Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 2:31 pm on 27th June 1986.

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Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire 2:31 pm, 27th June 1986

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement.

In view of the lack of progress made on the proceedings of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, and following discussion through the usual channels, it is the Government's intention to table a timetable motion on the Bill this afternoon. The business already announced for next week will be amended as follows: Tuesday 1 July—At the end on Tuesday, timetable motion on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

I shall announce the timing of the remaining stages of the Bill in my next business statement.

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Bethnal Green and Stepney

The business statement may have been short, but it was disgraceful. It is completely unacceptable for all hon. Members.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are dealing with a constitutional measure— a measure which, at the very heart of it, to a greater or lesser extent, according to Members' judgment, transfers power from this sovereign Parliament to alien institutions in Europe, and which diminishes the sovereignty and the rights of the British people? Is it not extraordinary that we should be subjected, after such short and cursory debates — [Interruption.] Yes, indeed. We have had two days of debate in which hon. and right hon. Members have had little opportunity to express their deep feelings and anxieties. Is it not outrageous that we should be faced with a guillotine motion because the Government have not been able to control their own Back Benchers and to move progress, which they should have done last night but failed to do? Is it not a double outrage in that the guillotine motion has been tabled for debate on 'Tuesday at 10 pm? I do not believe that there is any example—I challenge the Lord Privy Seal to give one — of a Bill which has been subjected to a guillotine motion but not in prime time. It is a disgrace. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to think again.

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

I quite understand the deep ambivalence that the right hon. Gentleman has towards what he calls alien institutions. Doubtless, it is shared by many of his colleagues. The real points of principle that he raised are appropriate for the debate we shall have on Tuesday.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

When the European Communities Bill 1972 was debated in the House, was there a guillotine? As this Bill does precisely the same thing as the European Communities Bill, only to a much greater extent, would it not be constitutionally inappropriate to have a guillotine on this Bill?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

The history of the House of Commons is littered with guillotines on constitutional matters.

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that when the right hon. Member for Old Bexley, Old Sidcup and old everything else introduced a Bill to take this country into the European Economic Community he announced that it could not be done without the full-hearted consent of Parliament and people, and that the attempt to do so without the full-hearted consent of Parliament resulted in that Bill being forced through this House of Commons by a guillotine? Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware — I am sure that he is, because we share the same memories—that history is repeating itself?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

Indeed, I share the same memories. I shall for ever share the affection, respect and knowledge of what I learnt from my association with the right hon. Gentleman on that occasion. However, perhaps I have a different recollection of the arithmetic. The size of the majority on the Second Reading of this Bill is in no way related to that on the Second Reading of the European Communities Bill.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate

I am sure that most people in the country will be glad that the Leader of the House has taken this decision, but does he accept that, whatever full-hearted consent may or may not have been given, it was overwhelmingly confirmed in a referendum, and those who attack it now should not admit that thought?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

I realise that my hon. Friend's intervention was well-intentioned. No one ever lightly or cheerfully undertakes a timetable motion in respect of a constitutional measure. But the very fact that constitutional measures are normally proceeded with on the Floor of the House of Commons makes them particularly susceptible to the Committee form of debate. So I happen to believe that the best protection of the interests of the House and thereby the interests of the British people does not lie with referendums or anything else; it lies in a perceived judgment as to how best we can co-operate with our fellow nation states and whatever alliances we choose to undertake.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his remarks about the pace of progress in view of the facts? Will he confirm the following: that in the past 24 hours there have been three groups of debates, the first relating to the transfer by statute of powers from this House to the European Parliament, the second relating to the imposition of harmonised legislation on the United Kingdom without Royal Assent, by majority voting of the Council of Ministers, and the third relating to the prospect of value added tax on gas and food, which has just been raised by the right hon. Member for Taunton (Sir E. du Cann)? In view of the important nature of each of the three matters that have been discussed so far, how far did the right hon. Gentleman take that into account when he decided to make the announcement concerning a guillotine before the Committee's next sitting?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

The hon. Gentleman fairly raises some points that must be central to the debate that we have on Tuesday. I hope that he will not regard it as a discourtesy to him or to the House if I say that those arguments belong more properly to Tuesday.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Southend East

As the Leader of the House will accept, there are seven groups of amendments to come, all covering important issues, of which the harmonisation of VAT is only one. Between now and tabling the motion, will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of dividing whatever time the Government are willing to make available equally among the seven issues so that we do not have one grand debate followed by a series of votes without all the issues being considered? I appreciate that the best thing is to get everything covered, but between now and tabling the motion will my right hon. Friend consider dividing up the time in that way so that all those vital issues are discussed in a limited way?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

I take note of what my hon. Friend says. I know too well that he has genuinely attempted to add a constructive nature to the debate. I believe that much the most appropriate point at which to consider those matters and to come to a decision is when the motion is considered on Tuesday.

