Orders of the Day — Local Government Bill

– in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 9th March 1988.

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Lords amendments considered.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:22 pm, 9th March 1988

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I raise with you a matter of which you are already aware, the selection in relation to what was clause 28 when it left the House and will now be clause 29 of the Local Government Bill. You have given considerable thought to the amendments that I have tabled. For one last time, I shall briefly put to you the argument for taking one or both of the amendments that I propose.

May we be allowed to debate whether, instead of the word "promote" in clause 29, as it will now be, we should have an alternative word, "commend", as was suggested in another place? The dictionary makes it clear — perhaps I did not make this argument clear before—that, whereas "commend" has only one meaning, "promote" is open to a variety of meanings. The ambiguity of the word "promote" could render the legislation controversial and problematic in a way that "commend" could not. The "Oxford Dictionary" makes it clear that there are different types of meaning of "promote", but "commend" has only a positive, welcoming or recommending sense. That word would seem to restrict the ambit of the clause and, therefore, raise a different issue about its reach.

The other matter relates to the grouped pair of amendments that were tabled by me, amendments (b) and (d) to Lords amendment No. 10. The proposed amendment would delete the word "homosexuality" and replace it by sexual activity between persons of the same sex. That matter, too, was debated in the other place. To paraphrase the argument in the other place, to promote or commend homosexuality is arguably scientifically impossible in the sense that, if homosexuality is a condition or an orientation, it cannot in any way be promoted or commended with any concrete effect. The alternative would be to make it clear—it would accord with the mischief with which the original proposer of the new clause sought to deal in Committee—that what was intended to be dealt with by the legislation was the promotion or commendation of sexual activity between people of the same sex. That clearly falls to be considered within the context of the legislation, and certainly—I do not think that there is any dispute—should not be promoted or commended by local authorities.

But there is a difference. In practice, it would be the difference between a local authority properly allowing a teacher, for example, to respond to a proper question, and the local authority going on with its present duties and responsibilities in commending specific activity and being seen to endorse it.

I am aware that you have given thought to the matter, Mr. Speaker, and I am grateful. But I ask you, particularly in respect of the first point, which I may not have put clearly enough before, to consider one more time whether we could have an opportunity to have what would be the only possible debate on the substance of the legal wording and interpretation of a controversial clause to a controversial Bill.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have had discussions about the matter. In the light of what he has said to me, I have looked at the matter again. I am afraid I cannot change my selection.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order arises out of the fact that we are discussing the business at all today. The Lords amendments were available to Members of the House of Commons only some time on Friday of last week. That meant that it was impossible for hon. Members, particularly Opposition Members, since the Government knew what the situation was, to table amendments until the sitting of the House on Monday. Clearly, the Clerks of the House had to judge whether the amendments were in order. Such decisions were, broadly speaking, communicated, at least to me, yesterday — I make no criticism of the Clerks in that respect—by which time, of course, it was impossible to table any further amendments and have them on the Order Paper to be accepted by you for debate. That cannot be a reasonable way for the House to deal with its business.

The problem was raised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition with the Leader of the House during the business statement last Thursday. The Leader of the House said: The Bill will be available in the Vote Office first thing tomorrow".— [Official Report, 3 March 1988; Vol. 1440, c. 1156.] I am not sure that it was available first thing, but it was certainly available during Friday. That is simply not good enough to enable all Opposition parties proper time to scrutinise the implications, to table amendments, to discuss them with the Clerks, to seek advice, and to secure debates on issues that we believe to be of importance to us and to our constituents.

Like the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I regret that some amendments standing in my name and in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends have not been selected. Had the business not been concertinaed in such a way, the problems could have been avoided. It cannot be an acceptable or satisfactory way in which to proceed with important legislation affecting not only aspects of local government finance and contract compliance but people's civil rights and other matters of fundamental importance to us all in a democratic society. Although it is probably too late to do anything about today's proceedings, I hope that somehow these problems can be eliminated in future. The position of the House is weak and growing weaker vis-a-vis the executive — whichever party forms the executive. I cannot believe that Members of Parliament or the public want Parliament to grow weaker and weaker, especially with a mounting load of legislation from any Government. I raise this matter with you, Mr. Speaker, because it is important to put it on record and to seek ways of ensuring that these problems do not arise again in future.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East 4:30 pm, 9th March 1988

I fully appreciate what the hon. Member has said about time. I think that it is important that the Opposition, and indeed the whole House, has time to table properly drafted amendments. I shall look again carefully at the starred amendments, but at first sight I do not think that I can change my selection.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Chair, House of Commons (Services): Computer Sub-Committee, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. No one is criticising your selection of amendments or the advice that the Clerks have put forward. What is causing great concern to Opposition Members is the deliberate efforts by the Government's business managers to make it difficult for Opposition Members to table amendments that are in order on difficult matters, and the totally slipshod approach by the Department of the Environment and the Office of the Leader of the House. Those are the only possible explanations as to why you, Mr. Speaker, and the Clerk have been put in some difficulty, as have Opposition Members.

We have heard today from the same Secretary of State on a different Bill. He made an announcement about three matters he wanted to introduce into the Local Government Finance Bill, but he cannot even promise that they will be brought forward in time to be considered in the already guillotined Committee. He is proposing, or at best promising, that they will be brought forward to be discussed in the already guillotined report stage of the Bill. That statement follows the problems that we have had with a major announcement of new policies which are to be incorporated into the Education Reform Bill so that we had to change guillotine motions and God knows what else.

The House is being treated with contempt by the Government's business managers, who are not one jot interested in giving the House the opportunity properly to scrutinise the legislation. They want simply to push through slipshod amendments as rapidly as possible. It is simply not good enough. If necessary, will you, Mr. Speaker, call a meeting of the usual channels so that we can avoid what is happening at the moment occurring again and again?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As amendments to Lords amendments are by nature the most difficult to draft satisfactorily because of the limited scope of what is before us, is it not the normal practice for the period between Lords amendments coming to the House and being debated by the House after Third Reading in the Lords to be two weekends and a full week in which we can, as the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) argued, consider any amendments that we wish to table, see whether they are acceptable in drafting terms for consideration by you, Mr. Speaker and table further amendments if they are not? I seek your ruling about whether the timetable was complied with in this case and whether any course is open to us whereby we could proceed with this business for some time, see how far we get and resume it on another day while we deal with the remaining Orders of the Day.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

I fully appreciate the importance of time to the Opposition and to the whole House in tabling amendments, particularly to Lords amendments. Although the matters that have been raised have my sympathy, they are not matters for me. Perhaps they should be pursued with the Leader of the House when he is here tomorrow.