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Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): It is a privilege to take part in the debate. I have heard some exceptional speeches, not least from my hon. Friend—it should be my right hon. Friend—the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

We are discussing fundamental issues. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, we are acting on trust from the electorate and that trust is cut away from under our feet by the machinations of those who run Government business and our own party's business. I would go further and say, as I have said on other occasions, that in the context of the programming arrangements, the Whip system makes the Whips appear as though they had exclusive knowledge and competence to decide what is in the national interest, whereas we know that neither the Whips nor political parties or their leaders have that right or that prerogative—far from it.

I could give several examples, including the corn laws, home rule, tariff reform, appeasement, the Thatcher trade union reforms and, as we heard, Maastricht, as well as Amsterdam and Nice. It is obvious that the minority view prevailed, despite the fact that there were those who took a strong line against the Government of the day or their own party. The Report stage is fundamental to the process: it allows Back Benchers a unique opportunity and should clearly be excluded from programming.

I differ slightly from my hon. Friends on one point, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) raised. Getting to clause 3 in a Bill is as much the Opposition's fault as the Government's. Sometimes an unnecessary number of amendments are tabled—a gross self-indulgence that has been pursued on a number of occasions—in the belief that infinite time is available in which to consider the Bill. However, something happens sooner or later. Rather than adhering exclusively to the principle that time is the Opposition's best weapon, I have always believed that argument would be better employed if the use of amendments were more temperate.

On occasions, I have spent four out of six months in Committee on clause 1, which is ludicrous. In those cases, the argument went on and on about a particular
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clause because it encapsulated much of what followed, but later matters were addressed with a certain laziness and incompetence. A more moderate, measured and selective approach to amendments would perhaps lead to a situation in which Governments would not get so frustrated and impose the guillotine over and over again. The current position is, to say the least, an abuse of this House and of procedure.

Mr. John Taylor: I am following my hon. Friend's excellent arguments closely. Does he agree that the situation has turned—it is still totally unsatisfactory—and that the Government are by far and away the most prolix author of amendments?

Mr. Cash: That point is valid, and I say that having tabled many amendments to some Bills, such as those that introduced the Maastricht, Nice and Amsterdam treaties. I fear that my hon. Friend is right.

I warn the Government that after Friday, when the Prime Minister will sign up to the European constitution, we will move on to the next stage of that question. When I was shadow Attorney-General and during the following year, I spent many hours dealing with the question of primacy in direct argument with the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the Prime Minister. The issue of primacy has now been conceded, in that it is now accepted that this Parliament is sovereign and can legislate accordingly, irrespective of the European Communities Act 1972, if it so wishes.

If it were decided that the Bill introducing the European constitutional treaty could be programmed, the very existence of this House as a proper deliberative assembly on the legislation that would subsequently pour out of Europe, including laws, future treaties and the European Court of Justice's rulings, would effectively be frustrated. The Leader of the House and I have discussed those matters, and he knows that to programme a Bill introducing the European constitutional treaty would be the gravest constitutional outrage. God help this country and God help this House if such a Bill is programmed. I look to the Deputy Leader of the House to assure the House that such a Bill will not be subject to a programme motion under any circumstances.

5.9 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): This has been an extremely good debate. I say at the outset that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I are very conscious of the strongly held views of right hon. and hon. Members and of the huge experience displayed in the debate by Members on both sides of the House. If one tots up the number of years of service of those who spoke, it amounts to some 306 years of parliamentary experience. Having been a Member of this House for seven years, I naturally respect and defer to that experience.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) for misunderstanding his remarks when I intervened on him. I thought that he was talking about Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation. I regret that mistake and assure him that I will try to concentrate more keenly in future.

I sincerely thank the Chairmen and members of the Procedure Committee and the Modernisation Committee for their work. Their reports are excellent.
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I assure the House that a great amount of attention, detail and concentrated effort has been put into our response.

I give the further reassurance that we are served by among the best, if not the best, team of civil servants who serve this House, and their point of view is taken very much into consideration. I hope that no right hon. or hon. Member on either side of the House feels that we have not given this matter the consideration that it deserves.

Sir Patrick Cormack: That points to the Government's misunderstanding of Parliament. The Clerks of this House are not civil servants.

Mr. Woolas: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to point-score. I was referring to the civil servants in the Cabinet Office who advise us; of course the Clerks are not civil servants in the sense of working for the Government.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I take the independence of this House extremely seriously. It is in the nature of our parliamentary system that the legislature and the Executive intersect through the Front Benches of the House. My right hon. Friend has not only duties to the Government but duties to the House. Unless we were to make a radical change to the way in which our Parliament and Government interrelate—which I am sure that the traditionalists who have spoken would not support—there will always be a tension between the Government, of whatever party, and the rights of the House.

There will inevitably be disagreements in seeking to get that balance right. However, one of the great strengths of these Houses of Parliament and this House of Commons is that disagreements over procedure are very small compared with the huge areas where there is agreement. That is reflected in the Government's response to the Committees' reports. Nevertheless, debates in the Chamber and such reporting as there is in the press always concentrate on the disagreements.

Many hon. Members expressed their opposition to programming, and I suspect that motion 2 will generate the most disagreement. I say from the outset that our attempts to introduce programming and the way in which it operates do not reflect, and should not be portrayed as, a heavy-handed Executive trying to force their will on to a reluctant House of Commons. I could refer to the statistics, but I fear that when they are quoted hon. Members' minds are often closed. It is not the case that the number of scrutinised clauses in Bills has decreased since the introduction of programming. The opposite is true. Filibustering prevented debate on many clauses because it meant that we did not necessarily focus on controversial clauses but on earlier provisions, often to delay if not to stop debate on the controversial issues that the majority of hon. Members wanted to reach. Programming has not therefore resulted in fewer clauses being scrutinised.

Mr. Cash: I have a certain sympathy for the view that the Deputy Leader of the House has expressed. There is a world of difference between reasonable amendments, which are presented in a measured and temperate fashion and cover a whole Bill—what appears at the end
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of a Bill can be as important as what appears at the beginning—and others. However, does he accept that what constitutes a filibuster is a matter for the Chair, whether in Standing Committee or on the Floor of the House? With great respect to the Chair, perhaps a little more stringency could be applied to those who are clearly engaged in a filibuster, which the Chair would understand from reading "Erskine May". There is a solution to the problem and the suggestion of the Deputy Leader of the House is somewhat disingenuous—

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