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The purpose of setting aside proceedings under Standing Order No. 24 is to protect the time available to the House for the scrutiny of the Bill and discussion of the treaty. The Governments intention, shown in the motion, is to protect timetabled scrutiny of
the Bill. It is the type of thing that the hon. Gentleman ought to welcome, and I think that he has slightly misunderstood the point.
Paragraph (2) states that the proceedings on an allotted day will be taken in accordance with the table. Paragraph (3) applies existing procedures for programme motions and paragraph (4) protects the proceedings in respect of Standing Order No. 24. Paragraph (5) disapplies the rule on anticipation and will allow the House to consider the substantive motions that the Government table for each themed debate. Paragraph (6) provides a mechanism for the motion to be amended or supplemented at some later stage in our proceedings. That deals with some of the points that hon. Members have made. An amendment can be taken at the start of an allotted day as long as the total time available to the House is not reduced.
Mr. Jenkin: The Minister makes a mistake in saying that suspending Standing Order No. 24 will protect the scrutiny of the Bill according to the timetable. Nowhere does the motion state that the 10 oclock rule, the 7 oclock rule or the 6 oclock rule will override the motion. On the contrary, if I am right, the motion will override any Standing Order that would normally limit debate. A Standing Order debate would therefore merely be held before the European debate for that day. I may be wrong, but I believe that the Minister has made a mistake.
Mr. Murphy: That is not the case. The moment of interruption can be extendedthat deals with the hon. Gentlemans reasonable concerns and I hope that it reassures him. A supplementary business motion amending the table can be taken under paragraph (6). It can be taken forthwith, if it does not reduce the overall time available to the House, and it can be tabled as late as the night before the relevant allotted day.
We all acknowledge that the process for scrutinising the Bill is new, although Front Benchers accept it in principle. We wish to signal that we will be flexible and try to get the balance exactly right between a session of four and a half hours and one of one and a half hours, and two sessions of three hours. As we balance the interest in the themed debates with the weight and relevance of the various amendments, the division could occasionally be between three hours and three hours. At this stage, our early assessment is that the four and a half and one and a half hour split is the correct way to proceed.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab):
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. I am sure he knows that, under the new procedure for Public Bill Committees, formerly Standing Committees, a generic debate can happen at the beginning of the sitting. I have had the pleasure of serving on two Public Bill Committeesthat on the Sale of Student Loans Bill and that on the National Insurance Contributions Billwhich took advantage of that, whereas the Committee that considered the Finance Bill last year did not. Evidence can be taken and members of the Committee can hold a generic discussion. In my estimation, following that route shortened the time that was taken overall in the Committees on which I had the pleasure of serving. I salute the Government for trying to replicate it in the Committee of the whole House.
However, I urge my hon. Friend to keep the split under review because there may be too much in the in the first half and not enough in the second. The general approach of a generic discussion is eminently sensible and may shorten proceedings on the Floor of the House.
Mr. Murphy: I share my hon. Friends assessment. He underlines the importance of my point, which is that we intend to be as flexible as is feasible to ensure that debate is balanced between the Bill, the treaty, the themes and specific amendments and that the temperature and wishes of the House are respected.
Mr. Bone: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way againI know that he is a reasonable chap. The purpose of Standing Order No. 24 is that an emergency debate must be held then and there. It cannot be put off for 10 hours until after the European debate. Why has the Minister switched things around so that an emergency debate would have to be held after the European debate?
Mr. Murphy: What we are seeking to do is protect the time available to the House to scrutinise the treaty and the Bill. I know that the hon. Gentleman raises his point out of genuine concern for the organisation of the business of the House, but it is not an observation shared by all his colleagues.
Mr. Shepherd: Usually, the following day is when the provision comes into effect, but the point remains: if there were a nuclear incident that threatened the principal cities of this country, that would clearly meet all the criteria for an emergency debate. In fact, the Government might insist that that debate be held here on that day, if it is not initiated by a member of the Opposition. That is the point of an emergency debate. Delaying an emergency debate until the first business on the following day shows that it has precedence over the business that the Government are so insistent on protecting, because Standing Order No. 24 is conceived for something of immediacy and great peril or something that meets the other criteria, and it should not be set aside by the motion.
