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Subsequent stages

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill (Programme) – in the House of Commons at 3:36 pm on 15th April 2002.

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Votes in this debate

2. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

I expect the official Opposition to oppose the motion, as they do all programme motions, as a matter of principle. Due to the circumstances of the Bill, it is incumbent on me to give the House a brief explanation of why the Government think the motion appropriate. First, the business has been given this allocation of time because the Lords amendments will deliver changes called for by the Northern Ireland parties and the Opposition. Secondly, by my calculation, the whole debate in the other place—Second Reading, Committee and Third Reading—took two hours and 59 minutes, which is short of the time that we have given the House to consider the amendments this afternoon.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I apologise for intervening, but will my hon. Friend, immediately or during the debate, clarify a point relating to the Bill and the matters that are the subject of the first group of amendments? I understand and have no difficulty with the fact that the Bill rightly requires greater evidence of who people are, their qualifications and where they reside than is the case for the rest of the United Kingdom, but there is a difference between that and having different criteria for who can vote.

I want clarification. The amendments would require people to indicate where else they might be registered in the United Kingdom for electoral purposes, which is perfectly understandable and correct. That will not in any way alter the law, which I understand spans the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, whereby people such as the Minister and colleagues from Northern Ireland may be registered to vote in London borough elections. No doubt they are tempted to vote Labour on 2 May. How will the Bill affect those with dual residence and dual rights to vote in municipal elections—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. We are debating the programme motion. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will ask his question when we debate the Bill itself.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

As you rightly point out, Mr. Speaker, the issue that my hon. Friend raises is germane to the amendments—indeed, it occupied our time in Committee more than once—and I am sure that it will be debated at length. If he catches your eye, he will be able to contribute on that relevant issue.

I speak only to the programme motion, and I was making my second and last point. The whole debate in the other place accounted for less time than the Government are allowing for the consideration of these amendments in this House.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 3:40 pm, 15th April 2002

The Government do some extraordinary things, and they sometimes make colossal fools of themselves. I am afraid that they are making colossal fools of themselves by moving this timetable motion on these Lords amendments. If someone is to be made a fool of, it is important that it is the Government who make fools of themselves and do not succeed in making a fool of Parliament, because it is the Government's fault and not Parliament's. I want to dwell for a couple of minutes on the background to the motion.

There are two reasons why it is extraordinary to introduce a programme motion on these amendments. First, there is no longer any controversy over the subjects dealt with in the Lords amendments between the Government and the Opposition, or between the Government and any hon. Member. As everyone knows, the Government belatedly, but nevertheless effectively, accepted the views put to them by every other party in the House—the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats, and every Northern Ireland party including the Social Democratic and Labour party. I am delighted to see Mr. McGrady. In my experience in the House, on 99 occasions out of 100 the SDLP vote with the Labour party, in government or in opposition. That is an extraordinary state of affairs. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman wants to tell us that it is 98.2 per cent. of the time, I am perfectly prepared to give way to him and have the facts corrected.

It is most extraordinary to introduce a programme motion in those circumstances. The House will recall that it was in the Irish context that the system of programme motions was introduced in the 1880s, when the honourable predecessors of the hon. Member for South Down, the Irish parliamentary party under Parnell's brilliant leadership, succeeded in extracting important concessions from the Governments of the day, both Liberal and Conservative, by the use of aggressive filibustering. As Parliament virtually came to a halt at that time, for the first occasion in its then 600-year history some element of timetabling was introduced into its procedures.

From that time forth, including when most of us arrived in the House, until the new Labour Government appeared in 1997, the programme motion was regarded as exceptional, undesirable and something that we would accept only reluctantly to meet the danger of an abuse by people filibustering and holding up business unreasonably. Anyone who came to the House with a programme motion had to make an exceptional case. The onus was always on the Government to make an exceptional case, and to make it clear that the circumstances were such as to justify what by consensus of the whole House—that was true in my first two Parliaments—was regarded as an inherently obnoxious and undesirable procedure.

Part of the Government's devastating and obnoxious constitutional legacy will have been to introduce what has always been regarded in the House as an undesirable constraint on the freedom of Parliament and on its ability to do its essential job, which is to take its own time according to its own judgment to debate and consider the legislative proposals of the Government of the day. That tradition has been crudely set aside by the Government, who have benefited from their vast majority. They believe that they can do anything and get away with it.

