I cannot help but notice that we are being given a guaranteed extra six and a half hours on the Scotland Bill programme, whereas this afternoon we thought that we would have three and a half hours to debate the vitally important issue of economic and monetary union, but had barely two hours for our debate.
Order. I am going keep the debate tight: the hon. Gentleman cannot talk about EMU, but can talk only about the programme motion.
I was not intending to talk about EMU, but was merely drawing the contrast between the amount of time that we had to debate that vital issue and the amount of guaranteed time being given to debate the Scotland Bill, when we have already had so many days in Committee on that Bill. Before we approve the motion, we should consider whether those hours should be devoted to Scotland, instead of to issues that affect the whole country.
I have done some research: I went to the Library and asked for figures on how long the House normally debates Bills. For the last Session for which there is information—the last Session of the previous Parliament—there were 32 Bills, and a total of 227 hours were spent considering those Bills on the Floor of the House, giving an average of about seven hours in total spent on each Bill. The Committee stages of the two constitutional Bills of this Session are taking more than 100 hours of debate on the Floor of the House. It is perfectly reasonable for hon. Members to debate this evening whether it is right that we should devote a guaranteed extra six and a half hours to one of those constitutional Bills.
Will my hon. Friend make it clear during his speech whether he welcomes the extension of time in principle, whether he is unhappy with what has brought it about and whether he feels that it should be more widely applied in other circumstances? That would help those of us who want to participate in the debate.
Order. The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) is not going to talk about any wider applications; he will confine his remarks to the motion before the House.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) would lead me down dangerous paths if I were to let him, and it is not my intention to do so.
It is worth considering why we need the extra six and a half hours of debate and, in the absence of any statement from the Leader of the House in proposing the motion, I can only divine that one of the reasons is to make sure that we have a six-and-a-half-hour debate on the West Lothian question.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to correct the impression that he has given? I am sure that he has read extremely carefully both tonight's motion and the order that it would amend. He would be misleading the House were he to suggest that we propose an extra six and a half hours.
I have the original motion of 13 January in front of me. As a new Member, I find some of the rules and regulations a little hard to follow and, if that is what has happened, I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker; however, as I understand it, the motion before us guarantees periods of six and a half hours when they might not otherwise be available. I have given the example of this afternoon, when we thought that we would have a three-and-a-half-hour debate on an issue of national importance, but the time available was cut. My understanding of the motion, in the absence of further clarification from the right hon. Lady, is that, from the time we start on the Scottish issue, we shall have an absolutely guaranteed six and a half hours for debate.
The question is, should we allow that? I have read the rules and the proposals carefully and there is nothing on the face of the motion or in the order of 13 January to suggest for one moment that what we shall be discussing in that six and a half hours is the West Lothian question.
May I offer another explanation for the allocation of six and a half hours? Might it be because some hon. Members are talking for too long about very little indeed?
That is often the case—the hon. Gentleman has made a valuable point, and it is one that I hope he will bear in mind when he rises to speak in future. It is critical that we have a statement. Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to intervene again, to assure us that the substantive purpose of the amendment to the order is to ensure that we have a debate on the West Lothian question. If that is the purpose, I would welcome it, albeit conditionally, and I would be prepared to support the motion, because the West Lothian question is of great importance to this country. However, if we are being guaranteed six and a half hours for a debate on that issue—one of constitutional importance, which goes to the heart of the Scotland Bill—it is fair to ask ourselves why we are not being guaranteed similar periods of time to consider the other vital issues that are being brought before the House in rapid succession by the new Government.
Is six and a half hours long enough? The West Lothian question is the same as what used to be called the Irish question, on which, under the Gladstone Government, the House spent weeks. Under the previous Labour Government, the House spent days on the West Lothian question, but we now have six and a half hours in which to consider a matter that is pertinent to the future of the United Kingdom. Is that satisfactory?
