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7.59 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). I respect the sincerity of his views, but I do not think that they take into account the reality of how the world is structured today and how communications buzz around the world as quickly as light. The relationship between this House and every other Parliament and constituents has changed to such a degree that we need to reflect on it. It requires us to rethink our procedures, both for debates such as this and in respect of many other things that we do in the House. It has always been my view that the principal weapon of opposition in the modern age is not time but timing. We can have that debate some other time. I respect the views that he expressed.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): If the principal weapon of opposition should be timing, is the hon. Gentleman concerned about the prescribed division of each day into four and a half hours of debate on general principles and one and a half hours of debate on amendments? Surely he should agree with us that the Opposition should have freedom and flexibility.

Andrew Miller: I would need to drift away from the subject before us to answer that. My point had to do with how Bills are dealt with in Committee Upstairs—huge amounts of time are spent dragging us through them sentence by sentence rather than principle by
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principle. If the Opposition dealt with the principles and timed their attacks correctly, they would be more effective. I have always taken that view because of my relationship with a huge number of people in the communications world, in which I have a modest amount of expertise. It is just a starting observation.

On a slightly lighter point, I was amused by the attempt made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) to create a union between the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) and the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). Perhaps Opposition Members could not see from their seats, but from here I saw that the union resulted in the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe looking a bit like the blushing bride or—perhaps more appropriately in his case—as though he had had a good night out at Ronnie Scott’s. He was deeply embarrassed by the assertion.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made a perfectly fair point about the rationale behind the themed debates. Given that he and I are not a million miles apart on the substance of the treaty, that point ought to be subject to more serious debate this evening. I looked rather carefully at the themes from the outset, because I wondered what the logic was, and I have identified a rationale. I shall not deal with all the points made, because it is not fair to hon. Members wanting to contribute to this debate—

Rob Marris: Oh, go on.

Andrew Miller —tempted as I may be by my hon. Friend.

On justice and home affairs, for example, the UK has a huge amount to gain from working with EU partners to tackle cross-border challenges such as illegal migration, organised crime and terrorism. I think that we would agree on that point, and I think that we would also agree that the international dimension of those issues means that we can help other countries to help solve some of our problems.

For example, I have a long-standing relationship with political parties in Malta, because I spent a big chunk of my childhood there. As colleagues know, Malta has enormous problems as a result of illegal immigration and human trafficking in the Mediterranean by organised criminals; those problems stretch beyond the resources of that small country. If there was not European co-operation to help that small nation address the serious, important human tragedies that affect many of those illegal immigrants—if we did not seek to address those problems on a pan-European basis—it would not only be irresponsible, but would worsen our difficulties in places such as the constituency of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey; no place is a better example. There has to be a pan-European dimension. It is vital that, in the debate on that theme, we have a structured discussion that enables us to explore how the treaty will enable co-operation.

Rob Marris: I think that the motion gives us sufficient time to discuss the issues that my hon. Friend raises. On Malta, I have a constituent who claimed asylum in the United Kingdom. Through our co-operation with Malta, we found out that she had claimed asylum in Malta four years ago. She had to be deported to Malta, her first port of call. We already have that sort of co-operation, but we need to explore the issue further in the time for debate on that theme, which I think is sufficient.

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Andrew Miller: Of course I accept that point. Most importantly, the treaty makes it crystal clear that the UK will be able to choose whether to participate on justice and home affairs measures, which cover visas, immigration, asylum, judicial and police co-operation, and criminal matters. A debate of substance ought to take place on that, and I can certainly see the argument for it being partly the subject of a themed debate.

The same is true of energy. My constituency springs to mind; it is a significant energy user because of the chemical industry there. We need a proper, structured solution to the unfairness in the energy markets across Europe; nowhere is that felt more keenly than in north-west England. The Lisbon treaty provides the EU with a dedicated legal base from which to tackle the liberalisation of the energy market, so that we can promote renewables and so on. That must be good. That is a powerful reason why energy ought to be the subject of part of the themed debates. I could take the House through the other sections of the motion, but in fairness to other colleagues who want to speak, I shall not.

I hope that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey will accept that although one can come up with all sorts of arguments about how such debates ought to be structured, there is some sort of rationale justifying the approach that has been taken.

Rob Marris: Is my hon. Friend as surprised as I am to hear some Members of the official Opposition putting a view reminiscent of the view taken by far-left Labour Members 30 years ago, which my hon. Friend will remember? Their attitude was to have no timetable for anything, in the hope that the good folk in the Labour party would leave and the nutty lefties would be able to control the agenda at the end of the evening, at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Similarly, there has been a backward-looking lack of recognition in today’s debate that an MP’s role has changed. Of course, Members on both sides of the House must scrutinise the Government, but we must also accept that we have a growing volume of constituency duties. To hold open-ended debates that run through the night is not a good way to scrutinise the Government, as it effectively eliminates those who wish to do a good job for their constituencies as well, and cannot be here all the time.