For a long time, programme motions were seen as an exceptional measure, but they have now become a regular procedure. The Government's use of such a motion this afternoon shows that there is no rhyme or reason to it. There may be one explanation, which I shall put to the Minister and he can tell me whether it is correct. I have searched my mind to discover what possible function a programme motion could have, given that the whole House is in agreement, as the Government have reluctantly accepted the substance of the Lords amendments.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

May I draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention the fact that, although I think that we agree that the Lords amendments about national insurance numbers are most welcome, they have thrown up inconsistencies with the rest of the Bill? There is also a question mark over whether those amendments are compatible with our EU obligations, on which we might debate for a considerable period today.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Lady may have the basis of a speech, which she will deliver to the House when we get on to the substance of the Bill. This timetable motion, however, is being introduced when it is known in advance that there is no substantive disagreement between the Government and the other parties in the House. I understand that that goes for the hon. Lady's party as well, and that she has no intention whatever of voting against the Lords amendments; indeed, she has indicated from a sedentary position that my assumption is correct. In those circumstances, it is extraordinary to introduce a timetable motion. It makes no sense at all, because, far from confronting the threat or the slightest hint of a filibuster, the Government know that they are going to have a very easy afternoon.

The only possible explanation that I can imagine for wanting to curtail debate in Parliament in such circumstances is that the Government are embarrassed that they have had to admit that their judgment is flawed and that they must finally concede that the judgment of the other parties in the House was correct. They feel humiliated by that—for a very arrogant Government, it is a humiliating situation—so they are anxious to restrict to a minimum the time available for Members of Parliament to comment on that and to rub salt in the Government's wounds. After thinking through any rational purpose for trying artificially to constrain and constrict parliamentary discussion of this matter this afternoon, that is the only hypothesis that I could form.

If one sets aside the hypothesis of mere perversity or a mindless ideological belief that timetables should always be imposed on Parliament in principle, there is perhaps a desire on the part of the new Labour Government, with their vast majority, to show everybody that they are the master, and that the legislature can be kicked in whichever part of its anatomy the Government choose, at any time, and that it is a good idea to remind it of its subservience. Therefore, the Government will impose a timetable whether or not it makes sense. However, if one excludes explanations that do not have any logical or functional rationale attached to them, the only one that I can think of that makes logical sense is that the Government did not want us to have the opportunity to dwell on what is a turnaround—I shall not say U-turn, as that may seem gratuitously offensive—and an acceptance that the judgment of others was, on this occasion, superior to theirs.

It is ironic that the Government should attempt to limit Parliament's time, even though their operating principle, throughout the range of our legislative activities, is to constrain Parliament artificially in this way. In this case, however, it is clear that, if a time discipline should be imposed on anyone, it should be imposed on the Government. I remind the Under-Secretary that it is four years and a month since the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs made its recommendations in relation to electoral fraud, which, more or less, have been encapsulated in the Lords amendments. If anybody, therefore, needs to have a timetable motion imposed on them, the Government do. Were you to give us leave to table an exceptional motion this afternoon, Mr. Speaker, we should impose a timetable motion on the Government to make sure that they deal with Select Committee reports in a more business-like and timely fashion in future than they have done on this occasion. We might therefore speed up the Government's bureaucratic procedures, focus their minds, and impose on them some of the constraints that they are trying to impose on the legislature. They are abusing the vast majority that the new Labour party has—temporarily, I hope—in the House. Timetabling is the last thing that the Government should be talking about in Parliament. The dialogue should be going in the other direction.

I do not want to end my remarks without acknowledging positively—the Minister knows that I always try to see the best in everything, including the best in even the new Labour Government—that the Government's change of heart is very welcome. My hon. Friend Mr. Blunt was assiduous in Committee and I heard him arguing eloquently. Every other party represented on the Committee also made the arguments that are now represented in the Lord's amendments before us. The Government would not listen in Committee, because they were in their arrogant mood and thought, "We have a vast majority and we don't care what you think. We'll do what we like. Get lost." That sums up the attitude of the Government, and not just in the Northern Ireland Office but right across the board.

