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Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. I happen to agree with him about the programme, but will he tell me why Conservative Front Benchers do not oppose every programme motion on every Bill? That would at least draw attention to the issue.
I wish they would, but my party's Front Benchers are in consensual mode at present. They seem to think that we will attract more support from the
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electorate if we oppose the Government as little as possible rather than as much as possible. This is the new mood of the Conservative party.
Mr. Forth: I shall be delighted to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. You always challenge me in this regard, do you not? You think that saying that the motion is restrictive will somehow constrain my remarks. I think you will find that it does not work quite like that, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I was about to probe further in my analysis. In the one hour that I have identified between the programme motion and Division and the Third Reading debate, we have two matters of substance to consider: a new clause that is of some importance and an amendment, which is similarly important. Let us say, arbitrarily, that we allot half an hour to each. That means that the Government are seriously suggesting that in a mere half hour we as the House of Commons, with an obligation to our voters to scrutinise legislation, are expected at one and the same time to listen to the proposer of the new clause or the amendment, to hear Back-Bench contributions from the eminent lawyers here gathered on both sides of the House, and to hear the ministerial response. In one half hour30 minuteswe as the House of Commons are expected to do justice to our responsibility to scrutinise legislation properly.
I suspect that the Government's response will be that part of their rationale was today's statement on Afghanistan. They felt that they must constrain the House's time in some way. Even if we allow what I believe may be the Government's justification, however, and given that both Front Benchers and Back Benchers have described the Bill as a relatively non-controversial measure, should this not have been one of those cases in which the business is allowed to find its own level?
Mr. Forth: Of course I agree with my hon. Friend's last point, but how can he possibly have known that the Bill was non-controversial? The fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) has a cosy arrangement with the Government according to which it is allegedly non-controversial does not mean, as far as the rest of us are concernedwe may not have participated in Committee, but we may have come along with fresh ideas, or we may have been approached by constituents or interest groupsthat a measure that may have looked bland and uncontroversial at first will remain the same throughout its passage. I object to the assumption that measures can be deemed uncontroversial by those who know better than my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and me, and that we must then row in behind that regardless.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his courtesy. I would never accuse him of being non-controversial in any context: it would be more than my
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life is worth. I believe, however, that the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who I think served on the Standing Committee and knows the detail of the Bill, seemed also to suggest that it was not the most controversial legislation that had ever been presented to the House. That being the case, I offer again my argument that the Government might have been wiser in this instance to allow the business to find its own level in the traditional way.
Mr. Forth: That may be my hon. Friend's view, but I see in the Chamber more than one Member from Leicestershire. Indeed, the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) is well known for his dedication to the parliamentary process and his power of analysis. He is looking very thoughtful, and he may well have thoughts on the Bill other than those of the hon. Member for Leicester, East, eminent lawyer though he is, who was not on the Committee and who may or may not have views yet to be revealed. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh has shown us that, in every respect, the programme motion is a disgrace and an outrage to the parliamentary process. That is the long and short of it.
Following on from what the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon takes the message back to our Front-Bench colleagues that we should not allow these programme motions to slip through uncontested, because again and again they illustrate a number of interrelated facts. The first is that the Government now assume that they, not the House, must control all aspects of the parliamentary process. They are saying to us, effectively, "When we introduce our legislation, we will decide how much time the House of Commons will have to consider it." That is what is so unacceptable.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The right hon. Gentleman's remarks in relation to me were probably over-generous. Will he not acknowledge that there have been in this consensual period a good number of Bills without a programme motion? After looking at Division lists from before and during that period, I know that he was present, so presumablyat least for a brief periodhe was infected by this warm, fluffy desire to get on with things.
Mr. Forth: Rarely am I accused of being warm and fluffyI will treasure the momentbut the honest answer is that, from time to time, I find it difficult to persuade even one colleague to help me in dividing the House. If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to join me in changing Standing Orders so that one Member can divide the House, he will have a lot more fun. However, I accept his criticism, and perhaps I have not been as diligent as I should. I shall try to do better and see whether I can, following his advice, divide the House more often.
There is an implication in what the hon. Member for Leicester, East said, which is that, somehow, the Bill might not be that important, and certainly is not that controversial, so it does not require so much time for
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consideration. Let us look at the gist of the Bill. The explanatory notes, which usefully provide a summary, say that it
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend think that this is a programme motion to help the Minister on a difficult Thursday for the Government or is it part of a worrying trend of having contempt for the House?
Mr. Forth: It is a very well established trend, if I may say so to my hon. Friend, and one that has developed over the last eight years or so. In the good old days, the Government would not have dreamed of doing anything like this. The tradition was observed that the Opposition by and large could control the pace of proceedings in the House and in Committee, rightly in my view, and only in the extreme would the Government introduce a guillotine or timetable motion to bring business to a proper close. That is the way it should have been. Now, the Government routinely and arbitrarily decide how much time will be allocated to business, leaving us simply to try to fit in as best we can.
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Will he acknowledge that certain important clarifications were made during consideration of the Bill in another place in terms of the appeal rights in respect of decisions of the commission in determining whether access to justice had been properly granted? Guillotining a Bill in such a way obviously reduces the amount of discussion, and perhaps the progress that we might make on other issues of such import.
Mr. Forth: Indeed, my hon. Friend is correct. He, of course, is one of the experts to whom I referred earlier, and I look forward to his contribution, although it will necessarily be brief because of the overly restrictive programme motion.
Those are momentous matters, yet we now know, having arrived here on this day in these circumstancesthe shape taken by today's business, such as business questions and the important statement, which rightly was allowed to run for some time a short while agothat we have been left with this insultingly brief period in which to consider them.
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