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. If so much time had not been spent in Committee on the Floor of the House considering the minutiae of the Scotland Bill, we could have had many hours in which to debate this vital constitutional issue. It is extraordinary that so much time has been spent debating the Bill when the so-called West Lothian question has not been considered, especially as consideration of that question could determine whether hon. Members continue to support the Bill.
I am grateful for that minor correction, but my substantive point still holds. I should have thought that Scottish National party Members, as well as Conservative Members, would have been keen at the outset to deal with the most substantive issue relating to the Scotland Bill and its consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom. The reason why the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) does not care about the West Lothian question is that it has an impact on England—the attitude is, "I'm all right, Jock." We have a problem with Scottish Members if that is their attitude and if they are not prepared to consider the Bill's impact on the people of England.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is talking about the merits of the Bill, but we are not considering the Bill's merits—we are considering the Scotland Bill programme.
I am again grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask one further question, which I think will have some impact on how hon. Members vote on the motion. Who will be involved in the debate? Will the Prime Minister—who was educated in Scotland and now claims to represent the whole United Kingdom—come to the Dispatch Box during the six-and-a-half-hour debate to explain his position on the West Lothian question?
I had thought that the motion was sufficiently self-explanatory not to need much of an introduction. The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) is new to the House, so he may not fully have understood the procedure. As you rightly pointed out, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the motion is narrow and specific.
For the benefit of those who have not fully kept up to date with what is happening in the House, I should give some background to the original motion. On Second Reading of the Scotland Bill, the House agreed, without a Division—I think that my memory is correct—that there should be a programme motion. The programme motion is a new procedure recommended by the Modernisation Committee to facilitate the pacing of debates, so that all parts of a Bill can be debated, which is not always what happens when we follow the alternative method of allocating time—a guillotine motion.
Conservative Members may care to reflect on the fact that that programme motion was tabled not only in my name, but in the names of the shadow Leader of the House, of the Liberal Democrat spokesman and of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). There was cross-party agreement on how the Bill should be handled.
The motion is narrow and details some aspects of how that agreement should be carried out in practice. As I had to tell the hon. Member for Guildford, it does not allow for an extra six and a half hours. Programme motions are experimental—the Modernisation Committee recommended that the House should try that new way of working. As we have said, we shall learn as we go on and ensure that the system works as well as possible.
Programme motions involve the establishment of a Business Committee, to work out how best to deal with the pacing of debates. An issue that has arisen on one or two occasions when a Bill has been programmed is whether—when debate is curtailed because of a statement or, indeed, because the Opposition have tabled a private notice question, as they did today—there should be injury time for the time that is lost. The motion simply ensures that, if time is taken because of a statement—we do not intend to have statements on these days, but something might crop up that requires one to be made—or because of a private notice question that is accepted by Madam Speaker, the time for consideration of the Scotland Bill will be protected. The motion provides for injury time, which I believe is for the convenience of the House.
That approach was agreed through the usual channels. If Conservative Back Benchers have any problems with that, or with other matters that are not as relevant, they should have consulted Conservative Front Benchers.
As an example to everyone else, I shall be very brief. The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) has complained at length about a request that was made jointly by the parties, including the Conservative party. Some would argue that he has taken up the time of the House unnecessarily in making such a complaint, but I do not take that view, as I have been wondering about Conservative Back Benchers' fascination with the six and a half hours. It came to me in a blinding flash that the reason why Conservative Back Benchers are fascinated with the figure of six and a half is that that is exactly the opinion poll rating of the Tory party as reported in yesterday's Daily Record.
In the unlikely event that the contribution of the hon. Member for Guildford is broadcast in Scotland, many people may think that 6.5 per cent. is too high a rating for the Conservatives, given their attitude to the Bill and to Scottish matters in general.
