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3.50 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): The programming of the entire Bill has been quite extraordinary. The worst aspect is the allocation of just one day on Report to debate an extremely far-reaching Bill, which includes clauses that cover police reform, prostitution, lap dancing, gang injunctions, alcohol-related disorder, extradition, proceeds of crime, aviation security and the DNA database. I could add more.

One day is simply not adequate to apply the proper legislative scrutiny that the Bill requires. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and others from all parts of the House have consistently made clear at the last two business questions their dissatisfaction with the decision. Noting those concerns, the Leader of the House made assurances that all concerned parties would be consulted on the programme motion for Report. However, no such consultation took place with us, despite the activity that we exhibited in Committee.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): We seem to be in a strange situation whereby the Leader of the House, none other, makes an assertion—a pledge—from the Dispatch Box at business questions but does not deliver on it. What explanation—perhaps there is one—can possibly be consistent with that assertion and pledge having been given in good faith?

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Chris Huhne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am certainly unable to speculate on what has happened, but it is absolutely clear that we may now have as little as 30 minutes to debate the hugely important issue of the future of the DNA database. That is simply unacceptable, and it comes after the extremely late tabling in Committee of new clauses on DNA and gangs, which effectively precluded much debate and, indeed, the tabling of any Opposition amendments. The DNA amendments were tabled on the Friday of the February recess, allowing very little time to draft amendments before the deadline of Tuesday midday for the final Committee sitting.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) pointed out in Committee, the purposes of such Committees are to scrutinise the Bill, to table probing amendments, to ask questions and to allow the Government time to clarify their positions and aims. Little or no opportunity for any such scrutiny was provided on the DNA and gang amendments. With only one day on Report and wholly inadequate programming, there will again be little or no time for the House, as the elected representatives of the people, properly to debate these crucial issues. It is, frankly, shameful.

That raises the wider issue, so pertinent in the current climate, of whether the Government should bear sole responsibility for setting the business of the House through such programme motions. The measure was introduced during the first world war—at a time of national emergency—and has long outlived its usefulness. Few other legislatures allow the Executive to decide business in that way. No other western democracy forbids private Members’ motions, and when it comes to legislative scrutiny the House’s procedures are seriously lacking, as we have seen with the Bill. Scrutiny is easily fashioned to suit the Government’s political objectives, and inbuilt majorities for the Executive ensure support for even the most peremptory truncation of debate.

Public Bill Committees, such as that which considered this Bill, take up an enormous amount of MPs’ time yet, without Government support, seldom make any substantial difference to legislation—even when they have heard expert evidence. This Bill is an excellent example of that, as not a single Opposition amendment was agreed in Committee. Over the past 10 years, legislation has increasingly been fast-tracked through the Commons, with timetable motions ensuring that large sections of important Bills are never scrutinised by MPs. This is just another outrageous example. There have been similar problems with the Coroners and Justice Bill; my noble Friend Lord Thomas of Gresford made just that point on Second Reading in another place yesterday.

The volume of legislation shovelled through in that way has been absolutely immense; we are now looking at 3,600 new criminal offences—and this Bill is the 66th criminal justice Bill since 1997. It is becoming abundantly clear that quantity does not make up for a lack of quality, yet instead of programming adequate time to debate such Bills on Report or allowing enough time for debate of new amendments in Committee, the Government are set on pushing quantity through with no regard whatever for quality. We therefore rely on the unelected House of Lords to do our job for us—for which, frankly, we should be embarrassed and ashamed.

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The Bill that we are so cursorily considering today is one of the worst examples of the bad practices that have grown up in the Chamber. As I said, we may have just 30 minutes to debate the DNA provisions and perhaps less time to debate the gang provisions once votes are taken into account. We will then be left with approximately two hours for the prostitution and lap-dancing provisions, with little, if any, hope of reaching the several other substantive parts of the Bill, such as those on police reform, alcohol, extradition and proceeds of crime—let alone the many excellent and interesting new clauses that have been tabled on issues such as demonstrations around Parliament, anti-terrorism laws and drug paraphernalia.

For that reason, we will vote against the programme motion, having tabled amendments to it. The amendments would allow for an hour and 30 minutes on DNA, the absolute minimum required; an hour and half on gangs; and an additional hour at the end of the debate to fit in as much of the remainder of the Bill as possible. We would scrap the hour set aside for Third Reading, as such a debate is not of any practical use for a Bill that has received such shockingly inadequate scrutiny and debate. We will vote against the motion, and strongly urge the Government to think more carefully about the purpose of the House when programming in future.

