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As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Education Bill, as amended, be considered in the following order, namely, new Clauses relating to Part 1, new Clauses relating to Part 2, new Clauses relating to Part 3, new Clauses relating to Part 4, new Clauses relating to Part 5, new Clauses relating to Part 6, new Clauses relating to Part 7, new Clauses relating to Part 8, new Clauses relating to Part 9, new Clauses relating to Part 10, other new Clauses, amendments relating to Clauses 1 to 18, Schedule 1, Clauses 19 to 35, Schedule 2, Clauses 36 to 38, Schedule 3, Clauses 39 to 48, Schedule 4, Clauses 49 to 53, Schedule 5, Clauses 54 to 56, Schedule 6, Clauses 57 to 62, Schedule 7, Clauses 63 to 66, Schedule 8, Clauses 67 and 68, Schedule 9, Clauses 69 to 71, Schedule 10, Clauses 72 to 115, Schedule 11, Clauses 116 to 143, Schedule 12, Clauses 144 to 147, Schedule 13, Clauses 148 to 150, Schedule 14, Clauses 151 to 180, Schedule 15, Clause 181, Schedule 16, Clause 182, Schedule 17, Clauses 183 to 188, Schedule 18, Clauses 189 to 192, Schedule 19, Clauses 193 to 198, Schedule 20, Clauses 199 to 209, Schedules 21 and 22, new Schedules.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
I beg to move a manuscript amendment:
That the order of consideration be amended as follows: leave out the words
"new Clauses relating to Part 3" and insert in their place
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have certainly not been informed about the change of business or the manuscript amendment and we have been sitting here quite calmly for a considerable time waiting to debate the Education Bill, half of which was not discussed in Committee. Therefore, I respectfully ask whether it is in order for the Minister to propose a new timetable without allowing us to consider it.
I have the greatest respect for my hon. Friend the Minister, but I am slightly startled by this change of procedure. Is it common for the Chair to accept a manuscript amendment when there is a clear statement on the Order Paper of the order in which the Bill is to be debated? If that is the case, may I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when you received notice of that manuscript amendment?
The hon. Lady is now opening up the debate. I accepted the manuscript amendment simply for the convenience of the House, because it appeared sensible, and it has now been moved. Hon. Members are entitled to speak to the amendment and to vote against it.
I wish simply to explain the reasoning behind the amendment and I to apologise to hon. Members. The amendment resulted from recent hasty discussions. The difficulty is that, under the motion on the Order Paper, we would need to delay votes on a number of matters that we shall discuss this afternoon until the end of all the debates on part 3. The amendment would allow us to vote at the conclusion of the debates on those amendments rather than all together at the end of the discussion of part 3. It is a helpful proposal and I hope that the House will accept it.
All hon. Members are bemused by this new development. Many of us have been in the Chamber for quite some time, following the statement from the Department for Education and Skills. We have read the timetable motion on the Order Paper and feel that we have a right to expect it to be followed.
Surely it is bizarre for the Minister to give us no notice of the manuscript amendment and to make no attempt to circulate it. Surely it is outrageous for him to bring it before the House in this way. Opposition Members can only protest in the strongest possible way that the Minister has not even attempted to give hon. Members notice. Surely the fact that Ministers and Labour Back Benchers seem unable to organise their business in a rational and coherent way does not make it acceptable for us to be faced with absurd changes to procedure without notice or adequate explanation. I really do protest and I wonder whether any steps could be taken now to allow the House an opportunity to see the amendment before we vote on it.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At this stage of the debate when we have a little more time, it would be helpful if copies of the manuscript amendment could be circulated while we are in the Chamber. In my experience, most manuscript amendments are brief and can easily be understood when they are read out. They usually involve the substitution of one name or something similar. This is the most complicated manuscript amendment I have ever heard in 28 years in the House. Is it beyond the wit of the Government to circulate some photocopies of it while the debate continues?
If we are not careful, hon. Members will be making debating points on points of order. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's latter point is no, it does not.
I am quite outraged that we find ourselves in this situation. The Bill was handled disgracefully in Committee and we were looking forward to two days of debate to address some of its core issues. Members of the public are particularly interested in some of the key aspects of the debate that was expected today.
Earlier today, I asked the Committee Clerk about the order in which the amendments were to be debated and voted on. I was assured that there would be a vote on each group of amendments. I even informed the Clerk that that was our intention this evening. Now, at the last minute, having sat here for the past three and a half hours, we find ourselves having to respond to a manuscript amendment without having sight of it. We are now told that all of a sudden the way in which we debate the amendments and vote on them has changed. If the Government are prepared to show such contempt for the House when it is considering legislation that engages us in a good debate, heaven help us when we consider provisions that are far more tricky politically.
We hope that the explanation for the manuscript amendment and this change of heart will allow us to understand the Government's thinking, and will reassure us that we can debate the current marshalled list of amendments in the existing order and vote on each string of amendments, depending on whether the Opposition wish to press them to vote.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I draw your attention to page 473 of "Erskine May". Even though the Secretary of State and the Minister of State were present this afternoon for an education statement, at no time did the Government tell the Opposition about their intention to table this manuscript amendment. Given the total and utter contempt for the proceedings of the House that we have witnessed this afternoon, I ask you to consider carefully the passage in "Erskine May" that states:
"Whenever possible, notice should be given of any amendments. However, in committee it is in order to move, as manuscript amendments, amendments of which notice has not been given."
That clearly states that, in all practical circumstances, notice should be given. An education statement was made and the Secretary of State was present, but no attempt was made to notify the House of the Government's intention, so I ask you whether it is right, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we should accept this manuscript amendment.
I have already accepted the manuscript amendment and we are now debating it. This is not a matter of the content of the amendment; it was simply that I understood it to be for the convenience of the House to consider the matter in this way.
I make it clear that I am not raising a point of order but speaking to the debate. Mr. Willis, who spoke very strongly, has every reason to feel aggrieved by the way in which he and new clause 5 have been treated by this procedure. Given that it is now some 10 minutes since the manuscript amendment was moved, I should have expected the Minister at least to have had the courtesy to circulate copies of it or place them in the Vote Office. I wonder whether that can still be done, even at this late stage. It is extraordinary that a manuscript amendment of this nature has been moved without giving any notice to the House, and with no discussion between Front Benchers, let alone with those who have tabled new clauses and amendments. The Minister will find it hard to justify that extraordinary procedure.
What lies behind this procedure is an attempt by the Government to rig the way in which Divisions are held. The Minister needs reminding that the purpose of our presence here today is not to arrange the timing of Divisions but to consider legislation—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to my hon. Friend for interrupting him, but I want to appeal to you as the protector of Back Benchers. It is hard enough being a Back Bencher under this Government. I for one would like more time to consider this matter, so I beg to move that the House be adjourned for one hour, so that we can study it further.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have just checked with the Vote Office and there still is not available to us any version of this extraordinary amendment, which has been thrust upon the House. Can you please instruct that copies of it be circulated to Members? It is intolerable that our proceedings should be so extraordinarily diverted at this stage, without us knowing what we are being asked to do.
The Minister and his colleagues on the Treasury Bench will have heard what has been said about copies being made available. Before we continue, perhaps it would help if I again read out the manuscript amendment, which states that the order of consideration be amended to leave out the words
"new Clauses relating to part 3" and insert
The very fact that you have had to read out the amendment a second time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, justifies the Government's doing us the elementary courtesy of getting this thing printed so that we can all see exactly where we stand.
Just before I was interrupted, I was saying that the Minister appears to be rigging the order in which Divisions are likely to be held. That is monstrous. We are a legislature. We are here today to debate these new clauses and amendments in the final stages of this important Bill. We are not here simply to arrange Divisions for the convenience of the Executive. As I understand it, the order of consideration for the new clauses and amendments was laid down clearly by Mr. Speaker before lunchtime today, it was published and it has been available in the Vote Office since 3 o'clock. It is quite extraordinary to be told at this late stage—some six hours after Mr. Speaker made his selection and ruling—that the order of debate will be changed. That change is not for the convenience of the House, but for the convenience of the Government, and I urge my hon. Friends to consider pressing the matter to a Division.
Decisions taken by the Chair are for the protection of Members of Parliament and the Orders of the Day are published so that Members of Parliament can have at least a vague idea about what they are debating—something that is not always true even when they have read what they are debating. Frankly, they can have no idea of what they are debating if what is printed on the Order Paper differs from what is proposed.
I had no intention of taking part in the debate, but the order of debate should be clear and transparent to Members, so that they know in advance when the group of amendments that they want to discuss will be debated. That is not exactly a revolutionary idea, but it commends itself to me. Because we are so dependent on the Chair for the protection of our rights, and because it is so vital that we are clear about how we conduct our business, I hope that a much more detailed explanation of the manuscript amendment will be given, even if we end up accepting the Minister's proposal. I have rarely seen such a matter handled with less finesse, and this procedure has not been particularly helpful.
The House will wish to consider two separate issues at this point, the first of which is the issue of process. Like the hon. Lady, I have never seen anything handled in the House with less finesse. There are two possible reasons why the Government are behaving in this way: either the Department has been monumentally incompetent, or the Government are trying to rig the procedures of the House, not for the House's convenience but for their own. I incline toward the latter explanation, because I cannot believe that Ministers and their officials could be so incompetent. The entire ministerial team were in the House for an hour and a half for a long statement, so it would surely not have been beyond their wit to hand copies of the manuscript amendment to the Opposition parties, and to show the same courtesy to their own right hon. and hon. Friends, who are intimately involved with the debates that the Government are trying to rig. I therefore absolve Ministers of the charge of monumental incompetence, but they cannot be absolved of the charge of reaching a nadir—even by the standards of this Government—in abuse of the procedures of the House.
The second point worth considering has to do with the substance of the manuscript amendment, with which we have not yet dealt. It is clear that the Government are trying to minimise the number of Divisions that can take place on the matter of faith schools.
I can approach that matter fairly dispassionately, as I support what the Government are trying to achieve with the faith schools amendment. However, they must recognise that there exist other points of view in the House, and that they are legitimate. The various new clauses tabled on faith schools represent varying nuances of view. The Opposition oppose those views, as do the Government, so this is not a partisan matter between Opposition and Government Front-Bench Members.
The question of faith schools engages the House in a non-party way, and it also engages the British people. It is an abuse of power by the Government to seek to minimise hon. Members' capacity to vote fully, clearly and competently on such a matter.
I think that the Minister is at heart a decent man. I can only urge him to withdraw this wretched amendment before we have to vote against it.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister explain to the House—or at least to Labour Members—whether the manuscript amendment is linked in any way to the numerous calls that I and other hon. Members received at the weekend? The Government are clearly somewhat sensitive about how we might wish to vote on the matter of faith schools. Will he make clear what effect the manuscript amendment will have on the votes on new clauses 1 and 18 in particular? The explanation that he has given so far has not assuaged my suspicion about the Government's motives.
I underline that point. I am sure that the Government's motives are not malign, but I am just a simple Back Bencher. When the Minister responds to the debate, will he say what effect the amendment will have on when we vote on the clauses relating to faith schools? What are the implications for the timetable of votes?
I have been in this House for 14 and a half years, and I cannot remember ever finding myself in this position before in connection with a subject of such considerable interest to the outside world. Suddenly, the House, having been given no notice at all, is debating a manuscript amendment—
I have one question for the Minister. If the Government are determined to curb hon. Members' right to put their points of view on this extremely controversial issue—on which I have spoken a number of times in the past, and about which the Minister knows that I share his views—where will it all stop? Has the House of Commons become nothing more than an extension of the Labour party's internal battles?
I am not a cynic by nature, and it is just conceivable that the Minister might be trying to help the House. If so, however, I wish he would wear a sign on his forehead saying "I am trying to be helpful", or something similar. The process that he has taken us through could hardly have been more unhelpful. It has left suspicion in everyone's mind.
The manuscript amendment that the Minister has moved cannot be understood or construed without the most careful examination of the motion that appears on the Order Paper. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, read the amendment out most clearly, but at a speed that could not be called dictation speed for people who cannot take shorthand. We were fairly lost until—eventually, and after much pressure—we obtained a photocopy of the amendment.