I welcome the motion, although I regret the fact that the Leader of the House did not see fit to open the debate to explain the nature of the proposal. It is all very well for her to say that the motion is self-explanatory, but has the House of Commons fallen so low that hon. Members are now expected simply to glance at an item of business on the Order Paper—business for which debate is allowed until 10 pm, as you well know, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and say, without even the courtesy of an explanation from the Leader of the House, "Well, that's all right then"?
Admittedly, the right hon. Lady has—in response to the initiation of the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), which I welcome—given some explanation of what is on the Order Paper. However, her explanation seemed largely to consist of her saying that, because something called the usual channels have agreed on something, it must be all right. I do not share that view. The usual channels, whatever they are, may have a key role to play, but I hope that hon. Members can have a look-in occasionally, too.
The right hon. Lady seems surprised that Conservative Members want to participate in the debate. The fact that a number of hon. Members want to do so may be old-fashioned, for all I know. Perhaps I have not caught up with the modernisation of the House, or perhaps modernisation means that we should no longer bother to participate in debates.
I believe that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as a stout defender of the House and of Back Benchers' rights, would want to encourage us to debate the motion. You would not expect hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends, who are widely involved in the business of the House, simply to accept that because an unexplained item is on the Order Paper, and because something called the usual channels have agreed to it, it must necessarily be all right. We want to spend just a little time this evening exploring the implications of the motion. The right hon. Lady has been at great pains to say that there is no extra time available—as if extra time was some sort of crime; as if the Government were ashamed of any concession over time.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have a great deal of respect for him, which has lasted for many years. We have crossed swords on education matters on many occasions. It is always a joy to listen to him and a pleasure to look at his colourful appearance. Therefore, I am happy to spend time doing that this evening. However, I would hate him to be under any misapprehension about what I was saying. We shall give extra time if it is necessary. This is a pragmatic motion—it is about injury time, not extra time. It might be a fine distinction, but the motion is intended simply to ensure that if there is a statement or a private notice question, time will not be lost. I am glad to have the right hon. Gentleman's support, but I would not like him inadvertently to mislead people about the motion.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. Indeed, she is demonstrating the point of the debate. I said something that inadvertently has given the wrong impression, and the right hon. Lady has kindly and courteously corrected me. That is the point of the debate. Already, we understand more than we did a short time ago about the nature of the motion and what lies behind it. We are trying to obtain just that sort of clarification.
I hope that the right hon. Lady agrees that she may be setting an important precedent in the light of what happened today. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, said that we must not discuss that, but it must be at the back of our minds, because an important debate was squeezed out by a combination of parliamentary events. We are now being assured, which I welcome, that there will be a fresh approach to these matters, as exemplified in the programme motion. It will allow the House to deal with PNQs and other genuinely urgent matters secure in the knowledge that injury time is safeguarded for the important debate that will follow. That is what is important about the motion. I hope that when the right hon. Lady replies to this short debate—
If what my right hon. Friend proposes is accepted by the House, hon. Members may be secure in the knowledge of the length of time of a debate, but they may be insecure in the knowledge of when a vote might take place. As most new Labour Members of Parliament seem to be more interested in votes than in taking part in debates, they may not view my right hon. Friend's proposal with satisfaction.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but we shall never know the answer, because there are hardly any Labour Members in the Chamber. Indeed, there is only one Back Bencher, the distinguished hon. Member for Glasgow, Baillieston (Mr. Wray). I await his contribution with eager anticipation. He may want to take this opportunity to answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). I cannot answer on behalf of Labour Members of Parliament, and I would not want to do so. Nevertheless, it is an interesting point. Perhaps the Leader of the House will speak on behalf of the Labour party when she replies to the debate.