Mr. Murphy: What we have said in the motion is that we will approach the issue in a flexible way that ensures not only the right balance between amendments and discussion on themes, but that the motion can be revisited on a daily basis. On Standing Order No. 24, the fact is that the House, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker [ Interruption. ] The House will be able to consider how to order its business on a daily basis. If we had not sought to protect the timing and the business of the House in the appropriate way, I assume that the House would have taken a dim view of our not including the relevant paragraph in the motion.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): May I encourage the Minister not to be too stubborn on this point? The point about an emergency debate is that it is, in the Houses and Mr. Speakers judgment, on an emergency. Although we are all anxious to protect time for European business, it is not necessarily any more important than any of the other business that the House considers. The only question is not how long there should be for European business, but whether it should come after an emergency debate that has been approved. The Minister would reassure the House if he showed a little more flexibility now, rather than at an unknown future date, on a point that does not go to the heart of the Governments strategy.
Mr. Murphy: I have sought on three or four occasions to emphasise how flexible we wish to be on all such issues. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is a former Foreign Secretary, that we would, with your agreement, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and with Mr. Speakers indulgence, enable that degree of flexibility whenever and wherever possible, either in the Houses interest or the national interest.
Mr. Harper: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could you explain for the benefit of the House whether if the motion deciding how a debate under Standing Order No. 24 should take place were passed, it would be within the power of the Chair to allow that debate to take place before consideration of the Bill or afterwards, or would you have been given very clear instructions by the House?
Rob Marris: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Am I right, Sir, in thinking that Standing Order No. 24 is entitled General debates and that rule (2)(b) says that, following a vote by the House to have a general debate,
the Speaker shall announce either...the length of the debate and the time at which it is to be held
Mr. Deputy Speaker: The fact of the matter is that the situation will be governed by the motion before the House, if the House approves it. That alters the situation, and that is the case that the Minister is arguing.
Sir Patrick Cormack:
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have just given an extremely clear ruling. Does this not amount to the fact that, if the House
approves the motion before us today, we shall be putting ourselves into a straitjacket from which there is no release?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: It is difficult for the Chair to interpret some of the nuances of the debate here, but the fact is that I have given a clear ruling on the meaning of the motion. As far as I can see, however, there is nothing to prevent another variation motion being put forward if the circumstances demanded it.
Mr. Cash: Very much so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In an earlier point of order, I raised the question of the implementation of United Kingdom law. On the basis of what has just emerged from these exchanges, I understand that we are now being restricted to having four and a half hours debate on policy and only one and a half hours on the implementation of law. I hope you will agree that that is an inappropriate use of the manner in which programme motions are arrived at.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that that did not follow sequentially from the previous point of order. Nor was it a point of order; he was getting to the very substance of the debate that we are trying to progress.
Mr. Gummer: Further to an earlier point of order, which was a point of order, may I just make sure that I have got this right? Am I right in saying that, if the House passes this motion, it places itself at the mercy of the Government as to whether an amending motion may be proposed? Would that be true not only of this motion but, should the Government deem it reasonable to do so, to changing the periods of time allowed for general debates and for amendments? Should we not therefore say to the Minister that, in order to carry through his desire to be flexible, he would need to give us something more than a general promise to be kind?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: The answer to the first part of the right hon. Gentlemans questionwhich was a point of orderis yes. In the second part, however, he veered into the substance of the debate, which is not a matter on which I can rule.
