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Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (Programme) (No. 6)

4.14 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move,


Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses and new Schedules relating to public records or freedom of information.

One and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration.

    New Clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 4.

Two and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration or 9.00 pm, whichever is the earlier

New Clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 7; remaining new Clauses, new Schedules and amendments; remaining proceedings on consideration.

9.00 pm.

This programme motion is intended to ensure that there is sufficient time to debate the Government amendments on Dacre and Kelly as well as part 7, which concerns protests in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster.

As colleagues will readily recall, the Bill has been before the House since July of last year, when it had its Second Reading. It was preceded by a draft Bill and 18 consultations and publications. The Bill and the draft Bill have been scrutinised by several Select Committees, including the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, the Public Administration Committee, the Select Committee on Justice and Committees in the other place. I anticipate that there might be some suggestion made that there has not been sufficient scrutiny of this measure, but I simply remind the House that on most of the provisions-although, it is fair to say, not on the two that are new before the House today-there has been huge prior consideration. When people seek to hark back to an earlier alleged golden age-as I think that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) was about to, judging by the eye that he was giving me-it is worth recalling that in that alleged golden age there was no pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills and few Bills were published in draft. This Bill, although it has been the subject of programme motions, has also been the subject of a huge amount of prior consideration and changes have been made to the Bill in the light of that consideration.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): It sounds to me that what the Secretary of State is really saying is that, in his judgment, the pre-legislative scrutiny process
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obviates the need for a significant Report stage. Will he acknowledge, at least, that many of us in this House feel that the strict programming that reduces this important Bill's Report stage to four and three quarter hours effectively emasculates the Report stage and prevents us from being given the time to analyse all the relevant parts?

Mr. Straw: There is a long-standing debate about how much time we provide for debate on Bills on the Floor of the House, which has been the subject of consideration in the Wright Committee and of its recommendations. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not go down that path in general. I accept that the time provided for the Dacre provisions-an hour and a half-is relatively short, as is the time for the Kelly provisions. However, the Dacre provisions have significant cross-party consensus-there is no question about that-and were subject to lengthy consultation by Paul Dacre and his colleagues on the review and, subsequently, by the Government. The provisions relating to Kelly, which are principally to do with pension provisions, follow on from earlier considerations about Kelly. Time is compressed, but it has been the decision of the whole of the House that we should legislate on Kelly before the general election and the general election will take place on or before 3 June. I am looking forward to that, but even for those who are not looking forward to it there is nothing we can do about that inevitability.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Since the situation has somewhat changed since yesterday, with the admission by Lord Ashcroft-at last telling the truth-that he is not domiciled in Britain for tax purposes, is there not a case for giving more time so that all these matters can be properly considered?

Mr. Straw: They are certainly being properly considered elsewhere in the House and outside. The questions keep on coming as the Opposition give insufficient answers to previous questions. Had we been able to anticipate the decisions of Lord Ashcroft and the Conservative party, after 10 years of silence and obfuscation, to own up to the fact that, notwithstanding an earlier, clear commitment, Lord Ashcroft is a non-dom, we might well have been able to provide additional time on the Floor of the House, but I regret that the motion that I am moving is the motion that I am moving.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): We have before us more than 50 pages to consider in the few hours that the Government wish to allot. Will the Lord Chancellor remind the House how many new clauses and amendments have come from the Government for our consideration today?

Mr. Straw: I shall count them in due course, although the right hon. Gentleman seems to have done the task for us. The reason for the amendments is to give effect to decisions that have already been taken by the House. A large chunk of the provisions relate to the Kelly proposals, and I thought that it was the wish of the Conservative party, as well as that of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, that the Kelly proposals should be the subject of legislation before the election. That seemed to be the purview of the Leader of the Opposition when he spoke on the Loyal Address.

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Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Lord Chancellor will know that I have tabled two very important new clauses on ending discrimination against Catholics and women in our constitution. He is on the record as supporting those provisions, but they seem unlikely to be reached. Does he recognise that to avoid the complaints that are made about the Report stage of every Government Bill, there is real merit in the proposals of the Wright Committee, which can be found in amendment (a) to motion 67, in the future business section of the Order Paper, which we will debate on Thursday? Will he indicate whether he can see real merit in supporting such proposals to stop the demonisation of the Government happening on Report?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman replies, may I say that although that point is a pertinent one, we are dealing with the programme motion? I do not think that we want to get too much ahead of ourselves in respect of matters to be debated on Thursday. However, I am sure that the Secretary of State will be sufficiently dextrous in his reply.