I have one important reservation about the motion, which arises from the fact that the right hon. Lady—if I heard her correctly—said that if we agreed the motion tonight, some mysterious Committee would meet next week to decide what would be debated during the allocation of time. That is both good and bad news. The bad news is that we are expected to vote on the motion without knowing to what use the allocation of time will be put—
I intervene in the hope that I may clarify the issue and, perhaps, jog the right hon. Gentleman's memory. He referred to a mysterious Committee. I remember when he and I served on an education Bill, which was the subject of a guillotine, and he was a member of the Business Committee at that time. I may be wrong—it may have been one of his colleagues. However, Business Committees are no new process. They are not mysterious. As a former Minister, he probably knows that; he just needs to probe the recesses of his mind.
I am grateful, as ever, to the right hon. Lady. Perhaps, in the spirit of modernisation and openness, she would agree to cameras being allowed into the Committee to witness its proceedings, so that we can all share in the debate. I leave that thought with her.
I welcome the fact that the debate this evening could, if it was what hon. Members wanted—
As a member of the mysterious Business Committee, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the views of his party are well represented by the Conservative Members who serve on that Committee. The first day of the Report stage will deal almost entirely with new clause 1, which relates to the important West Lothian question. That is a sign of how sensitive the Business Committee is to the need of the Conservative party to express itself.
I said that following the programme motion that we passed some time ago, a Business Committee was established. That Committee has been sitting and has dealt with all of the Committee stage of the Bill. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has not been able to follow the proceedings, to which he did not object.
We now know that the Business Committee will not pay any attention to tonight's debate. I had intended to welcome the fact that that mysterious Committee might pay some attention to what has been said tonight and respect the views of those hon. Members who have taken the trouble to be present. It now appears that the Committee works in isolation and will pay no attention to what has been said. Indeed, it may already have made its decision.
Again, the right hon. Gentleman is misleading himself about the motion. It has nothing to do with the subjects that will be debated during the remaining time on the Scotland Bill; it is simply about the time that is allocated and the fact that there will be injury time. The House has already agreed—and the right hon. Gentleman has already agreed—that the Business Committee should deal with the question of the subjects to be debated. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman cannot follow these procedures. Obviously, he has not read the Order Paper on the days when we have debated devolution. Had he done so, he would have seen everything set out on each day. Members of all parties serve on the Business Committee and they decide how much of the time that the House allocates is then allocated to each subject. This motion is about how much time the House allocates. We are talking only about injury time.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for trying to clarify the matter, but she has not totally succeeded. I am not certain whether the Business Committee has already met and decided the subjects to be debated—even though we are now being asked to provide injury time and the Committee has not been able to take account of that—or whether the Committee has yet to meet and make a decision on the subject matters for debate, following the decision that the House may make tonight.
The right hon. Gentleman should know that the Business Committee met regularly during the Committee stage of the Bill and used a timetable which generally, if not entirely, satisfied all sections of the House. He may recall that the first day of Report stage was due last week, but because of the important emergency business relating to Northern Ireland, it was postponed to this coming week.
Although the Business Committee has not yet met to discuss the Bill's Report stage, the right hon. Gentleman will well know that, through the usual channels, hon. Members have indicated to members of the Business Committee that Conservative Members wish to have a full day's debate on the West Lothian question. It will be a matter for the Business Committee to affirm or not to affirm such a debate. Nevertheless, Conservative Members have expressed strong views on the matter. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that Conservative Members do not want such a debate and that they would like to make even more progress on the Bill, I am sure that the Business Committee will consider that view, which is unlike the view expressed in informal discussions by his representatives on the Business Committee.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman, who has now clarified the matter to my satisfaction. He implied earlier that the decision had been made, but he is now telling us that it has not been made. I welcome that statement, which suggests that if Conservative Members would like to say in this brief debate how they think the Business Committee should make its decision, they will have an opportunity to do so. I do not want to do that—
Order. That is not a matter for me or for the House, as we are debating a programme motion. The hon. Gentleman will have to speak with Opposition Front Benchers, to determine whether that matter is included in the programme. We cannot have any assurances on that matter in this debate.