I am glad to say that wiser counsels have now prevailed. After the issue has been discussed at great length in this House and in the other place, the Government have come forward with extremely important proposals. Electoral fraud has been a major problem in Northern Ireland for a long time and it is wrong to suggest that only the Unionist parties suffer from it. The SDLP has suffered just as much, if not more, from electoral fraud. All the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland suffer. By definition, they have scruples and are genuinely committed to the democratic process. They are not prepared to go in for cheating or for electoral fraud. Therefore, they can easily suffer in an environment and a culture in which extremist parties do not have the same inhibitions.

We have discussed the problem and particularly the use of national insurance numbers. Like all brilliant ideas, their use seems obvious in retrospect, but it has been agonising trying to persuade the Government that national insurance numbers should be used in Northern Ireland. The Government have now accepted one of our ideas—and not quite for the first time. I draw attention to the fact that, before Easter, the Government made a small gesture in amending provisions of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill in relation to the display of the royal coat of arms on the outside of courthouses. I acknowledge and appreciate that gesture.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he is straying into consideration of another Bill. We are debating the programme motion.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

You are absolutely right to remind me of that, Mr. Speaker. I was glad to be able to touch on the other concession that the Government have made, but I recognise that it is not strictly germane to the timetable motion.

Although the Government have taken a long time and although they—and not the legislature—should have been subject to a timetable or guillotine motion, it is clear from the Lords amendments that the opposition of my hon. Friends and the Northern Ireland parties—the SDLP and the two Unionist parties—has proven to be correct. Indeed, we have received support—we much appreciate it—from the Liberal Democrats, so there has been complete unanimity. We have been right, and the Government have been wrong. I do not want to be churlish because, on an occasion that is all too rare, we must acknowledge that the Government have made a magnanimous gesture.

It is a pity that this entirely gratuitous, unnecessary and unjustified timetable motion should destroy the good will that the Government might otherwise have created. It is not justified by anything that the Minister said or by anything else that anyone can conceive of.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

From time to time, we need to interrupt the cosy consensus between those on the two Front Benches. The real truth behind the timetable motion is the nonsense of parliamentary choreography, which means that Government Back Benchers will be here dead on the button at 7 o'clock, so that they can deal with a matter that was the subject of a point of order earlier. That is the real truth. The hon. Gentleman knows it; the Minister knows it; and, more important, so do the Whips.

When people read our proceedings and the hon. Gentleman's remarks, they probably think that they are very interesting. The truth is that proceedings have been choreographed so that we arrive at the next business at 7 o'clock, when the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill will be discussed. That is the reason for this charade. The hon. Gentleman and the Minister know that.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I agree profoundly with the hon. Gentleman this afternoon, and I have done so for many years; we have stood on the same side of the barrier on the importance of Parliament and the danger of over-mighty and arrogant Governments taking Parliament for granted or abusing their majority to change the procedures of the House so as to make the legislature less effective. When that happens, they do a very bad day's work not merely for democracy and open government, but for good and effective legislation.

The hon. Gentleman and I sing from the same hymn sheet on that subject—we have done so in the past and we will do so again—but it is pretty extraordinary that he should characterise my remarks on the Government, which the Minister did not think particularly friendly, as exemplifying a consensus between myself and the Government on this matter. I am conscious that I am speaking from the Front Bench and that colleagues on the Front Bench will listen to this part of my remarks with particular attention, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no truth whatever in the suggestion that the official Opposition wanted a timetable motion on the Lords amendments or that we have colluded on this or any other occasion to impose on Parliament such a timetable motion.

I do not pretend to have a better understanding of parliamentary procedure than the hon. Gentleman—he is a well known and distinguished parliamentarian—but, frankly, I do not believe that even his technical, practical explanation holds water. In no way is it helpful to keep hon. Members here until 7 o'clock, supposing that it had occurred to anyone on either side of the House who thought it desirable to keep hon. Members here until 7 o'clock that introducing a timetable motion would help to do so. I can think of other things that might help in that way, but not a timetable motion on the Lords amendments to the Bill. For once, the hon. Gentleman has been carried away into a conspiracy theory and proceeded to build castles literally in the air—there is not a grain of sand on which that allegation can possibly be built. I hope that he will accept that assurance.

