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4 Mar 2009 : Column 864

Mr. Donaldson: I am curious to understand what the right hon. Gentleman means by the process falling over. Is he aware of some threat that a particular party will pull the plug on the process if we do not get this through quickly? Is he seriously suggesting that if we take an extra few days to scrutinise the Bill properly, the process will fall over?

Mr. Hain: No, I did not say that. Fellow Chelsea supporters should be more charitable to each other on these occasions. [Hon. Members: “They need to be.”] I know that the First Minister is also a fellow Chelsea supporter, so I know that he will support me on this occasion.

I understand the need for parliamentary scrutiny, which was well expressed by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire and, I am sure, will also be well expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, but I urge the House not to divide on this motion.

1.20 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I beg to move amendment (a), in paragraph 1(1), leave out ‘at today’s sitting’ and insert

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), who is known for his support of democracy, although I was slightly unhappy with what he said. I hope that when he hears about my amendment, he will realise that it will not significantly delay progress. I intend to press my amendment to a vote, if I have the opportunity to do so.

The effect of amendment (a) would be that the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill would take place today until the moment of interruption and a further day would be allocated for Committee and Third Reading. This would allow proper scrutiny of the Northern Ireland Bill. This is not a wrecking amendment. It would allow the Bill to proceed with proper scrutiny on the Floor of this House. Amendments (b) to (f) in my name on the Order Paper are consequential to amendment (a).

My interest is in the allocation of time motion, which I believe dilutes parliamentary debate and scrutiny and, therefore, our democracy. I will not be talking about the Northern Ireland Bill itself, as that should be left for Second Reading, which, if my amendment were carried, would continue until the interruption of business this evening.

The Executive have put Parliament in a real Catch-22 situation, because the longer that we take to debate the allocation of time motion, the less time we will have to debate the Northern Ireland Bill. Parliament has been given three hours to debate the allocation of time motion and, if the debate runs the course, that will give MPs only one hour for the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill. If there are Divisions, Second Reading could be reduced to the farcical time of just 30 minutes, giving time only for the Minister to speak and no proper debate. This is a gross abuse of Parliament by the Executive. It is electoral dictatorship by a control-freak Executive. There is, of course, a strong argument for debating this allocation of time motion for the full three hours, which would involve Parliament actually standing up to the Executive. Not even this Government would dare to proceed on the basis of a Second Reading debate of only 30 minutes.

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It is important to set out the reasons why all stages of the Northern Ireland Bill should not be read on one day. Let us consider the circumstances in which the Government can legitimately push through all the stages of legislation in one day. I understand that in national emergencies, such as those relating to terrorism, or when introducing economic measures that are extremely market sensitive, a swift progression through Parliament is needed. However, the Northern Ireland Bill is not one of those, as the right hon. Member for Neath has conceded. The Bill is a complex piece of legislation that changes the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Act 1978 and the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. Those Acts were not uncontroversial, and amendments to them need proper scrutiny by Members of Parliament.

Since 1997, only 15 Bills have been pushed through the Commons in all their stages on one day. Let us look at the type of Bill that has gone through and the precedent that that creates for this allocation of time motion. On 4 April 2001, the Elections Bill went through all its stages on one day. That was due to the national crisis caused by the foot and mouth epidemic. On 2 September 1998, parliament was recalled from its summer recess to pass the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill in all its stages as an urgent response to the terrible Omagh bombing. On 19 February 2008, the Banking (Special Provisions) Bill was passed in relation to Northern Rock and therefore needed to be rushed through the Commons. The House sat until midnight on that day.

None of the exceptional circumstances to which I have just referred applies to the Northern Ireland Bill. If this guillotine motion goes through, the Government will have set a dangerous precedent for curtailing debate and excluding proper parliamentary scrutiny on controversial issues. This is an abuse of Parliament and democracy, and normal rules are being abandoned so that the Government can get things through on the nod.

I have a lot of respect for the Secretary of State, but the arguments that he made today were rather weak. The Government have stated that the Northern Ireland Bill needs to pass through this place in one day to fit in with the schedule of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Deputy Leader of the House stated last Wednesday in the Business of the House debate that

However, that is simply not true.

