I beg to move,
That, having regard to the Resolution of Standing Committee A, reported on 19th December 2002, the programme order of 26th November 2002 in relation to the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill be confirmed.
As hon. Members know, the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill has recently received detailed scrutiny in Committee, following its Second Reading in the House in November last year. There were nine sittings of the Standing Committee, as well as one day on the Floor of the House when we considered clauses 1 to 4. I am grateful to all those hon. Members who participated in the consideration of the Bill for their constructive contributions.
The Opposition have made a great deal of fuss about the timetabling of the Bill, and a lot of synthetic indignation has been expressed. Such was the provision of time in Committee that it was possible for the Opposition to spend an inordinate amount of the debates arguing about whether sentences should begin with the word "but". Members should be aware of that when they hear the Opposition making further protests about there being insufficient time to consider the substance of the Bill.
The programme motion in the name of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the House provides that the debate on the amendments and new clauses should be concluded one hour before the moment of interruption, and that Third Reading should be concluded at the moment of interruption at 6 o'clock. This has been agreed through the usual channels and should provide sufficient time to debate the 20 amendments and seven new clauses that have been selected. More than one third of the amendments to be debated have been tabled by the Government, mostly in response to concerns raised in Committee, and I hope that these will generally be welcomed. The Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend Mr. Leslie and I look forward to an interesting debate.
I am disappointed with the Minister's opening remarks. My understanding is that nothing has been agreed through the usual channels. The timetable that we face today has been imposed on us by the Government. The Minister referred to the time available for the scrutiny of this very important Bill in Committee. I think he was being slightly disingenuous, because I stated quite explicitly during an earlier stage of the Bill that I recognised that the time allowed for consideration of the Bill in Committee was probably adequate, and that the problem was that the four key clauses underlying the principles of the Bill that were debated on the Floor of the House had been given a grossly inadequate amount of time. In fact, the House did not manage to debate all those issues.
The issue before us today is that we have a little under three hours left in which to consider a Bill of constitutional significance. That significance has already been recognised by the fact that part of the Committee stage of the Bill was taken as a Committee of the whole House. I would suggest to the Minister that in future the Government show a certain amount of self-restraint. When we have only a short period of time available for Report and Third Reading, the Government must resist the temptation to allow a second Government statement before that business begins. I hope that the Minister will agree with me on this, as he is not shy of debate and is generally keen to engage with important issues such as those that we are discussing today. Although I do not expect him to say anything publicly, I hope that he will privately make his views known to the Leader of the House, because a lot of his hard work preparing for the later groups of amendments—which will probably not be considered this afternoon—will have been wasted, as will the hard work of many Conservative Members, myself included.
The new clauses and amendments that have been selected give wide scope for debate on some of the fundamental issues that have troubled Conservative Members—and, indeed, some Labour Members—during the earlier stages of the Bill. So this is a good selection of amendments, and it will provide a good opportunity to debate the issues that have caused some difficulty. I am only sorry that we shall not get through all those groups this afternoon. As my hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin said in his point of order, seven groups have been selected for consideration. Frankly, it is inconceivable that we shall get to the last of them.
There seems to be a serious flaw in our arrangements and procedures. On Report, new clauses are quite properly considered first, but on this occasion, all the new clauses have been tabled either by the Opposition, the Liberal Democrats or Back-Bench Members. Although I live in hope, I try to be a realist, and it is likely that the Government will resist all those new clauses. It is therefore likely that they will not be added to the Bill. I remain an optimist, but it is also likely that all the Government amendments will be made. They will be voted on, and the Government will use their majority to carry them, but they will not be debated because they appear towards the end of the selection list for today. It will necessarily almost always be the case that the items on the amendment paper that are certain to make it into the Bill will be those least likely to receive proper debate and scrutiny on Report. So the Government get their amendments without any debate or scrutiny, which effectively places the burden of scrutiny on the other place.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it was presumptuous in the extreme for the Minister to imply that, because Government amendments on Report are principally responses to representations made by members of the Standing Committee, this should be an-open-and-shut case? Is it not possible that Members present today who were not so privileged—I was not so privileged—as to serve on the Committee might wish to contribute to constructive deliberation on the amendments?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but it is not true that all the Government amendments are responses to points raised by Opposition Members in Committee—although it is true that at least one group is a direct response to the Minister's resistance of a point raised by them then. Not the least of my disappointment when I learnt that we would probably not reach that group today was due to the fact that the Minister would have no opportunity to proffer his thanks to the Opposition for drawing attention to the issues involved.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that Government amendments Nos. 8, 9, 10 and 11—which are indeed at the end of the list and therefore may not be reached if he and his colleagues speak at length; I hope they will not do so—are a direct response to an amendment that he tabled in Committee. I said then that I would table amendments to meet his objective, and I hope he will accept these amendments as an expression of my appreciation and thanks for his efforts.