No doubt, my party and I will be accused of many things, but no one who looks at the constitutional record of the two latest Parliaments can ever maintain for one second the allegation that we have been complacent in this abuse of our parliamentary procedure, which is exemplified by this Government in introducing timetable motions even when they are self-evidently utterly unnecessary in the exigencies of getting Government business through the House.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down 3:57 pm, 15th April 2002

I rise not to filibuster, as may have been the intent of the Conservative spokesman; in fact, the record will show that filibustering is not an attribute of my party. The links between the Irish parliamentary party and my own party are very tenuous indeed—perhaps nationality is the only common element. However, I have expressed great frustration in the House on the timetabling of Bills, especially in relation to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 and the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, which we found extremely frustrating.

As Mr. Davies has said, it is anticipated that all parties in the House will agree with the Lords amendments, probably without Division. That is the only substantive issue and we were to debate it for four hours, which would have been adequate, especially when compared with the fact that 212 clauses and amendments to the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill were debated in four hours not so long ago. The hon. Gentleman gave a good illustration of a mini-filibuster to protract this debate, which I do not intend to do; we have already used up half an hour of the time that he deemed so precious.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 3:59 pm, 15th April 2002

Judging by the comments of Mr. Davies, it seems that we have consensus on the measure. Although I do not want to put words into the hon. Gentleman's mouth, it seems obvious that he does not believe that we need to debate the Bill until 7 pm. As I understand it, that is why he feels affronted: he feels that there is no need for a provision to curtail the debate at 7 pm because it will be finished before then.

I have often felt uncomfortable about programme motions because they have curtailed debate, although on one occasion I supported a programme motion that was opposed by the Conservatives and I was wrong to do so. As I said in private and on the record, the Ministers in charge of the Bill on that occasion took so long to respond to the points made that we ran out of time, and that has made me wary of supporting programme motions.

Nevertheless, when we consider those two facts—that we oppose programme motions when they curtail debate and that everyone seems to accept that we shall be finished long before 7 pm—it seems reasonable to accept the programme motion. I understand that there may be a point of principle for the Conservatives, but being a principle it is not open to debate.

The question about choreography is interesting. I am sure that Ministers would not be so disrespectful to Members as to waste our time and that of others—including Officers—by stringing out a debate that has no need to continue until 7 pm just for the convenience of the Government. We shall see what happens—history will be the judge.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

If there were some cosy consensus between the Front Benches, Andrew Mackinlay would, on past form, be exactly the man to raise it. However, I do not believe that there is such a consensus. When we debated the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill—I choose my words carefully, Mr. Speaker, so as to remain in order—there was a great deal of argument and rowing about its programming. The Opposition made robust points at that time so, from our perspective, there is a pattern and it is entirely right that my hon. Friend Mr. Davies should reiterate those concerns.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that insight. I, too, am sceptical that there is consensus between the Conservatives and the Government deliberately to string the debate out until 7 pm. I take the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford at his word so I address my comments to the Minister: we do not really need to debate until 7 pm two groups of amendments with which every one agrees, but we shall have to see what happens.

I am, however, aware that Lady Hermon will want to raise issues about the amendments but I suspect that even she will not need three hours in which to do so—time will tell. I accept that there are inconsistencies and shall be interested to hear her arguments on them. The amendments were controversial only when the Government opposed them. As the Government now agree with them, most of that controversy has gone.

I respectfully point out that the motion could have been avoided had the Government been more flexible on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report. The only result of the Government's pointless intransigence in the face of cross-party support—from the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Conservatives, the Democratic Unionists, the Ulster Unionists and the Liberal Democrats—is the embarrassing fact that there are ministerial speeches on the record pointing out that the very proposals that the Government have now accepted are a bad idea.

Such contradictions could be avoided if Ministers genuinely showed flexibility when such proposals are made. I do not condemn the Under–Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—I have much respect for him and we are, after all, about to discuss the amendments—but it is a waste of parliamentary time to be considering Lords amendments that were previously tabled by Members in this place and could thus have been included in the Bill before it was debated by the Lords.

If I may humbly suggest improvements to the Minister, perhaps in future he might be willing genuinely to embrace the mantra of flexibility and of being a listening Government. If he had done so, instead of debating a programme motion at this stage of the Bill's passage, we would not actually be debating the matter at all.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 4:05 pm, 15th April 2002

I realise that the choreography of the Liberal Democrats makes it impossible for me to convince them to change their view. However, I want to explain that for many of us the timetable motion is a matter of the most severe principle because the ability to trust Parliament is threatened by the Government's insistence that we have such motions at every drop of the hat.

