Easter Adjournment

Part of Deferred Division No. 85 – in the House of Commons at 12:52 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 12:52 pm, 29th March 2007

Before the House of Commons adjourns for the Easter recess, I want to raise a matter relating to the manner in which we conduct our proceedings, particularly the manner in which legislation is now being progressed through both Houses of Parliament. On 15 March, I tabled a written parliamentary question to the Prime Minister asking him, in the light of an earlier comment that he had made, if he would place on record the Hansard reference to the occasion on which a very full debate took place on the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. That written question should have been answered today. The Table Office—and I have no quarrel with the Clerks whatsoever, far from it—rejected the question, on the grounds that the Prime Minister, in his answer at Prime Minister's Question Time to my hon. Friend Mr. Cash, had not actually referred to a parliamentary debate. The Prime Minister in fact said:

"We have had a very full debate on the issue in public".—[ Hansard, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 811.]

With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is the House of Commons. We debate issues in the Chamber, and I do not think that it is satisfactory for the Prime Minister or, indeed, any other Minister to tell the House that we have had a full debate "in public"—what does that mean, is it the public bar of The Bull and Bush?—rather than on the Floor of the House, which is where debates relating to contentious issues upon which there are strongly, deeply and honourably held opinions on both sides should be held.

Looking at what actually happened, we can see how fully the matter was debated. Sexual orientation was not debated at all during the passage of the Equality Act 2006 through the House of Commons. It was not debated in Committee or on Report or on Third Reading in the Commons, because it was only introduced as the subject of an amendment in Committee in the House of Lords. That introduction caused what my hon. Friend Mrs. Laing referred to later on the record as "anomalies". I think that we can fairly say that the regulations are pretty anomalous. As the implications of the regulations became clear, public concern was widely expressed. To that extent, the Prime Minister was right—there was a public debate outside the House—but still there was no opportunity for a full debate in the House of Commons.

Those highly contentious draft regulations were laid on 13 March. My understanding—and I stand to be corrected, as it is possible that the Committee was appointed late at night on 13 March—is that members of the Committee designated to consider those regulations were not appointed, or at least informed, until 14 March. The regulations were heard by a Delegated Legislation Committee very early in the morning on Thursday 15 March. From the time the regulations were laid, notwithstanding their highly contentious content, until their consideration and determination in full, insofar as debate is concerned, by the House, there was a period of two and a half days. There was no time for consideration by Committee members and there was no time for any further representations to be made. In Committee on 15 March, 17 appointed Committee members were present. In addition—and this is exceptional, as hon. Members will know, for a Statutory Instrument Committee—24 non-Committee members who were, none the less, hon. Members, were present. A dilatory motion was moved, which the Chairman, quite properly, rejected. Once points of order had been raised—and there were a number of them—one Back Bencher had time to comment on those highly contentious regulations. Fourteen hon. Members sought to intervene: my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), for Stone (Mr. Cash), for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin); my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood; and my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), for Buckingham (John Bercow), for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). They all wanted to make a contribution, in one form or another, to the debate, but they were effectively denied the opportunity to do so.

The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Meg Munn, who was taking the business through Committee and, to be fair, the Leader of the House, who dealt with the matter subsequently when it was raised in the Chamber, both said in terms that the Conservative Front-Bench team could have requested that the business be taken on the Floor of the House, but they chose not to do so. That is slightly disingenuous. The fact of the matter is that no offer was made, but of course, it is open to the Opposition to make a request. I understand that a request was not made, and the conclusion that we are invited to draw is that the Opposition consented to the manner in which the regulations were taken through the House.

In fact, the shadow Attorney-General, my hon. Friend Mr. Grieve, said in Committee that the Minister

"has had representations from the official Opposition that this matter is not suitable to be dealt with by means of statutory instruments, and that it should be dealt with instead as primary legislation. We offered to facilitate that task and to help the Government deal with it in a smooth and sensible fashion."—[ Official Report, 12th Delegated Legislation Committee, 15 March 2007; c. 11.]

Let us be absolutely clear: the Government were offered the co-operation of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition to take the business, as it properly should have been taken, through the House in the form of a short Bill as primary legislation. That would have given the House the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill thoroughly, to remove from it what my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest described as anomalies, and to produce a good and workable piece of legislation to send to the upper House for its further consideration.

Following that dawn hearing of the statutory instrument, we raised the matter at business questions later in the morning with the Leader of the House. I believe you may have been in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether, at the very least, we could delay that business and the vote on it until after this debate, the Easter Adjournment debate, when hon. Friends might have had the opportunity to make their views known on the record. That request was denied.

