Unborn Children (Protection) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:21 pm on 7th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Blaenau Gwent 2:21 pm, 7th June 1985

I beg to move, to leave out from 'That' to the end of the Question and to insert instead thereof: this House is of opinion that to exempt the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill for an unlimited period from the provisions of Standing Order No. 1 (Sittings of the House) would breach the longstanding practice of the House to sit on Saturdays or Sundays only in circumstances of national crisis, and the unanimous decision of the House in 1979 (following a report by a Select Committee on Procedure) to bring forward its hours of sitting on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. to 9.30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in recognition of the fact that many Members have to travel long distances to their constituencies.' The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) said that the Bill had all-party support. He will notice that my amendment also has all-party support, and for two reasons. Today has been a good day for the House. Everyone knows that there are extremely strong passions about this issue, the Bill itself and its passage through the House. Despite that, the House has discussed the matter sensibly in the circumstances of the day.

It would be extremely churlish not to acknowledge that a reason why the House has kept its temper sensibly today under your guidance, Mr. Speaker, was the remarkable speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who opened today's proceedings. As everyone who heard it will agree, it was a credit to the House. I am not suggesting tht he will be seduced by the Establishment — nothing of the sort will ever happen to him. The House should congratulate him on the way in which he opened our proceedings earlier today.

The hon. Member for Kemptown put his case in moderate terms, but he is greatly mistaken. I do not blame him for introducing his motion. Every hon. Member has the right to use our procedures to his own ends and purposes. I used to take the view that everything in love, war and parliamentary procedure was in order. That applies to hon. Members on both sides of the House. The hon. Gentleman was right to put down the motion, as were all the hon. Members who tabled amendments to it.

A reason why the amendments were tabled was that if the hon. Gentleman's motion were carried the consequences would be entirely different from those which he forecast. Far from being beneficial to Back-Bench Members, it would be utterly ruinous to private Members' time in the months and years to come. It would mean that every Bill would be open to similar attempts to impose a timetable, that the balance between public business and private business would be altered, that almost every week we would be open to having the same sort of discussions as we are having now, and that soon the Government would have to table a motion of the character of my amendment. Indeed, I am surprised that they did not table such a motion on these proceedings. If they had, they would soon have found that control over parliamentary time would have been destroyed. That would not have been beneficial to private Members' time any more than it would have been to public business.

I strongly agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) when he said that Members of Parliament must be prepared to withstand pressures. None of us should complain about pressures from outside the House. Indeed, part of our purpose is to be subjected to pressures. However, there are some distinctions about the pressures that are brought to bear, and I should like to give the example of one which is strictly apposite to the Bill.

Many hon. Members will have read the remarkable article written by Cardinal Basil Hume in The Times yesterday. He wrote: The Unborn Children (Protection) Bill is central to i. debate about present-day society: how it shall take control of its own future". He concluded with large claims which elevated the discussion to high altitudes, writing: The abandonment of objective moral principles and the dogmatism of permissiveness have combined in our day to undermine society. This is our crisis. That is what he says the Bill is about. If that is what the Bill is about, this was not the proper way in which to get it through the House of Commons.

There is a good case for arguing that private Members' Bills open up subjects which should be dealt with by Government legislation. That is a perfectly proper procedure and helps guard against some dangers. If more private Members' Bills were put through the House by means such as these, that would not do much for the reputation of legislation.

I should like to quote the other type of representation that has been made and to contrast it with what Cardinal Hume said. One of my hon. Friends received a letter which ran: I have thought about your letter to me of 26th April regarding your absention at the second reading of Mr. Powell's Bill, and it has given me great cause for concern. I had previously sent you the guidelines issued by the Bishops on the matter, and these are quite clear, so that I have been troubled by your indecision, and have wondered whether or not I owe it to my people to put them in the picture on your position.

It is my hope that you will by now see clearly the vital point of principle which is raised, and. that you will make yourself available in the House next Friday and Friday night and if need be on Saturday to support the Bill. That is not the best kind of pressure. There will be discussions. Much the best course is for the Department of Health and Social Security to introduce a Bill after full discussions with the medical authorities. The matter, having been opened up, is bound to be proceeded with in that way.

I hope that, when we return to discussion of these matters in different circumstances, the pressures on hon. Members will be more in the terms of Cardinal Hume's article than in those in letters sent to some of my hon. Friends. Cardinal Hume would do the public discussion of the issue a great service if he repudiated representations made in the other terms that I have described, especially when they are directed not solely at the Bill but at changes in procedure such as the hon. Member for Kemptown is perfectly entitled to seek.

The suggested changes in procedure would do great injury to how we conduct private Members' business and to the general discussion of legislation. It would alter the balance and, Friday after Friday, whenever such motions were put down—