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I suggest that any feeling of outrage should be compounded by two further considerations. We all know that the business of the House has been extraordinarily
light for the last few weeks. We need only look at the Order Paper to know that. It would have been quite easy to provide two, three or more days to allow proper debate of this Bill, but we are not permitted to do so, which is an outrage.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): In supporting the right hon. and learned Gentlemans argument, may I respectfully remind him that there is a one-liner throughout next week, so there would be plenty of time to deal with these very important issues? Murder and jury-free inquests are vital issues that we should all be able to discuss at length.
Mr. Hogg: I do not know about the nationalist Whip, but I know that other parties have an extraordinarily light Whip and we have had extraordinarily light business for weeks and weeks and weeks. We could well have given this Bill much more time than is being allowed.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does this not serve to bring this House into disrepute in the eyes of our constituents, who feel that issues that occupy and concern them are not being discussed even for a moment in this place?
Mr. Hogg: I agree and I find it impossible when I go to schools and other places to explain why it is that whole chunks of legislation are going through this place undiscussed. The Criminal Justice Bill in 2003 was the worst example that readily comes to mind, but there are countless other examples, of which this Bill is going to be another.
Then we come to the perverse fact that we have had two statements todaya day of tight business. I understand that the Prime Minister felt obliged to make a statement and it was a remarkable performance. The poor fellow, I fear he is getting very tired, so I suppose one ought to feel sorry for him. However, there was no need for the Justice Secretary to come here today. I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough that, assuming it was not for the personal convenience of the Justice Secretary, it was certainly to take up timeand that stinks as a practice.
I was not going to divide the House because I knew that the Division would take up time from our substantive debate, but now that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough proposes to divide the House, I am going to join him in the Division Lobby with enthusiasm.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I have an obvious interest in the programme motion because I have new clauses in one of the later groups to deal with freedom of speecha matter that should be of interest to all Members. I am also a sponsor of the new clause dealing with assisted suicide. I think it is fair to say that I raised my concerns with the Government before I saw the groupings. I put some questions to the Leader of the House just last Thursday. I said:
Mr. Speaker, you will be selecting the amendments
and, as there are so many parts to the Bill, they will inevitably fall into at least eight substantive groups.
We are grateful to the Leader of the House for providing two days debate
but does she recognise that the ability of the House to scrutinise the legislation will be measured
in part, by whether we have time to debate all those groups?
Will she take steps to ensure that there is adequate consultation between the parties so that those two days are used effectively to scrutinise all the parts of this important piece of legislation?[ Official Report, 19 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 1065-66.]
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) said, there is not enough time to do more than we are doing because of the mismatch between the two days. He was available all last week to debate such matters, and the same applies to those on the Conservative Front Bench.
When the Prime Minister was first selected as the new Prime Minister, he said it was his priority to ensure that the House improved the scrutiny that it delivered. At the time, I asked him whether that would include scrutiny of all legislationparticularly criminal justice legislationby the elected House. I asked whether he agreed that it was unacceptable for huge tranches of legislation to go through the House, and sometimes even Committee, unscrutinised. As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said, this is the only chance that those of us who are not on Public Bill Committees have. Surely the Government accept that the House is not doing its job of scrutiny unless it can debate all groups of amendments.
There is an option other than a third day: consulting on the programme motion. I have been told by those who know more about the matter that whichever Committee of the House suggested programme motions never intended them simply to be imposed and to have the consequences, by design or accident, that we see today. They were always intended to be a vehicle for the House to arrange its business so that we could debate such matters. Does the Minister recognise that it must be sensible to negotiate the programme motion so that we do not have such a half-hour debate, Divisions and unpleasantness? I am assured that there was no negotiation
Mr. Hogg: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be cautious about negotiation, because the implication is that it takes place between Front Benchers, but Back Benchers have a view about the matter. When the Conservatives are elected to office, I shall be hard to persuade to support any timetable motion.
Dr. Harris: Politics is the art of the possible, and regardless of how much trust Back Benchers have in Front Benchers, consultation is possible. We ask our Front Benchers to take into account the interests of the whole House. I would rather argue with them over their failure to negotiate a good position than have such frustration. At least my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge tabled an amendment, which was not selected, that would have addressed the matter.
It is amazing that the elected House will not get to debate murder law reform, and that we will probably not get to debate free speech, which has not been debated in this House for centuriesnot since the days of the Star Chamberin the terms on the Order Paper. It would be unacceptable if the House discussed only one group today. We must show self-restraint. No programme motion will ever deliver proper scrutiny if we spend a whole day on the first group, important though it is. With self-restraint, the House of Lords managed to get through its business. In that spirit, I will finish.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): The House knows that this is a compendium Bill and that it touches on fundamental issues that affect the nature of our society. I want to draw attention to a conclusion of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which comprises Members of the House of Lords and Members of this House. Few people will have had the opportunity to read the Joint Committees report. It states:
The breadth and size of the Bill and the legal complexity and diversity of the topics it covers have been the subject of concern during the Bills passage through the House of Commons given the limited time provided for scrutiny. We add our voice to those concerns. Large, multi-purpose bills of this sort are almost impossible to scrutinise effectively within the limited timescale provided by the Government. Given the range and significance of the human rights issues raised in this bill, the Government should have introduced two or three separate bills, each of which would have been substantial pieces of legislation in their own right or ensured that there was sufficient time for full pre-legislative and Committee stage scrutiny in the House of Commons. We welcome the fact that two days have been given over for Report stage in the House of Commons, a step not taken in relation to previous Bills of similar size, including the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.
