The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick):
I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing this afternoon's Adjournment debate and on raising an issue of importance not only to the Freemen of Beverley, but to
27 Apr 2006 : Column 813
other Guilds of Freemen who similarly want to change their rules of admission. I have read the press releases that the hon. Gentleman issued in advance of the debate. The matter is clearly of concern to him and his constituents.
I shall keep my response to the debate very short. I hope, however, that the hon. Gentleman will take comfort from my remarks and not regard their brevity as in any way lessening the significance of his contribution or of the issue raised by him and by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Jim Cousins).
As the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness said, my hon. Friend, whom I am pleased to see in his place, is sponsoring a Billthe Borough Freedom (Family Succession) Billwhich would allow the title to pass to daughters of freemen. Like the hon. Gentleman, I recognise that the procedures for private Members' Bills are such that there is some uncertainty, to say the least, about whether the Bill will make it to the statute book. Having been a Government Whip with some responsibility for private Members' business over a number of years, I know how delicate private Members' Bills can be.
I must say, in honesty and fairness, that having asked my officials to examine the Bill, the Government have grave doubts about whether, as drafted, it would achieve its purpose. As the hon. Gentleman noted, private Members' Bills must overcome considerable obstacles to become legislation, and Government opposition, whether on principle, political or technical, will always prove to be a major hurdle. Nevertheless, we have considerable sympathy with the Bill's objective. I can therefore assure the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend that, if and when a suitable legislative opportunity presents itself, we will consider providing for Guilds of Freemen to amend their rights of admission locally.
I am happy to accede to that request. Were the hon. Gentleman to seek a discussion, we could
27 Apr 2006 : Column 814
explore the technical deficiencies in the Bill, as we see them, and the possibility of moving the matter forward in due course.
Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend consider whether, if an appropriate amendment could be drafted, the Commons Bill before the House as Government legislation might provide an opportunity to consider these matters?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I am not in a position to give an affirmative response to my hon. Friend. I will take the matter back to the Department and ask officials to examine whether the Commons Bill might be an appropriate vehicle. I do not have that information to hand. Were he and the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness to seek a meeting, we could clarify the matter.
Jim Fitzpatrick: I do not want to build up hopes among colleagues that there may a way of delivering their ambitions by short-circuiting the legislative process. I do not want to give any false hope that we could expedite the inclusion of relevant provisions in the Commons Bill. I said that the Government were sympathetic to the objective and that we would look for a suitable vehicle. However, such an opportunity may not be forthcoming. I am happy to look at the issue and explore it with colleagues because, as I said, we are sympathetic to their objective of enabling the Freemen of Beverley and others like them to change their rights of succession if they wish to do so.
With that assurance, I again congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness on raising an issue of great importance to Guilds of Freemen around the country. In doing so, he has provided the House with a flavour of the history and traditions of one of our oldest institutions. I sincerely hope that progress can be made. I am sure that the hon. Gentlemen who have pressed the issue, both in this debate and in a private Member's Bill, will do all that they can to ensure that their endeavours are successful.