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28 Jan 2008 : Column 106

We are embarking on a series of debates in which very large issues are at stake; I have just mentioned a stronger obligation than we have under the NATO treaty. Yet the discussion of that part of the Lisbon treaty is to be truncated and incorporated with a whole lot of other matters. That is, of course, entirely unacceptable.

We are led to believe that the Government motion has been tabled to help the House. The Minister said that it would give an opportunity to debate all the issues. What opportunity? Perhaps the Minister will address the point when he replies to the debate. What opportunity would we not have if we did not have this form of timetabled debate? What opportunity would this form of debate give that we would not have even if we were discussing amendments rather than having thematic debates? The answer, of course, is that there is no such opportunity. The Minister gave the game away when he said that the motion was to test the Government’s policy on the EU generally. The debates are not about that: they are for testing how the treaty will be implemented into United Kingdom law. Under the Government’s motion, we will spend less time discussing that than what the Government want to discuss.

As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) pointed out, the motion will put the Minister at the Dispatch Box in prime time, at the beginning of every day of debates on the treaty, as the discussion of amendments never would. That is a coincidence, of course; I am sure that the Minister will discover that only as the debates unfold. The Minister will be allowed to speak generally on topics of his own choosing instead of having to address amendments tabled by hon. Members. The Government have clearly been driven to table the motion for presentational reasons.

Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) told me quietly in the Chamber that a great deal of thought must have gone into how the debate should be structured. I imagine that the spin doctors—although the Prime Minister pretends that he does not have any—had quite a say in the drafting of the motion. They would have been saying, “Look, if we go into a Maastricht-style debate, we’ll lose control of the agenda. How can we control the news agenda?” They will control it by having the themed debates; each day, the Government will know exactly what they can say. They will make the case that they want to make, rather than address subjects raised by amendments.

The thing about amendments, unless they involve the Government clearing up their own mess in a Bill, is that the Government have to answer points made by people who are not in the Government. The beauty of the procedure that the Government have chosen is that the first three hours of every day will be spent debating subjects that they have chosen. It is the complete reversal of how a Committee stage should operate.

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): As the hon. Gentleman knows, I cannot abide spin doctors or stand being in their presence. I do not know of any discussions such as those that he has mentioned, but I am quite new to this debate. I suspect that one of the reasons behind the motion might be that sometimes—at least in my experience, and I have been in the House for more than 19 years—the procedural debate can eclipse the debate on the substance of a
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treaty, for example. All too often we do not have a chance to discuss what difference a treaty will make to people’s lives.

Mr. Jenkin: I fully endorse the Minister’s sentiment, but I would like to make two points. First, if we wanted to elevate the discussion in this country about the general principles of the treaty, we would make sure as a House that we honoured the promise that we all made at the last election—to have a referendum. However, the Government have for some reason abandoned that promise. I suspect that that has something to do with the fact that they do not really want to have a debate about the substance of the treaty.

Secondly, I put it to the Minister that the debates on the Maastricht treaty began with the public being alienated and disengaged from the process in Parliament, but as the treaty was scrutinised in such detail, as the disputes were inevitably covered in the press and on television, and as those disputes were often on matters of very close voting, they began to command public attention and to change public opinion, because in the end the detail of the law matters, as well as the principle.

I do not want to go on incessantly but just to make the point that the idea that the Government are doing something kind to the public and to this House by seeking to impose their agenda and control the agenda is complete nonsense. They want the opportunity to control the agenda, they are taking the agenda away from more impartial witnesses such as the Speaker’s Panel and the Clerks so as to determine the order of events, they are unnaturally restricting the debate on the implementation of the treaty, and in the end they are not only strengthening the case for the other place to have extended and protracted debates on all the matters that will inevitably remain undiscussed in this House but strengthening the case for a referendum.

It is an irony that the very part of the procedure on day 11 that we hope will allow maximum time for debating the very important question of the referendum is itself being restricted, because the Government do not want discussed the fact that this treaty is almost identical to the constitution. That is the substantive point that the Government are running away from. I ask anybody who disputes that to explain to this House, in the limited time that we have available during these debates—perhaps the Minister can put it in a few words to encourage us to vote for his motion—just what, in a word, is so substantially different in the way that this treaty will operate from the way that the constitution would have operated. I cannot see it; I do not think that anybody can. Yes, we may have different architecture—different pillars, girders and construction—but in the end the building will be the same. Unless the Government can make the case that this treaty will lead to substantially different outcomes than would have arisen from the implementation of the constitution, we will know that their whole position is, frankly, a lie.

8.37 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am sorry that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is not here, because she got very close to putting her finger on the fundamental question—the absence in the
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so-called themed debates of crucial issues that need to be addressed. To my mind, the most crucial issue is the implementation of the treaty into United Kingdom law. All that those themes amount to is a collection of discussions that could have taken place in a generalised Adjournment debate of the kind that we had just before Christmas.

We have heard my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—I am glad to be able to say that—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), as well as the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich, for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), and for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). We heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) stating brilliantly, in a nutshell, that we are not being given an opportunity to discuss these matters properly.

We have reached a new nadir—a travesty of Parliament involving the application, in an unprecedented manner, of a new and, as I said earlier in a point of order, controversial innovation that is made that much worse by the manner in which it is being done. It is made that much worse because the new clauses are stuck at the back end of this operation and are to be dealt with on the same day, with only a moment of interruption, as the referendum clause. That means that essential questions that need to be examined will not be, such as the implications for the supremacy of Parliament and the fact that, once the treaty has gone through, based on previous examples, there would be no reversal of the acquis communautaire and no way to reverse it except through the condition set down in my new clauses about

Similar considerations apply to the Bill of Rights, but we can deal with those problems when we get to them. I am concerned that under the Government’s proposals, such matters will be dealt with at the end of our considerations without proper time for discussion, so it is more than likely that they will be pushed out by discussions on the referendum. If the supremacy of Parliament itself is to be put at that stop-end, there is very little future for this Parliament at all.

I would like to touch on the fact that, as Ivor Jennings said with respect to the question of conventions, the basis for a convention has to be the reason for the rule. Looking at the manner in which the motion has been put forward, it is impossible to find any rational reason in the context of discussion. Discussion was the system described by Bagehot, whom I think could still be regarded as one of the greatest authorities on Parliament and the constitution, if not the greatest. He said that we have a parliamentary system that is government by parliamentary discussion, and that responsible government is decided by votes on decisions, which rest on confidence and trust. Is this government by discussion? No. Is it responsible government? No. Is there confidence and trust? No, no, no. Implementation of law is not implementation of policy. In the context of procedure, I also cite Main’s “Ancient Law”, where it was said that justice is to be found in the “interstices of procedure”. It is not possible for us to do justice in this House under a procedure of the sort before us today.

Setting aside the allegations of corruption that currently attract the attention of the media, what we are witnessing
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today is a true corruption of our democratic system—a reduction of Bagehot’s description of government by discussion to a farce. Another great constitutional commentator, Sir Courtney Ilbert, stated:

That was said in the 20th century and repeated in an important, authoritative text recently, which stated that things are the same today as they were when Sir Courtney Ilbert made his comment. The Stuarts were very little different, hence the rebellion that took place against them in the civil war, and that continued even after 1660, with the removal of James II and what led to the beginnings of our modern system of government. Those are the issues at stake.

Anyone who thinks that analogies with the 17th century are inappropriate should remember that the powers being arrogated today by the Prime Minister and the European Union—a thoroughly undemocratic body—are in no way different from the kind of powers arrogated by the Stuarts in their own time. Indeed, the secret treaty of Dover was made in return for money that was received from the French explicitly in order to prevent Parliament from being recalled so that there would be no proper discussion. That was what it was all about.

I believe that as a consequence of the proposals in the motion our parliamentary system is being fatally undermined. I am deeply disturbed by the way in which this motion has been put forward.

In my judgment, the draining of the well of the clear spring water of our democracy has left at the bottom a fetid sludge that has been dominated by the direction taken by the Government and the Government Whips. The Foreign Secretary refers to our concerns as “institutional navel-gazing”. I looked that phrase up— it is described as “profitless meditation”. Such consideration is only profitless for those who do not see what is at stake as the Bill is rammed through by the Whips without proper discussion. Direction has been substituted for democratic parliamentary discussion. Parliament is abused and degraded by this process.

We see the words “advice and consent” in the preamble to every Bill. As Erskine May noted,

That was the great Erskine May, and his words are as important now as they were then. To support that view, he quoted a statement by the representatives of the Commons at a conference with the Lords in December 1667:

The language may be somewhat arcane, but that quotation is highly relevant to our purposes today.

