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It is vital, in dealing with issues of major importance, that Front Benchers have a reasonable time to explain
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the propositions they are putting before the House and to take interventions. The Minister was exemplary in that regard this afternoon, but as I pointed out earlier—my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) referred to this in his excellent speech—he took virtually an hour and a half just to deal with that. If we are to have adequate Front-Bench speeches of explanation, and adequate, probing Opposition Front-Bench speeches—I include both Opposition parties—that seek to expose the fallacies of whatever is before us, what time is there, then, for Back Benchers to come in? It is utterly crucial that Parliament does not hand over not only all Executive authority, but all prime debating time to those on the two Front Benches.

Simon Hughes: I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. Does he also agree that we need to make a wider change? When there is a treaty for Parliament to agree, should we not have a procedure that allows us to examine it, as well as the legislation implementing it?

Sir Patrick Cormack: Yes, I entirely go along with that, but I want to come back—I do want to be called out of order; that would be terrible, Madam Deputy Speaker—to the motion before us, which to me is utterly and absolutely unacceptable.

The amendment, as put down by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues, is barely better. It is better, because it provides for six more days, but that allocation still is within the constraints of time. It divides the six hours into three and three, rather than four and a half and one and a half, and in most subjects that is probably better. However, it is still a very imperfect instrument, and I would much rather, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) would, that we debated this in the old way and had amendments that could be properly tabled and fully discussed.

Mr. Gummer: In stating that conclusion, does my hon. Friend not agree with me that it is even more important for those of us who do not believe in referendums, and who in fact think this a perfectly reasonable treaty, to have the time to discuss that? Does he not agree that it is not just a question of providing for people who disagree, but of providing a sensible parliamentary base for those who do agree to put forward their arguments?

Sir Patrick Cormack: Of course it is, and I did refer to this issue in passing while my right hon. Friend was briefly out of the Chamber. I am one of those who are midway between the party’s official position and his. I find much of this treaty acceptable, and some of it I do not. However, the fact is that if it is going to be debated in a parliamentary forum, and if the people are not to be given the chance to have a say—as I believe they should, because of the precedent that has been set—there must be the fullest possible debate and scrutiny. The right hon. Member for Leicester, West talked about people becoming disillusioned with Parliament. They are disillusioned, not mainly for the reasons to which she alluded, but because Parliament has indeed been emasculated. We are a minor talking shop on the fringe of British politics—that is what we have become during the last decade.

Rob Marris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Sir Patrick Cormack: No; perhaps later. I find that deeply depressing and deeply distressing, because this Chamber should be the cockpit of the nation. This Chamber should be full at the moment. One of the main reasons why it is not—of course there are other causes, such as conflicting demands on time and televisions in Members’ offices; one knows about all those things—is that people do not feel any more that what they say in here really will count. They certainly know that their comments will not be reported in the press tomorrow morning, because all the press have abandoned proper parliamentary coverage. That is another significant and regrettable development of the last two or three decades.

However, those of us who believe passionately in Parliament—who want this place to function, and who believe that it can be brought back more or less to where it was in terms of influence—should make a real point of attacking motions such as the one before us. I am extremely sorry that an articulate and excellent Minister such as the one who will reply to this debate, a man for whom I have a great deal of time, is party to such an appalling Executive conspiracy.

What we are really talking about tonight is not a particular Bill, but a principle—the principle of the balance of power between the Executive and the legislature. Where, as in our country, the Executive is drawn from the legislature, there is an underlying right—I referred to it earlier—for the Executive to get their business, but not at the expense of scrutiny and debate. We have to hold the Executive, from whichever party they come—

Rob Marris rose—

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman was not here at the time, but I sometimes made life a bit miserable for some Ministers in a Conservative Government, and I made no apology for that, any more than my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) did, and he was very good at that. However, the fact is that we were acting as we saw it—perhaps we were wrong sometimes, nobody is perfect or infallible—and we were doing what we conceived to be our parliamentary duty. That duty has been taken away from us by the move to automatic timetabling, and particularly by the motion before us tonight.

7.37 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), because I find myself in agreement with so much of his speech. He will understand that that is not always the case—on matters cultural, yes; on matters political, not always. However, the points that he made are important ones.

Sometimes, we in this House mislead ourselves by thinking that those who vote for us automatically understand what we do in Parliament. They do not really understand the procedures of the Houses of Commons and Lords. They do not understand the creation of a law, or the fact that non-lawyers can sit here and debate in great detail aspects of governance that affect our constituents at every stage of their lives. They rely, in an unspoken pact, on those who are elected to the House of Commons to represent their interests. That is what we are here for, and what they
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expect of us. They also rely on us to look closely at the work of the Executive, and to fulfil our responsibility in understanding what the Executive are proposing and how it will be translated into statutes and the law of the land.

