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1.25 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Following on from what the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) just said, the treatment of the Digital Economy Bill is symptomatic of what has happened to this House. It is nothing short of outrageous that, the day after its Second Reading, we will have just two hours in which to attempt to debate the remaining stages of such an important and controversial Bill.

It is simply not good enough for the Government to say that the Bill has been scrutinised by a bunch of unelected people at the other end of this building. That was what we were told yesterday, when Ministers said that everything was okay because there had been hours of scrutiny in the House of Lords. The last time I looked, it was this House that was elected. We are the ones who are accountable to constituents-despite the vagaries of an electoral system that means that the general election is already over in about 400 seats-yet we will have just two hours for debate. Many amendments will not be reached and many points will not be made, but the Government have the cheek to say that we should tell constituents during the election that we are doing a good job of scrutiny. It is a complete farce, as there are significant concerns-which I share-about measures in the Digital Economy Bill.

There has clearly been a carve-up between the Conservative and Labour parties. They are entitled to come to an arrangement like that in the elected House, but they are surely not entitled to prevent those of us who disagree with them from reaching our amendments, making our points against the contents of the Bill, and dividing the House on our arguments. The Government are determined to ram through the Bill on the penultimate day of this Parliament, in the space of two hours. It is a process that should take several weeks in Committee and at least one whole day-it should be more-on Report, when people are able to lobby.

How can we look our constituents in the eye and say that this is an accountable House when they do not even have time to lobby in favour of amendments? They are not able to do that lobbying because the amendments cannot be tabled until the Bill has been given a Second Reading.

There is no doubt that this so-called Leader of the House will go down in history as the destroyer of scrutiny. Under her stewardship, far more Opposition and Back-Bench amendments and new clauses-and indeed Government amendments and new clauses-have not been reached than has been the case with any other Leader of the House in recent history. I suspect that the same would be true for the more distant past.

Hardly any major Bill has received adequate scrutiny. The knives have been put in place after the business that needs to be reached, rather than before. The nature of the carve-up by Labour and the Conservatives to undermine scrutiny of the Digital Economy Bill is just a typical example of that.

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That is why the House decided to do something about the Government's approach. On certain points in the Wright Committee report, and on behalf of the Committee itself, hon. Members disagreed with the both Government and Conservative Front Benches and instead voted for two critical measures to improve scrutiny.

The Government keep saying, "Oh, you've got your Select Committee changes." I welcome those changes, but they are not about scrutiny on the Floor of the House. The two measures that have been approved by hon. Members are, first, that a House business committee be set up in the next Parliament to enable us, as a House, to determine how much scrutiny legislation is given. That would take away from the Government the ability to ram through legislation in the way that is happening today and has happened for the past 10 years. The second measure was to set up a Back-Bench business committee. The vote in favour of the detail of that proposal went 2:1 against both of the major party Front Benches. As other Members have said, the Government are clearly defying the will of the House by not introducing those amendments. It is a tragedy that we do not have a chance to deal with them.

With the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and others, I was involved in tabling an amendment to give the House the opportunity to divide on whether time should be provided tomorrow, but the amendment was not selected. I am not able to question the selection, but I think I can say that if there had been any way for the voice of Back Benchers to be heard on these matters, the amendment tabled by the hon. Gentleman, who has just entered the Chamber and is not at all out of breath, would have been selected. I think that in his selection the Speaker has been bound, on a Government day, to let the Government have their business. This is toxic to democracy in the House.

Mr. Cash: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman uses the word toxic. I could not agree more-the words toxic and betrayal go together. When the hon. Gentleman says "bound" to make the decision, does he really mean "bound" or that there was some convention or Standing Order or some other thing that led to a decision that some people rather deplore?

Dr. Harris: I do not want to be led-

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I just say, before the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) develops his argument, I know that he will not want to be diverted from the path of virtue. The hon. Gentleman is aware that by convention the Speaker does not give reasons for the selection or non-selection of amendments. Of my commitment to this House, and the primacy of the role of Back Benchers, the hon. Gentleman need be-and I am sure is-in no doubt. We cannot get into consideration of why things were or were not selected. Those judgments have to be made, and a miscellany of factors is involved, of which the hon. Gentleman will be aware. I think we should leave it at that.

