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Child Benefit Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

3.11 pm

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): I beg to move,

                              Consideration and Third Reading

The original programme motion tabled by the Government had been discussed through the usual channels and had agreement, but the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) raised concerns in Committee with regard to the length of the allocation for Third Reading. He was quite happy with the allocation for Committee and Report. Having listened carefully to the points that he raised in Committee, and in discussions through the usual channels, I agreed that we could provide for his specific requests. The motion responds to all his requests, and I hope that he is satisfied that I have acted positively and in good faith.

3.12 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): The motion is for an inherently much less controversial Bill than the one that the House has just discussed and voted on, so I suspect that we will not require the full 45 minutes to discuss it. Nevertheless, I want to put on record a few brief points.

The original programme motion for this Bill, to which we were opposed, allocated only half an hour for Third Reading. The Paymaster General is right that we protested about that, both in the Programming Sub-Committee and through the usual channels, as the Opposition's view was that allowing half an hour for the Third Reading of a Bill, even for a relatively minor measure, set an unwelcome precedent, and we did not want to let that pass. Discussions therefore took place through the usual channels, and in fairness to her, the Order Paper was amended in such a way that if Report does not last until 5 o'clock, which may be the case, we will have an expanded amount of time to debate Third Reading. I acknowledge that.

First, however, it is important to remember that the Opposition are opposed in principle to the concept of programming. Secondly, given what has just transpired in the Chamber—the abominable way in which the Government treated the previous programme motion, for which I accept that the Paymaster General is not personally responsible—the Opposition feel that we have no choice but to oppose this one, too. We therefore intend to press the matter to a Division.

3.14 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): I will not delay the House unduly, but this is an opportunity to say something very important.
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This Bill is largely uncontroversial. Given the civilised nature of our Parliament, it could properly be discussed in circumstances in which the mechanism could be used without party political division but to get the best Bill possible. I am much impressed by the way in which the Paymaster General has tried to respond to our concerns. Although she and I have had our arguments from time to time, she would accept that they have been on matters of principle and not in any way party political or personal. Will she therefore take these remarks in the same spirit?

We must recover the respect that the House of Commons has lost in the world outside. Part of the problem is the view that we can no longer manage our affairs to deal with such a Bill without a programme motion, and that we are not prepared to give the necessary time for matters that should properly be allowed serious argument. It happens that the previous programme motion relates to an area in which I have a real interest, which I want to declare. The issue for which that programme motion has left us a relatively small amount of time is of fundamental constitutional, social and religious importance, which I therefore feel strongly that it is important to discuss.

This matter, however, is wholly different. I hope that the Government will now begin to think about how the restitution of what I would call the historic concept of convention is a necessary part of modernisation. We have gone beyond modernisation being about laying down rules about trying to improve things one way and another. We ought to learn that for most Bills a perfectly reasonable procedure is for both sides of the House to come to a reasonable decision about how much time is needed for discussion. This is one of those Bills that ought to have had no programme motion. I know what Parliament in its various wisdom has said, but this is exactly the circumstance in which the Government could have trusted Parliament to make progress in a sensible way. Unless we recover that relationship, it will be very serious.

Of course we could have a party political discussion about who might win the next election, but I do not want that. I shall put it in obvious, impartial terms. At some stage, this Government will not be the Government of Britain. It may be after the Paymaster General's life, or next time—whenever it is, it will surely come. In those circumstances, if the Opposition have been driven to a position in which they feel that they have been unable to use the time of the House to have proper discussions about real issues, the difficulty will be that they will not revert to a sensible, civilised system.

I want the Paymaster General to become an advocate for a change—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Before we proceed, let me say that general discussion about programming is not appropriate. The debate is about programming for this particular Bill.

Mr. Gummer: Indeed, and I wish to keep to that.

This is an opportunity for the Paymaster General to say, "Look, the House can handle this without a programme motion. Let us give it the chance." There is no reason why she should not do it. There is a recommendation by the House, but it is not a rule. I am
3 Feb 2005 : Column 1043
sorry that she has not done it up to now, I am sure that she cannot go back on her word, and her considerable generosity in ensuring that our needs are met is very helpful. I hope that she will recognise, however, that the Government could make a great contribution to parliamentary democracy in this area by recognising that programme motions are deeply offensive because they do not allow for proper, civilised relationships.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): My right hon. Friend is making a powerful and cogent case, but does he not accept that when Government impose timetables unnecessarily—when the timetable is too tight or else should not be imposed at all, as in this case—it is this Parliament that is brought into contempt for passing bad laws, because it has not been able to consider them properly, and that when this Parliament is brought into contempt, we as Members of Parliament are brought down in the estimation of the public?

Mr. Gummer: I must be careful given your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend's point can be applied to the Bill. We could show the country that we are capable of having a sensible discussion about a Bill with most of which we all agree, but which the Opposition want to ensure is as good as it can be without wanting to be difficult or awkward. I think that we can do that much better without constraint. Indeed, I suspect we might finish much earlier if we were not constrained. The trouble with programme motions is that we tend to fill the amount of time available.

I merely say this to the Minister. I hope she will become increasingly an advocate of the concept that the House must recover control over its timetable for itself. That means not having programme motions but beginning to rebuild a convention in which the House does not improperly stand in the way of the rule of the majority, but neither does the majority improperly stand in the way of the expression of the minority view. Then, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), we shall not have as much bad legislation as we have had, and I shall have fewer people coming into my surgery asking why on earth we passed clause 62, after which I look it up and discover that we never discussed clause 62.

The differences are not party political: they are differences that will only be brought out by discussion so we can see what the mistake is. I hope the Minister will accept that, in what could be considered a rather non-party political moment, I want to raise this matter seriously with her. To my own Front Benchers, I say that I look forward to a total commitment from the Conservative party that when returned to power it will remove this element. I want that commitment before an election, not afterwards, because I know what will happen otherwise: people will say "They did it to us, so we will do it to them." That is not a proper answer. I want that commitment now.

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