Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said that this is a sad day. Just as he thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) was too generous, I think that he was too generous. This is not a sad day; it is a shameful day. Indeed, I suggest that it is a shameless day because we are being led to the parliamentary slaughterhouse by an amoral Government.
This Government, with a majority of 165, ought to have the confidence to present their ideas to this House so that they can be tested. We all know where the votes will come from. We all know that people will leave their offices, switch off the television and come here to troop through the Aye Lobby in favour of the Government.
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But at least they might do us and, more importantly, our constituents, the courtesy of allowing us to test their ideas through argument. Some of those ideas need to be tested to destruction. Some need to be tested so that they can be improved; my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) mentioned one or two that he is concerned about. Some, if the Government condescended to explain them to us, might receive all-party support, as perhaps they did during earlier stages of the Bill. But at no stage should any Government come to this Chamber and simply assume that we as representatives of the people of this country should simply buckle up, sit down and say, "Oh masters, please tread all over us."
Mr. Andrew Mitchell: One extremely good example of what my hon. and learned Friend is saying is the issue that was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and my hon. Friend the Member for South StaffordshireParliament square, in which respect even now the Minister is refining the Government's proposals. She is actually doing a good job in trying to reach consensus on this difficult issue, but if she returns to the House and wants to win its support, she will not be able to do so because there will not be enough time for her to take account of opinion, listen to what is said and explain her proposals.
Mr. Garnier: It gets worse. No doubt at some stage some Minister will stand up and say that the matter was fully canvassed in Committee. We all know what happens in Standing Committees nowadays. There are knives, the Government majority are compliant and silent, and Opposition Members are prohibited by the time scheduling from expanding the points of view that many members of the public wish to hear debated and considered. It is no good the Government saying that the matter was adequately discussed in Committee.
Furthermore, we all know that Standing Committees are a limited representation of the House of Commons. Those of us who are not on the Bill Committee want an opportunity on behalf of either our constituents or a wider interest group to express our concerns or perhaps our support on issues, such as the curtailment of freedom to do with the law on religious hatred. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and I share the same view of the law on religious hatred. We think that it is a bad idea and that the public should hear the arguments from Members other than those on the Committee.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said a moment ago, intercept evidence along with the question of religious hatred are two of the most important issues concerning civil liberties that the Bill will destroy. What are we supposed to do with half an hour to discuss the civil liberties of our citizens? Do you remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in 1998 the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said, "Hallelujah, this is the Labour Government that is bringing human rights home."? The Government
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were going to domesticate the European convention on human rights by enacting the Human Rights Bill. What a load of codswallop. What a load of trash. They do not know what they are doing. They have no understanding of the constitutional proprieties. This is a disgraceful and despotic Government. The rulers of the Soviet Union would tip their hat to this lot. The Bill should be given proper consideration by this House, and I hope that it will reject this revolting timetabling motion.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am aware that the Minister is keen to respond even in the limited time we have to discuss the limited time that we have to discuss the Bill on Report. I have a few brief points.
At the start it was not entirely satisfactory that the Bill was such a portmanteau business incorporating different sorts of legislation, but it is recognised that we have to do what we can in Committee. The Committee was disciplined. In my view there is no reason why a Committee cannot get through such a Bill if Members show restraint, as was shown on all sides, but on the basis that each part, which will inevitably be considered separately on Report, will be given adequate time for discussion. It is unfortunate that the programme motion does not provide for that.
In addition, the animal extremism measure is a dramatic piece of legislation. The construction of the five Government new clauses that make up the economic sabotage measure shows that careful discussion and scrutiny is necessary. I question whether there is enough time to do that. Today, I tabled an amendment, the measure having been published only in the last two days, and it is not clear whether there is enough time for consideration. Moreover, the Government could have introduced the new clauses before the conclusion of the Committee stage for us to discuss then, rather than waiting until a few days before a Report stage debate to do so.
Finally, there is the question of the section on religious incitement. Two new clauses, if selected, will need debate and may well lead to Divisions. New clause 3 substitutes a different approach from the Government's and it has three-party support. That means that we are dealing not just with the Government and one or two Front-Bench spokesmen, but with Government Back Benchers who will want their say as they have signed the new clause. It is unusual to have that sort of arrangement on Report on a Government Bill, particularly so close to an election. That should signal that there is plenty to debate.
In addition, there is a new clause dealing with the abolition of blasphemy. That has hardly ever been debated in the House and the last time was, I think, 15 years ago. It, too, has cross-party Back-Bench support and Members will want to give their view. I understand that Conservative Members will have a free vote, so no doubt there will be more than one view held among them. Certainly there will be more than one view on the Government Benches. I do not see how it will be possible to cover that discussion in an hour and a half.
I urge the Government, who so far have dealt with the business of the Bill in a spirit of co-operation despite the tight scheduling, to reconsider the programme motion
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to provide adequate time for all those matters. If the Government do not, they know that they will have difficulty in the House of Lords on the question of religious incitement. The failure to debate this properly in this House gives encouragement, rightly so, to the other place to stand firm in their previously expressed belief that this is not what they want to see. Fuller discussion in this House might persuade some of their lordships to drop their objections. The Government are making a rod for their own back by trying to rush that particular measure and this Bill through the House.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): The reason why I moved the programme motion formally rather than exercising all the arguments in favour of its construction was precisely to give Members on all sides an opportunity to state their concerns. This debate is limited. The Government deliberately tabled the debate for today to guarantee that it should not in any way eat into the opportunities for debate on the measures themselves. We guarantee that even if there is a statement, we will get the full amount of time set out in this programme motion.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell: The Minister said that the Government held the debate today so that they could listen to what was said. She has heard from across the House blanket condemnation of the motion. Will she now withdraw it?
Fiona Mactaggart: No, I will not. I am using the opportunity to clarify the reasons for what we have done and to ensure that all hon. Members are confident that there will be the full time for debate, as set out in the motion.
The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) implied that debate in Committee had been restricted. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) serves on the Committee and knows that no knives were used. Indeed, the Government offered additional evening sittings, so the Bill has been fully debated in Committee. Those who have participated in those sittings have acknowledged that in their contributions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who moved the amendment, was not a member of the Committee. I accept that his genuine concerns were not dealt with in Committee, which considered such matters relatively briskly, but they could well be dealt with at a meeting with my ministerial colleagues. I hope that we can offer him that opportunity and that he will withdraw his amendment. It is easy to do that because, as hon. Members on all sides have said, during the Bill's consideration my colleagues and I have had extensive meetings with Members and others who have had concerns about aspects of the Bill. We have tried to listen to them. Changes have been made, which hon. Members have graciously acknowledged.