Andrew Miller: It comes back to the point that I made about the use of timing rather than time. I do not suppose any right hon. or hon. Member, however long they have been here, has received many letters from constituents saying, “Congratulations. It was really good to see you on your feet at 3 am.” Most people think that that is a daft way of conducting business, and believe that we ought to look at things slightly differently.

My hon. Friend the Minister implied that the Government had got the allocation of time about right. I want to explore that gently with him, and I invite the House to look at the procedures adopted by other countries. Ireland is an obvious exception, because it is bound constitutionally to adopt the process. One country has already ratified the treaty—Hungary, which spent less time debating the treaty than we have spent debating procedure this evening. No hon. Member will say that the approach adopted by Hungary, with its extraordinary
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history, is less democratic than ours. It is different, and there are differences from which we can learn. The most significant difference is that the official Opposition—the Fidesz alliance, which is a Conservative grouping—agreed with the Government that the treaty should go through. There was no attempt by the Opposition to oppose the treaty just because they were the Opposition: they took a responsible approach as a result of negotiations that took place not in a few hours on the floor of the Hungarian Parliament but over a number of years, and began with the process that resulted in Hungary’s accession to the EU—in which I played a small part.

The process in Hungary was profoundly different from the one adopted here, and from the one adopted in Ireland. I suspect that as the rest of the countries undertake their own procedures, there will be a spectrum of approaches. However, there will not be many countries, if any, that spend more hours than us dealing with the matter in their debating chamber. There are many other types of Committee process. On reflection, when we look at this in future, perhaps we will see whether there are any lessons to be learned from the processes adopted elsewhere.

Mr. Shepherd: I am sorry if my intervention keeps the hon. Gentleman going, but of what relevance are other countries’ constitutional procedures to our own common law-based procedure, as opposed to their civil law tradition, and of what relevance is the matter to the motion?

Andrew Miller: Ireland has a common law system, but every other country is different. [ Interruption. ] Yes, it will have a referendum—that is built into its constitution. Perhaps hon. Members have not noticed that we do not have such a constitution. It is relevant to look at other countries, because we live in a global society. To ignore things that happen in other countries is to do a disservice to our country and to our constituents. That may be the Conservative way of doing things, but I do not think that it is the correct way of doing them.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills criticised the process for debate, and argued that it was wrong to hold a general debate followed by one on amendments, because we have always done it the other way round. However, he did not provide any logic to explain why it was wrong. I take his point—it is a different process—but I did not hear any logical arguments. His defence appears to be: “We do it this way, because that is how we do it”, rather than because it is the right way.

Mr. Shepherd: I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to use up time, because of the paucity of speakers on the Government side, but that point was made more succinctly and effectively by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes).

Andrew Miller: I accept that the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey made a succinct case, which is why I did not criticise his observations. I was criticising the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, who made an impassioned plea, but there was no logic to his case. That is why I was picking on his view.

Mr. Shepherd: I apologise to those present in the Chamber, but that is simply absurd. This is a debating Chamber, and we build on other people’s arguments. To shorten speeches, we often accept that argument,
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because we believe that the case has already been made. I know that the hon. Gentleman believes that he must labour every point to the end of time, but we will wait for him to understand and bring together some of the arguments that are germane to his case and accord with the views of many hon. Members.

Andrew Miller: For someone who is labouring the point, perhaps I should resist giving in, and stop taking any further interventions from the hon. Gentleman. The logic of the case made by those who have spoken against the motion is that the debates on the substance of the treaty occur in isolation, and are remote from many other debates on all those themes, subjects and chapter headings. Debates do not take place in isolation, and I will illustrate my point with a rather extreme example. Most hon. Members can readily predict which way the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) will vote.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) never disagrees with the Government.

Andrew Miller: The hon. Gentleman cannot be certain about that.

Mr. Burns: He wants to be a Minister— [ Interruption. ]

Andrew Miller: That is a very generous offer, but not on his side.

These debates do not occur in isolation. We know precisely where most people stand. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made an interesting observation, when she said that this is the place to look after our constituents. I agree with her, but we do not look after them by holding endless debates about process. We should focus on the themes established in the motion. I have some differences with Ministers.

Mr. Harper: The Minister is worried now.