We now have to decide whether it means what some of us think that it means. I sought advice, from which I glean—I think—that the amendment would allow new clause 18 to be voted on after we have voted on new clauses 1 and 2. The Minister did not trouble to mention that point in specific terms in his opening remarks. If the amendment was intended to be helpful, it still defeats me why some minimal notice of it was not given, or why some fuller and more intelligent explanation was not given at the start of the debate.
One of my reasons for speaking now is to give the Minister an opportunity to give us an intelligible explanation, and to remind him that there are better ways to do something like this
Order. Before the Minister replies, I shall repeat that it was my belief, in accepting the manuscript amendment, that it would be helpful and for the convenience of the House. When the Minister responds, I hope that he will explain clearly why it is to the benefit of the House to deal with the matter in this way, and that he will convince the House of the need for the amendment.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As we all know, it is the burden and task of the person in the Chair to defend the interests of Back-Bench Members. I am a member of the Chairman's Panel, and I know that you, more than most in this House, will always seek to do that.
It is clear, from what I have heard of this short debate, that ample opportunity existed earlier this afternoon for the matter to have been discussed through the usual channels. That does not seem to have happened. Hon. Members have tabled amendments—with which I profoundly disagree—and they surely have a right to be consulted.
Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, consider suspending this sitting of the House for ten minutes to allow hon. Members—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the very helpful point that you made immediately before calling the Minister to respond, you invited him to convince you that the manuscript amendment was in the interests of the House rather than of the Government. When you have heard the Minister's speech, will it be in your power to withdraw your acceptance of the manuscript amendment?
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to Mr. Beith, who correctly drew the House's attention to the fact that my intention is to be helpful. I emphasise that the amendment will not affect the order of consideration of the groups of amendments before the House, and neither will it affect the content of the debate in any way. What it will do, however—
Not just yet. The amendment will allow us to take, one after the other, votes on all the new clauses in the second group of amendments relating to faith schools. The original procedure would have allowed votes to be taken only when we had completed debating all the matters in part 3. It would help the House to be able to take those votes together, instead of after what may have been a lengthy period of debate of other matters in between.
The hon. Gentleman puts a fair question. An error in the drafting of the amendment came to our attention very late in our proceedings. I regret that, and I expressed my regret a few minutes before I rose to move the manuscript amendment. I hope that, after the explanation that I have provided, the hon. Gentleman accepts that it will be helpful for the House to vote on all those matters together, rather than having a long gap between votes on matters that will have been debated together.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Education Bill, as amended, be considered in the following order, namely, new Clauses relating to Part 1, new Clauses relating to Part 2, new Clause 1, new Clause 2, new Clause 18, new Clause 3, new Clause 4, new Clause 7, new Clause 8, new Clause 9, new Clause 12, new Clauses relating to Part 4, new Clauses relating to Part 5, new Clauses relating to Part 6, new Clauses relating to Part 7, new Clauses relating to Part 8, new Clauses relating to Part 9, new Clauses relating to Part 10, other new Clauses, amendments relating to Clauses 1 to 18, Schedule 1, Clauses 19 to 35, Schedule 2, Clauses 36 to 38, Schedule 3, Clauses 39 to 48, Schedule 4, Clauses 49 to 53, Schedule 5, Clauses 54 to 56, Schedule 6, Clauses 57 to 62, Schedule 7, Clauses 63 to 66, Schedule 8, Clauses 67 and 68, Schedule 9, Clauses 69 to 71, Schedule 10, Clauses 72 to 115, Schedule 11, Clauses 116 to 143, Schedule 12, Clauses 144 to 147, Schedule 13, Clauses 148 to 150, Schedule 14, Clauses 151 to 180, Schedule 15, Clause 181, Schedule 16, Clause 182, Schedule 17, Clauses 183 to 188, Schedule 18, Clauses 189 to 192, Schedule 19, Clauses 193 to 198, Schedule 20, Clauses 199 to 209, Schedules 21 and 22, new Schedules.