3.56 pm

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): This is an important Bill, and it is worth putting on the record the fact that in Committee my hon. Friends and I had a fruitful set of debates with Ministers. There was important agreement on the means of increasing and improving police efficiency through, among other things, collaboration, and important agreement on significant reforms to the law relating to sexual offences, alcohol abuse, extradition and so on. However, since Second Reading a large number of Government amendments have been tabled relatively late, so in Committee there was not sufficient time to get into the meat of some of them. We Conservatives have also tabled amendments for debate on Report. As I look at the number of amendments in front of us, I wonder whether one day will necessarily be enough.

3.58 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Bearing in mind that this debate is about the programme motion, we would all like to be as brief as possible, while not prejudging the outcome of the vote, so that we do not have even less time to discuss these important issues.

I share the concerns of the hon. Members for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) and for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) about the programme motion. There should be no party issue about a debate such as this on a Bill of this kind; it should be about making sure that the legislation works and that there is proper scrutiny. We are dealing with very important issues as far as policing and crime are concerned.

I was not surprised when the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds said that the Committee stage had been fruitful, because whenever I have had discussions with the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing on Home Office issues, I have always been pleased with how he has taken on board the concerns of parliamentarians and the wish to reach a consensus.
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However, my concern is that we are dealing with more than 100 new clauses and amendments on some very important issues.

If the Home Secretary had come to the House and made a statement about her policy on databases— [ Interruption. ] I am happy to be corrected by the Minister, but I do not think that she did; she went on Radio 4, on the “Today” programme, to do it. [ Interruption. ] The Minister says that it was him; perhaps it just sounded like the Home Secretary. I think that she did the same in dealing with gang-related violence—the media came first and Parliament second. We have had no notice of the changes that have been proposed on sex-related offences and establishments, or on police reform and accountability, which are all crucial areas.

I would have thought that the Government would want Parliament to help them to secure a robust piece of legislation that will last in time and make an important impression on the level of crime in this country. Even at this late stage—I know that the Minister will respond in the consensual way in which he always deals with these issues—I urge the Government to provide more time. If we do not finish the business today, I am sure that it will be possible to find additional time. The views expressed by the hon. Members for Eastleigh and for Bury St. Edmunds are shared by Members in all parts of the House. Let us make sure that we have a Bill that will last; let us scrutinise it properly.

4.1 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The programme motion that we are faced with is outrageous—there is no other word to describe it. It is not as though it is the first time that such a motion has been tabled and it is a one-off—it happens time and again. I put it to the Government that they do not understand how important Report stage is for the scrutiny of legislation. It is the only opportunity for Back Benchers who did not serve on the Public Bill Committee to debate with Ministers about the provisions in the Bill. What is the point of their speaking on Second Reading—particularly Government Members who do not agree with the Government and therefore talk themselves off the Committee—if they do not then have the chance to express their concerns on Report? It is the only real chance for Back Benchers’ amendments to be promoted, but the opportunity to debate several cross-party Back-Bench new clauses and amendments will be stifled by today’s motion. It is the only opportunity for Select Committee members—particularly their Chairmen, who are generally not on Public Bill Committees—to participate in detailed debate. We want to hear the views of the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who has so much experience to offer this debate, and those of the Home Affairs Committee, which he chairs.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights looks at every Bill with human rights implications and issues a report, and it is its job to ensure that that report is made available on Report in the first House. What is the point of its doing that when huge numbers of its recommendations—this is a cross-party, cross-House Bill—can never be debated on the Floor of this House because the Government’s programme motion precludes the opportunity for even those groups of amendments to be reached?

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Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): My hon. Friend makes a powerful case about the lost opportunity for Back Benchers, members of Select Committees and so forth to contribute. However, that even applies to those of us who served on the Public Bill Committee and had fruitful discussions with the Minister. During the last week of Committee, two major amendments were tabled on gangs and on DNA, but we had totally inadequate time to discuss them. We will have a similarly ludicrous amount of time for discussion in the next hour or two. That represents a failure for everybody—those who were on the Committee and the vast majority who did not have the chance to take part in its deliberations.

Dr. Harris: I entirely agree.

It is not in the Government’s interests to present a Bill to the House of Lords—where, thank goodness, they do not have a majority—that has had inadequate scrutiny here because their lordships then recognise that we have failed and give the Government a harder time. We then end up with delayed legislation, whereas if we had done the job properly here, the Government could rightly say, “This is the will of the elected House”, and urge their lordships to consider that opinion more appropriately.

I agree with the view expressed by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East about the Minister; we had very productive debates in Committee. However, part of the nature of Committee is that one wants to save the key Divisions for Report so that one is not unnecessarily divisive in Committee. That approach allows all Members, perhaps including Government Members with sincere objections who wish to raise them, and even vote on them, to have their say on Report. The Government’s curtailing of debate, as in this programme motion, denies the House the chance to debate such important issues and encourages more Divisions in Public Bill Committees, which is not in the interests of democracy or scrutiny.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the provision of more time for consideration would also be better for the Government? Why do they not understand that it would produce a better Bill, and they would have less egg on their face much less often, if we were able to debate these matters? They would not subsequently find out about problems out in the world, where they look very bad indeed.

