Motion made, and Question proposed, pursuant to
That the Order of 13th December 2005 (Criminal Defence Service Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows:
1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this Order.
3. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this Order.—[Bridget Prentice.]
The short length of the Committee stage, and the expediency of dealing with this business by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, might lead the Government, or their Whips, to assume that this programming might not be objectionable. I am concerned, however, not least because of the expediency of the Bill's earlier stages. Why do the Government now feel it necessary to place this straitjacket on our debate? To table this motion seems unnecessarily dismissive of the positive attitude that hon. Members have shown throughout the course of the Bill. It signifies a bullying attitude that was not present in Committee and that sets the wrong tone for our debate this afternoon.
I, too, am surprised by the need for the Government to table a programme motion on this Bill. Judging from the reports of the Committee stage, everything was extremely amicable, and the Minister herself said earlier this week during Constitutional Affairs questions that the Opposition had been pretty supportive of the Government's proposals. If we are to have a programme motion, presumably the Opposition will support it, because there are so few amendments to be discussed on Report that we could go on to have a Third Reading debate that would last longer than the Report stage and possibly even the Committee stage.
I am really disappointed in my constituency neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Bridget Prentice. I should have thought that she would know better than to treat the House in this contemptuous way. We have become used to Ministers assuming that these so-called programme motions—or guillotines, as we used to call them—will be quietly nodded through and that they need give no explanation to the House as to why they have been tabled. I shall have to have a word with the Minister about this afterwards, because our neighbourliness could come under severe strain.
The motion reveals all about the philosophy behind programme motions. Let us look back at the original programme motion of
The original motion assumed that Report stage would end one hour before the moment of interruption, which implied that on a Thursday, Report stage would last until 5 pm and the Third Reading debate would last from then until 6 pm. Question Time would run from 10.30 am until 11.30 am, and let us assume for the sake of argument that business questions would run from then until 12.15 pm or thereabouts. According to my calculation, that would have allowed some four and three quarter hours for the Report stage.
At the time when the programme is originally envisaged, we have no means of knowing what will transpire in Committee. Keith Vaz has said that the Committee stage was amicable, and that the Opposition seemed to be giving the Government their full support, something that happens all too frequently nowadays. Let us assume that this is one of those ghastly non-controversial consensual measures to which we all sign up without too much debate—but the Government did not necessarily know that at the time. The problem with these programme motions is that when they are drawn up, the Government have no regard to what might happen in Committee or, indeed, on Report. So the Government allowed four and three quarter hours for the Report stage, still not knowing what might transpire.
It might be said that that would have been bad enough. Who knows how many amendments might have been tabled on Report by Members who had not served on the Standing Committee, and for whom the Report stage provides an opportunity to contribute? The Government, however, swept all that aside. They said, "We, the Government, will generously allow you, the House of Commons, a whole four and three quarter hours in which to deliberate on Report." Several hundred Members, potentially—there are several hundred Members who are not in the Government—would have had four and three quarter hours in which to consider all the changes that they might wish to make on Report.
That was then. This is now. Now, the Minister has the gall to present us with the motion that is before us, and to say, "Never mind all that. It has all changed now. We are going to make an even more draconian assumption: that the House will require even less time in which to discuss the Bill"—and, as I shall make clear in a moment, it is a substantial Bill.
We began our debate on this programme motion at 1.36 pm. The Government are now saying that we have a total of three hours in which to consider all the remaining stages of the Bill. Potentially, one hour of that time will be taken up by this part of our deliberations—45 minutes for the debate on the programme motion plus a Division at the end. I now give warning that unless the Minister can persuade me more than she has so far that the motion has any merit at all, I shall seek to divide the House on it, because it is a disgrace.
It is always fascinating to hear the right hon. Gentleman speak about these issues because he is such an expert on them, but may I urge him not to prolong the debate too much? As he says, there are a good many important issues for us to discuss. In view of what he has said about her, the Minister may withdraw the programme motion and allow us a longer debate on Report. Only two amendments have been selected, and we might then be able to discuss them even more fully. If the right hon. Gentleman speaks for too long, however, we shall not have a chance to debate those substantive issues.
Having seen the Minister's face during the hon. Gentleman's remarks, I can only say, "In your dreams". I can predict that the Minister will have no intention of withdrawing the motion.
The hon. Gentleman—this is very uncharacteristic of him—seeks somehow to blame me for the fact that the House may not have sufficient time in which to consider this important motion. It is the Government's motion, however, that gives us but three hours in total to consider the Bill. If I, or indeed my hon. Friends, wish to examine the motion in rather more detail, that is surely our right. We are being given only 45 minutes in which to do it.
Let me continue my analysis. If we assume that the first hour will be taken up by the debate on the programme motion and the Division which I hope will follow—it will, if it is anything to do with me—and the last hour is taken up by the Third Reading debate, we are left with but one hour in which to consider the two amendments, or more accurately the new clause and amendment.
These are not trivial matters. The hon. Member for Leicester, East, who is an eminent legal expert, and the other eminent lawyers who are with me on the Conservative Benches, will doubtless want to bring their analyses to bear, but they will have hardly any opportunity in which to do so. The proposer of an amendment or new clause usually wants to explain it properly to the House. Others will undoubtedly wish to contribute, especially those with legal knowledge and expertise, and we shall wish to hear from them. I cannot imagine that that can happen satisfactorily in the time that we have been allowed.
I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. I happen to agree with him about the programme, but will he tell me why Conservative Front Benchers do not oppose every programme motion on every Bill? That would at least draw attention to the issue.
I wish they would, but my party's Front Benchers are in consensual mode at present. They seem to think that we will attract more support from the electorate if we oppose the Government as little as possible rather than as much as possible. This is the new mood of the Conservative party.
I shall be delighted to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. You always challenge me in this regard, do you not? You think that saying that the motion is restrictive will somehow constrain my remarks. I think you will find that it does not work quite like that, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I was about to probe further in my analysis. In the one hour that I have identified between the programme motion and Division and the Third Reading debate, we have two matters of substance to consider: a new clause that is of some importance and an amendment, which is similarly important. Let us say, arbitrarily, that we allot half an hour to each. That means that the Government are seriously suggesting that in a mere half hour we as the House of Commons, with an obligation to our voters to scrutinise legislation, are expected at one and the same time to listen to the proposer of the new clause or the amendment, to hear Back-Bench contributions from the eminent lawyers here gathered on both sides of the House, and to hear the ministerial response. In one half hour—30 minutes—we as the House of Commons are expected to do justice to our responsibility to scrutinise legislation properly.
I apologise for delaying my right hon. Friend's probing, and I intervene as one who is not a lawyer, eminent or otherwise.
I suspect that the Government's response will be that part of their rationale was today's statement on Afghanistan. They felt that they must constrain the House's time in some way. Even if we allow what I believe may be the Government's justification, however, and given that both Front Benchers and Back Benchers have described the Bill as a relatively non-controversial measure, should this not have been one of those cases in which the business is allowed to find its own level?
Of course I agree with my hon. Friend's last point, but how can he possibly have known that the Bill was non-controversial? The fact that my hon. Friend Mr. Djanogly has a cosy arrangement with the Government according to which it is allegedly non-controversial does not mean, as far as the rest of us are concerned—we may not have participated in Committee, but we may have come along with fresh ideas, or we may have been approached by constituents or interest groups—that a measure that may have looked bland and uncontroversial at first will remain the same throughout its passage. I object to the assumption that measures can be deemed uncontroversial by those who know better than my hon. Friend Mr. Francois and me, and that we must then row in behind that regardless.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his courtesy. I would never accuse him of being non-controversial in any context: it would be more than my life is worth. I believe, however, that Keith Vaz, who I think served on the Standing Committee and knows the detail of the Bill, seemed also to suggest that it was not the most controversial legislation that had ever been presented to the House. That being the case, I offer again my argument that the Government might have been wiser in this instance to allow the business to find its own level in the traditional way.