Andrew Miller: They know about them. Those differences concern certain aspects of the way in which they are tackling matters that are dealt with inside the EU. For example, the Government need to address the long-standing problem of temporary and agency workers.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman save that for another occasion. We should stick with the motion and amendment before the House.

Andrew Miller: I did not accept the logic of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), which was discussed earlier. That was the context in which I made my comment, which I was not going to develop. My hon. Friend’s amendment does not lead to a solution on employment rights, and his argument that we should have a separate debate on fundamental human rights is flawed.

The choice of debates should reflect issues of national importance. There are opportunities in the way in which the debates have been structured to address fundamental
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issues of national importance such as energy and climate change, which affect our constituents. I therefore argue that the approach is about right.

The Conservative amendment is an attempt to finesse the Government motion, and there is an argument about which way is best. However, the Government’s approach will work, because it will result in a series of meaningful debates, which I hope considerably more hon. Members will participate in than will participate in this slightly tedious debate about procedure.

I apologise for having taken so long to explain my point.

8.22 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) has summarised his argument effectively. He thinks that the debates on the Bill should be about matters of national importance and that Labour Members should decide which issues are of national importance. Those issues will then be imposed on this House, and if anybody else in the Chamber thinks that there are matters of national importance that the debates do not address, then that will be tough.

Andrew Miller rose—

Mr. Jenkin: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, who spoke at considerable length. We gave him plenty of rope, which he used effectively—his speech was dire. The exchanges between the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) showed how democracy in this House is intended to evolve according to new Labour. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said that we should discuss things not “sentence by sentence” but “principle by principle”. How can anyone who has the least tendency to discuss issues of legality separate sentences from principles? That is what they do in new Labour, however, which is why the Government have tabled this appalling motion.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston assumes that he knows what it is best to discuss, as do the Government, who tabled the motion. For example, he has explained that energy is an important issue, but who should decide what this House discusses? The Members of this House should decide that. The beauty of the old-fashioned, outdated and passé Committee stages of Bills is that the Clerks and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, put the amendments into a logical order, so the issues themselves have the merit of determining the nature of the discussion or the order in which the discussion takes place, rather than having the Executive do it for their own convenience.

I was amused when the right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) discussed the disillusion with which people greet debates in this House and politicians generally. It was not Conservative Members but the Government who chose to table this technical, nit-picking procedural motion. All Executives have an agenda of trying to downgrade and downplay the importance of those who are meant to hold them to account. That is the nature of office, which is why Margaret Thatcher and John Major passed guillotines, but the trend has been getting worse.
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On that point, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) ably and passionately pointed out the great traditions of this House, and I congratulate him on his speech.

I will support the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), albeit that it is highly unsatisfactory; I was extremely relieved to hear that my entire party will vote against the whole principle behind the construction of the timetable. I am not a luddite about timetables, but they have their problems. One disadvantage is that they enfranchise people who just want to fill time, because there is limited time to fill. They also tend to curtail discussion, often at a very interesting point, which is another disadvantage.

I am not opposed to timetables in principle. I was a shadow Constitutional Affairs Minister when we considered the Scotland Act 1998. I persuaded my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) to get the usual channels working, because we knew that there would be a guillotine, which is more unsatisfactory than a timetable that reflects as much consensus around the House as possible.

Before my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills starts rumbling, I have full sympathy for his point that any kind of timetable is a disadvantage—we have encountered the disadvantages—but we agreed to a timetable on the Scotland Act 1998, which was an innovation. We proceeded on the basis that the great principle had already been settled in a referendum, which is not the case with the Lisbon treaty, and that we could agree where the knives would fall throughout the day in order to facilitate discussion and to move it on to a variety of topics, which is nothing like what we have here. The Maastricht debates took place under the old system, and although the Prime Minister has invited scrutiny, this programme and the arrangements for the Maastricht debates cannot be compared. The Prime Minister has failed to deliver on his assurances.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks has pointed out the utter inadequacy of the time allowed to debate justice and home affairs, which have been forced into one debate. We are not discussing a law; we are discussing how laws in this country are made. We are discussing what the founding fathers of the United States constitution took 10 years to agree, but we are being asked to do it in 12 days.

My right hon. Friend referred to justice and home affairs; furthermore, defence is being truncated with foreign policy. I wish to draw attention to two relevant matters. In defence, we have a major innovation in respect of article 42 of the treaty on European Union: instead of a common security and defence policy that “may” include the progressing of common defence, and “may” lead to common defence, those words are being replaced with “shall” and “will”. That is a very major innovation, and the idea that it should be truncated with other matters is extraordinary.

The Government have consistently assured the House that there would be no duplication of NATO. I would like plenty of time to discuss a mutual security clause that has been inserted into the treaty on European Union under article 42:

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