Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I simply do not believe that there is enough time to understand the unexplained contradictions between the philosophy behind this legislation and that behind the Northern Ireland peace process. I have persistently sought to work constructively with the Government, and particularly the Northern Ireland Office, to ensure significant progress in Northern Ireland, and to that extent I agree that the Government can take some credit for what has happened there, but I find very frustrating the virtual absence in these debatesprobably owing to time pressureof any significant explanation as to why the Home Office takes such a different approach to this legislation from the one we are expected to support for Northern Ireland.
The Government need the time to explain why, for example, internment, which was universally regarded as having failed in the Province, is now proposed as a solution to international terrorism. There is a grain of explanation in the form of a comment yesterday by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward):
Well, it does not seem very different to the victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland. If the Government want our support and sympathy in these difficult times, they need to provide themselves with enough time to explain the apparent contradictions writ largecertainly in the eyes of Northern Ireland residentsas the Government increasingly try to suggest that there are two different kinds of terrorism. Furthermore, and perhaps ironically, only today Northern Ireland offences legislation is being published
The Secretary of State should realise that his decision on the time for debate necessarily prevents a profound understanding of why the Government believe that they are being consistent and joined up in their thinking with regard to Northern Ireland terrorism and international terrorism. Of course the Government can force these things through in a short period, but I warn the Home Secretary that if he insists on doing so with inadequate explanation, not only will he create resentments in the Chamber, but the ramifications of the programme motion for today's Bill are likely to cause significant and practical obstructions that could well prevent the Government from passing other Bills that they desperately want passed in respect of Northern Ireland.
Let us have a fast debate if that is what the Home Secretary wants, but let us recognise that the Government will pay many times over in delay and obstruction, particularly in the other place, because our good will on Northern Ireland matters has been utterly exhausted.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): It was right for the Government to take the Committee stage on the Floor of the House, because the Bill affects every one of us and all those we represent. No one assembled here in the House doubts the importance of the issues before us. In fact, the Bill has many of the features that would, in the old days, have made it be viewed as a constitutional Bill. As a general rule, such constitutional Bills of major importance were never guillotined. Every one of us should have the opportunity to justify, query or give reason to our anxieties about the Bill. I am struck by the fact that we have not concluded any detailed scrutiny of the substance of the Bill before our consideration on Report and before Third Reading.
My concern is that the debate is so staggered or staged that it seems almost impossible to reach some of the key concepts within the Bill. I therefore want to ask the Government whether this is an act of cynicism. Is it a deliberate attempt to ensure that the House will not be able reach the provisions on stop and search, or perhaps on commission of offences abroad or glorification? I believe that denying the House of Commons the proper opportunity to examine the Bill does not serve the Government's own cause of arguing their case to the country.
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Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I want briefly to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)that the House should be involved and at the heart of scrutiny of this legislation. In particular, after eight years in this place, I saw last week that the House of Commons was finally adopting a supreme role in trying to revise and improve the Bill. As I said in an earlier intervention, it became apparent to the House last week that in respect of the commissioning of offences abroad, there was greater concern than had first appeared when the Bill was probed in Committee. It is disappointing that the Government are introducing a programme motion that almost guarantees that there will be no follow-on from last week to this week. That effectively hands back to the House of Lords the job of scrutinising the detail of legislationa major error.
At business questions last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made the point that the Government should find more time to debate the Bill. It is not yet too late for the Government to recognise that, if the House is to build on what happened last week and to remain the dominant scrutiny Chamber, more time is required to debate the Bill on Report.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I agree with those who have argued that the programme motion is unsound and unsatisfactory. It may represent an improvementa modest one, at thaton previous procedure, but in view of previous procedure, that does not say much for it.
I do not mind vouchsafing to the House, if you will permit me, Mr. Speaker, that at 7.29 yesterday morning, my wife gave birth to our second childFrederick James, weighing in at 8lb 6oz and born in an excellent national health service hospital. You will appreciate, Mr. Speaker, and right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House will understand, that I am very keen indeed to take a decent period of paternity leave. Moreover, I have already informed my WhipsI emphasise, informed my Whipsthat I intend to do so.
I happen to believe, however, that the issueor, rather, the set of issuesbefore us today exceeds in importance any other issues before the House now or for the foreseeable future. To that extent, I agree with what the Prime Minister said at Question Time. Some of us had the privilege of contributing to the Queen's Speech debate earlier this year, and in that debate I made the gentle observation that if the Government were confident of their case on legislation to be put before the House, they should not be afraid of debate, but allow time for arguments and accept that other legitimate points of view can and should be put forward.
In the context of the programme motion, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) raised the question of whether the Government were deliberately seeking to circumvent debate. The question has been implicit and sometimes explicitly asked as to whether Ministers are afraid of the arguments. My honest view is that the Prime Minister is not afraid of the arguments and I do not think that the Home Secretary is afraid of the arguments. I am not
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even going to accuse the Home Secretary, in the context of the programme motion, of engaging in some sort of deliberate Machiavellian parliamentary contrivance. If I were so to suggest, it would probably be unworthy.
What I am going to suggest is something that I think is at least as serious. The charge is not that the Government are afraid of debate or that they are trying to shut people up. The charge is that the Government are, frankly, careless of and insensitive to the wishes of Back Benchers who want the opportunity to put their legitimate point of view and to receive responses to it. It seems to me that that was the kernel of the argument developed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who is recognised throughout the House as a truly outstanding parliamentarian. He knows that there is a history in this place of considering these matters seriously and at length.
I say in all sincerity to the Home Secretary, whose sincerity I respect and whose patriotism I acknowledge: what harm would be done either to the Government or to the national interest if we were to debate the Bill tonight until 10 o'clock? What would be the harm if the Government were to acknowledge that there was a welter of different opinions around the House and to let us have another day for debate? What damage would be inflicted; what disadvantage would be incurred?
If the Home Secretary is looking just a bit irritated, as I suspect he is, it might be because he thinks that he knows that he has got it right, that the Government know what they are doing and that hon. Members must be told to let the Government get their business through. What I would say to the Home Secretary is that he should accept that in this, the cockpit of parliamentary democracy, we should debate the issues fully and comprehensively. We should have that opportunity, but we are being denied it. If I am prepared to stay here until 10 o'clock at night or to have another day's debate on issues that are far more important than most matters that the House will consider, why are Ministers not prepared to allow that? Why cannot we have a proper representation on the Government Front Bench for these important debates?
Might I say that there was a time in the Housea time that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire will well recallwhen on occasions of this sort, the Prime Minister was customarily in his place to hear the arguments and listen to alternative points of view? What is happening to our parliamentary democracy?