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12 Nov 2008 : Column 796
2 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). He made a brilliant speech that summoned into the Chamber first the Government Chief Whip and then, perhaps more worryingly, the Government Deputy Chief Whip, both of whom were inquiring about exactly what was going on.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire began by saying that he could not continue until 7 o’clock, but many of us will remember our late and much lamented friend Eric Forth. I think that he would have risen to the challenge and extended the debate.

I want to add a short footnote to the four speeches that have been made already criticising this timetable motion. When the Deputy Leader of the House moved it, I do not think that he recognised the depth of feeling in the Chamber. I noticed that he said that the timetable motion had been drafted to allow time for votes. We are grateful for small mercies, but the House has not been allowed adequate time for debate. How can we vote sensibly if the guillotine motion has prevented us from debating?

Mr. Bone: My right hon. Friend is making a point about the votes, but does he agree that there will be more time for the votes than for the actual debate?

Sir George Young: It may be that, in protest at the way in which it is being treated, the House will feel provoked into calling Divisions that might not otherwise have taken place, thus bringing into reality what my hon. Friend has said.

Already, the Government’s timetable motion has provoked something that I have not seen before—a five-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches on a House matter. Recently, limits of 10 and 15 minutes have been imposed on speeches, but I think that a five-minute limit is virtually unprecedented, especially on a matter for the House. It seems clear to me that the Chair has been approached already by a large number of colleagues who wish to intervene.

The Leader and Deputy Leader of the House cannot say that they were not warned about what would happen this morning. At last Thursday’s business questions, I said that I saw

I was swotted away. In her reply, which we have just heard from the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), the right hon. and learned Lady said:

With the benefit of what has happened over the past hour and half, I hope that she will concede that perhaps her response to me was wrong, and that an hour and a half is not enough—especially as we now have before us Mr. Speaker’s selection of amendments. The first motion
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is timetabled for 90 minutes, and the Chair has deemed that seven separate subjects are worthy of discussion. They include whether we should have Select Committees as well as regional Committees, whether the Chairmen should be paid, whether London should be included, and whether the party balance should reflect the balance in the regions rather than in the House. Another matter to be determined is the pay of Select Committees.

I have tabled amendment (a) to motion 7, and it has been selected for debate, but I am very worried that having only 90 minutes will not leave me time to move it and explain why it should be carried.

Mr. Harper: My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The first group of five motions are at least linked, as they are about regional government. However, the second group of two motions contains one entitled European Scrutiny (Standing Orders) and another entitled Modernisation of the House of Commons (Changes to Standing Orders). They are very different motions about different subjects, the second of which relates particularly to the time available to Back Benchers in topical debates. There is a danger that, with such a limited amount of time available, all of it will be focused on just one of those motions, while the other may not be debated at all.

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We will have the opening speeches from the Front Benches, but many of the amendments have been tabled by Back Benchers from both sides of the Chamber. I am concerned that those Back Benchers may not have time to move the amendments, and that the House will have to vote on them without having heard the arguments on either side. It cannot be in the interests of good governance so to curtail debate that we vote on important matters concerning the business of the House without having heard the arguments one way or the other.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept that this is a matter not just of good governance but of what people outside the House think of us? If we cannot carry out our own business within the sort of time needed for sensible discussion, people outside will feel very hurt.

Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The Leader of the House has a responsibility to the whole House to make sure that we have enough time to discuss the issues before us, which are controversial. The Government have made it clear that they want their view to prevail, although they were unable to persuade a Committee of the House—putting aside the Ministers on it—that it was the right thing to do. Against that background, it is even more important that the House should hear the arguments on both sides before coming to a conclusion.

Many other colleagues wish to speak in this debate, but I want to record my profound unhappiness at the length of time that we have been allocated. I repeat to the Leader of the House that I warned her that this would happen, and that there is still time for her to salvage something by rising on a point of order and indicating that she is happy to accept some of the
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propositions that we have heard. If she does that, we can move on to the substantive debate: if she does not do that, I fear that this procedural debate may go on a little longer.