In the same debate last Wednesday, representatives from both sides of the Northern Ireland divide stated quite clearly that there was no rush for this Bill to go through and that time should be given for proper scrutiny. Moreover, several Northern Ireland Members who also sit on the Northern Ireland Assembly were not aware of any time limit given by the Assembly to the Government. The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) said that

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The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) stated that:

It seems to me that the only party that is keen for this Bill to be rushed through is Sinn Fein, which does not even bother to take its seats in this Parliament. I sincerely hope that the Government have not been pushed into rushing something through by one absent party. There are parties in Northern Ireland that take Parliament seriously and that want more time to debate such an important Bill, which will have major consequences for their constituents.

I wish to praise all the hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies who take their seats in Parliament, whatever their political persuasion. Their dedication to the cause of peace and stability in Northern Ireland is highly commendable. I also wish to congratulate my Front Bench team, who work tirelessly and effectively. My hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) work extremely hard on the complex task of bringing devolution to Northern Ireland while at the same time ensuring the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Another argument why this Bill must be pushed through could be that we lack the space in the parliamentary business calendar to be able to spare any more time to debate it. But we all know that this is one of the lightest Sessions we have ever had. We will sit for only 128 days this year, of which 13 are reserved for private Members’ Bills. There have been several occasions in this parliamentary year where debates have collapsed and sittings have ended way before their time limit due to the lack of business. Yesterday the House adjourned at 8.44 pm rather than 10 pm. Only last Wednesday, the business finished at 3.58 pm rather than at 7 pm. Lack of parliamentary time cannot be an excuse for this motion.

So how does this motion fit with the principle of Parliamentary sittings? The current timetabling for parliamentary sitting is broadly based on the Jopling reforms, which encompass three principles. First, the Government must be able to get their business through and, within that principle, ultimately control the time of the House. Secondly, the Opposition must have the opportunity to scrutinise the actions of Government and to improve or oppose legislation, as they think fit. Thirdly, Back Bench Members on both sides of the Chamber should have reasonable opportunities to raise matters of concern to their constituents.

If the Executive were to come to their senses at this stage and agree to my amendment that there should be at least one day’s gap between Second Reading and Committee and Third Reading, all three principles would be met. That is exactly what amendment (a) would do. Clearly, the second and third principles are not being met. It is apparent to all that Parliament has more than enough time in this, the lightest of parliamentary years, to allow for separate days so that MPs have time to debate and scrutinise the Bill. Committee and Third Reading should not be on the same day as Second Reading, as required by the motion. My suggestion is that Second Reading should be held on one Wednesday—today—and that Committee and Third Reading should be held on a subsequent Wednesday.

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Sir Patrick Cormack: Will my hon. Friend hold hard a minute? Wednesday is the day when the Northern Ireland Committee always meets. We have lost one day today and we do not want to lose another. We can hold those debates on Tuesday, Thursday or Monday, but not on Wednesday.

Mr. Bone: I apologise for my error. Of course, I agree with my hon. Friend.

Standing Orders have been ignored today to rush through all stages of the Bill. Standing Orders have been developed over a long period of time so that the Executive cannot abuse their power. The Government seem to have no regard for Parliament or its procedures, which have been in place for so long. They want to microwave legislation. The motion, unbelievably, takes up four pages of the Order Paper to undo all the protections for debate provided to Members of this House. It is 17 paragraphs long with many sub-paragraphs. If it contains so much detail, should we not be suspicious of the intent?

It always makes me very nervous when it is said that the procedure is agreed through the usual channels. That is not acceptable, in my view, and it does nothing to promote transparency in parliamentary procedure. That is why I have argued for a long time for a business Committee made up of senior Members from both sides of the House to manage parliamentary procedure and the legislative progress. If that Committee had been in existence today, I would not have had to move amendment (a).

The Northern Ireland Bill is not a straightforward and simple piece of legislation that can be pushed through on the nod. It is a complex piece of legislation that will have historic significance for the people of Northern Ireland. Even if it were not complex and controversial, it should still not be hurried through in a day. Normal procedure should apply. It is unacceptable that the Government, who state their pride in working for so long to facilitate peace in Northern Ireland, should now want to rush this through.

