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Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): Having listened with great interest to the last three and half hours of debating over the business motion, I am delighted to have the opportunity to support my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe. I am well aware that the procedure proposed to handle the European Union (Amendment) Bill is novel and I am also well aware
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that some hon. Members view that novelty as enough in itself to damn it. That is not my view. As you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have always been strongly in favour of the work of the Modernisation Committee and I commend the Government on this occasion for having given considerable thought to what they view—a view that I share—as a better way of dealing with the double set of issues that Parliament needs to debate.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, but I seem to have missed the great body of demands for changes of this kind. Why does she believe that this procedure has been introduced suddenly for this particular and rather important Bill?

Ms Hewitt: I was just going to make a point that effectively responds to my hon. Friend’s intervention. What Parliament needs to consider on this occasion is both the treaty itself and the Bill to give effect to it. It is the treaty that contains the real matters of substance that this House and certainly my constituents are most concerned about, whereas the Bill—an extremely short Bill, albeit one with some important procedural content—simply gives effect to it. It is therefore very wise and imaginative of the Government to come forward with a procedure that allows Parliament fully to debate the substance of the treaty itself—which is not of course amendable by this Parliament—by organising a series of themed debates, while also allowing time, as must properly be required, for debates on amendments to the Bill.

Rob Marris: May I suggest that evidence of demand for change, which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) asked about, comes from the existence of our new Public Bill Committees? That may not provide sufficient evidence for my hon. Friend, but we have changed our procedures in order to have a more general start to them, including the taking of evidence, if necessary. Subsequently, those Committees move on to amendments—very similar to the procedure proposed to the House tonight.

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who also made a very good point earlier. I have always supported that sort of special procedure for Bill Committees. Many, many years ago when I was general secretary of the organisation that is now called Liberty, I gave evidence to a Standing Committee which I believe I am right in saying was the first to make use of such procedure in dealing with Bills. I well know from my mail box and conversations with constituents that they are interested in many aspects of the substance of the Lisbon treaty. They want to speak to me about rising energy prices, to which, of course, the liberalisation that is so urgently needed in the European Union is one of the major responses. They want to talk about climate change, about human trafficking, and about the welcome cuts in mobile phone roaming charges and other benefits to consumers that have come, and will come in future, from the European single market. It is on all those and many other issues that the themed debates will allow us to reflect.

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Mr. Harper: The right hon. Lady has spoken of her constituents’ great interest in this subject, and their wish to speak to her about it. At the last election, she stood before the voters and promised that she would allow them to make a decision. Why has she now decided that they are not to have a chance to do so?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already ruled that we are debating not the pros and cons of a referendum but the motion before the House.

Ms Hewitt: I shall certainly want to discuss that if I am called when we come to debate the amendments that will doubtless be tabled on the issue of the referendum. At this stage, I will simply make the point that the Lisbon treaty is different in nature and in substance from the constitutional treaty on which I, and other Members, promised a referendum.

I must say that I do not find it in the least surprising that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and his party object not only to the treaty but to the programme motion. I believe it was at the 2006 Conservative party conference that the party’s leader said it was high time his party stopped “banging on about Europe”. Those were his exact words. He said that the Conservative party had been banging on about Europe and, not surprisingly, losing the attention of the public as a result. We have heard from so many Members this afternoon that same obsession with procedure, that same nit-picking, that same—in many cases—belief in conspiracies whenever Brussels is mentioned, which has characterised the British Conservative party’s attitude to Europe for two decades or more, and which contributed so much to their expulsion from government.

Mr. Shepherd: Perhaps the right hon. Lady will reflect, when she stands before the courts of this land charged with an offence against law, that she will be protected by procedure. It is in procedure, sometimes, that our liberty is preserved.

Ms Hewitt: I have always had great respect for the hon. Gentleman’s work on human rights and civil liberties, and of course his point is a fair one, but I do not think that he misunderstood in any way what I was saying. I am only sorry that he thought that so much of this afternoon’s debate, particularly the multiple points of order, contributed anything either to the scrutiny that the House is here to give or to the debate among the public.

Nor do I find it surprising that the Conservative party is so isolated within the European Union itself. It was, again, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), when he became leader of the party, who in an attempt to appease some of his Back Benchers pledged to leave the European People’s party.

Mr. Jenkin: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I very much regret having to do this, but surely the relationship between the Conservative party and the EPP has nothing to do with the motion.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I have been lenient with a number of contributions from Members in all parts of the House, but I remind Members again that we are discussing the programme motion.

