this debate, how come so few of them are sitting behind the hon. Gentleman? How come the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) is not on the Front Bench?

Mr. Collins: I am sorry to have to point out to the hon. Gentleman that this is the debate on the programme motion. It had been my intention to be brief, but he is prolonging the debate. In common with many others, I want to get on to the substance of the Bill. I am more than halfway through my remarks, but if he or others wish to continue to prolong them, that is a matter for them.

The Bill has reached Report stage with large parts entirely undebated, and, as was confirmed in the exchanges in Prime Minister's Question Time, without any significant amendments having been made. Essentially, this is the same Bill to which the House narrowly gave a Second reading. We registered objections at the time I do not intend to dwell on this point, Mr. Speaker about the balance of the Committee. In our view, all those things strengthen the case for allocating more time, not less, in the programme motion. A large number of hon. Members in other parts of the House said because I wish to be brief, I shall not quote them all at length, that they permitted Second Reading on the basis that the Bill would be altered in Committee. That did not happen, and we need plenty of time on the Floor of the House to examine why.

That is why the Opposition are disappointed about the allocation of time, and we will therefore oppose the motion.

12.49 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I associate the Liberal Democrats with the comments made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and echo his remarks about the exemplary way in which Ministers dealt with the Bill in Committee. The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education and his team addressed and engaged with the core issues in an outstanding way.

The Bill will not only change the face of higher education but set the future standard for the delivery of public services throughout the country. It is important and all of it should therefore be debated properly. The significant number of new clauses and amendments on Report are worrying, and some of the issues were not aired in Committee. The debate will last for five hours, which means that a significant number of those issues will not be voted on. Over the past few days, significant time has been spent on Opposition days and

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1601

Adjournment debates in the House, and that could have been devoted to the Bill. For those reasons, we oppose the programme motion.

12.51 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Sometimes I read a report in Monday morning's paper of a match that I attended on Saturday and think that I went to the wrong ground, because the report is different from my experience of the event. Apart from two serious and extremely important debates in Committee, for which I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, in which variability and the new office for fair access were discussed at length, I must say, I do not say this lightly, that about 20 more issues were not given the serious consideration that we expect as parliamentarians. That may have been, in part, because of time, but I must say that it seemed on occasions to Government Members that filibusters were going on. I know that filibusters are out of order, so that could not possibly have happened, but there was certainly a degree of time-wasting, and I understand that tactic.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman recall which hon. Member made the longest speech in Committee?

Mr. Allen: I do not, and I would be pleased if the hon. Gentleman were to inform the House, because modesty prevents my doing so. I am sure that he will concede that that speech was made during the serious debate on variability that I have already mentioned.

If we examine the programme motion, we can see that the conduct in Committee did no one any favours. Some may pretend that proclaiming, "We did not have enough time, and we are being squeezed out" will influence thinking in the other place, but too many wise heads there realise that those who accuse others of wasting time themselves committed that offence. It is a great shame that Opposition Members chose to waste time when there are so many important issues.

Next Section

IndexHome Page