Dr. Harris: Absolutely, and the corollary to that is that if legislation were passed that turned out not to be great, the Government could share the blame with the House as a whole. I would certainly be willing to take my share of the blame if we had debated a matter and failed to convince the House that the legislation was bad.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) recognised, the timetable in Committee sometimes means that even when Government new clauses are tabled at that stage, there is simply not enough to time to debate them because of the end point in the programme motion. The Committee on this Bill was productive and did not drag on, and there was little excess verbiage on all sides, yet, as my hon. Friend said, still the Government brought in at the last minute two chunks of legislation in new clauses, too late for amendments to them to be tabled. This is the only chance that we have to debate those clauses, and it will be curtailed.

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It is treating the House with contempt—there is no other word for it—for us not to have the opportunity to debate huge chunks of the Bill. That is a particular problem with regard to the DNA proposals, which state that the House will not have the chance to debate primary legislation when the Government sort out what they want to do. We have a Government proposal that would curtail Parliament’s ability to amend legislation, and it is going to be rushed through in whatever time we have at the end of this programme motion debate.

The points that I have made are not just my opinion. They have been debated among a group of MPs, of which I am one of the more junior members, called Parliament First. That is an organisation that comes together to ask, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) did, “Is it not time for Parliament to reassert itself and have control of the timetable?”

What else are we to debate in this Session? Is it crammed full of Bills that we need to scrutinise and have Second Reading debates on? The record will show that there are fewer Bills this Session than in practically any other. There are vanishingly few Second Readings still required, and we have had more days of general debates and Adjournment debates than ever before. I am not against those, but they do not trump scrutiny of legislation, which is our primary duty. More of those days have fizzled out, with unused time, than in any other Session that I can remember.

This is not the first time that such timetabling has happened in this Session. The Coroners and Justice Bill was given two days, but the first day had so much crammed into it that the House did not get the chance to debate murder. I understand that we are debating the present programme motion, but this is not the first time that we have been presented with a programme motion that packs so much into one day that we cannot reach important debates. There have been other examples of that, which I shall not go into now.

It cannot be said that the House did not urge the Government to reconsider a programme motion such as this. Going backwards in time, I raised the general problem at business questions on 26 March, in another Bill debate on 23 March, in business questions on 19 March and 5 March, in a written question to the Leader of the House on 5 March, in questions to the Leader of the House on 22 January, in business questions on 30 October, on 22 October and in business questions on 16 October. I am getting sick of me, so I am sure the Leader of the House is getting sick of me. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I asked for that. But it is an important point—what more can we do than raise the matter at business questions and in points of order time and time again?

In business questions two weeks ago, at least six Members mentioned the programming of this Bill. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), the Leader of the House said that she would undertake to

In response to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), she said, “Don’t worry, there is plenty of scrutiny of these Bills.” I am paraphrasing there, but that response is obviously not going to apply to this Report stage.

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The right hon. Member for Leicester, East made the powerful point that an extra day was needed. It would not add greatly to the Government’s burden, but it would provide the House with an opportunity to explain why the Government’s position on DNA, to which he referred, is wrong. I raised the same point again, asking how the Government intended to deliver the pledge that the Prime Minister gave when he was selected as Prime Minister: that Parliament would have greater scrutiny of the Executive. That pledge has not been delivered, and we are considering another example of that failure.

In response to me and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the Leader of the House said that

Last week, she said:

That was after we had to accept that we would be given only one day. Again, in response to the hon. Member for Macclesfield, the Leader of the House said:

What discussions and negotiations took place? I have investigated and, despite the Leader of the House’s undertaking, to which the Speaker referred when I made a point of order last week, Government Whips held no discussions with Liberal Democrat Members. Usual channels are usual channels only if they exist. As I understand it, no discussions took place with any Back Benchers who have tabled new clauses. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has tabled several new clauses, yet there were no discussions.

I ask the Government, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what is to stop the Government Whip on the Bill asking Liberal Democrat Members and Back Benchers generally through the usual channels where the knives should go in such a motion, thereby delivering the Leader of the House’s commitment? Has the Government Whip been struck mute or is there another reason for his or the Government’s decision not to implement the Leader of House’s words, thus rendering them meaningless?

Keith Vaz: I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest. Is he telling the House that no discussions whatsoever have taken place about the matter, despite the fact that he and I and other hon. Members have raised it continually at business questions? Has not a single discussion about the time available for this important Bill taken place?

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