Dr. Harris: I agree, Mr. Speaker. I was not about to be led. I was not going to try to explore reasons; I just noted that the amendment was not, apparently, selected. I do not want to be drawn from the path of virtue-at least not on this matter.

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I want to clarify what the Leader of the House has said, because we should not be in the position of thinking that we would get the Standing Orders. Many people might have had more fun during the last few weeks of their time in the House, not having to worry about such things, if we had not been led astray by the Leader of the House. She said that

move forward in this House.

The Leader of the House is right about that.

I could have said that. I cannot understand how the Leader of the House inadvertently told the House something that turned out not to be true. She led us astray. I am told that by definition that is inadvertent, but I still cannot understand how she could have done it. She continued:

that is, the concern about whether the Standing Orders were in the right shape-

We are before the next election, but the record will show that the Leader of the House inadvertently said "before the next election", when now she says that, apparently, she meant to say, "after the next election". The House votes to do something before the next election. The Leader of the House tells us that there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse it before the next election, but then we are told that the House was not misled because it must have been inadvertent when she said that there was that opportunity.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House is the bad person in this, or whether she is just forced to do the grubby work of the Prime Minister and higher powers, but at some point she should turn round and say to the people who were pulling her strings in that case, "I am not going to do this any more. I am not going to spend my time inadvertently giving the House the impression that things are going to happen that then don't happen."

On the same day, the Leader of the House told me that she would send drafts of the Standing Order to everyone who had shown interest in the issue. No drafts were sent to anyone. She did not say, "I will table them. You can look at them, think about them and if you object, you can let me know." She said, "I will send drafts." I understood that "sending drafts" meant that we would be sent drafts, but perhaps I am being too literal and I was inadvertently misled in my understanding of the normal words that she used. She continued:

because she had not supported the detail-

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I agree. That led me and others to believe that we would have the Standing Orders in this Parliament. The Leader of the House said:

that was me-

Well, where are they? How can a parliamentarian of her experience, on three separate occasions within the space of a week, inadvertently lead us to believe that something would happen that did not happen? That is the height of inadvertence.

The Leader of the House said:

The business motion-

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. It may also be inadvertence on the hon. Gentleman's part that he is saying something that has already been said a number of times and in similar ways during the debate. He may possibly be going into rather more detail than is justified by the overall terms of the motion.

Dr. Harris: I did not think I would get through the debate without being warned and of course I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the arrogance shown by the Government in their failure to bring forward the Standing Orders justifies repetition-if there is any repetition. I accede to your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I always do. I will just say how regrettable it is that in their last week in this place, many Members who served on the Wright Committee not only see the inability to put before the House what they worked so hard for, but see it done in a way that is a betrayal of what we were told.

I see in his place the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, who has always encouraged me to be active on these issues. I am grateful to him. I am his willing tool in all this, and I take the opportunity once again to pay tribute to his work in steering the Committee. I think it is sad for him that we do not get these changes in this Parliament; and I am not convinced that we shall get them in the next Parliament. I think the Government know that.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the time that has been spent on debating the absence of the Standing Orders from the motion would have been better spent debating the Standing Orders themselves?

Dr. Harris: I absolutely agree.

I want to say a word about my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). The boat race notwithstanding-

David Howarth: And "University Challenge".

Dr. Harris: -And "University Challenge", and probably some second-rate league tables, all give my hon. Friend the whip hand at the moment, in his eyes, but I am prepared to overlook those things. My hon. Friend's contribution today, yesterday and over the past few
7 Apr 2010 : Column 992
weeks has been magisterial. He will be greatly missed, because it is the work of people like him that has brought to the attention of the House the Government's failure, as shown by the business motion, to deal with some of the things that we should really be dealing with.