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Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. One of the reasons why I support the programme motion so strongly is that I am certain that, in the days and weeks ahead, it will give us an opportunity to probe in much more detail the Conservative party’s attitude to the European Union, to Britain’s membership of the European Union, to the Lisbon treaty, and to their conservative and centre-right political colleagues in the rest of the European Union, from whom they now find themselves entirely isolated. I think I am right in saying that the only ally that the Conservative party has among its European Union counterparts is the Czech Civil Democratic party, the ODS, which is both in favour of the treaty and against a referendum.

Mr. Evans: Part of the argument this evening is that we are not being given sufficient time in which to scrutinise the treaty that is before us. If we were given more time, the right hon. Lady would have more time to do all the things that she would like to do, although tonight is clearly not the time at which to do them.

Ms Hewitt: I think the hon. Gentleman overestimates the amount of time that is required in the House to expose the contradictions in his party’s attitude to the European Union. The amendment that he supports seeks six more days for debate, and more time within each debate for amendments to the Bill. However, as has been made clear this afternoon, the amount of time that the House will have for substantive debate on both the treaty and the Bill will depend very largely on the number of points of order from Conservative Members. I hardly think that good use has been made of the generous amount of time that has been made available for debate on the programme motion.

Rob Marris: Is my right hon. Friend surprised that the Opposition amendment which has been selected seeks more time in which to discuss European Union issues—more time in which the deep divisions within the official Opposition over our membership of the European Union can be exposed? Their amendment suggests that, in a kamikaze way, they want more time in which to expose those divisions.

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that appears to me to be the only reason why our Front-Bench colleagues might conceivably want to extend the debate on the Bill and the treaty.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I correct that? Surely there is not much division on the other side of the House. The fact is that since Lord Ashcroft came into being—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Once again, I remind Members that we are debating the timetabling of this particular piece of legislation. I ask Members to observe that. This is not a general debate.

Ms Hewitt: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think that my hon. Friend made his own point.

As I said earlier, the obsessional nature of so much of Conservative Members’ interest in the European Union has become increasingly plain, and it helped to propel them from office and keep them out of office for years on end, but the kind of debate of which we have
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heard so much from them this afternoon has an even worse effect. It compounds a problem about which Members in all parts of the House are increasingly concerned: public disengagement from Parliament itself. I am perfectly happy to see the Conservatives showing once again their true colours on Europe, and we will have many more opportunities to debate that following the programme motion. What worries me is that the kind of debate and the kind of points of order that we have heard this afternoon lead the public—my constituents and, I think, everyone else’s—not just to switch off their television sets should they happen to stumble on the parliamentary channel, but to switch off completely from voting.

Mrs. Dunwoody: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not correct that if points of order or comments in the Chamber had been out of order, you and your colleagues would have ruled to that effect? Is it not wrong for us to seek to criticise the Chair?

Madam Deputy Speaker: The occupants of the Chair regularly rule on points of order, and on most occasions—although not all—the points of order are not relevant. On this occasion, it is important that we debate the timetable motion that is before the House.

Ms Hewitt: Thank you for that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I hope I have been making clear, I strongly support the Government’s proposed timetable.

I deplore the nature of much of this debate, as it serves to compound the serious problem of public disengagement from our parliamentary processes. I look forward to there being a better debate—which will be facilitated by this timetable—on the substance of the Lisbon treaty, which I strongly support. I urge Members, and especially my hon. Friends, to support the Government motion.

7.20 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I have a personal regard for the right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), but that was a patronising speech; it did not do her justice, and it was an insult to the House.

This afternoon, we are debating Parliament. I do not want to bang on about Europe, as the right hon. Lady inelegantly put it. I want to bang on about Parliament, because I, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), remember the days when we in this House truly did debate issues. He and I were first elected in June 1970. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) had been out of the House by then and she came back, so she remembers even earlier times in this Chamber. Two Bills that we debated then, ad infinitum as it seemed at the time, will always remain in my mind: the industrial relations Bill that the Heath Government introduced in 1970 and the Bill that took this country into the Common Market, as it was then called—both of which my right hon. Friend and I gladly supported, and would do again. We debated at great length, often through the night, and dozens of amendments were moved with eloquence and skill by Opposition Members—who were then Labour Members. I will never forget the oratory of people such as Eric Heffer
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and John Mendelson. We new Conservative Members, sitting on the Government Benches and supporting the Executive, found them tiresome, but what were they doing? They were behaving like true parliamentarians; they were holding the Executive to account.