Mr. Straw: Thank you, Mr. Speaker for that guidance to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). However we allocate time-and we might be able to achieve a situation in which more time is made available for the consideration of Bills-there would not be sufficient time to consider every proposal for every Bill. There has never been sufficient time for that. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who has sat in the House for as long as I have, will recall the frustration that he, I and others felt when there was no programming. It is a fact of life and, I am afraid, of a ticking clock. With that in mind, I commend this excellent programme motion to the House and hope that we can get on to the business.

4.23 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): This is the sixth programme motion that we have had for this Bill, which is being taken on the Floor of the House because it is a constitutional Bill. When I was first elected to this place, I understood that the reason why such Bills were taken on the Floor of the House was to enable all MPs who wished to participate to do so and to enable the Bill to be exposed to the fullest possible scrutiny. That simply has not happened with this Bill. Anyone who looks at the record of the Committee proceedings will see that on each day of our considerations we were unable to consider some parts of the Bill at all because of the knives that were imposed. In many cases, important proposals that were tabled by hon. Members simply were not reached.

Now the Bill has reached Report, but that is in itself unusual with a Bill that has been taken on the Floor of the House. It is, of course, a reflection of the number of amendments that the Government have tabled. If they had not tabled those amendments, we would not be having a Report stage on the Floor of the House for a constitutional measure. One has only to look at the Order Paper to see that we have not the slightest prospect of getting through the different groupings. Indeed, some of the groupings, particularly those containing Government amendments relating to Ministers and the civil service, undoubtedly will not be considered at all. For those reasons, therefore, it is not surprising that there are hon.
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Members around the House who object to the programme motion. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) suggested to the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor that we should have two days on Report to reflect both the insufficiency of time that we had had to consider amendments properly in Committee on the Floor of the House, and the fact that we are also now exposing ourselves to a further raft of Government amendments- [ Interruption. ] I detect that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) wishes to intervene.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD) indicated dissent.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman is just preparing himself.

For the reasons that I have set out, this timetable is completely unsatisfactory. I think that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor knows that very well in his heart. It may be that there was never a magical moment in the past when matters could be fully considered, but I seem to recall-although it was before my time here-that my late father's experience in the House was that it was common for the Report stage of a Bill to go through the night if that was necessary to conclude the business and enable amendments to be considered.

We have abandoned that, yet we have also just come back from a 10-day period when the House was not sitting, for which we came in for rather a lot of public criticism. However, if this Bill were really important-and given the imminence of an election and the urgency of implementing Kelly-there is no reason why we could not have forgone some of that break to get an extra day or two for our consideration.

I am very mindful that, in every debate on programme motions, the Government say, "Well, if only you didn't debate the programme motion, you'd have a bit more time to debate the Bill." That illustrates the powerlessness of this House in the face of the Executive, which is something that urgently needs reform. I hope and believe that an incoming Conservative Government will make that reform their first priority.

In the meantime, this motion is entirely unsatisfactory. I strongly imagine that it will be objected to, and we will join in that objection.

4.27 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I do not believe that we need to wait for a mythical incoming Conservative Government to bring in the reform that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) mentioned. We can do the job by approving the motions before us on Thursday, and I hope that we will.

In one of his masterful interventions, the Lord Chancellor said that the purpose of the programme motion was to ensure that there was sufficient time to debate important matters-in the same way that it was King Herod's purpose to ensure and promote the welfare of children. The purpose of this programme motion, as with all such motions tabled by this Government, is to prevent discussion and debate in this House. These motions do not arise out of discussions between the various parties in the House, let alone those Back-Bench Members
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with a real interest in debate on Report: they are imposed by the Executive to prevent debate, and that is exactly what we have today.

The Lord Chancellor has talked about all the scrutiny and discussion that the Bill has received, but which Bill does he mean? Surely not the one before us today, which has been massively amended by the Government since its inception. It is a different Bill-in fact, it becomes a different Bill every time we arrive to debate it further, because the Government put in whole new sections and groups of amendments.