That may be my hon. Friend's view, but I see in the Chamber more than one Member from Leicestershire. Indeed, David Taylor is well known for his dedication to the parliamentary process and his power of analysis. He is looking very thoughtful, and he may well have thoughts on the Bill other than those of the hon. Member for Leicester, East, eminent lawyer though he is, who was not on the Committee and who may or may not have views yet to be revealed. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh has shown us that, in every respect, the programme motion is a disgrace and an outrage to the parliamentary process. That is the long and short of it.
Following on from what Mrs. Dunwoody said, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon takes the message back to our Front-Bench colleagues that we should not allow these programme motions to slip through uncontested, because again and again they illustrate a number of interrelated facts. The first is that the Government now assume that they, not the House, must control all aspects of the parliamentary process. They are saying to us, effectively, "When we introduce our legislation, we will decide how much time the House of Commons will have to consider it." That is what is so unacceptable.
The right hon. Gentleman's remarks in relation to me were probably over-generous. Will he not acknowledge that there have been in this consensual period a good number of Bills without a programme motion? After looking at Division lists from before and during that period, I know that he was present, so presumably—at least for a brief period—he was infected by this warm, fluffy desire to get on with things.
Rarely am I accused of being warm and fluffy—I will treasure the moment—but the honest answer is that, from time to time, I find it difficult to persuade even one colleague to help me in dividing the House. If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to join me in changing Standing Orders so that one Member can divide the House, he will have a lot more fun. However, I accept his criticism, and perhaps I have not been as diligent as I should. I shall try to do better and see whether I can, following his advice, divide the House more often.
There is an implication in what the hon. Member for Leicester, East said, which is that, somehow, the Bill might not be that important, and certainly is not that controversial, so it does not require so much time for consideration. Let us look at the gist of the Bill. The explanatory notes, which usefully provide a summary, say that it
"changes the arrangements for the grant of public funding for representation in criminal proceedings in England and Wales."
I can think of few things that could be more important in terms of our criminal law and representation of our citizenry within it.
It is a very well established trend, if I may say so to my hon. Friend, and one that has developed over the last eight years or so. In the good old days, the Government would not have dreamed of doing anything like this. The tradition was observed that the Opposition by and large could control the pace of proceedings in the House and in Committee, rightly in my view, and only in the extreme would the Government introduce a guillotine or timetable motion to bring business to a proper close. That is the way it should have been. Now, the Government routinely and arbitrarily decide how much time will be allocated to business, leaving us simply to try to fit in as best we can.
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Will he acknowledge that certain important clarifications were made during consideration of the Bill in another place in terms of the appeal rights in respect of decisions of the commission in determining whether access to justice had been properly granted? Guillotining a Bill in such a way obviously reduces the amount of discussion, and perhaps the progress that we might make on other issues of such import.
Indeed, my hon. Friend is correct. He, of course, is one of the experts to whom I referred earlier, and I look forward to his contribution, although it will necessarily be brief because of the overly restrictive programme motion.
New clause 1, which stands in the name of several of my hon. Friends—all of whom are here present, I am happy to note—says:
"Notwithstanding powers conferred on the Legal Services Commission by section 1, the Court shall retain the power to grant a representation order upon oral application".
Those are momentous matters, yet we now know, having arrived here on this day in these circumstances—the shape taken by today's business, such as business questions and the important statement, which rightly was allowed to run for some time a short while ago—that we have been left with this insultingly brief period in which to consider them.
My right hon. Friend has mentioned a trend. In view of such programme motions being introduced in the House, does he think there is a link between that trend and controversial changes in public expenditure?
Programme motions, as they have developed over recent years, have begun to have more and more adverse impact on our effectiveness as a legislature that is there properly to scrutinise—
Of course that is true, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I must not allow myself to be seduced by my enthusiastic hon. Friends into straying more widely than the motion itself allows. I shall try to resist that in future.