Mr. Gummer: Will my hon. Friend be careful to remind the Government that his point applies to all that they have done to weaken Parliament since they came to power? It is a criticism of permanent guillotines, shorter hours, and asking for more money for doing less work and not holding the Government to account.

Sir Patrick Cormack: It is, indeed, and my right hon. Friend makes many of the points I was seeking to make—so I shall, perhaps, now make them more briefly.

The current Government treat Parliament with contempt. The Conservative Government who were in power for 18 years did, from time to time, introduce guillotines, which I did not always support; I voted against them on a number of occasions because I thought that they were wrong. I believe that it is almost always wrong to curtail debate in this Chamber, although I accept that a Government, who have a mandate from the country, do at the end of the day deserve to get their business through. However, within a year of this Government coming to power, we had moved towards the automatic timetabling of every Bill. Now, whenever a Bill receives its Second Reading, the next motion on the Order Paper is that that Bill shall be timetabled. We are told when it will leave this Chamber, when it will come out of Committee and when its Report stage will finish. If our hours were open ended, that would not be so bad, but as it comes side by side with the change in parliamentary hours many pieces of proposed legislation go to the other place having been very imperfectly scrutinised here, and sometimes with whole sections of them not having been debated at all.

Mr. Sheerman: Is the hon. Gentleman not in danger of being a little selective in his recollections? He and I remember past years—certainly the 18 years when his party was in Government—and, without being partisan, is it not true to say that there has been a steady decline in the freedom of the House, as there has been an increasing use of Whips, and of timetable motions such as the one we are debating? That is not new to this Government; there is a process that we can catalogue. Also, the hon. Gentleman said there were great debates in former years, but is he not being unfair to the excellent debate of last Monday? I heard some fantastic speeches then, including one from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is a scarce bird on his party’s Benches because his views on Europe are very unpopular with other Conservative Members.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I was tempted to ask the hon. Gentleman to give way. Of course there has been a steady erosion in Parliament’s role—I made that point—but the current Government are the ones who brought in automatic timetabling.

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The hon. Gentleman referred to last Monday’s debate and I agree that, from the point of view of oratory, it was a debate of quality, but Members’ speeches were restricted to eight minutes, and I do not believe that it is consistent with the best form of parliamentary democracy to have tight limits on speeches. It was also, in all, only a five-hour debate on issues of such importance, because there were two statements. When we debated whether we should join the Common Market, we discussed the matter for a week, day after day after day. Last week, we should at the very least have had a two-day debate—and I completely agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that we should have two days for this Bill’s Third Reading debate.

Members are parties to an emasculation of our own powers. I do not refer to the Modernisation Committee when I am chatting with friends; to me, it is the “Emasculation Committee”, because it has taken away powers from this Chamber in so many particulars. I believe that the automatic timetabling of debate is the worst thing that has happened to Parliament in the past decade.

Mrs. Dunwoody indicated assent.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am glad to have the assent of the hon. Lady, who is a great parliamentarian, and who has done a great deal to uphold the honour and dignity of this House during her time in it.

We are today faced with an absurd motion, because the Government are again breaking their promise. I have twice in this House questioned the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box, by asking him what he is going to do about this Bill when it comes before us if we are not to have a referendum. My own position on referendums is that I would prefer that we had not departed down that road in 1975, but we have now established a precedent for holding referendums on constitutional issues, and this issue certainly qualifies. However, if anything might have made me waver and return to my former belief, it would have been the Prime Minister saying, “There will be no timetable. There will be an adequate and proper opportunity for Parliament to debate and discuss the treaty and all its ramifications, as it will bind this country for a long time to come.”

Although there are many aspects of this treaty that I personally do not find offensive, I cannot say that it is inconsequential or unimportant: it is very consequential and very important, and we should have a proper opportunity to discuss it. That the Prime Minister has produced this timetable motion is an abdication of his pledge to put Parliament back at the centre of our national life.

Here we have before us this ridiculous and insulting series of propositions, meaning that, on these various days, we will have one and a half hours to debate however many amendments have been tabled. I think it was the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey who said that tomorrow, 27 amendments are down. You will barely have a chance to read them, Madam Deputy Speaker—or whoever is in the Chair—because there will not be an opportunity to debate and discuss 27 amendments.

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