I am glad we have managed to get that out of the way. But I think it disingenuous of the Minister to suggest that a debate on seven groups of new clauses and amendments—one important group, the second, contains four new clauses—can be completed in the time available, which is less than two hours and 45 minutes. That is clearly not the case. This has nothing to do with delaying or other tactics on the part of any Members on either side of the House; it is simply a reflection of the inadequate provision of time.
Let me respond to the intervention of my hon. Friend Mr. Bercow by saying that at least one Government amendment and subsequent Opposition amendments to it are in response to representations received by the Government from the Electoral Commission. Given that the commission is an innovative body, I think that Members would be interested in exploring the process whereby the Government have published a Bill, the commission has made representations to the Government, and the Government—to give them their due—have responded. That too is an innovative process in our constitutional arrangements, involving a new body, which bears scrutiny and questioning. Sadly, it will be subject to neither.
As I was saying before the Minister intervened, it is ironic that changes in our procedural rules designed to make this place more modern and efficient have cast the burden of scrutiny on to the other place—the unreformed other place—which must now do the work that most of our constituents think they have sent us here to do: the work of scrutinising legislation properly before it is enacted.
I shall end shortly, because another irony is that the longer we discuss the inadequate allocation of time the more time we use up. Let me say to my colleagues, however, that the second group of amendments and new clauses will allow debate on what I believe to be key issues. I hope that we reach later groups, and I certainly hope that the debate on the first group is reasonably brief so that we can reach the vital second group, although I do not hold out much hope of our getting much further than that.
It is conceivable that, on some occasions, timetables can work, but if they are to work they must be fair and reasonable. Timetables such as this, providing less than three hours for consideration of a constitutionally significant Bill, bring any timetabling system into disrepute. To the Government's shame, an important constitutional Bill will yet again go through this place on the nod, and another nail will have been hammered into the coffin of our parliamentary democracy.
I shall not take 10 minutes to oppose the motion. I shall make two points.
The Minister is right that the Conservative spokesmen spent a long time debating whether the word "but" should begin a certain part of the Bill, thus wasting a fair amount of the time available, but he was wrong to propose the motion in this way. The two statements have taken up time, and according to our modernised procedures the business of the House ends at 6 pm. That has truncated the time available for this important Bill, which we deeply regret. We cannot therefore support the motion.
I had not intended to speak, but I was so incensed by the Minister's speech that I felt that I must make some response.
I entirely rebut the claim by Mr. Davey that time was wasted in Committee. Unlike my hon. Friend Mr. Bercow, I had the privilege of serving on the Committee, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt that the Committee's proceedings were measured and focused, and raised important issues.
As for the alleged killer point that some time was spent in discussing whether the word "but" should feature, does the Minister recall Mr. Stringer—who is sitting behind him—making a point that some of us were making? He said that court cases could take weeks and months, and that tens of thousands of pounds could be spent on deciding the meaning of the word "and" or the word "but" in a statute. It is actually quite important to ensure that legislation is accurate, and a "but" or an "and" in the wrong place can make a big difference.
Is not the Minister's point disingenuous? I acknowledge that the Committee did not use all the time available to it. We did not take advantage of the opportunity for a 10th sitting, because we had been able to complete the part of the business that was due to be dealt with in Standing Committee. The problem related to the part that was to be taken on the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friend is right. I was about to make the same point. I thought that the Committee proceedings were measured, sensible and focused; but there was not enough time for debate on the issues that had to be dealt with by a Committee of the whole House. I had prepared two speeches that could not be delivered. I feel that the country has been cheated of a significant amount of wisdom.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but I also ensure that Members have the opportunity to put their points of view. When it comes to wasting time, I will certainly make the necessary decision.
