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We have had a very full debate on the issue in public.[ Official Report, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 811.]
With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is the House of Commons. We debate issues in the Chamber, and I do not think that it is satisfactory for the Prime Minister or, indeed, any other Minister to tell the House that we have had a full debate in publicwhat does that mean, is it the public bar of The Bull and Bush?rather than on the Floor of the House, which is where debates relating to contentious issues upon which there are strongly, deeply and honourably held opinions on both sides should be held.
Looking at what actually happened, we can see how fully the matter was debated. Sexual orientation was not debated at all during the passage of the Equality Act 2006 through the House of Commons. It was not debated in Committee or on Report or on Third Reading in the Commons, because it was only introduced as the subject of an amendment in Committee in the House of Lords. That introduction caused what my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) referred to later on the record as anomalies. I think that we can fairly say that the regulations are pretty anomalous. As the implications of the regulations became clear, public concern was widely expressed. To that extent, the Prime Minister was rightthere was a public debate outside the Housebut still there was no opportunity for a full debate in the House of Commons.
Those highly contentious draft regulations were laid on 13 March. My understandingand I stand to be corrected, as it is possible that the Committee was appointed late at night on 13 Marchis that members of the Committee designated to consider those regulations were not appointed, or at least informed, until 14 March. The regulations were heard by a Delegated Legislation Committee very early in the morning on Thursday 15 March. From the time the regulations were laid, notwithstanding their highly contentious content, until their consideration and determination in full, insofar as debate is concerned, by the House, there was a period of
two and a half days. There was no time for consideration by Committee members and there was no time for any further representations to be made. In Committee on 15 March, 17 appointed Committee members were present. In additionand this is exceptional, as hon. Members will know, for a Statutory Instrument Committee24 non-Committee members who were, none the less, hon. Members, were present. A dilatory motion was moved, which the Chairman, quite properly, rejected. Once points of order had been raisedand there were a number of themone Back Bencher had time to comment on those highly contentious regulations. Fourteen hon. Members sought to intervene: my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), for Stone (Mr. Cash), for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin); my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood); and my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), for Buckingham (John Bercow), for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). They all wanted to make a contribution, in one form or another, to the debate, but they were effectively denied the opportunity to do so.
The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), who was taking the business through Committee and, to be fair, the Leader of the House, who dealt with the matter subsequently when it was raised in the Chamber, both said in terms that the Conservative Front-Bench team could have requested that the business be taken on the Floor of the House, but they chose not to do so. That is slightly disingenuous. The fact of the matter is that no offer was made, but of course, it is open to the Opposition to make a request. I understand that a request was not made, and the conclusion that we are invited to draw is that the Opposition consented to the manner in which the regulations were taken through the House.
has had representations from the official Opposition that this matter is not suitable to be dealt with by means of statutory instruments, and that it should be dealt with instead as primary legislation. We offered to facilitate that task and to help the Government deal with it in a smooth and sensible fashion.[ Official Report, 12th Delegated Legislation Committee, 15 March 2007; c. 11.]
Let us be absolutely clear: the Government were offered the co-operation of Her Majestys Loyal Opposition to take the business, as it properly should have been taken, through the House in the form of a short Bill as primary legislation. That would have given the House the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill thoroughly, to remove from it what my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest described as anomalies, and to produce a good and workable piece of legislation to send to the upper House for its further consideration.
Following that dawn hearing of the statutory instrument, we raised the matter at business questions later in the morning with the Leader of the House. I believe you may have been in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when I asked the right hon. Gentleman
whether, at the very least, we could delay that business and the vote on it until after this debate, the Easter Adjournment debate, when hon. Friends might have had the opportunity to make their views known on the record. That request was denied.
There was, as we now know, on the following Monday, in a half-empty House when the business was one-line business which collapsed early, an early evening vote which, not entirely surprisingly, was carried by a considerable majority. A number of Memberson both sides of the House, to be fairwho regard the regulations as pernicious simply did not have time to return to the House from constituency business in their constituencies in time for that vote, which was held at about 7.30 pm, whereas ordinarily it might have been expected to take place at 10 pm. I am not suggesting for one moment that that was deliberately orchestrated, but it is a sad fact that not only were Members denied the right to speak on the issue, but they were effectively denied the right to vote.