Frankly, I am not surprised that the press do not take a great interest in procedure and timetabling when we talk about that, because many people outside here do not understand that control of procedure in this place is what gives real power to those who manage our agenda. If, as a member of the Whips Office or a Cabinet Committee, someone manages to decide when their Bill is to be debated and how long for, who will sit on the Committee to debate it, when it will come back to the House and what will happen to it when it reaches another place, that gives them considerable advantages and, in some instances, can determine whether the Bill will get on to the statute book. When Members of Parliament are confronted with a timetable motion, they must ask themselves who will benefit from the procedure. They must ask who will get the advantage from ensuring that this House, which contains myriad different views on the political implications of this treaty, debates the matter at sufficient length for the people outside this House to understand the implications of what we are doing.

I am concerned about the timetable motion. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), who is no longer in her place, was concerned that we were debating, raising points of order, disturbing the Minister and taking time. She felt that was not a serious way of proceeding to examine the substance of the debate, yet it is exactly what Members of Parliament are supposed to do. We are supposed to ask the Minister handling the Bill why they think that they have given us sufficient time closely to examine what is in the legislation. We should ask why the Minister thinks we are so worried about not having sufficient time to debate it.

There are as many different views in the Conservative party about European legislation as there are in the Labour party. The Liberal Democrats may even have some differing views—I am not sure about that, but they have an endearing habit of inconsistency. Therefore, we ought to understand that we ought to have the right to express those views in this Chamber. I do not expect to agree with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) or the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who was my pair in a previous life. I can honestly say that it was a good idea that we were paired, because we did not agree on anything. The reality is that the House of Commons ought to examine the transfer of powers, the behaviour and rights of sovereign Governments, the constant and encroaching demands of European institutions across the board and the way in which those institutions introduce directives and regulations, and decide what will happen in so many of our basic industries.

We ought to debate such things in this Chamber, not anywhere else. We ought not to rely upon television studios or articles in the press. The debate that means that the arguments can be tested ought to take place here. Let somebody argue with me about the strength of my views here, where I can be interrupted, where people can question and where they can put on the
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record the things about which they think I am wrong. We are not going to be given the chance to have that debate.

I am concerned because the Labour party has always fundamentally believed in the free and fair treatment of human rights, yet in the chase for management control we are doing exactly those things that I would find wholly unacceptable in a Government of any other colour. It therefore behoves us to make it clear why we are so concerned tonight. The Minister for Europe is an engaging young man, and he perhaps gave us a little hint as to what the reasons are. He said that during the Maastricht debate the Chamber had been the resort of two or three lonely souls. If any individual Member of Parliament is not able to raise their own views either in here, even in an empty Chamber, or elsewhere in the House and demand that they are answered by a Minister, I will know fully and finally that we have come to the end of our democratic representation.

I say to Ministers that of course it is more convenient to be able to restrict debate and it is always more comfortable for them to get their legislative programme on to the statute book in the way that they want, but they are saying to the House that they have changed the procedure, they are going to have thematic debates and hon. Members will be able to vote on their amendments afterwards—how very convenient.

I love thematic debates and have no difficulty in taking part in them, but the reality is that in this place what matters is what goes on to the statute book, and that is framed in amendments, although they may frequently be confused and sometimes not very well drafted. That is what makes the law, that is what we are here to do and that is where our responsibility lies. Those who genuinely think that they can manage a matter of this importance, whatever one’s view, as though it were an agenda for a business meeting, betray their commitment not only to the House of Commons but to the democratic system.

We believe in democracy and ask for our constituents’ trust because we know that we have a responsibility not to frame unfair, badly drafted, incompetent and wholly unacceptable laws—that is what we are here to guard against. This Parliament did not create itself overnight. It took many hundreds of years before we reached the stage where we were able to do that on an equal basis and in a responsible way that makes the world outside listen to us and talk about the mother of Parliaments. That, to me, is what matters. I came here many years ago because I believed that the House of Commons was the place where we took responsibility for writing, debating and understanding the laws, and for looking after the interests of our constituents and our voters. Those who bring forward a blatant piece of management, such as this timetable motion, seek to undermine that responsibility and it does them no credit.

7.46 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): My heart leaps when I behold the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) rising in her place, as of course it does when I behold my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack).

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This debate is essentially about our constitution, our freedoms and liberties and our procedures. The former Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), had, in the fat years of new Labour, grown used to seeing this place merely as a Chamber for public announcements. That is what we have become and that is what we reduce ourselves to. How can the Government conceive of such a new procedure to address fundamental propositions that are to become the law of this land in a process that seeks to bind us and to override, in a sense, parliamentary sovereignty, or the sovereignty of the people? They do not trouble themselves to stop and ask, “But who do we represent?” If I tell people something, how do they protest against it? I will have to turn round and say that it is put in a tablet that rises far beyond this Chamber and is more important than us here.