Jim Knight was entirely wrong. As I said at the outset, I did not intend to speak in this debate, and I realise that my speech is eating into time that could be spent on the amendments; but sometimes a point of principle must be put on record. I feel that I am well placed to make this point, for, unlike some of my colleagues, I do not oppose timetabling in principle—
My right hon. Friend disagrees with me. I understand that: I disagree with him. I think that a Government are entitled to their business. I remember from my days in the Whips Office under that great, successful Government of 1992 to 1997 that there were times when the Whips tried to find speakers for debates on the Floor of the House. I felt that that was wrong then and I feel that it is wrong today. I am not against timetabling in principle but there is surely an implied contract which says that a timetable motion that is laid before the House should give sufficient time for hon. Members on both sides of the House—Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike—to discuss in detail the legislation that is before us. The length of time involved will be determined by the weight and substance of the legislation being considered. In this case, we are talking about a constitutional matter that is so important that we had to discuss the first two clauses on the Floor of the House, yet today we have three hours to deal with seven groups of amendments. Not only is it an important matter, as we heard in Committee and when the Bill was discussed on the Floor of the House, but there are profound reservations about the legislation on both sides of the House, including among Labour Members. That is why it is important that these matters get a fair hearing.
At the moment we are rightly discussing the future of the other place and House of Lords reform. It is my strong belief that we have not yet gone far enough in reforming this House but the key issue on which this House fails time and again is proper scrutiny of legislation. One of the key—
I was getting carried away with my own incredible eloquence, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise.
We need time to study every piece of legislation—in particular this Bill, which deals with weighty constitutional matters on which hon. Members on both sides of the House have profound disagreements. My right hon. Friend Mr. Forth made the point during business questions that there should be protected time for legislation. I strongly agree. I ask the Minister to take that back to his colleagues. What has happened this afternoon is totally unacceptable and unnecessary, and the Government need to think again.
I am unhappy on two counts. First, I am unhappy about some of the remarks made by the Minister and Mr. Davey about the debate that has already taken place in Committee. Secondly, I am unhappy about the very fact of the tabling of the programme motion. I shall deal first with the first point.
I take the gravest possible exception to the casual and gratuitous abuse that has been showered by the Minister and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton on three serious, committed and diligent parliamentarians, my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). In performance of their parliamentary duties on behalf of their constituents, they have sought in Committee and elsewhere properly and in detail to consider the legitimate policy proposals that have been unveiled by the Government. To suggest that three such serious and earnest Members would be guilty of evasion, procrastination or attempted filibustering is not only untrue but unworthy of the right hon. and hon. Members concerned. These are serious issues and they need to be debated.
Secondly, I am unhappy—I make no apology for the fact—about the tabling of the programme motion. In fulfilment of our responsibilities to our constituents, it is extremely important that we in this place are not inward-looking—that we do not gaze at our own navels—and that we provide a proper context for the consideration of our business, including programme motions.
I know that we do not refer to people in this place other than Members of Parliament but we are aware that, even though there is diminishing public interest in politics, and growing and pervasive cynicism about politics and politicians—
On the subject of the programme motion to which you rightly direct me, Madam Deputy Speaker, let us provide the context for members of the public listening to our proceedings and observing them to make a judgment on whether it is the Government or the Opposition Members objecting who are right on this important matter. Let us be clear what we have in mind. In this context, I go back to what was stated from the Opposition Front Bench, if the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton feels able readily to contain himself for a limited period to allow proper attention to be paid to the important debate that needs to take place.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman at the moment.