Bob Spink: Does my hon. Friend share the concern that the treaty transfers significant, crucial powers away from Parliament to the European Union—powers
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on the common fisheries policy, employment, transport, rail, air travel, space policy and matters concerning the charter of fundamental rights—and the motion does not even allow us to debate those specific issues?

Mr. Cash: That concerns me deeply. That is precisely why I am looking back at the manner in which our procedures have developed and demonstrating the fact that those important constitutional authorities have as much relevance to the present day as they did in their own time. This Parliament has been going for centuries and has developed those principles. We should be living by them now.

The most recent edition of “Erskine May” reaffirms that what I have just said remains true, as it says, up to the present time:

That is what “Erskine May” says today. That is what is at stake and what the Government are completely overriding. In the words of Sir Edward Coke, a former Speaker and seasoned parliamentarian,

Bagehot’s claim goes further. It is that, in a parliamentary regime, the function of government takes place in the House by way of discussion. The programme motion denies that to us.

The Bill is more important and extensive than the Maastricht treaty, yet there is less time for discussing it. There is no general sense of crisis in the country, but there is unease. Sixty-four per cent. of people want a referendum because they do not trust Parliament, and that is our fault. Inadequate discussion means that the position will get worse and European laws will not be properly debated.

The European Communities Act 1972 is at the root of the problem. We have had invasions of law from the Romans, the Danes, the Normans, the Stuarts and through canon law. We created a democracy in the late 18th, the 19th and especially the 20th centuries, which has been the bastion of freedom for western civilisations. Now, we are going back, like ectoplasm, into a dark age through reverting to procedures that override our fundamental freedom of speech and proper discussion, which is the means whereby the people can be governed. The motion will prevent that proper discussion, and the Government and Parliament will be condemned for it.

8.51 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). I congratulate him on the quotations that he used to show the development of our parliamentary democracy over the years and on his reference to “Erskine May”.

I have great respect for the Minister for the Middle East, who will reply to the debate. May I request of him that he heed the contributions of some of the longest serving and most experienced Members of the House? I refer to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich
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(Mrs. Dunwoody), who is one of the most outstanding Labour parliamentarians. Her long service in the House and the outstanding service that she has given her constituents in two constituencies in her parliamentary career are greatly appreciated. I also refer to the impassioned and outstanding speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). He shares with me a true love of Parliament and a belief that this mother of all Parliaments is critical to the success of our democratic system.

Unfortunately, the House no longer carries the authority or power that it should because it has been undermined by the Executive. It has been said that the Chamber is now irrelevant because the Executive of the day—currently the Labour Government—are likely to get their way, through the use of Whips and other means, even in a debate such as the current one, on a business motion, unless sufficient members of the Government party are prepared to put this country’s interests ahead of their career and possible preferment.

I do not make my next remarks immodestly. I took a decision nearly 37 years ago that I believed in Parliament, the integrity of Members of Parliament and the important independence of this place in a democratic system. Consequently, as has been said by one or two others, I have never had the benefit or advantage of preferment. I do not care about that. I can sleep soundly at night, because whenever I took a decision against my party, I did so because I believed that I was right and that what I was doing was in the best interests of those whom I served. There have been others, such as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich and, from time to time, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). Again, will the Minister appreciate the clearly illustrated experience and length of service of a number of those of us who have contributed to this debate?

I am totally opposed to this business motion, because it betrays everything that the political parties in the House said at the last election. I shall not speak at any length on the referendum. However, it would have been appropriate for all the parties that said at the last election that if there was a constitutional treaty—albeit not necessarily the constitutional treaty that was defeated in referendums in France and the Netherlands—they would put it to the people of this country in a referendum to do just that. However, the parties are failing to do so. I greatly and sincerely regret that decision, because people in this country no longer trust Parliament.

Whereas in the old days Members of Parliament, perhaps because of their independent means, would take an independent position and vote accordingly, irrespective of their party, today that occurs less and less. Yes, we have those such as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, as well as some in the Opposition, too, but there are far too few of them.

This motion is misguided and is an abuse of the House. I would normally hesitate to say this, but to my mind this sort of tactic would not have been untypical of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Such a tactic is shameful and an abuse of the House.

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