There is no reason to have a timetable motion today. As my hon. Friend Mr. Davies said, we must ask why it is necessary to have one at all. With all due respect, however, he missed the fundamental reason for it: unless the Government introduce a timetable motion when it is not necessary, it makes it harder for them to introduce one when it is necessary—for the Government's purposes rather than those of Parliament. To get out of the embarrassing situation in which timetable motions are proposed in order to stifle debate, the Government need to make them a regular necessity. If they always happen, the Government do not have to answer that deeply disturbing question about the use of such motions as a mechanism for preventing embarrassing subjects from being raised.

You, Mr. Speaker, have been extremely forthright in allowing debate when the Government have not been forthcoming about providing the time. For example, tomorrow we are to debate something that the Government would have preferred not to discuss. That is part of the problem that we face. The Speaker is in the special position of defending Back Benchers and, indeed, Labour Members when the purposes of Parliament are subverted by a Government who are much more interested in getting their way than in providing the proper forum for democracy.

Although I often disagree with Andrew Mackinlay, it is much more common for me to agree in principle and spirit on the nature of Parliament. The Minister is a man of principle. He has tried hard to help those who have difficulties with the Bill so that we have legislation that is acceptable to both sides of the House. However, he does himself no good by going along with the fundamental plot devised by Government Whips. The plot has not been choreographed by the two sides: it is entirely a minuet by Government Whips.

The line is simple: unless we dance this same dance when it is unnecessary, people will ask why we dance it at all when it is necessary. The answer is that we do that in normal circumstances because the purpose of the timetable motion is to avoid difficult questions and awkward speeches, not just by the Opposition but increasingly by Labour Members.

It is crucial for us to oppose this timetable motion above all others. Lembit Öpik should realise that this is an issue par excellence on which the Liberal Democrats, given their history, can express their concerns. It is precisely because the motion does not matter that this is the time to say that the principle is wrong, and it is wrong because it is designed by the Executive to control Parliament in an unacceptable way.

I have the same difficulty as the hon. Member for Thurrock. If our constituents were to peruse the report of the debate, they would wonder what the blazes we are talking about. Why do we have to discuss for 45 minutes something that should not be discussed? Without this debate, we could raise the relevant issues and conclude our public business by 6 o'clock. The motion has nothing to do with today's business. It is to do with a mechanism increasingly used by a Blairite Government who seek to control us lest we say something out of line.

Few members of the governing party are present—if I exclude Front-Bench Members and the PPS, there are three Members on the other side of the House who are recognised for their individuality, and no one else. If more Labour Members were here, I would remind them that the motion is designed not to keep us under control, but to control them. That is true not only on this occasion, but on others too. The motion is designed to ensure that there are not too many Members talking about the idea that we should bomb Saddam Hussein or whether invading Palestine is a useful way of dealing with terrorism. The motion is not to do with the issues to be discussed today.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point of principle. I shall consult my Front-Bench colleagues; should a vote be called, we may be influenced by his argument.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am much flattered by the hon. Gentleman. I shall therefore bring my remarks to a close, because my purpose, it seems, has been to some degree achieved.

I would like to remind the House that at moments like this, when there are not many Members and very few of the Government's supporters in the Chamber, we need to be most careful and precise about our procedures. I hope that the House will recognise that there is a daily, weekly and monthly need to stand up for the rights of the House, if we are not to fail to defend our constituents on the issues that really matter. My experience of the House over many years is that if one does not stand up on the issues that apparently do not matter, when it comes to those that do, one is in no position to fight. The hon. Gentleman ought to be on our side, given his history, rather than opposing us.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 4:12 pm, 15th April 2002

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall respond to the debate. Mr. Gummer saw through the flimsiness of the argument of his Front-Bench colleague, Mr. Davies, when he said that he had used the wrong argument. Unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, in a very articulate and informed way, also got the wrong end of the stick.