I want to address the point that was rightly raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. He referred to the number of amendments and new clauses that we have to consider. The point that I want to put on record is this. The Government want us to consider between now and 6 o'clock proposed new clauses and amendments to crucial legislation, the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill—I do not think we would disagree about that—on the subjects of provision for further referendums; the preconditions for holding referendums and definition of regions; the local government review; the commencement of the legislation; referendum questions and statement; order for combination of polls; and directions to the Electoral Commission. None of those matters is trivial. All are important.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the significance of the argument lies in the importance and the number of the proposals that the Government are putting to the House. As you can readily testify, I am being customarily fair-minded about it. I could be extremely hostile to the Bill. No doubt I would be if I had been on the Committee or were going to take part in detailed debate on every aspect of it, but I am making the point that the proposals before us are important. The Government have a mandate, and it is entirely legitimate for them to put forward these proposals.
I will in a moment if the hon. Gentleman will contain himself for a few moments.
What is not legitimate is for the Minister, suffused with the importance of his proposals and with a righteous indignation welling up in him at anyone's daring to contest their content, should object to other right hon. and hon. Members fulfilling their responsibilities. I do not know, and I doubt that the Minister, despite his estimable talents, could possibly know, how many hon. Members present have received representations on these matters, what those representations have been and whether those representations have necessitated right hon. and hon. Members further debating them on Report. This is the gravamen of the argument against what the Government are arrogantly proposing. It is unacceptable so to truncate consideration of these important matters as to allow approximately three hours for seven new clauses and 20 amendments to be considered on Report.
The hon. Gentleman never disappoints: he is almost invariably wrong. On the ground of statistical probability, it is conceivable at some stage in the unspecified future that on the law of averages—
No. The hon. Gentleman is hoist by his own petard and cannot have it both ways. He says that we are taking too long, then prolongs matters with inconsequential and irrelevant interventions. My concern is that we shall have only some six and a half minutes to consider each new clause and amendment. I am not a qualified mathematician or statistician, but that is a generous assessment: it assumes that there are no Divisions, and that we have a seamless debate on all the groups of amendments. However, votes will be held, as part of the healthy tradition of British democracy, which retains some pride and vitality in its lungs. That means that the debating time will be even shorter.
As my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth has often pointed out—he did so at business questions today—we are again witnessing the triumph of ministerial arrogance over parliamentary propriety. That is unacceptable. It is a derogation of our duty to constituents. It must be steadfastly opposed.
I rise to support the programme motion. I had the privilege of serving on the Standing Committee considering the Bill. There was a lot of filibustering in our debates, including an hour spent on the word "but". The Opposition put forward no substantial alternative to the proposals for regional assemblies, although the Liberal Democrats made some vague attempts. A lot of time was spent on anodyne points. This afternoon, the nearly 32 minutes spent filibustering on this motion will eat into the main debate, because the Tories have nothing to say about regional government. They fear that a proper three-hour debate would expose them on this issue.
I do recall that. My constituents in the north-east want this Bill, which they consider to be important. The Conservatives are wasting time, and that will not help tackle some of the problems faced by regions such as the north-east. When a referendum is held, I hope that people remember that the Opposition had no alternatives to propose.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the programme motion, and shall begin by dealing with a couple of the points raised by Mr. Jones. First, I do not believe that even using the time spent on the programme motion would give us enough time to debate adequately all the substantive business set down for this afternoon.
How will the hon. Gentleman justify wasting time this afternoon to my constituents in the north-east, who are keen for the Bill to become law and who have the right to say what happens in their region?
I am not sure that it is my duty to justify that to the hon. Gentleman's constituents. My duty is to represent my constituents. The hon. Gentleman must justify to his constituents the business and decisions of the House, and especially the way in which he votes. I would not dream of treading on his toes by expostulating to his constituents—or to the constituents of any other hon. Member—about the direction in which the House is going.
The House is keen to proceed to the main business, and I shall not detain it any longer. However, many hon. Members not yet present in the Chamber may be aching to contribute, especially in connection with regional boundaries. That applies to those hon. Members who represent parts of the county of Durham that used properly to be part of the north riding of Yorkshire, and to my hon. Friend Mr. Collins, who represents people detached by the appalling Heath-Walkerian reforms from North Yorkshire. It applies also to my hon. Friend Mr. Evans, some of whose constituents used to be in North Yorkshire.
I could go on, but I see that that would not be welcome. I am sure that the House takes my point, and I hope that the programme motion will be defeated.