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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend think that the reason why the Minister needs only an hour and a half for amendments on each of the topics is that the Government have only one argument—“We’ve given the powers away, we’ll drive the Bill through with Liberal Democrat votes and we don’t care a damn what you think about it all”?

Mr. Hague: My right hon. Friend is certainly right that the Government want to drive the Bill through, although I suspect that this evening they will not have even the Liberal Democrats’ votes, so I shall not be as rude about them as I usually am. No doubt the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will make his case in a moment—or for most of the evening, in all probability.

The arguments employed by the Government on the matter of parliamentary scrutiny of the EU constitutional treaty have varied over the years depending on their policy at the time. In early 2004, having given up the argument that the EU constitution was of no real importance and only a tidying-up exercise, Tony Blair argued that it was too important for a referendum and of such vastness and complexity that it could be examined
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only by parliamentary debate. The idea of the former Prime Minister being deeply attached to parliamentary scrutiny and debate was always a little suspect, and it was soon fully reversed when he announced that the character of the subject’s importance had changed and that it did require a national referendum.

Notwithstanding their election commitments, the Government have returned to the second of those three positions, as the Prime Minister said at his press conference on 18 October that

On 14 December, he said that the treaty

It is a surprise to the House of Commons, as the Minister has discovered in the past hour and a half, that that great precision involves suspending Standing Order No. 24, leaving the Government in charge of decisions on emergency debates, rather the Speaker. Many of my hon. Friends have spoken very strongly against that proposal.

Ms Gisela Stuart: In the right hon. Gentleman’s amendment, he makes provision for a debate on national Parliaments. If he thinks that a referendum is so significant, why has he not made any special provisions for a debate on the subject in his amendment?

Mr. Hague: There is every right to expect that on day 11, when we debate the commencement clause, there will be every opportunity to debate a referendum. With my right hon. and hon. Friends, I have tabled a new clause to that effect, so the House will have an opportunity to vote on the issue.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am reassured by what my right hon. Friend said about what might happen on day 11 when we debate clause 8 and the referendum. Given that so much interest will be shown by Members from all parts of the House in the issue, is it not appropriate that that debate should go on for more than one day? A four-and-a-half-hour debate, and another one lasting one and a half hours, are totally inadequate for what the House considers a fundamental constitutional issue.

Mr. Hague: I agree that we need to debate that matter as exhaustively as possible. I would like that debate to go on for many days and, indeed, the whole idea to be defeated. As I have pointed out, the amendment that we have tabled is simply an attempt to improve the Government’s proposals such that the Government ought to find them acceptable, given the position that they have adopted. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members who have objected to the entire basis of the Government’s motion are quite right to do so.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify something? If and when the Lisbon treaty is ratified by this Parliament, is it his and his party’s policy, should they win a future election, to reopen the treaty, hold a referendum and campaign for a no vote, despite the fact that the treaty
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will have been ratified, not only by our Parliament but by every other Parliament of every other EU member state?

Mr. Hague: The right hon. Lady is hugely interested in what the next Conservative Government will do, and that mounting interest is wholly understandable, given the political situation in this country. We have debated that issue separately, and we will do so again. If I went into all of that, I suspect that I would be well out of order.

It is against the background of the Government’s stated objective of permitting very detailed discussion and consideration with great precision that the House must assess the procedural motion that they have tabled. At the same time that the Prime Minister made his commitment to very detailed discussion, Government spokesmen attempted to soften up the press by indicating that there would be 20 days of debate on the Floor of the House. That figure was reported in the Sunday newspapers on 21 October, directly after the Prime Minister’s press conference on 18 October. Those reports were extensively repeated and reprinted, and the Government did nothing to deny them.

It is notable that the Prime Minister, who renounced spin when he took office last June as if it were a disgusting aspect of Blairism with which he would never again contaminate prime ministerial hands, has resorted to it across a wide range of subjects, with many announcements being made outside this House rather than inside it. In the same manner, the Government encouraged the belief to grow that there would be 20 days’ debate in the Commons on this treaty and that 20 days was a lot of time. In fact, 20 days is not so long for a measure that by general agreement fundamentally restructures the European Union, creates the important new positions of the European President of the Council of Ministers and the high representative for foreign affairs, removes national vetoes in dozens of different areas and provides for its own subsequent amendment without the passage of a further treaty.

The Maastricht treaty, which, as my hon. Friends who intervened on the Minister pointed out, is the most direct comparator for this particular measure, was subject to 29 days’ debate on the Floor of the House. That treaty involved, in the words of the Foreign Secretary,

than the treaty now before us. Furthermore, those debates took place when the parliamentary day was a good deal longer—for these purposes, it was normally twice as long as a parliamentary day today.