I shall bring my remarks to an end. However, I hope that this debate has made an important point—that such motions are legitimate matters for debate and should not be nodded through simply because the great and the good have decided or predisposed of them. We have achieved in the debate some clarification of the background of the matter and of the reasoning behind it. We have also drawn out—albeit, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with your great patience and understanding—the nature and existence of one of the Committees that guide our lives and destinies. The exercise has therefore been useful.
I can therefore support the motion on the Order Paper. I also hope that, on future occasions, we can have such debates and clarifications. I very much welcome the interventions by the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and by the Leader of the House. They have given us ordinary mortals in the background just a glimpse into the corridors of power.
The House should be extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) for taking this opportunity to clarify an important issue.
It is disappointing to us all that the Leader of the House did not seize the opportunity at the start of this debate to advise us of the intention behind the motion. Had she done so at the beginning of the debate, rather than in a few interventions in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—who was very forgiving in allowing her to intervene—we would have been able earlier to establish the truth, even if we are still unclear about the precise difference between injury time and extra time. I tell the right hon. Lady—in case she should seek to misrepresent me—that, although I realise that there is injury time and extra time in football matches, both provisions result in the game continuing rather longer than it might otherwise have done. However, that is perhaps a slightly semantic point.
Although the point dealt with in this debate may be narrow, it is one of principle. The Leader of the House said that the motion arises partly from the proceedings of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, and that it has been agreed—in mysterious conversations through the usual channels—that the programme for the Scotland Bill will be adjusted to provide a guaranteed six and a half hours of debate on each day of the Bill's Report stage, which I welcome. I am sure that Conservative Members in the Chamber will welcome the fact that the Government have agreed to change the timetable on that important Bill.
This debate is a good example of why we need the type of change in programme heralded by the motion. I know that you ruled that some matters mentioned earlier in the debate should not have been so mentioned, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, today's debate on economic and monetary union was similar to our debates during the Scotland Bill's Committee stage, in that proper time was not allowed to debate a matter of grave importance to the future of these islands. I argue that the people of Britain and hon. Members were not given—
Order. I will not allow the hon. Gentleman to talk about an earlier debate. If he is concerned about that debate, he can express those concerns at another time. He must speak to the Scotland Bill programme.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for your guidance, and understand the point that you are making. I am trying to make the point that there are good grounds for the Leader of the House to table the motion. I hope that she will consider extending the principle underlying the motion to other matters, so that our debates on other important issues will not be truncated within the narrow confines of a 7 o'clock or 10 o'clock motion.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond)—who has now disappeared—came into the Chamber only to make a quick comic point. Perhaps that shows his party's—[Interruption.] The Leader of the House says that that is a good point. She is right to think that it is a good point for the Conservative party[Interruption.]—but she should be absolutely clear about the fact that, in elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Labour party will be defeated at the hands of the separatists.
My hon. Friend, like almost everyone who has spoken in this debate, seems to accept that the motion is a good thing. There seems to be a consensus that all those Bills should be guillotined, and that all those meetings are frightfully cosy, when everything is agreed. I do not accept that. I return to my original point, which I made in an intervention on—
Order. The motion deals not with a guillotine but with varying the programme. The hon. Gentleman is therefore misinformed, but will perhaps know when to comment on that matter. I tell the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) that we cannot have repetition of earlier speeches.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not intend to repeat verbatim points made by my hon. Friends, but I intend to repeat some of the arguments, which are forceful. We are faced with this motion today simply because, on 4 March 1998—I am sure that the Leader of the House will correct me if I am wrong—in dealing with the West Lothian question in our debate on the Scotland Bill, we had precisely 50 minutes—
Order. I will not allow that matter to be raised in a debate on a very specific motion. The hon. Gentleman cannot deal with earlier debates. As I said, the West Lothian question has nothing to do with the matter before us. We are debating a programme, and nothing else.
I entirely accept that, but the motion suggests that we change our procedures in respect of a particular Bill in order to ensure that the debate continues for six and a half hours.