Mr. Cash: I am sure the hon. Gentleman is right on that point-within the House. The problem is that this is a direct assault on the people of this country, and the voters, as we go into a general election. We are depriving them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is incumbent on the media-including television and the BBC-to get the matter out into the arena of public opinion so that people know just how they have been betrayed?

Dr. Harris: Yes, and that was going to be my final point. I do not think the media at large understand how critical the issue of parliamentary reform is. Yes, scrutiny by Select Committees is vital, but until Back Benchers can have access to the Order Paper, the Government will run this place for their own narrow benefit. Yes, they should have their time; yes, of course they should be able to get their business before the House in a timely way, but that does not mean that they should run the House. That is what the Wright Committee said. Our last report, which set out the Standing Orders that the Government should have brought forward in this business motion, was not opposed by any member of the Committee. There was consensus. The people outside that consensus now are the Ministers. Had I been able to catch the Speaker's eye in Prime Minister's questions, I would have asked why a Prime Minister, who in 2007 said that he wanted to see parliamentary reform, and who set up the Wright Committee-eventually-

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman, don't spoil it. We have had a good relationship over the years. I have had to rebuke him from time to time, but he should not push me too far. I think he is going way outside the motion.

Dr. Harris: I was making the point that the business motion does not cover the Standing Orders that would deliver the commitment to parliamentary reform made by the Prime Minister at the outset of his premiership, and I shall ensure that I am more in order than I was earlier. The business motion therefore not only blocks the parliamentary reform that we need, but defies the will of the House, which voted by a huge majority for the Standing Orders to be in place before the election-that is the nub of the issue. The Government should be ashamed of themselves, and Conservative Front Benchers need to look closely at whether they could have done more in the negotiations to insist that the Standing Orders would be considered. I pay tribute to the work that the shadow Leader of the House has done on the issue, however, so this is nothing personal.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): We made our position on the Standing Orders absolutely clear during our negotiations with the Government-[Hon. Members: "What was it?] We said that we wanted them to go through to reflect the will of the House, rather than in the amended form proposed by the Leader of the House. That was set out by the shadow Leader of the House today and in yesterday's business statement. I assure hon. Members that we want to go with the will of the House, rather than the new version put forward by the Leader of the House.

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Dr. Harris: Of course I accept what the hon. Gentleman says at face value, but I regret that his position in the negotiations was not strong enough-perhaps this was not a big enough priority. Of course, it might be that the Government's top priority was not delivering the Standing Orders under the business motion and that they were saying, "No matter what, we're not doing that." I fear that the business motion will mean that we do not get this reform, and that will be a tragedy for those who have worked hard for it and for the House. It will also be a tragedy for the Prime Minister, who will look foolish, given what he said. More than anything else, however, it is a tragedy for the scrutiny that the House should deliver for the people.

1.41 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Until a few minutes ago, I had not intended to say anything about the motion. I was certainly taking a more benign and generous view of the situation than the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). I accepted the statement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House that she wanted the Standing Order to be enacted but that, unfortunately, that would be difficult because a few Members had tabled amendments. However, we heard an undertaking that whoever was in government in the next Parliament, the provisions would be brought forward. Although I was unhappy, I was content to leave it there.

Yesterday, however, I wrote to the three Members who had tabled amendments to point out that I had been told that only their amendments were preventing the House from doing the thing that it had resolved to do. One of them told me that he would therefore withdraw his amendment. When I returned to my office a few minutes ago, however-I had not intended to return to the Chamber-I found a note that had been relayed to me by the office of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), who is one of the amenders and, of course, a former Chief Whip. The note says:

After I read that note, I ceased to be benign and generous.

This is outrageous on a number of grounds. It is outrageous that the express will of the House is being treated with contempt-I do not say by the Whips Office, but I do say by someone in the Whips Office. I had already been told that the amendments came from a single source, but we now know that to be the case. The situation not only treats the House with contempt, but treats my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House with contempt, because I know that she genuinely wants the provision to be enacted. However, by some device the House is being prevented from doing that, and if there is one thing at the heart of our proposals, it is a way of enabling the House to have more freedom of action on its own behalf, so on that fundamental ground, the position is outrageous.

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