The legislation was railroaded through the House of Lords on 21 March. Baroness OCathains amendment was defeated by 122 votes to 168. We were left with no discussion of the effects of the regulations on, for example, small businesses, services and education, or of the highly contentious issue of adoption by gay couples. As Baroness OCathain said in the upper House, the Government
have taken the view that gay rights trump religious rights[ Official Report, House of Lords, 21 March 2007; Vol. 690, c. 1298.]
promote a great deal of litigation and money for lawyers. . . The procedure is a nonsenseit is not suitable to deal with this matter by way of statutory instrument. We have written to the Government to explain that in moderate and sensible terms.
would have commanded far more respect from its opponents had they had a better opportunity to put their arguments.[ Official Report, 12th Delegated Legislation Committee, 15 March 2007; c. 19-20.]
The public expected a proper debate on the matter. They expected and had a right to expect from their elected representatives considered legislation from which the flaws had been removed. Instead, we have on the statute book a squalid measure that is illiberal and ill considered and that will lead to legal challenge. That was not necessary.
the Government are venturing down an unconsidered path
enshrine in legislation a new sub-category of those whom it will be legal to discriminate against. Rather than levelling the playing field for those who suffer discrimination, an aim I
fully support, this legislation effects a rearrangement of discriminatory attitudes and bias to overcompensate and skew the field the other way.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 21 March 2007; Vol. 690, c. 1309.]
we can, if we are sensible, find a way of preventing discrimination against gay people, while allowing Catholic adoption agencies to carry on doing the excellent work that they do. It is a difficult balance to strike, but I believe that we have struck the right balance, and I think that most sensible people would agree with it.[ Official Report, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 811.]
What the Prime Minister was actually saying was, Well give you some time to adjust to this new situation and you no doubt will be able to overcome that. That completely ignores the fact that five days, five months, five years, or 500 years would not affect the issue. We are not dealing with something that is negotiable. We are dealing with principle, and five millennia would not make any difference.
The regulations are so skewed that Catholic adoption agencies will in fairly short order probably close and certainly face discrimination, as do now members of the Catholic and other Churches who feel strongly about these matters. By the way, I myself am an Anglican, not a Catholic. While that is going on, regulation 13 of these carefully thought-through regulations exempts gay welfare groups from the provisions and allows them to reject approaches from heterosexuals, so they can put a notice up on the door saying, No heterosexuals. Forgive methat sounds to me just a tad like discrimination. It is not necessary.
The Archbishop of York said in his excellent speech that we must be liberal and we must learn to listen. The Government have not listened. The House wanted to debate these issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield said in Committee:
Until the House cottons on to the extent to which
a profound change between tolerance and enforcing a new form of orthodoxy, we will fail to grapple properly with the problems that these regulations pose.[ Official Report, 12th Delegated Committee, 15 March 2007; c. 29].
To conclude, a fundamental concern has been expressed in both Houses of Parliament from both Front Benches, bydare I say it?the Chair and by Back Benchers that the public are disillusioned with Parliament. People outside this place feel that they are not heard and that we do not properly reflect the manner in which their business should be handled.
We votedsome of us votedearlier this week a not inconsiderable annual sum of money for communications. The thesis behind that was that we need to communicate better with those we serve so that they understand better what we are doing. I do not believe that the people whom I represent will ever understand the way in which this House of Commons and this Government put the sexual orientation regulations through the House, knowing that they were contentious and that they required debate, without giving the elected representatives of those people the chance to have their say. I fear that until we return to parliamentary democracy and reassert the primacy of this Chamber, ordinary people will feel that Parliament is, as it is at present, irrelevant to their lives.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I begin by welcoming the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) to his new position. It is a pleasure to see him on the Front Bench. He occupied the position once before and returns to the Front Bench, I understand, as an unpaid post, so presumably this is one area where we will see good value for money. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. When he previously held the post, and when he summed up these debates, he always did so with courtesy and respect for the House and for Members. I am delighted to see him back in the Government. I want to use today to raise several issues which directly affect my constituency. I raised some of these matters in the Christmas Adjournment debate, and I want to consider how they have moved on.