2.6 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): The deliberate intent behind all guillotine motions to stop people speaking. That is their outcome, and their purpose. In the history of this House, they have been treated very cautiously, with guillotines being imposed only for national events of great import, such as war. However, we have got to the stage where this most arrogant of Governments are now showing they have total control over the business on the Floor of the House of Commons and the way we identify issues of importance to us.

All the points that I have been making in my 25 years in the House have been made in the debate already. We are no longer representative if we cannot speak on behalf of our constituents. Behind that, of course, is almost the oldest dictum in legal history—that our freedom and liberties lie at the interstices of procedure. That is what this is about: the Government tell us all the time that what happens in the House is boring to people outside, and that is why they can act in this way. No one pays attention to how we do our business, so why should we ourselves pay any attention to it?

My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) exposed the sheer sophistry of the Deputy Leader of the House and his casual approach to these matters. The Deputy Leader said that the motion had been on the Order Paper since last Thursday, so we could have proposed amendments to it. He is a former cleric, so we know that he understands that those who oppose the motion in principle do not want to compromise on that principle.

That must be so, but the Deputy Leader has confronted the House with a matter of principle. The guillotine motion appeared on the Order Paper for both Monday and Tuesday and could have slithered through, but Members stayed behind on both nights to ensure that it did not. That is why we are here today, fighting for the business before us—but more than that: fighting for the justification and the rationale of our existence as a House of Commons.

The Executive have so totally seized the Standing Orders and process of business of this House that they treat hon. Members with total contempt. That is what this is about. Why waste time in hearing the views of those who are sent by the constituencies of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to decide matters and raise issues of great importance for those whom they represent? Why trouble with them?

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. When the motion to curb debate moved from the back of the Order Paper on to the business pages, there were objections. On Monday night, he, I and others objected. That gave the most obvious signal to the Government, if they had not picked it up already, that Members were unhappy, and they could have come and talked to people. There was not a word of discussion yesterday, however, so we had to object again. Signals have regularly been sent; it is not as though we have not said to the Government, “This is not a good way to conduct your business.”

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Mr. Shepherd: In those remarks lies the reasonableness of Members in conducting their business. The hon. Gentleman does not honestly believe, because experience has taught him otherwise, that the Government have the slightest intention of negotiating the business of the House. We have had no experience of that under this Government.

Mr. Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton, East) (Lab): Or the last.

Mr. Shepherd: The hon. Gentleman did not sit in this House between 1992 and 1998; if he had, he could not make that statement. The Government of that time did not have a majority, and therefore could not insist in the way this Government do that they shall have every jot and iota of their business. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I paused because I thought a Member was about to intervene.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Shepherd: I should not have said that. Of course I shall give way.

Mr. Gummer: Does my hon. Friend agree that there have been examples in the past of Governments with large majorities who have understood that the business of the House—such as the issues we are discussing—is of such importance that we must all play our part in making decisions, and that they would have been ashamed not to have allowed that? The Leader of the House, given her professional career, would have been the first person to have objected to anyone behaving in this way.

Mr. Shepherd: I am very grateful for that intervention, because it highlights the watershed in the treatment of House of Commons business during my parliamentary career, in that it has deteriorated to contempt. That is how strongly I feel. I should tell the House that I have neuralgia, and I am about to see a dentist, so perhaps I am being a bit tart or tough, but I want to emphasise how important the matter is.

The Leader of the House dictated through the report entitled “Regional Accountability” that is supposedly the basis of some of the motion. As has been pointed out, three votes by the Chairman were required to break ties, including on the report being made to the House of Commons. Fortunately, the right hon. and learned Lady had to her right an acting Whip. He served the purpose of pointing out to the Labour members of the Committee concerned when to vote. His reward lies not in heaven, but in being the Deputy Leader of this House now. He did that not for Wales, and not for England, but for the deputy leadership of this House.