Mr. Gummer: Not only were there 29 days, but the days were filled with debates on substantive motions and proper amendments. There was an opportunity for hon. Members to put their case and to vote on it, but this allocation of time is totally different.

Mr. Hague: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The time available for hon. Members to advance and then vote on their views was not two or three times greater, as it may appear at first sight, but dramatically greater than what the Government are proposing now. The Government propose only 12 days for Committee and all other stages on the Floor of the House. If we
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add to that last Monday’s Second Reading debate, which was reduced to less than five hours because of the need for two Government statements on chaotic aspects of their administration of the country’s affairs, and today’s debate on the procedure to be employed and the time to be allocated, we reach a total of 14 days. Even leaving aside the Government’s previous spin that there would be 20 days of debate and the statement in the House by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport that there would be 15 days’ debate, the scale of what is proposed, the breadth of the matters to be discussed and the controversy that is likely to be generated in many areas all mean that 12 days of six-hour debates do not constitute the detailed discussion and consideration with great precision to which the Prime Minister pledged the Government.

Jon Trickett: The Opposition amendment has some merit, because it suggests allocating more time on some of the detailed matters. In particular, the Opposition, unlike the Government, propose to debate the charter, which is at the core of the concerns held by me and many other Government Members. However, the right hon. Gentleman is following the Government in allocating time to what are effectively generic Government motions. Would it not have been better if he had entirely broken with that principle and stuck with the tradition of the House on debating Bills, which is to allow the debate to take place on amendments and not on Government motions?

Mr. Hague: I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman. In framing our amendment, however, we tried not only to meet the anxieties expressed on both sides of the House, but to come up with a proposal that was acceptable to the Government and to Government supporters, and our amendment is a genuine attempt to come up with such a proposal. In the course of his remarks, the Minister conceded that it might be better to split the six hours between three hours of generic debate and three hours of amendments, which is the proposal in our amendment. The amendment appears to have been successful in that the Government have accepted the arguments for the changing the balance of debate. Given his views, however, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will, like me, want to vote against the motion in its entirety, if the Opposition amendment is not carried.

Philip Davies: My right hon. Friend is making a typically powerful case. He mentioned the amount of time for debates on the Maastricht treaty; it is a matter of personal regret that I was not in the House at that time. We are debating not only the number of days, but the amount of time in Committee. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if there are a couple of votes in each Committee stage, that will further reduce the amount of time for debate? Once the Front Benchers have had their say, there will be little time for any Back Bencher to make a meaningful contribution to the Committee stage of the Bill.

Mr. Hague: Exactly; my hon. Friend has made a telling point. In those situations, those of us on the Front Benches will have to exercise a good deal of restraint—but we will have to do so within one and a half hours. There are, for instance, 27 amendments on
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the Order Paper relating to tomorrow’s one and a half hours on Home Office matters. That underlines my hon. Friend’s point. There will be a shortage of time to discuss any of those amendments at all, let alone all of them.

One of the reasons why we need more time than the Government have allowed is that they are in the habit of not being frank and open in their dealings with Parliament, let alone the country, on this subject. For the first six months of last year, Ministers made the ludicrous assertion that no negotiations were taking place in the European Union—even though, as we now know, sherpas were regularly meeting around European capitals.

In answers to my written questions, the Foreign Secretary has refused to publish assessments and details of the treaty when to do so would conflict with his specious arguments on the matter. Last week, he intrigued the House by saying that it was necessary to vote for the treaty because the commission of bishops was in favour of it—implying that, for the first time since the days of Cardinal Wolsey, the House of Commons should decide whether to ratify an international treaty on the basis of ecclesiastical guidance.

Hon. Members not familiar with the commission can be excused their ignorance. It turns out not to be a British commission of bishops, nor even one that includes the majority of our Churches or even the established Church of this country, as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), will no doubt know. It is a commission of EU bishops that meets in Brussels and has received funding from the European Union. The fact that it is in favour of the treaty is no great surprise and the fact that the Foreign Secretary felt bound to bring it up as one of his principal arguments to the House of Commons shows that we need a great deal of time to subject to scrutiny the assertions made from the Government Dispatch Box.

Mr. Davidson: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that the commission is composed of EU bishops. Surely the EU is not yet appointing its own bishops?

Mr. Hague: Perhaps the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will soon be applying for one of those positions—I am not sure.

Mr. Cash: My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that, given how they are going about things, the Government are implementing a kind of divine right of kings, which was at the heart of what the Stuarts were about and why they were brought down?