The point is not about whether there is an urgency to bringing in the Kelly reforms. Of course there is, but we know that. We have time to bring those reforms in, but they are not what we will be prevented from debating today. What we will be prevented from debating are the later amendments and new clauses, many of which have been tabled properly by hon. Members who, although they may not be on their respective Front Benches, think that they have important matters for the House to debate.

Those are the amendments that, yet again, will not be reached. They were not reached in Committee either, and I believe that this is a scandalous way to bring a constitutional Bill before the House. That is why I shall certainly oppose this programme motion today, and why I shall invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to do the same.

4.29 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I wanted to agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice that there was no golden age, but in the age in which we live, this measure has become a Christmas tree Bill of large proportions. We are used to such Bills, but this is a Christmas tree Bill for which there is no Christmas, which makes it even more unusual. My right hon. Friend prayed in aid the Public Administration Committee as a progenitor of the Bill, and in a sense, that is right. However, our Committee introduced a raft of amendments, virtually none of which have been accepted. Some of those amendments reflected years of work by the Committee on these issues, particularly aspects of the civil service. It was not possible to accept them in Committee, and now it is not possible to accept them on Report. What does that say about the relationship of the House to its Committees, if that is what happens when a Bill is introduced? Although I agree that there was certainly no golden age, I think that there could be a better age in which some of these deficiencies could be remedied, and I hope that that age will come quite soon.

4.31 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I would like to be a little more charitable to the Justice Secretary than the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), as I am prepared to accept that he would like to ensure sufficient time for the Bill. I therefore have a modest proposal: drop the programme motion, and let us make progress on the matters before us. If, by any chance, we have not quite finished at 10 pm, why can we not table an extraordinary resolution of the House to carry on for another two or three hours until the business is completed? That is a very modest proposal,
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and I think that it will probably enjoy the consent of all free-thinking individuals and Opposition parties in the House. It would create a better debate, and it would show that the Justice Secretary accepts that in constitutional matters in particular, Parliament has a special role to play. If Parliament wishes to discuss, while remaining in order, serious proposals tabled by the Government, time should be made available to do so.

I take that more charitable view, because the Justice Secretary, by the standards of Labour Ministers, shows more courtesy to the House and brings more to it than many of his colleagues, which is to be welcomed and encouraged. If he wishes to show that there is any semblance of understanding in the Government of the need for proper parliamentary scrutiny and debate, and for Ministers to show full courtesy to the House, this is a marvellous opportunity to do so. This is an important constitutional measure, and we have been asked to consider more than 50 pages of detailed amendments, many of them introduced by the Government themselves. In many cases, this is the first opportunity that we have had to discuss the detail and, in some instances, it is the first chance we have had to discuss the principles involved. It is a long-standing tradition, that predates this Government, that constitutional matters are debated on the Floor of the House, and reasonable time is made available so that Members can feel that justice has been done.

Quite a few Members are interested in the Bill in its entirety, but there are not a huge number of them in the House today who are interested in these particular proposals, so I urge the Justice Secretary to do the decent thing, remove the guillotine motion, and allow those who are in the Chamber to have their say. We might finish by 10 pm, if he is right in thinking that he has chosen sufficient time. If, by any chance, he is slightly in error, let us run on and do the job properly.

4.33 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): It is not right to be in this position for three reasons. First, in a parliamentary democracy with one elected House, is it right that Government legislative proposals on any Bill, let alone a constitutional Bill, should proceed all the way through Parliament without being scrutinised and debated by Parliament, or that they should be put to the vote en bloc as Government amendments? That is not appropriate in the single elected House or in a parliamentary democracy. That is not something of which anyone in the House should be proud-it is a complete failure by the House and Members regarding their ability to do their fundamental job, which is to hold the Executive to account and scrutinise legislation.

Secondly, we always have arguments about the time for debate proposed in programme motions, and we wonder why we are in this position. We are in this position for several reasons, but the main one is that the Government decide what we debate. We are therefore in a bizarre position whereby the Government decide, as they have with this Bill, which bits of their programme the elected House gets to debate and vote on. That is not a parliamentary democracy; that is the Executive pushing legislation through the only elected House. It is not a surprise therefore that the unelected House feels that it has to do considerable work. That is not satisfactory, either, but despite all its flaws it is better than nothing.

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