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The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): May I respond to one or two points made by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)? We extended the time available in Committee after discussions through the usual channels, but she struggled to fill that time. Indeed, she had to speak about all sorts of things, such as the long title of the Bill, the short title and who had printed documents, so that she could drag out proceedings.

The hon. Lady's problem is that her party does not understand the Bill or why we want to tackle the issues with which it deals, such as litter, graffiti and other problems that degrade local neighbourhoods. That is why most of the time available on Second Reading was taken up by 18 Labour Members who spoke with authority about the way in which the degradation of local environments affects their constituencies. Only two Conservative Back Benchers spoke, and neither sounded authoritative or convinced about the points that they were making.

The hon. Lady referred to the usual channels, but as far as I could see, they worked with their usual efficiency and co-operated to ensure that there was the opportunity for Conservative Members and for the hon. Lady to have an input on the timetable. The letter that she mentioned was finally drafted and completed to my satisfaction little more than an hour ago. I brought copies to the House to put on the Letter Board and delivered a copy personally to the hon. Lady, after having faxed an advance copy to her office. It is rather strange that rather than welcoming such courtesy, she uses it as an opportunity to make a critical point. I would have thought that that was a trifle ungracious.

We have debated in Committee a Bill of enormous importance to constituents who are represented by Labour Members. However, Conservative Members do not understand it. They even said on Second Reading that the Bill was about urban, not rural, issues. They should tell that to all the farmers who complain about fly-tipping on their land or the cars that are left on their
 
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land that must be disposed of. The Bill deals with problems that are important to both urban and rural constituents, so we should move on to debate such issues rather than trying to find piddling excuses to delay the House's proceedings, as the hon. Lady has done.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am in favour of the Bill but against the programme motion. However, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) said something that concerned me. She suggested that if we agree to the programme motion, we will lose one hour of the time usually allowed for debate. My reading of the motion is that we can go to 10 o'clock. Will you confirm that?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is correct.

4.5 pm

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): The Minister responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) in his usual robust manner. I was one of those who spoke on Second Reading and who made, according to him, an ill-informed contribution. Whether he meant my contribution I am not sure, but I was chief executive of the largest animal welfare charity in Britain, so I understand a bit more about the care of strays than even he does.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): As far as the Minister is concerned, the fact that my hon. Friend has experience means that he is ill-informed.

Derek Conway: My hon. Friend makes a good point.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman spoke on one clause of a wide-ranging and important Bill. Although he spoke with authority, it meant that 50 per cent. of the contributions by Conservative Members was directed at only one clause.

Derek Conway: I am glad to accept the right hon. Gentleman's apology, which was given in his usual charming way.

Having contributed on that specific matter on Second Reading, I could not serve on the Standing Committee—which I wanted to do to press the Minister further—because as a member of the Chairmen's Panel I was next door chairing the Identity Cards Bill, which was in equally invigorating session. What concerns me about the programme motion, on which I hope my hon. Friends divide the House, is where the knives are placed.

I want to question the Minister on amendment No. 11, which deals with dogs. Less than 45 minutes was spent on that subject in Committee. Obviously, I had no opportunity to press him in that forum. Some of my hon. Friends—I note that the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), is in the Chamber—have made the point in timetabling debates that not all hon. Members can serve on Standing Committees. If they have duties on other Committees or elsewhere in the House, it is the remaining stages of a Bill's consideration that enable any Member, with the agreement of the Chair, to press the Minister on the detail.
 
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There is no objection to what the Government propose on the matter, and I hope that we will debate it with your consent, Mr. Speaker, but I am concerned that the motion will prevent us from getting to the amendment. Given the time that the Government are allowing for the discussion of the remaining stages, I am not convinced that we will get to it. There may be no time to discuss what happens to the 140,000 stray dogs, which the Committee could consider for only 45 minutes.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): My hon. Friend's tenure running the Cats Protection League is rightly celebrated the length and breadth of the land. It certainly qualifies him to contribute at length to our proceedings. As an experienced parliamentarian, does he agree that in trying to explain our opposition to programme motions to the widest audience, it is important to underline to the public that with 44 new clauses and amendments, and only 240 minutes in total in which to do so—assuming, rather unimaginably, there are no votes—the logic is obvious? There is only roughly five minutes for consideration of each amendment. It is manifestly inadequate and an insult to the House of Commons.

Derek Conway: My hon. Friend makes a superb point, as always. He also makes a reasonable point. People are not saying that all parts of the Bill are dreadful. I am not saying that although I have a predilection for cat welfare, I do not support the dog welfare charities, and I had a great deal to do with them through the industry arrangements. However, when we reach the relevant part of the Bill, I want to press the Minister on the practicalities of his proposals because the Committee did not have time to do that.

I do not object to the proposals. I hope to support what the Minister is trying to do. There is no party political principle involved in the care of stray dogs. There is no magical Conservative, Labour or Liberal solution to what we do with stray animals. However, we are entitled to press the Government on whether the dramatic changes to the care of what are often violent stray dogs—10 per cent. are out of control—will work. The discussions that I have had with vested interests suggest that it will not do so. Therefore, we should have the opportunity to put such points. I predict that, because of the timetable motion that the Government have put before the House, we will not be able to do so.

The groups outside this building that will have to do the dirty work for us—the Dogs Trust, the RSPCA, the Kennel Club and, more importantly, the dog wardens who have grave doubts about the proposals, as the Minister knows—will want to know what the hot words said in this Chamber will mean on the cold nights across Britain if the proposals become law, as I am sure the Government will ensure. It is a great pity that the Minister has guillotined proceedings on the Bill in this way, and it is a pity that those of us who were unable to serve on the Standing Committee will not have an opportunity to press him further. If for whatever reason we do get a few minutes during the course of the evening, I hope to press him on whether his practical solutions will really work for the benefit of the dogs of Great Britain.
 
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4.10 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My contribution to the debate on this programme motion will be very brief. My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) made some valuable points. If I may, I shall speak in my capacity as Chairman of the Procedure Committee. I am deeply concerned that the time limits on debate imposed by programme motions are preventing Members from undertaking their duties on behalf of the constituents who sent them here. The remaining stages of a Bill are the only occasions during the legislative process when Members of whatever party should have an automatic right to be called.

I accept what the Minister said—this is important legislation. It affects people not only in urban areas but in rural areas. Is it right that people such as my hon. Friend, who have expertise in this area and who would like a greater opportunity to express their views, are prevented because of a programme motion from doing so? There are Members on both sides of the House who have heavy responsibilities and cannot always be in Standing Committee when a clause, new clause or amendment is debated.

Will the Minister take back to the powers that be—the Leader of the House and the usual channels—the message that further consideration should be given to the needs of Back Benchers, who should have an opportunity to have an input during remaining stages? The Procedure Committee which I chair has made recommendations which the Government have, at this stage, not seen fit to accept. I believe that the House will review the situation relating to programming. My hon. Friend has made a good point, so please let us allow Members to make a contribution. The remaining stages of a Bill are the only period during its passage when Members should be guaranteed the ability so to contribute.

4.13 pm


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