Order. It is not a good thing for the Deputy Speaker to be on his feet all the time. The motion is to vary the programme, not to change procedure.
I apologise for the fact that you are on your feet once again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am quite sure that you will appreciate the exercise. You do a very sedentary job and, if I can assist in giving you some exercise, that must be a good thing.
The motion may not vary procedure, but it seeks to vary the programme. In welcoming it, is it not reasonable to allude to why it has come about? We are not debating the motion in a vacuum. It has not alighted on the House from the ether. It has resulted from a specific problem that arose in Committee. I shall not repeat it, as you have asked me not to, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
In an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said that he did not think that six and a half hours would be long enough, and I agree. In welcoming the motion, I believe that the Leader of the House responded to my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), when, on 4 March, he referred to the utter unacceptability of the fact that the time permitted to discuss perhaps the most crucial and central part of the Bill had been limited to 50 minutes. Therefore, I welcome the fact that we are to have six and a half hours of guaranteed debate.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that the issue is so important that six and a half hours is not long enough to debate it. I understand that the usual channels have agreed on the motion, but the issue is of such fundamental importance to the United Kingdom that it deserves more time. Perhaps the Leader of the House will consider giving us even longer to debate it. Given what my hon. Friend said about the Irish question in the last century and previous debates on devolution under former Labour Governments, it is right and proper that we should devote more time to it. I invite the Leader of the House to listen to the representations that have been made and perhaps to go back to the usual channels and seek to extend the debate beyond six and a half hours.
When I first had the idea of making a brief contribution to the debate, I was under the impression that what was proposed in the motion was a thoroughly good thing. Indeed, I was on the point of congratulating the usual channels and welcoming the fact that, apparently, the Government had listened to representations from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen about varying the programme. However, as a result of some of the speeches by my right hon. and hon. Friends, I have become somewhat more concerned.
As you have pointed out, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are not in danger of varying the procedures; but we are in danger of setting a precedent. I should like to know—I invite the Leader of the House to intervene and enlighten me—on what basis such variations are made in respect of the Bill and, potentially, in future.
We had already done that when previous debates on the Scotland Bill continued after 10 o'clock to take account of earlier business that had disrupted the proceedings.
Yes, but, with respect, the hon. Gentleman is not taking full account of the fact that, as the Leader of the House pointed out, we are talking about a fairly new process—injury time—when, in effect, the clock is stopped if there is a ministerial statement or a private notice question such as we had this afternoon.
I am worried by the fact that the Leader of the House said earlier that it was an emanation of the lucubrations of the Modernisation Committee. We are all aware that the Modernisation Committee is engaged in a number of contentious activities, including ways in which the voting procedure could be changed. In the light of the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) about the dislocation that such variation would introduce into the voting times, it could be part of a programme to ensure that voting systems were changed and we no longer had to be present for a vote.
Indeed. As a new Member, I very much value that guidance.
My concern is that, in having to decide whether to support the proposed variation, my vote—if there is to be a vote—should not be deemed to set a precedent that could then be used to have knock-on effects on the procedures of the House that many of us would regard as quite deplorable. However, I am happy to leave that aside.
The New forest is a wonderful place, but it appears that one of the horses has got out. The procedures that we are following this evening were approved in a debate of the whole House without Division. Their implementation this evening has the agreement of representatives of all parties.
I welcome that intervention, if only to have the opportunity of endorsing what a wonderful place the New forest is. I wish that Liberal Democrat Members, when they want to indulge in rather puerile insults, would at least think of original ones rather than copying an occasional diarist in The Times.
In trying to assess how to respond to the proposals this evening, we need to be aware of their full implications and consider whether the Government will use what happens tonight to say, "You did not oppose it on that occasion; therefore, you have no grounds for opposing it now," on some future occasion when the implications for the procedures of the House have become clear.