Mr. Hague: The Stuarts certainly learned to their cost that it is better to listen to Parliament and the country. I suspect that the Government will learn the same thing, also to their cost. The amendment that I have moved provides not for all the debate that might be desirable and necessary, but at least for an amount of debate consistent with what the country had been led to expect and for fuller consideration of subjects that the Government seem to want to pass over in the greatest hurry.

The Government have already approached these matters in a highly partisan way. Ten days ago, they circulated to Labour Members the days and subjects of the proposed
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debates on the treaty through to the end of February—all, so far, borne out by what has been given to the House—but gave no such notice to the House in general until last Wednesday. Perhaps the interval until the publication of their proposals was caused by chronic indecision in Downing street, the root of most mishaps for Ministers at the moment. However, it is more likely to have been the result of wanting to give other hon. Members the minimum time to prepare amendments for debates on vital issues—particularly those on criminal justice, policing and human trafficking, all of which are to be discussed tomorrow in a debate announced only last Wednesday.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Under the Government’s proposals, a full day has been allocated for climate change and international development, even though the treaty makes very small new provisions on such issues. EU policy development on those two issues is proceeding perfectly adequately under existing treaty powers. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Minister, who has promised flexibility, to devote that time to the issues that involve enormous transfers of power and authority from the House to the EU and to do something to correct the severe imbalance in the debates?

Mr. Hague: Given the flexibility that he has said he will apply, it would be open to the Minister to rearrange the time as my right hon. Friend has suggested. However, I would prefer the Minister to do what is set out in our amendment. He should give many days of additional debate; of course debates can take place on energy and international development, but further days would mean that other vital subjects could be properly addressed in a bit of the detail that they merit. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

The paucity of time, in the Government motion, for discussing amendments is another reason why we have framed our alternative schedule as we have. The Government’s proposal for four and a half hours of Second Reading-style debate each day on the principles of the treaty’s provisions in selected areas—but, notably, not in other areas—leaves only one and a half hours each day for the consideration of amendments in a Committee of the whole House.

Whatever one’s views of the treaty or that procedure, the distribution of time—three quarters of it for general debate and only one quarter for detailed amendments, within the confines of an overall schedule much shorter than anything that the House had every right to expect and of topics chosen to minimise debate on aspects of the treaty most uncomfortable for the Government—has the overall effect of making inadequate the time available for consideration of amendments tabled by Members on both sides of the House.

Sir Patrick Cormack: My right hon. Friend is making a typically powerful and persuasive speech. If the Government persist with this niggardly allocation of time, is not the case overwhelming that the Opposition ought to consider withdrawing entirely from the proceedings and showing the public what a farce they are?

Mr. Hague: I certainly think that if our amendment is defeated, the official Opposition and other hon. Members who wish matters to be properly debated should vote against the Government’s entire procedural
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motion. The Government should have to come back again with a motion that satisfies the needs of Members with many different points of view—Labour Members who want to debate the charter of fundamental rights, Liberal Democrats who take a different view from ours on the merits of the treaty, but want adequate parliamentary debate and Members of my own party who, like me, are opposed to the treaty altogether.

The Government should take all that into account and come back with a different motion. They should be defeated on their motion tonight, but I do not go along with my hon. Friend in advocating withdrawal from the proceedings because I believe that we were elected to the House to carry out our duty to scrutinise legislation as best we can.

Mr. Shepherd: Why do we need a motion? Why are things not committed to a Committee of the House in the traditional manner? All the points would then be met.

Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend raises another attractive alternative, which the Government should certainly consider. There is deep dissatisfaction in the House with what they have proposed. To illustrate the wider concerns about the debates, let me say a word about the six days of additional debate that we have proposed, to align the debates more closely with the importance of the treaty’s provisions and with the original Government commitment to have 20 days of debate.

Mr. Davidson rose—

Mr. Hague: Before doing that, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Davidson: Does the right hon. Gentleman remember “Spitting Image” and the figure of David Steel in the top pocket of David Owen? Is not that the position of the small boy from Westminster school who is in the top pocket of the Prime Minister? Given that the Liberals are now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Government in this matter, why should the Government bother listening to Parliament?

Mr. Hague: As usual, the hon. Gentleman makes a powerful analogy. As I have explained, on this particular occasion it is not my policy to join him in persecuting the Liberal Democrats, but I am sure that if this is the only day on which they are turning their vote around, I will soon be joining him in our established alliance on this subject.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hague: I feel that I ought to make progress, but yes.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Will my right hon. Friend respond more fully to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who recommended that this matter be dealt with in the long-established conventional way of a Committee of the whole House? If the Government are not prepared to accept that proposal, why should not the Opposition make it more difficult for them by withdrawing co-operation? Perhaps that would bring the Government to their senses.


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