To construct something such as this motion is shaming for a Government. They have lost their rationale and sense of purpose, and in doing so they make us open to being an object of contempt. God save the health service after the speech by the right hon. Lady, the former Health Secretary. What was she saying? She has had many chats with her constituents who apparently say that they want to hear Parliament discuss thematic schemes. Perhaps they do, but I have constituents who also want the death penalty back and who want all manner of things discussed. Such things are reflected in the motion before us, because it refers to a charter of rights. Among those things is the supremacy or otherwise—I do not know where it stands in this—of the European convention on human rights. We are charged, as was rightly said by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire and the noble lady, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich —[Interruption.] It is true, she is noble. She reminds us of why we are here. We noted and then, I am sorry to say, largely ignored the exposition by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris). It is so creeping to support the position of one’s Government on something that he, as a solicitor representing a client, would not accept as the basis for a deal.

I remind the House that the most intelligent breakdown of the issues at stake, to take just home affairs and justice—which we are supposed to consider tomorrow—was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). His exposition should be sent to every Member of Parliament. Someone also made the observation that many of these contentions would, under our normal processes, have to be introduced as individual measures in the form of a Bill, but they are now all rolled up into one.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, when he was briefly the Chief Secretary, seemed to toy with the idea that we could not even reject taxation—the very cause that fired the 17th century. In the 18th century, the slogan “no taxation without representation” held a strong power. He did not even understand the constitutional basis, but he tried to tell us about the management of the Maastricht Bill. He also told us—we heard it time and again from those on the Front Bench—about Mrs. Thatcher’s rebate. He was 14 at the time. Do he and the others behind this motion really know the history of their country? Do they understand the vitality and vigour with which the Crown had to be captured? Now the Government flaunt themselves before us,
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demanding that we cut down consideration to that which they alone have judged to be correct.

There are no wise heads now in great Departments of state. I do not know what clever young man or woman came up with this shaming construct, but where was the reasonableness of the sane, experienced politician, someone who had enjoyed the honour of the great offices of state, to say, “This will not do”? We did not even see this motion—this profound change in the manner in which we address a great constitutional issue—until last Wednesday. Do we honestly think that that is appropriate?

I sincerely hope that the motion is defeated, but if it is not, tomorrow we are expected to conform with it and to debate and dispense with the most profoundly important issues—criminal law and justice, the central responsibilities with which we are charged. There is no way that this House, in a rational mood, should accept that, but we have become so partisan.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, the Government now even try to equate their systematic guillotining of every Bill with the years of Mrs. Thatcher. I used to follow the issue closely, but it does not need to be followed closely any more because there is now a sledgehammer beating away at our traditional liberties. If we are personalising the debate to one Prime Minister, we could say that Mrs. Thatcher guillotined about 42 Bills. That required some 63 guillotine motions, because in those days it was necessary to show respect to the other place. When it accepted an amendment, we had to consider it. This impatient Government will have none of that. After an hour or an hour and a half of debate, they bat Lords amendments straight back. The Executive want to ensure that they get their business.

The first decision was on the hours of the House and how long we should sit, but it should have been the other way round. The question should be what business do we have to do, and then we can ask how many hours are necessary to consider it. Ministers seem to think that 36, or even 50, hours of discussion of a Bill, even one that covers such a range of issues, is wholly adequate. Almost every free contributor to this debate—by which I mean even the good fellows who try to support their Front-Bench colleagues through thick and thin—must know that this has gone too far.

All three parties, and now the Scottish Nationalists, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and now even the Welsh Assembly, want a referendum on this issue, but the one thing that the Government promised is not in the motion. We do not know whether a referendum amendment will be selected. It should have been a Government amendment to honour their promise, but everyone knows that they are hoping it will not appear on the Order Paper. Every hon. Member knows that millions of men and women will think, in the back of their minds, that their representative asked for their vote predicated on the undertaking that if this treaty were approved, the people would be the ultimate determinants of its fate.

The failure to respect that undertaking is a big breach of a solemn understanding. It troubles the Liberal Democrats, as we have heard. They have constructed a new theology on the point, and we all heard the remarkable contribution by their leader. He said that he would vote against the Government on a referendum clause, except if they were going to lose, in which case he would vote with the Government. These are matters of high principle,
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and the knockabout sounds childish and trivial, but that is why this House is marginalised too often—it is not even held in contempt, but marginalised. We have become the backcloth for the Executive to parade around our Parliament, the country and the world. The House no longer engages in debates of substance, such as whether these general thematic debates should take precedence over the very substance of the Bill—the clause stand part debates and so on that should inform the general debate. We should hear the arguments and then have the general debate. That was a point well made by the Liberal Democrat spokesperson. We have things the wrong way round.

As for the marginal point—it is not a marginal point, but it is treated as one—that Mr. Speaker could, in case of a national emergency, elect to address in precedence to the business of the day, the Minister failed to understand that if the Government protected the business, it would not matter if three hours were taken out at the beginning of the day because it could be added on at the end. We struggled to get that simple point through to the Minister for Europe.

I am not surprised that the Foreign Secretary is elsewhere engaged. He has had a rough time in the exchanges on the Floor of the House. His enthusiasm for the causes that he knows are so right and just disables him from understanding that these are matters of passion, of justice and of the credibility of this House. We should, as Members of Parliament, get the Government to revert to the old process, by which such matters are properly and effectively discussed.

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