Mr. Harper: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On the point about a Standing Order No. 24 debate, would not passing this motion result in a significant change? At the moment, the decision whether to have such a debate is in the hands of Mr. Speaker and Members of the House. If this motion is passed, we shall have to rely on the Government to introduce another motion to enable such a debate to take place. That is quite a significant change, which is why the Minister should rethink this motion.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is a very helpful ruling, but surely the decision on timing would be taken away from Mr. Speaker and given to the Government, because
only they would be able to introduce a motion to override and contradict the motion before the House today. The discretion over timing that resides solely with the Speaker would therefore be removed. The Ministers desire to be flexible would depend entirely on the wishes of the Government at the time, and not on Mr. Speaker. Is not that a severe erosion of Mr. Speakers discretion and powers? I suggest that the House adjourn and come back to the matter after further discussions with Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: The answer to the first part of the right hon. Gentlemans point of order is yes. In the latter part of his question, however, he was debating the substance of the motion that is before the House. If the House disagrees with the motion, it can of course decide not to accept it. The right hon. Gentleman and one or two of his colleagues are now talking about what is at issue in the debate. We still have several hours left in which to pursue these matters.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In response to an earlier point of order, you made reference to the Modernisation Committee of this House, which considers changes to Standing Orders. You indicated
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you indicated that this was a matter for the Modernisation Committee. As I happen to be the senior Opposition Member on that Committee, let me put this question. If the Government wish to change Standing Orders or their interpretation, should they not, prior to putting a motion to do so before the House, actually refer it to such a Committee of this House? In fact, the Houses integrity and independence, to which Standing Orders make an important contribution, is being affected by the Government business motion. It is an abuse of this House.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: My earlier invocation of the Modernisation Committee was essentially related to flasks and sandwiches. What the hon. Gentleman is arguing now is not a matter for the Chair; it is a matter for substantial debate by the House. That debate is specific in its terms so it is now for hon. Members to devote themselves to discussing the merits or demerits of the motion. I am anxious not to find myself in a position where the Ministers contribution to the debate take second place to mine.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I believe that my hon. Friend is being far too flexible, which is half the problem we have at the moment. Let me suggest that he get past page 3 so we can actually start debating what is going to happen [Interruption.]
Mr. Murphy: I would like to make a little more progress, if hon. Members will allow me. They might like to look again at the detail of the table appended to the business motion, which refers to the latest time for conclusion, meaning that, if it so wishes and if there is a degree of co-operation, the House can conclude any of its deliberations much earlier. That applies to issues raised in the House or elsewhere. The time allocated is the latest time for conclusion, which is the most important point I would like to make about the table attached to the motion.
Mrs. Dunwoody: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have been listening carefully and thinking about your rulings, which I fully understand. However, I would be grateful for your guidance. If I wished to order the suspension of the business of the House under Standing Order No. 24 while we are debating the other subject and if it had already been changed by provisions on the Order Paper, could I still do so? Will you also tell us whether such a motion as this has even been seen before in the House of Commons or ever used for any similar debate?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I can respond to the hon. Ladys two points. First, as I understand it, the terms of the motion simply alter the timing of any Standing Order No. 24 debate, but the application of it is a separate matter. It is simply that the timing of any debate granted by Mr. Speaker would be affected by the motion. Will the hon. Lady remind me of her second question?
Mrs. Dunwoody: I am enormously grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as this is an important matter. Will you please be kind enough to tell us whether you know of any other occasion on which this device has been used?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I think the answer to that is no. I hesitate in front of such a learned assembly to make an absolute definitive statement that such a device has never been used on any occasion. As far as I can best recall, however, I do not believe that a motion in these exact terms has been put before the House previously.
Mr. Gummer: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would like to bring you back to the first of the points put by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Could any Member stand up and propose a motion to negative this timing arrangement and reinstate the normal timing arrangement or would it have to be the Minister who did so, given that he made the original arrangements? Could we achieve that as individual Members if we could get a majority to support us?
Mr. Deputy Speaker:
The right hon. Gentleman is not the first Member to seek to draw the Chair into the substance of the debate. I suggest to him that that is the direction in which this process is moving. I can give only certain rulings. I have tried to help the House by making clear what I see as the distinction between the rights of the House under Standing Order No. 24 and how they might be affected by the motion. I suggest that it is up to the right hon. Gentleman to pursue the
Minister on this matter. It is the Minister who must reply, because this is the motion that he is commending to the House.
Mr. Cash: I am well aware of you too, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be certain to stay in order. Page 9 of Erskine May is relevant to the point made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). It says of programme orders:
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