A major role of Members of Parliament is to scrutinise and review legislation. It is a well-known fact that the better the scrutiny, the better the Bill. One major role of MPs is to hold the Executive to account. The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, when he was Leader of the House, summed it up perfectly when he stated in a Business of the House debate:

It is a shame that the Government do not agree with him.

There is no doubt that one of an MP’s most important roles—I would argue that it is the most important—is to hold the Executive to account. The motion removes that role, and it is appalling that the Government should try to stifle that essential function. I have long campaigned for more transparency and debate in Parliament, and I strongly believe in strengthening the role of the Back Bencher. The erosion of Parliament’s power to scrutinise and debate has been a long-adopted approach by this Executive, and the motion is a step too far.

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The situation that we, as parliamentarians, find ourselves in is well explained in the conclusion of the Modernisation Committee’s report, “Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the Back Bench Member”, which is extremely relevant to the motion and amendment (a):

In this motion we see the complete imbalance of parliamentary power.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I have heard enough of what the hon. Gentleman has said to agree with him on this point. Northern Ireland should be back in the UK fold of normality, and we should do things the same way as we do everything else, but we are rushing the Bill through in one day. It seems reasonable to say that there is plenty of time to do this—we have been waiting a long time for the Bill, and these things might not happen for some time. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are sending out absolutely the wrong signal and suggesting that Northern Ireland is still something different, special and almost terrible and that we need to treat its legislation in a different way?

Mr. Bone: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. I agree entirely and I do not see why the Government are doing this, as it sends out the wrong signals. There is something behind what the Secretary of State said. Perhaps it is the pressure from Sinn Fein—I do not know—but something outside this House is driving the Government to take this extraordinary measure. They have not come clean on what that is, so I think that they should not be allowed to steamroller through the Bill.

Individual Members of Parliament place a great deal of importance on scrutiny and accountability, and a problem arises when the Executive try to deny us that right. The Government have declared that amendments must be tabled before Second Reading, which is ludicrous. The Government are asking MPs to table amendments before we have had the chance to hear what the Minister has to say. How can an MP properly table amendments, when they have not heard the detail and the arguments? Despite that difficulty, 26 amendments have already been tabled. The Government were forced to produce a 53-page document and a 20-page document—I have them with me—on additional information relating to the Bill. Those documents were produced only yesterday. How can those documents and amendments realistically be scrutinised, if the Bill goes through all its stages today? It is just not possible.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is an indication of the complexity of the matter that the Northern Ireland Office and the Bill team, who are a very capable bunch of lawyers, had to have two goes at getting the documents right?

Mr. Bone: I am very grateful for that intervention. It was extraordinary that those two documents, which have the same title, were produced. I understand that
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the House authorities demanded that they should be produced. It is impossible to study the documents and the amendments and to deal with them all today. It is a farce.

The whole point of parliamentary procedure and the reason why legislation is not, as a matter of course, passed through in all its stages on one day is that we need to ensure the fullest accountability and debate. Why do the Government feel the need to abuse their power by limiting scrutiny? It is disgraceful that MPs are not allowed the time to scrutinise and debate such an important Bill. It is high time that the Executive stopped their abuse of power and their attempts to dilute parliamentary procedure.

I believe that I have now shown that every possible reason the Government might have for pushing through the Bill in one day is not valid— [ Interruption. ] I am going to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), as I shall not be able to continue for another two hours, but I hope that I have articulated the reasons why Parliament should be given adequate time for debate and scrutiny. There is no reason as far as I can see why there cannot be gap of at least one day between this Bill’s Second Reading and its Committee stage and Third Reading.

In conclusion, I refer the House to the view of Professor Dawn Oliver of University college London expressed in a memorandum to the Modernisation Committee:

I urge the Government to remember that.

If I have the opportunity, Madam Deputy Speaker, I look forward to pressing amendment (a) to a vote.

1.41 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). I agree with everything that he said, with two exceptions. First, he said that we would be creating a precedent if we let the Secretary of State get away with this, but unfortunately he is wrong. The precedent was created before, and the current Secretary of State is only the latest in a long line of serial offenders. One of his predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), whom I love very much, is in the Chamber, but he was also guilty of the same thing when he was a Secretary of State. It is time that we in this place stood up and said, “Thus far, and no further!”

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