It does not take much wit or imagination to appreciate that a Bill that covers certified or secret inquests, data protection, consumer reforms, witness anonymity, changes in the criminal law and procedural changes deals with big, big issues which the House should take seriously. What the Government are consistently doing is denigrating this Chambermy hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) raised that point during questions on the statement by the Justice Secretary earlier this afternoonrubbishing us, in one sense, and pushing the whole duty of legislative scrutiny down to the other end.
There are matters in this Bill that we simply cannot reach. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), we shall not be able to discuss contentions that affect every one of our citizens. What is the purpose of the House of Commons if the Government persist in introducing guillotine motions with timetabling that does not enable us to discuss the business involved? This is a denial even of the Justice Secretarys Bill of rights and responsibilities. What about the responsibilities of a Government to ensure that Parliamentthe elected House of Commonscan discuss matters such as secret coroners courts?
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con):
I do not intend to delay the House for long, but I want to express my support for what has been said by my hon. and learned
Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).
This is happening far too regularly. It is not a case of the Governments having made a genuine mistake; week in week out, there is not enough time to debate Bills in Parliament. One would have thought that, given that it is happening week in week out, the Government would have done something about it if they genuinely believed that the House was supposed to debate important matters. The fact that they do not do anything about it can only lead people to the conclusion that they do not want matters to be debated in the House: that they do not like being scrutinised, and do not want a proper debate to take place. If they allowed a proper debate, they might find that there were differing views among those on their own Benches, and they do not want to tolerate such a situation, so they filibuster by tabling needless statements such as that made earlier by the Justice Secretarywhich did not need to be made todayin order to restrict the time available for debate on Bills such as this.
Numerous constituents have raised with me such issues as assisted suicide, which has attracted a great deal of interest. Constituents on both sides of the argument have urged me to support their views. They expect these matters to be debated.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a very good case. That is exactly the point: our constituents expect us to be debating the issues, and they do not understand why we do not get around to doing so because of some incompetence on the Governments part, and some procedural motion that prohibits proper discussion.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is either incompetence on the Governments part, or a deliberate attempt to prevent a debate from taking place. The Government can choose which it is. I am quite relaxed about allowing them to choose whether it is incompetence or a deliberate attempt to stifle debate, but it is one of those two things.
What am I supposed to say to my constituents who contact me about these matters, ask that these matters be debated, and urge that their own views be heard? Am I supposed to say, Im sorry; this is the House of Commons, this is an important issue and the Bill was meant to deal with it, but the Government have ensured that there is not enough time for it to be debated, and so the view of the House has not been tested?
The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is perfectly entitled to a debate on the new clause that he supports. I might well take a different view from the hon. Gentleman, but the people in the countryour constituentsare entitled to know where we stand on these issues, and to know that they are being debated.
Sir Patrick Cormack:
Is not a bad situation made worse by the fact that debate on the timetable motion is taken out of the time for debate on the Bill? It would
have been a little better if the 45 minutes for this debate had been ring-fenced, so that after that we could get on with the Bill.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is entirely right, and he was entirely right when he said in an earlier intervention that this type of thing was bringing the House into disrepute. The standing of the House of Commons is falling as every day goes by. We should be trying to do something about that. We should be trying to arrest the slide in public support for what goes on in this place. We should not be helping it to fall into further disrepute by not debating matters that are of great importance to our constituents. We are already considered an irrelevance by many people; we are making ourselves irrelevant by not debating particular issues because it might be inconvenient for the Government to have them debated. As we have heard, the business has been fairly light in recent weeks, and it will be so next week in particular, when it seems that the Government are scrabbling around trying to find business to put on in order to allow the House to sit. That would have provided a perfect opportunity to have proper debate of these issues.
My constituents have raised these important issues and they expected them to be debated. I could not allow this debate to go by without making the point that the Government have prevented their being debated through their programme motion. We have two days set aside on the Order Paper. Given the way things have been arranged, it is entirely possible that we may reach almost none of the key amendments today and finish early tomorrow because the business ends particularly early, when we could have allowed time for some more of these issues to be debated. That would have been entirely possible.
This business has been organised in such a way as to prevent debate on matters that are important to Members and our constituents. The Government should be ashamed of themselves. I am delighted that my Front-Bench colleagues have said that they will oppose this programme motion, and I will support them enthusiastically.
Let me address a couple of points. First, we spent 43 hours and 32 minutes in Committee, so the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who is very concerned about process in this House, will know that proper scrutiny took place in Committee over several days, including an extra day. We have also allowed two days on Report. I will not take any lessons from the nationalists, who did not bother turning up to the Committee stage of the Bill. However, I will say to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who was concerned about the balance between amendments to the law of homicide and to incitement, that there were more names down in support of the amendment to the incitement provisions than in
support of any of the amendments to the homicide law, which might indicate that people do want to have a proper debate on the incitement provisions.
Finally, I say to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who rightly tabled new clauses to the Bill, that if a disciplined approach were taken by the Oppositionwhich I doubt, howeverwe might well get on to his proposals tonight, and he might hear some positive responses from the Government.
Bridget Prentice: I will not give way, as I want us to get on to the substance of the Bill. If the Opposition could exercise a little discipline, we might well reach all those clauses. It is entirely up to them.
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