I have been a Member of Parliament long enough to remember when we did not have a Deputy Leader of the House, as the leadership of the House was considered the most important function in the management of this House—in the political management and in terms of regard for the House. Mrs. Thatcher took business questions in her time. Prime Ministers, no less, were invariably the Leader of the House, because their authority and the basis of their power rested on having and controlling a majority. Now, however, it is anybody’s old business, so when we have this dire report that
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required no consensus but just the Chairman’s vote to assert it, we get a reply from the Government, and who from the Government replies on this? The document in question is entitled, “Regional Accountability: the Government’s response to the Modernisation Committee’s third report of session 2007-08”. Remembering that the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, the right hon. and learned Lady, is sitting in her place in this Chamber, let me point out that that document was

They are one and the same person. There is no distinction between them. That is what we have come to. We have now a person in post who neither understands this House nor has spent long on the Back Benches waiting to speak, and who has become a princess of New Labour and feels that all this—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman, with his distinguished record in the House, will recognise that if he wishes to make a speech that is critical of the Leader of the House, or any other Member, that would need to be done on a substantive motion. It ought not to be done under this timetable motion.

Mr. Shepherd: I apologise. I am trying to explain why there is a sense of frustration that this House no longer has a personality. That should not just be seen in the context of a consideration of the times, although that is the central issue that determines how reduced we are, and serves to demonstrate it to those who send us here.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Shepherd: I do not wish to speak for as long as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) so I am no longer inviting interventions.

If we cannot speak on behalf of those who sent us here, what is our purpose? If Governments cannot take seriously the processes and purposes of the House of Commons, we are all lost. We must have a sense of ourselves, but this motion rejects that. The Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House tabled the subsequent motions and showed concern that we are debating this issue. They had this all wound up. There were attempts on Monday and Tuesday, and again today, to have an opportunity to speak on the virtues of these motions before us. They have now moved far from the Procedure Committee. They have seized the Standing Orders and the whole business of the House through the Modernisation Committee. As far as they were concerned, it had no purpose from the start and certainly not since the return from the summer recess. It has not even met. Its only purpose is to deliver yet more power into the Executive’s hands.

This issue matters to every one of us, from wherever we come. It is not just a question of “Hallelujah” to the passing Leader of the House, or whoever is the successor. This is about the belief that we are the representatives of the nation and about votes in this House, which are important—for the provision of Supply, which is the oil of Government, to name but one essential thing. This is an important matter, and it should be taken seriously. Until the Government learn that lesson, they who treat us with contempt will receive contempt.

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2.18 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly on this business motion.

I want to clarify my intervention on my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) about the necessity for a business motion. I stand corrected, in that there needed to be a business motion to make sure the House did not rise at seven o’clock, but that is all it needed to contain. It did not need to have a limit on speeches or group the motions by linking motions that are not related to each other. If the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader had wanted to, they could have put before the House such a limited business motion, rather than the one that we face today. However, given that we are faced with this business motion, I want to make a few points about why it is inadequate given the subjects ranged before us.

I want to expand on my intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) about the linking of some of the subjects, specifically the European scrutiny Standing Orders motion about the European Scrutiny Committee having to meet in public. There is a reason why I am worried about that and want there to be adequate time. A short while ago, I presented a ten-minute Bill to the House on the transparency of European Union legislation. The Bill would have made it incumbent on Ministers to make clear to the House the origin of Bills. In that debate, the House divided, and Government Members were whipped to oppose openness and transparency in EU business—the whipping included Ministers, which is not the normal process for ten-minute Bills. That causes me concern, as we know from the way in which the Government behaved then that they do not want openness and transparency in the conduct of European Union business. It is important that the House has a full opportunity to debate the motion on European scrutiny, and to ensure that the European Scrutiny Committee meets in public, both to hear witnesses and to deliberate. That way, Members of the House—and, much more importantly, through us, members of the public—can know what is being done in their name as far as European business is concerned.

The motion on European scrutiny has been grouped with motion No. 9, entitled “Modernisation of the House of Commons (Changes to Standing Orders)”. Motion No. 9 is important in itself, because it affects the balance of time given to Front Benchers and Back Benchers in topical debates. That is why I am concerned about the time available for debate on the two motions. Back Benchers, every one of whom may wish to contribute to topical debates, have legitimate opinions about the relative time available in those debates to Front-Bench and Back-Bench speakers. My concern is that linking the two motions in a one-and-a-half-hour block means that there will not be time for one or other of those subjects to be properly debated and scrutinised, not just by Front Benchers, but by Back Benchers, who are properly concerned about the issue.

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