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Surely a better way forward, especially on such Bills as the one before us, would be much more consultation on the time that is needed and the use of time elsewhere in the week, when business collapses early. The Library and the Clerks have identified huge chunks of days on which business collapses early, and that time would be available to extend our debates on Report.
In addition, the Lord Chancellor should understand, in respect of his answer to me, that there is a proposal from the Wright Committee for speech-length restrictions on Report. We could get through the business that is before us much more quickly without the need for knives, or at least by having knives for any proposal that was multi-consenting, as it were, without the need for them late in proceedings in order to get through the Bill.
There is a holistic solution, and it could be made available if we reform, but even if we do not reform there are ways in which we can improve such matters. It is extremely sad that critical matters of parliamentary reform and matters relating to referendums and to discrimination against Catholics and women in our constitution, to which I referred earlier, will not even be debated-especially when they are the subject of Government amendments, which will be voted through.
This is probably the 12th time that I have made such points on Report, and the House should not have to suffer that. The solution is in our hands not just today, but on Thursday, and I hope that we take it. I hope also that on Thursday, as a consequence of hearing such complaints so often, the Lord Chancellor will find himself in the right Lobby when it comes to a full-time permanent cure that involves not a complete shortage of time but more consensual undertakings and the reform of our procedures to ensure that we do our key job properly.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I noticed that the Secretary of State seemed to be having consultations during the speech by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), so I hope that my right hon. Friend will respond positively to the suggestions that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) made. I share colleagues' concerns about the inadequacies of this Report stage and many others in which I have felt forced to vote against the Government on programme motions.
The Government set up the Wright Committee, and I very much hope that on Thursday all parts of the House will agree to the Committee's significant proposals. I hope also that, having set up that Committee, the Government will accept the spirit of its recommendations and act accordingly this afternoon.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind):
I, like all other contributors to the debate so far, rise to speak against the programme motion. We have before us a constitutional Bill that is far-reaching and of great importance to the House and to our constituents. It is of fundamental importance, and we need to debate it thoroughly and properly, so I am exasperated by this programme motion, which is far too tight. I support the suggestion of an extraordinary resolution of the House to continue beyond 10 pm, if we need to, in order to debate all the clauses
that need to be debated. I have two petitions at 10 o'clock tonight, but I would be very happy to present them at 4 o'clock tomorrow morning, if necessary.
In earlier Parliaments, such as the 1992 to 1997 Parliament, we used to stay up all night, if necessary, in order to get better legislation and properly debate the motions before us. Today's final group of amendments contains about 70 new clauses and amendments to be debated in what will end up being only a few minutes. They are on matters such as the conduct of referendums and elections and public order. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) mentioned new clauses 2 and 3, which he has tabled, regarding royal marriages and succession to the Crown. Those are most important matters, but they will not be debated at all.
The Bill has grown like Topsy since it first came before the House, and it is nothing like the Bill that we first debated. For that reason, too, we need to spend sufficient time examining the new clauses. That is why I oppose the programme motion and hope that we will be able to extend our debate so that we can properly consider the important matters before us.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I have noticed with a sinking heart that everyone has referred to this as a programme motion. That tells us how, by usage and custom, we have come to accept something that is wholly unacceptable. In a more robust age, which the Secretary of State will remember, as we came to the House on the same day, it was cried out that such motions were guillotine motions, and they were shouted against.
The public at large understand the purpose of a guillotine-to cut off debate at a certain point. It is as simple as that. The word "programme", and the language that surrounds it, suggests that this is a careful form of art, in which all the considerations are weighed up, and that the important issues are discussed for individual Members to balance. But who determines what will be discussed? It is, of course, the Executive-the Crown-who control the business that comes before the House and set down these guillotine motions. There is no serious intent whatever to enable us to debate all the amendments on the paper, should that be our wish.
The concept that everyone in the House could participate in debates on a constitutional Bill was inviolate until, I believe, the Single European Act. There were no guillotine motions. Now we accept a new guillotine motion each day to ensure that the Government control everything and that proceedings will happen to a timetable. For many reasons, which the Secretary of State was quite right to point out, none of us wants to sit here and toil through the night as repetitive speeches are made, but that was not the point in question. He said that this motion will assist us in debating the business of the House, no less. That is like the prosecution in a court saying, "In order to assist the defence, we will deny them anything other than 10 minutes to present their case."
If we think about the balance of the argument, what is the purpose of the House? It is to test the propositions that the Executive put in front of us, but there are now knives, as well, a new construction that does not even
allow the role of a debate to determine itself naturally. As a new departure or refinement, they have been imposed alongside the concept of guillotining. It is a most unsatisfactory process, but we wish it upon ourselves every time a huge Government majority marches through the Lobby to impose the will of the Executive. Yet the division between Back-Bench Members in all parts of the House and the Executive grows.
When do we have the opportunity to tease out the Government's argument, and see them win an argument through debate? That is the other consequence-the Government themselves are often cut out. That is a matter of no consequence to them, because their objective is merely to have the vote. That is why the House is now scorned.
The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) talked about his amendments, and many Members have been frustrated in the same way. In saying that, I notice too that people look forward to Thursday, as if it will change that situation, but none of it will change, and we need not think that a new Government will necessarily change things either. The convenience to the Executive is so great and the damage to the House of Commons is even greater, yet this is the only democratic institution in this country that determines what the law should be.
I shall therefore gladly vote against this guillotine motion, and I hope we all remember that our subservience-on both sides of the House-has brought this Parliament low to the ethos of executive government.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I, too, shall vote against the programme motion. There is simply not enough time for us properly to consider all the proposed new clauses and amendments, including the proposals from the Select Committee on Public Administration, which is chaired so ably by my friend from Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). Those proposals are in the fifth group, which includes my proposal-new clause 7-on the Ashcroft scandal, which is supported by 84 Members of Parliament. I have made it clear that there are Members of Parliament down the other place who are here under false pretences, and it is not acceptable for me to vote for a programme motion that extinguishes any possibility of considering new clause 7, so I shall be voting against it.
I look forward to the votes on Thursday, but if we are to move to more open-ended debates on Report, in Committee and on the Floor of the House, we will have to have restrictions on the time that individual Members speak. Otherwise, we will have the kind of filibustering in which I participated very happily-but not to any great effect-in opposition. That was not particularly productive, and it led to more severe guillotines than anything we have faced under programming.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) is back. I am perfectly happy, as a loyal member of the Government, to be here till 11 o'clock, midnight or 1 o'clock in the morning to vote for the Government. I look forward to her-in a new incarnation-voting for the Government in the small hours with the same enthusiasm that I have showed and continue to show.
Lastly, reference was made to the number of pages of amendments. The Government's proposals on a wholly new subject-the Dacre review-run to three pages. The other Government proposals have been tabled in response to the concern expressed in earlier debates in the House, for example on Kelly and protests around Parliament, which has certainly been the subject of huge and extensive debate. I commend the motion to the House.
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