Will my hon. Friend consider the point that, simply because something was agreed by the House some time ago, even without a vote, that does not mean that the House cannot take a different view now because circumstances have changed, time has moved on and the debate has developed? Does he agree that we are hearing a rather alarming argument from the Government and from the Liberal Democrats that, if something was agreed some time ago, it is set in concrete and can never be varied, not even by the House itself?
Yes; furthermore, I am emboldened by that intervention from my right hon. Friend, who has been in the House so much longer than I have, to say what crossed my mind during the intervention by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell). I was not aware that, if something has been agreed without dispute by a Committee of the whole House from which an hon. Member such as me was absent, I am therefore forbidden to raise the issue during a debate on a serious issue which can have knock-on effects on the procedures of the House. I am concerned that, as the maxim says, hard cases make bad law. In this case, soft precedents make useful precedents for the Government to put leverage on the Opposition to accept procedures that we consider unacceptable. It is rather strange that the Government should have given way on an issue that suits them when, as we have seen previously—
Order. This item is far too narrow for the hon. Gentleman to concern himself with what might happen. He must stick to the matter before the House—the motion relating to the programme for the Scotland Bill. He should not worry about what might happen in future.
I am extremely grateful, as always, for that guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have sufficiently made my point about what might happen in the future. It is the events of the very recent past—this afternoon—that put doubts into the minds of hon. Members. A debate on an important matter—I will not discuss its subject now—which was scheduled to last for three and a half hours lost one and a quarter of those hours. Even my arithmetic shows that in one hour and a quarter, with the 10-minutes rule operating, seven or eight more hon. Members would have been able to take part in the debate.
We can conclude from the fact that the Government are willing to give injury time on this issue that they clearly regard it as more important to confer powers on the new Scottish Parliament than to debate Westminster's loss of powers to Brussels, as we wanted to do in the truncated debate this afternoon.
I found the past hour remarkably educational. As I understand it, the House agreed that it should spent three days on Report and Third Reading of the Bill and that the debate would end at 10 o'clock. The Government are now saying that, if there is a statement or the debates take place on a Thursday when the Leader of the House answers questions, that time will be made up. All that we are discussing today is whether there will be three debates that are guaranteed to last six and a half hours or whether on one or more of those days the debate may last only five and a half hours or four and a half hours.
The measure is an admirable concept, which I hope will be extended in future timetables for Bills, so that they are not adversely affected by extraneous events. That is a simple, straightforward and honourable concept, which I am happy to endorse.
I have one brief point to make. At first sight, this may seem to be an entirely innocuous motion to vary the programme of a particular Bill. It sets a dangerous precedent—it packages Parliament. In the past, the Opposition's one weapon was time. Again and again, in the great debates of history—on Irish Bills, reform Bills and many others—Oppositions spent days and weeks debating. The Government are tightly packaging Parliament with a nice pink ribbon so that everything is agreed beforehand and debates have a set duration and finish at a set time. That is all very cosy and nothing ever changes. The Government, of course, win every vote and the Opposition cannot even delay proceedings. Hon. Members who are not present and the public should be very concerned.
The past hour has been very interesting and I give the debate full marks for entertainment. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Gorrie) said that this had been an educational exercise. He seemed to have no difficulty in understanding the measure, so it seems that it is Conservative Members who need educating. It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) complaining that the Opposition needed more time, when the purpose of the motion is to provide more time, or a guaranteed time if necessary.
I recommend that hon. Members read the Order Paper, which the Modernisation Committee made easier to read. If hon. Members had done a little homework before they came into the Chamber, or had read the precise wording of the motion, they could immediately have set aside their doubts and they would have found our intentions as easy to understand as did Liberal Democrat Members.
(c) in paragraph 4, by inserting after sub-paragraph (3)—
'(3A) If, on consideration, two or more Questions would fall to be put under sub-paragraph (1)(c) on amendments moved or motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or motions'.