Photo of Mr Ron Leighton Mr Ron Leighton , Newham North East

Is the Leader of the House aware, contrary to what was said a moment ago, that in the referendum it was stated clearly by the Government of the day that no important new policy could be agreed to by a British Minister without the agreement of a British Minister answerable to the House —in other words, that there would be unanimity? That is being removed in large measure by the Bill. Does the right hon. Gentleman also recall that, when we considered the Bill for direct elections to the European Assembly, it was said that to give extra powers to the Assembly would need fresh legislation? Is not this that fresh legislation? If it is, should it not be properly scrutinised as it is a major constitutional measure?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

Yes, and clearly the House will have to judge whether the quality of the scrutiny hitherto conferred in the Committee meets the criteria that the hon. Gentleman has stated. Above all, however, those are arguments to be made on Tuesday.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport

Does my right hon. Friend agree that no hon. Member is likely to change his view of the Bill at this stage and that if a further month were allocated there would still be complaints about foreshortening the debate, so the time has now come to move on?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

I note what my hon. Friend says and appreciate the helpful intent.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Blaenau Gwent

Will the Leader of the House now answer the question put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) which he has so obviously avoided thus far? Can he cite any previous occasion when a guillotine motion has been proposed for discussion at the time of day that he has proposed? Have not all such motions, particularly those affecting constitutional measures, been fully discussed in proper time? Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the matter? Does he agree that it would be disgraceful for the Government, having failed to mobilise sufficient people to get their measure through yesterday, to force it through by means of a guillotine measure and quite exceptional procedures?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

Anyone with the authority and expertise of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) in despatching five guillotines in one day deserves to be attended to with care and courtesy, but these matters can best and properly be debated on Tuesday.

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Walthamstow

Why was there a six-week delay between Second Reading and bringing the Bill before a Committee of the whole House?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

There is nothing extraordinary about that period of delay or about a measure of constitutional significance requiring and receiving appropriate formal and informal consultation. There are no problems about that. The problems have arisen since the Committee stage.

Photo of Mr Patrick Thompson Mr Patrick Thompson , Norwich North

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a much better debate would have been possible, before or after the guillotine motion is passed, if the House had voted in favour of time-tabling the Standing Committee stages of all public Bills?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

My hon. Friend invites me to reminisce about an occasion now past and beyond recall, but no doubt this issue will be taken into the folklore and evidence to be argued when that matter next comes before the House.

Photo of Mr Russell Johnston Mr Russell Johnston , Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber

Can the hon. Gentleman give us any idea how much time will be allocated?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

That is a matter for consideration on Tuesday.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash , Stafford

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be realistic and constitutional to ensure that there was a short guillotine debate followed by a reasonable time for those hon. Members so far deprived of the opportunity to speak as a result of a filisbuster to speak on a number of extremely important issues? Does he agree that it would be appropriate to allow about an hour for the guillotine debate and the remainder of the time under Standing Order No. 46 for the debate on those issues?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

I do not wish to add any comment that might exacerbate the divisions between those who have been seeking to take part in the debate. My hon Friend makes an understandable comment, but I must say again that we shall be able to take account of all those factors on Tuesday and the House will then be able to make a decision.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Can the right hon. Gentleman cite any previous occasion when the guillotine motion has been moved not just at 10 o'clock at night but after a debate in which the closure has not been moved by the Government? I was always under the impression—no doubt "Erskine May" will confirm this — that guillotines were introduced when there was difficulty getting legislation through. Even on the second day of these proceedings and after a fairly long debate the Government could muster no more than 84 Common Market slaves to support them in the Lobby, so they failed to achieve the required 100. Will the right hon. Gentleman examine the record to see whether a guillotine has ever been moved without a closure having been moved as a result of a possible filibuster?

The truth is, as the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, that the debate has taken place against a background of hostility to the Common Market which fits in with the views of most people outside. It is a sad state of affairs when the right hon. Gentleman, who voted with me and my hon. Friends 36 times out of 36 against the lousy, rotten Common Market in the first place, finds himself moving a guillotine motion to allow a bankrupt Common Market to continue using British taxpayers' money when there are so many decent, wonderful things we could do with that money instead.

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

The hon. Gentleman can make a speech whereas the Leader of the Social Democratic party cannot even scrape together a point of order. I congratulate him on that. Those who live near the woods learn not to be scared of owls.

I am in some ways grateful for the hon. Gentleman's rather touching concern that there should be greater use of the closure by the Patronage Secretary. It is just possible, in the rather more liberal regime with which my right hon. Friend is associated, that he hoped that all of those who engaged in loquaciousness would learn to repent of their characteristic and that that was why he was unwilling to move the closure.

Photo of Mr Jerry Hayes Mr Jerry Hayes , Harlow

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be rather foolish to pretend that there have not been delaying tactics, which is perfectly legitimate for hon. Members who feel deeply about something'? Does he further agree that, so that right hon. and hon. Members might have a full opportunity of debate, it would be appropriate, if the House agrees, to decide the timetable motion on the nod?

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

These are matters for the House. I am certain that, if it was resolved that it would be better to have timetabling resolved on the nod, there would be that much more time for debate of the substantive motions. These are not matters which the Government would wish to impose, but if it was the will of the House the Government would be most happy to react.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

My right hon. Friend will be aware that several of us have sat throughout the Committee stage and made very short speeches as we care deeply about what is happening. Is he aware that there will be some anxiety in the country that the House is not according proper importance to the timetable motion, not because it is the wrong thing to do — I believe that it is the right thing to do —but because of the time of day for which it is proposed? The time can be used to our disadvantage. That should have been borne in mind. I believe, however, that a timetable would be to the benefit of the House and good debate.

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

I much appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend has drawn the House's attention to the fact that this is a problem which generates deep and passionate conviction. That necessarily colours the type of debate that we have had. As to how we can best proceed under the general guidance of a timetable motion, the matter is one for Tuesday's debate. I look forward to what my hon. Friend will have to say then.