I want briefly to discuss amendment No. 1, which stands in the name of Mr. Heath, who is, as ever, in his place. If one considers the explanatory notes as they relate to clause 2(2), one can see the potential importance of that proposal. I do not seek to judge its substance, but I want simply to put in context the time that might properly be required to consider it. The explanatory notes say that paragraph 3B
"provides that power to grant a right to representation can only be exercised where an individual's financial resources are such that the body considering the application is satisfied that he is eligible."
The amendment would make an important change to that.
Again, with regard to the substance in these matters, I am looking forward enormously to the Minister's explanation of why she believes, having arrived where we are today in these circumstances, that we can do justice to the gravity and substance of the new clause and the amendment in the time left to us.
My right hon. Friend is making some interesting points about the proposals to be considered on Report, but clearly it is for the House to determine how it wants the debate to proceed. Under the original programme motion, more limited debate on the amendments would have allowed extended debate on Third Reading. In terms of the overall impression of the Bill and certain issues that may arise, such extended debate on Third Reading might be constructive.
The right hon. Gentleman has only himself to blame. I understand from Members who sat on the Committee that four sittings were allocated for scrutiny of the Bill, but that consideration lasted only about half an hour. There was the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill at that stage, and we have further opportunities now, but he is letting the Government get away with not debating the substance of the Bill. Will he put his great eloquence on hold and call his Division?
It is not my fault if the Committee did not do its job; I was not on the Committee. I did not frame this disgraceful motion; the Government did. I did not put on a statement earlier, knowing that this important business was to follow; the Government did. For the hon. Gentleman to seek somehow to blame me for the fact that we find ourselves in this invidious parliamentary position will not do.
I look forward to the hon. Gentleman seeking to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to indicate whether he believes that the programme motion is remotely justifiable.
I do not want to delay the House for too long because I want to leave time for the Minister—after my hon. Friends have spoken—to justify this outrageous, disgraceful and unacceptable programme motion, which I hope that the House will throw out.
Mr. Forth is right in two respects. First, the programme motion replaces a previous one, which was determined at Second Reading. It cannot be right to determine the length of Report at Second Reading when no one—not the Whips, the Minister or the Opposition—can know the interests that Back-Bench Members may have in the Bill.
Secondly, I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman is right that had the programme motion not been moved today, proceedings on the Bill would have been completed well within the time allotted by the motion. We have now spent a substantial part of that time discussing a programme motion that I believe to be entirely otiose. Even at this point, the Minister may wish to withdraw it so that we can get on with the important substance of debate.
Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I will keep my comments short. There are long-standing principles with regard to guillotining debate in this House. As the Committee on the Bill was amicable, I am surprised that the Government have moved this unhelpful and unfortunate motion. There was cross-party consensus in Committee and on the Floor of the House today, with Keith Vaz foremost among those indicating surprise that the motion was tabled.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Forth rightly and eloquently pointed out that this is an important Bill containing important elements of public expenditure. Therefore, it is incumbent on all hon. Members to come along on behalf of their constituents, whose taxes will be taken as a result of changes in the Bill, and to be accountable. We need to hear the Minister respond at length to the debate and we need an opportunity to look at the details fully and frankly.
Too many programme motions are being tabled and there is too much curbing of debate. We often hear that this House is no longer taken seriously and, regrettably, I often think that the Government are setting a bad example to new Members like myself. At a later point, I would like to compliment the Government for noting this debate, reading Hansard and changing their mind on tabling so many programme motions. This place is the better for rigorous debate and it is better served by robust debate. That is what this Chamber is for.
My friend and neighbour Mr. Forth is one of the great debaters and is always charming. He is someone with whom I like to think that I get on extremely well and I am always loth to disagree with him. However, I must do so today. I hope that that will not harm our deep and long friendship.
I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman has a loathing of programme motions and he has a right to take that point of view. However, I must tell him that the debate in Committee was comprehensive, if not lengthy, and that the programme motion was agreed with both Opposition Front Benches.
I will not. I understand why the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst takes the view that he does, but the consensual politics about which he spoke has clearly broken down somewhere along the line. The motion was agreed by the usual channels and for that reason I would like to proceed with the rest of the debate.