I want to touch on a real crisis for the countryside. Hon. Members who represent agricultural constituencies feel incredibly worried about the position of dairy farmers. Approximately 10 years ago, a dairy farmer would get 26p a litre for their milk. Today, the figure is 18p a litre. It has been estimated that on average dairy farmers today are losing in the region of 4p a litre, and they cannot go on losing money on their main product without going bust.
The Government must take a serious look at the matter. This morning, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee issued a devastating report on the Rural Payments Agency. I remember earlier warnings from the Select Committee that the RPA was in serious dangerI think that the Deputy Leader of the House was a member of the Committee at that timeand I also remember Lord Bach saying that the Committee was wrong and that it had misunderstood the whole position. Who was wrong and who was right?
The devastation caused to the farming industry has been fundamental, and the Governments reputation has been seriously damaged. It is no good saying that the Secretary of State has apologised, because the situation is continuing. On 2 March, the RPA extended its final deadline for the return of the hill farm allowance forms, because it discovered that applicants had not received the explanatory booklet and declaration letter. The RPA is now re-mailing a number of upland farmers. That might explain why, according to the RPA, there was a failure by applicants to submit their declarations. It is difficult to submit a declaration if one has not been sent it in the first instance. There needs to be a radical look at how the RPA works, and perhaps that will now happen.
Without the farmers of this country, there would be no countryside. As the Deputy Leader of the House knows, my constituency is very attractive, and 20 million people a year visit the Peak District national park. The visitors come to see the natural beauty of my constituency, but if the land is not farmed, it will not hold its beauty.
One of the problems that it highlighted when it published its interim findings a short time ago was that it had not had many complaints from farmers.[ Official Report, 8 March 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1657.]
Most of us see our job to be producing crops and livestock. This is what provides our income. Anything that takes us away from that work tends to be seen as waste of time. In recent years we have been straight jacketed with paperwork from people sitting in front of computers who to justify their existence have to think up new schemes and forms to complete. It is not the fear of reprisals that stops the ordinary farmer from contacting you. Most will have asked question, Will it do me any good? Experience says no. To provide you with evidence each of us has to search through our mountains of paper. And we just dont have the time.
The next issue that I want to discuss is the resurfacing of the A50. The A50 is a new road that has been built through part of my constituency, and it has become known as the Doveridge bypass. Traffic volumes have grown dramatically on the bypass. Indeed, it is a mistake to call that part of the A50 the Doveridge bypass, because following work in the Stoke area on the A500, it has become the M1-M6 link road. The Government published a 10-year planI think that we are now at the stage of five-year plansand the then Secretary of State for Transport, who is now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, wrote to reassure me that the 10-year plan included resurfacing some of the concrete roads in our country. He said that the A50 was in that particular scheme and that it would be done. Surprise, surprise, the 10-year plan never reached expectations, and I have been told that that road will not be resurfaced in the immediate future.
I have tabled written parliamentary questions to the Secretary of State for Transport, and I have written to the Highways Agency. Just the other day, I received a letter from the Highways Agency that contained some very disturbing news:
As you know the current policy with regard to funding all works on the motorway and trunk road network is entirely dependent on safety and maintenance needs. Concrete roads are designed to have a life of approximately 40 years, but the condition of all roads are regularly assessed for safety and maintenance. Therefore under current procedures it is unlikely that the A50 will need resurfacing for some time.
The condition of the A50 has damaged the quality of life in Doveridge. When the bypass was built, people were pleased, but they did not expect one problem to be replaced by another, namely consistent noise in the daytime caused by the concrete road.
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): The A30 Honiton-Exeter road exactly mirrors that situation. The Prime Minister came to Exeter and personally promised that that road would be resurfaced. I share my right hon. Friends concern, because it looks like that will not happen for at least 20 years.
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