The position of Lembit Öpik on timetabling continues to confuse me. I have been present when he has talked about recorded debates. I have also been present when he has manfully argued for the discipline of timetabling and treated us to some of his experience in business, telling us how important the discipline of timetables has been in that experience. I know that there are hon. Members present who have heard those arguments. The hon. Gentleman castigates me explicitly and by implication for listening and responding to argument. However, that is exactly what he does with his protean utterances on timetabling.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because he and I have both occasionally had the support of Lembit Öpik and his Liberal Democrat colleagues on Northern Ireland issues. Will the Minister inform the House whether he has more confidence in his arguments when he has the support of the Liberal Democrats?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

The hon. Gentleman invites me to come down on one side or the other. As I have a long-term relationship with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, that might place me in an uncomfortable position. I try to recognise when the hon. Gentleman is right and on those occasions I am pleased to have his support. When I think that he is wrong I am pleased to engage in debate with him.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford says that we do not need a timetabling motion because there is no issue of controversy. However, the House has not had an opportunity to consider the provisions that were passed in the other place and are before the House today in the sort of detail that will allow Lady Hermon, for example, as well as, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Front Bench, to ask the detailed questions that they are entitled to ask in relation to those provisions.

The hon. Gentleman went on to say that there is a timetable motion because I, the Minister who has been responsible for the Bill, seek to curtail debate that will expose the fact that there has been a change of Government policy. He will see from my contribution to the debate, when we come to the substance of it, that I take that issue head on. There has been a change of policy, and I recognise and accept that. I say to him and others that there is no point in debate in this House if one cannot persuade Ministers at some stage to change policy. As I have been prepared to change policy, hon. Members are entitled to point that out to me—and I am sure that it will be pointed out. However, if he does not think that three or four hours is enough time in which to do so, I despair of his ability to make such a point. There are only so many ways in which he can say "U-turn", even if he does not want to use that phrase.

In an intervention, my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay suggested that some form of choreography between the Front-Bench teams has led to the timetable motion, on which he was assured by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. If my hon. Friend's reaction was anything to go by, he accepted the hon. Gentleman's assurance that there was no such choreography. So that conspiracy theory was blown out of the water; there was nobody for the Government to conspire with. There can be no conspiracy—unless people are whispering to themselves—although that does not of course stop a Conservative Front Bencher suggesting that that is exactly what the Government are doing.

In having to be consistent with the position that the Conservative Front-Bench team is attempting to take, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal suggested that there is a conspiracy on only one Front Bench, and that that has led to the timetable motion. That is no explanation for the motion either. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman may say that that is a good argument. It was not a convincing argument, but it was a good one.

The reality is that the timetable motion is a practical attempt to set aside a sufficient amount of time in the House to debate provisions which, albeit accepted in principle by all parties, require some scrutiny and debate. I am sure that questions will be raised that need to be answered.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman seems to be in a state of some confusion. He is saying that, notwithstanding the broad agreement in principle on the Lords amendments, providing opportunities to discuss some of the detail might be necessary. That is a weird basis on which to argue for curtailing discussion. He is concerned that Parliament needs more time to consider the matters, so the last thing the Government should be doing is artificially limiting that time.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am suggesting that the motion is a practical attempt to set a reasonable period of time in which to discuss matters—informed by debate not only on Second Reading but in Committee and during remaining stages, and in the other place.

Although I restricted my opening remarks to a few sentences, I pointed out that the whole debate in the other place took less time than we are proposing to allow in this House to debate the provisions before us. Given the agreement in principle on them, there ought to be sufficient time to consider the issues. I suggest that the timetable motion allows sufficient time to do so.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford has disavowed the generous interpretation of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who was not arguing that debate was being curtailed unnecessarily. It appeared to me that he said that there would not be enough time. Time will tell whether that is so.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

With the greatest respect to Mr. Davies, I was not convinced by his arguments. I was interested in the deeper principle outlined by Mr. Gummer. In that sense, there is a concern that the habit of always having a programme motion when it does not count makes it harder for us to defend the need for more time when such a motion does count.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am grateful for that observation. I understood the hon. Gentleman's position to be that he was agreeable to programming in principle. He has said that on several occasions, but now it appears that he agrees with programming generally, but not in principle—whatever the difference between generally and in principle may be. Is it that he is generally agreeable in principle to programming? I am not sure.

Until now, my understanding was that the hon. Gentleman, who speaks regularly for the Liberal Democrats when I am at the Dispatch Box, was agreeable in principle to programming. We have to try to convert the principle to which he is agreeable into some form of practical expression. The motion before us is designed to do that in a way that provides sufficient time to debate the provisions that are before the House today. That is the argument, and it is on that basis that I support the motion and ask the House to do so as well.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 274, Noes 162.

Division number 207 Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill (Programme) — Subsequent stages

Aye: 274 MPs

No: 162 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

That the following provisions shall apply to the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 10th July 2001: