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Ministers have seen this Bill—as will become evident this afternoon—not as an opportunity to improve the criminal law, but as a chance to invent new laws and
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offences and to stick them, like decorations on a Christmas tree, anywhere they could reach. It was a mis-shapen tree in the first place—how else can one describe a Bill that deals with youth justice, adult sentencing, the creation of a commissioner for offender management and prisons, a Northern Ireland commissioner for prison complaints, proceedings in magistrates courts, international co-operation in criminal justice matters, violent offender orders, antisocial behaviour and disturbances in hospitals, parenting orders, financial assistance for police authorities, inspection of police authorities, misconduct proceedings against police officers, special immigration status, the disclosure of information about sex offenders, sales of tobacco to those under 18, and amendments to armed forces legislation?

I now come to a stark illustration of the chaotic nature of this incoherent Bill, because the following subjects are not just in the same Bill, but in the same part of the Bill. Part 7 includes provisions on pornography, prostitution, sex offences committed abroad, adoption and offences relating to nuclear facilities.

It gets worse, because in Committee the Government introduced 85 new clauses and 11 new schedules, only one of which—that covering the offence of hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation—was mentioned on Second Reading. Where have the Government stuck this addition? It is to be found in clause 107—right next to clause 108 on offences relating to the protection of nuclear material and facilities. In addition, the Government introduced 400 amendments in Committee. We have a Bill that now—by that I mean as at midday today—runs to 176 clauses and 34 schedules. Some of those schedules have as many as five, eight or 10 separate parts. Today we have a Bill that can only be contained in two volumes of 121 and 131 pages respectively, whereas on Second Reading it was contained in one volume, albeit big enough at 239 pages.

One might have thought that the Government would stop there, but, no, not content with the mess they have already created, they have sought to go further. A further 204 new Government provisions—new clauses, new schedules and amendments—have been tabled for discussion today. Some were tabled as recently as Monday, and some were tabled at the end of last week before the House returned. Issues as important to the management of our prisons as the restoration of the statutory denial of prison officers’ right to strike—a fundamental U-turn in Government policy—were brought forward only on Monday, although quite where that fits into the long title escapes me at the moment; further elucidation might be provided in the short debate to come.

Government proposals on issues as important as the repatriation of foreign prisoners and the return of British criminals from abroad, sentences for public protection and for serious sex offenders, on extended sentences—whether time spent on tag before sentence is to be treated the same as time spent in custody before sentence—and the adjustment in the law of self-defence have all been put before the House for the first time today.

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This timetable motion, even if it permits us to debate just a few of these important issues for the first time in this House and even if it allows us seven hours from now, is not just inadequate: it is an abuse of power and an affront to this House and the public on whose behalf we make laws. The Government have the numerical majority in the House so I have no doubt what the result of the Division will be. But that is not the point. This is not the Bill that came to this House in October. This is not the Bill that the House permitted to carry over into the new Session. This is not the Bill that Ministers and other witnesses gave evidence about in October. This is not the Bill that left Committee after 16 sittings on 29 November. This is not even the Bill that the House expected to be dealing with even as recently as last Wednesday. This is a vastly expanded, vastly more incoherent and vastly more ridiculous Bill than it was at any stage before today.

I said to the Minister for State last year that this Bill was a plum duff with a lot more duff than plums. In response, the Government have added to the duff, but given us no time to digest it. The Government are beyond hope and beyond rescue, but this House need not follow them into the abyss. Let us do what we were elected to do—hold this Government to account. Let us throw out this disgraceful, shameful motion.

12.56 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It really will not do for the Minister of State to open this debate by saying how much he agrees with the Opposition about the inadequacy of the timetable for the Bill. I do not take, and never have taken, the reflex view that all timetable motions are of necessity inadequate for the purposes of the House. However, I do say that if the House is prepared to forgo its responsibility to consider some of the most basic legislation that we are here to consider—criminal law—and to sub-contract it to the other place to do the job that we are supposed to do, all the guff about the primacy of the House of Commons and how important this place is as a debating Chamber means absolutely nothing.

These are matters of life and liberty and we are being asked to pass them on the nod because of a timetable exercise by the Whips, against the interests of the Department that leads on the Bill. We are asked to believe that there is no time in January, in a Session that started in November, to find a second day for a Bill that comprises two volumes, 176 clauses and 34 schedules, and to which hundreds of substantive amendments have been tabled today. Many of us could have tabled many more amendments if we had felt that there was the slightest chance that they would be considered.

We are being asked to agree that the House of Commons cannot find the time to discuss criminal law properly and to pass it, without consideration, to the other place. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has already said that many new clauses—which were not in the original published Bill—were introduced in Committee, often at short notice. Since then, we have had whole new provisions introduced, some of which we are seeing for the very first time today. They are not trivial matters, because they include provisions that affect the governance of
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our prisons, the basic law of self-defence, the terms for recall of prisoners and public protection. Those are not trivial, but even if none of them had been introduced today, I question whether it is right that the House should be given a mere few hours to deal with fundamental issues such as homophobic hatred crime. Parallel offences were discussed for days and days, but today we are expected to dispose of the provision in a matter of minutes.

Repeal of the law of blasphemy is an important issue on which the House is entitled to have an opinion. People are concerned to make sure that we get right the law on prostitution, both to reduce the incidence of prostitution and to avoid the trafficking of women and men for the purposes of prostitution. However, we may not even have the opportunity to debate those measures.

The Bill introduces what could be termed a Sarah’s law or Megan’s law. It would certainly be an important change to our criminal procedure in protecting children against those who have been found guilty of sexual offences against minors. We may not have a chance to say a word about those proposals because of the timetable. There are to be huge changes to the role of the Court of Appeal, and we are being asked simply to pass the issue down the corridor; the attitude is, “The Lords will sort out the Court of Appeal. It is not for the Members of the House of Commons to have an opinion about its role in the judicial process.”

We are talking about an abuse of the House, made that much more difficult to stomach by the fact that the Lord Chancellor—I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber—told the Commons when he was Leader of the House how important it was that we respected the House’s role, the rights of Back Benchers to intervene in debate, and the importance of Report as a part of the legislative process in which the whole House had the opportunity to debate matters that would otherwise be considered only by members of a Committee. That same Leader of the House was to reform and improve the House’s procedures, to make it capable of doing the work entrusted to it. It is he who puts before us today an abuse of process that will prevent us from doing our work. It means that eventually we will have to rely on an unelected House to do the work that we should do. That is quite wrong.

The Minister of State knows that I have argued from day one that this is a big Bill that needs proper consideration. He knows that, whenever possible, I have tried to argue that we need sufficient time for Report. The answer is wholly inadequate. It will not do, and I hope that the House will, for once, take it upon itself to do its job properly by rejecting the programme motion.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have now heard from all three Front Benchers, and it is abundantly plain that what is taking place today is an abuse of the processes of the House. The Procedure Committee sits at 2.30 pm. I will ask the Chairman of that Committee, on which I sit, whether he considers the issue to be within his remit. When you leave the Chair, as no doubt you will fairly shortly, will you be kind enough to summon the Leader of the House to your apartments, and ask her to look carefully at what is happening today, with a view to extending Report for a further day?

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Mr. Speaker: As I have said to the House on many occasions, the House expresses its opinions, but the Speaker cannot be drawn into such matters. The House is debating the motion and making its views known, and I will not be summoning the Leader of the House. It is for the House to make its views known at this stage. Everything has been done in perfect order; I am therefore bound by the rules of the House.

1.3 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I will be brief, because I want to get on to debating the amendments, particularly the first group, in which I have a considerable interest. The Opposition Front Bencher says that the timetable is an abuse, but I am confident that if there were a Tory Government—I trust that that will not happen—and they wished to get a controversial Bill through the House, they would use the same process of introducing a timetable motion and not leaving much time for debate. They would do that because it suits Governments to be able to get their business through.

This afternoon we are being asked to deal with 100 pages of amendments. I know that a considerable time was spent in Committee, but those of us who are not on the Committee have a legitimate right to take part in debates on Report, and to raise issues about which we have concerns. Looking at the timetable, I can see that in the last two and a half hours of the time available, there are a dozen groups of amendments to be dealt with, and some are on issues, including blasphemy and prostitution, that are of major interest to a lot of Members on both sides of the House. There are issues that may not be of great interest to everyone, but about which some of us have concerns. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I have tabled an amendment on violent offender orders, but we can be almost 100 per cent. sure that the group of amendments concerned will never be reached. It does the House’s reputation no good when we try to rush through 100 pages of amendments in a limited time.

When it comes to such Bills, I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to think not only about getting the business through, although clearly they have a legitimate, perfect right to get the Government’s business through, but about Back Benchers who have an interest and wish to take part in the debates. Almost certainly, they will find this afternoon that there are issues in which they take a real interest, but on which they will not be able to say a word.

Mr. Garnier: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his concerns are shared by those of us who were on the Committee, because many of the issues that we are to debate today—or rather that we will not debate—are wholly new to the Bill, and not just to the Committee?

Mr. Gerrard: Of course there are many issues that are to be discussed that are new to the Bill, and people who were on the Committee will have a legitimate interest in them. As I say, however, I am under no great illusions: if a Tory Government were dealing with such a Bill, they might well adopt exactly the same process, because it suits the Executive. It does not, however, suit the interests of Back Benchers.

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Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gerrard: No, I have finished.

1.6 pm

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): When the Bill was published, its territorial extent was described. Only minor matters related to Scotland—issues to do with the commissioner for offender management, nuclear material and facilities, the Data Protection Act 1998, the British Transport police, defence policing, and immigration status for foreign nationals. The explanatory notes said that there would be no requirement for a consent to legislate motion. By and large, the measures seemed reasonable. However, I understand that there has since been published in the Scottish Parliament an intention to pass a consent to legislate motion in relation to bribery and corruption by foreign officers, violent offender orders and the repatriation of foreign prisoners. We will not, or are very unlikely to, debate the latter two issues, so in trying to defend the programme motion, will the Minister tell us what the extent is of the changes to Government amendments, which now require a consent to legislate motion from the Scottish Parliament?

1.7 pm

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Mr. Speaker, I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate, although I was able to listen to the speeches of the two—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I did not know that. If the hon. Lady was not here for the opening of the debate, I am afraid that I must call someone else. She should not have made that known. I call Mr. Shepherd.

1.8 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I have been here from the beginning of the debate. The path to hell is paved with Home Office criminal justice Bills. They have had a long career: the number of criminal justice measures is now well into the 60s. However, that is not the issue. The Government, under the new Prime Minister, started off with the idea of reinforcing the powers of the House of Commons. He was to return to the House its proper functions. Under the presidency, as I suppose I would call it, of the now Lord Chancellor—a former Home Secretary, Leader of the House, and Foreign Secretary: the éminence grise of the new Labour Government—the Government are back to their old role of ensuring the steamrolling of discordant Bills through the House.

How can it be that, as has been set out so adequately by all those who have spoken so far, the House of Commons is to be denied the opportunity to judge on matters relating to the criminal law? With these measures, we will be consigning people to prison for new offences—yet we will not discuss all of those. This is the very antithesis of good government. A compendium Bill that covers every last thought of anyone in the Administration is not easy for the public to understand, is awfully difficult for the world to get to
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grips with, and casts our hopes, our securities, our freedoms and our liberties into the hands of lawyers.

I am glad to see that the éminence grise has returned. The debate is seminal to his role. We have heard much preaching about every one of us being able to contribute to the process of law. We were all sent here by distinct electorates to be able to affirm or reject propositions for what should be contained in law. The programme motion, as was honourably said by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), denies Members that right, and deliberately so.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) spoke honourably and nicely. I do not criticise his approach. It was a humble approach to the House. He understands the position of the Opposition, but he goes on to say that in the circumstances it is necessary to adopt this course of action. What circumstances constrain the Government so that they cannot do away with this guillotine motion—for that is what it is?

Perhaps the éminence grise, the Secretary of State, the lord high panjandrum, will get up off his haunches and tell the House why the circumstances, whatever they are, do not enable the House to discuss the Bill. It is farcical. People outside the House would not begin to understand how, after they have sent Members here to examine criminal matters, the high panjandrum and his cronies deny the House the opportunity to consider those matters. That is what it amounts to.

I have listened to the lord high panjandrum over many years, as both Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, with all the soothing, the sympathy, the understanding and his love for the House—but he denies the House the basis of its existence. This is fraudulent and we do ourselves a grave disservice. I shall watch to see whether the hon. Member for Walthamstow votes against the motion. It is appalling. I should like to see every one of those brave new Labourites who believe passionately in the chance and opportunity to change Britain voting in the Lobby to deny the British people representation on criminal law.

The Bill is a mess. Everyone knows that it is a mess. I am surprised that it has not been reconsigned to Committee. That is how serious the matter is. This is not the Bill that originally came before the House, yet the high panjandrum chews his chewing gum and gets on with other business, instead of addressing the House. The House should reject the motion.

1.13 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): It is difficult to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who speaks with such eloquence and passion—more than almost any other Member in the Chamber. We should respect what he says and how he says it.

Let me say in my own words that politicians and the House have never in my memory been held in such great contempt by the public. We see one of the root causes of that before us today—the railroading of a confused, incoherent and deeply flawed Bill, without adequate time for consideration of the 100 pages of amendments. That typifies the root cause of the political malaise and the Executive’s contempt for the House.

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Issues such as self-defence, the repatriation of prisoners, blasphemy and incitement to hatred, pornography and sex offenders, and violent offender orders will be rushed through with little or no consideration today. We could spend all the available time on each of the 14 main groups of amendments that we have to consider. With the timetable before us, it is patently impossible to do our job as Members of Parliament, representing our unique group of constituents and legislating properly in the important area of criminal law. That is why I intend to oppose the programme motion.

1.14 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I have never opposed a programme motion before, because I know that Governments need to get their business through, but I am extremely concerned about this motion. I understand the urgency of some of the matters before us. There is a timing issue in relation to the prison officers’ dispute, but there are other matters, such as self-defence, which were not debated in Committee, but which have arrived at this point and will be debated. As a result, matters that were originally in the Bill, such as prostitution, which the House so rarely has the opportunity to debate, will probably not be debated today. That is why timetable motions should not be employed.

The Government have noticed the problem, which is why the business is not scheduled to end at the usual time. That is not good enough. I feel pretty sure that the new clause that I tabled on prostitution, which is a significant proposal, will not be discussed for years to come, if legislative opportunities follow the usual path. That is not right for the House, and the House has not been treated with sufficient respect.

The problem with the speech by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is that he always says that, doesn’t he? On this occasion, however, he has a better point than usual. The Government’s approach is better than it might have been, but it is not good enough. It is not right that matters such as self-defence, which the House has debated before, should not be considered in Committee. It just is not right.

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