There was, as we now know, on the following Monday, in a half-empty House when the business was one-line business which collapsed early, an early evening vote which, not entirely surprisingly, was carried by a considerable majority. A number of Members—on both sides of the House, to be fair—who regard the regulations as pernicious simply did not have time to return to the House from constituency business in their constituencies in time for that vote, which was held at about 7.30 pm, whereas ordinarily it might have been expected to take place at 10 pm. I am not suggesting for one moment that that was deliberately orchestrated, but it is a sad fact that not only were Members denied the right to speak on the issue, but they were effectively denied the right to vote.

The legislation was railroaded through the House of Lords on 21 March. Baroness O'Cathain's amendment was defeated by 122 votes to 168. We were left with no discussion of the effects of the regulations on, for example, small businesses, services and education, or of the highly contentious issue of adoption by gay couples. As Baroness O'Cathain said in the upper House, the Government

"have taken the view that gay rights trump religious rights"—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 21 March 2007; Vol. 690, c. 1298.]

That has led to circumstances that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, the shadow Attorney-General, referred to in the Statutory Instrument Committee, when he said that we will

"promote a great deal of litigation and money for lawyers. . . The procedure is a nonsense—it is not suitable to deal with this matter by way of statutory instrument. We have written to the Government to explain that in moderate and sensible terms."

Following that, my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said, correctly, from the Front Bench that the legislation

"would have commanded far more respect from its opponents had they had a better opportunity to put their arguments."—[ Official Report, 12th Delegated Legislation Committee, 15 March 2007; c. 19-20.]

The public expected a proper debate on the matter. They expected and had a right to expect from their elected representatives considered legislation from which the flaws had been removed. Instead, we have on the statute book a squalid measure that is illiberal and ill considered and that will lead to legal challenge. That was not necessary.

The Archbishop of York, in the other place, said that

"the Government are venturing down an unconsidered path" and that they will

"enshrine in legislation a new sub-category of those whom it will be legal to discriminate against. Rather than levelling the playing field for those who suffer discrimination, an aim I"— the Archbishop of York and I myself—

"fully support, this legislation effects a rearrangement of discriminatory attitudes and bias to overcompensate and skew the field the other way."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 21 March 2007; Vol. 690, c. 1309.]

In the second part of his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone on 21 March the Prime Minister said that

"we can, if we are sensible, find a way of preventing discrimination against gay people, while allowing Catholic adoption agencies to carry on doing the excellent work that they do. It is a difficult balance to strike, but I believe that we have struck the right balance, and I think that most sensible people would agree with it."—[ Hansard, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 811.]

What the Prime Minister was actually saying was, "We'll give you some time to adjust to this new situation and you no doubt will be able to overcome that." That completely ignores the fact that five days, five months, five years, or 500 years would not affect the issue. We are not dealing with something that is negotiable. We are dealing with principle, and five millennia would not make any difference.

The regulations are so skewed that Catholic adoption agencies will in fairly short order probably close and certainly face discrimination, as do now members of the Catholic and other Churches who feel strongly about these matters. By the way, I myself am an Anglican, not a Catholic. While that is going on, regulation 13 of these carefully thought-through regulations exempts gay welfare groups from the provisions and allows them to reject approaches from heterosexuals, so they can put a notice up on the door saying, "No heterosexuals". Forgive me—that sounds to me just a tad like discrimination. It is not necessary.

The Archbishop of York said in his excellent speech that we must be liberal and we must learn to listen. The Government have not listened. The House wanted to debate these issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield said in Committee:

"Until the House cottons on to the extent to which" the regulations mark

"a profound change between tolerance and enforcing a new form of orthodoxy, we will fail to grapple properly with the problems that these regulations pose."—[ Official Report, 12th Delegated Committee, 15 March 2007; c. 29].

To conclude, a fundamental concern has been expressed in both Houses of Parliament from both Front Benches, by—dare I say it?—the Chair and by Back Benchers that the public are disillusioned with Parliament. People outside this place feel that they are not heard and that we do not properly reflect the manner in which their business should be handled.

We voted—some of us voted—earlier this week a not inconsiderable annual sum of money for communications. The thesis behind that was that we need to communicate better with those we serve so that they understand better what we are doing. I do not believe that the people whom I represent will ever understand the way in which this House of Commons and this Government put the sexual orientation regulations through the House, knowing that they were contentious and that they required debate, without giving the elected representatives of those people the chance to have their say. I fear that until we return to parliamentary democracy and reassert the primacy of this Chamber, ordinary people will feel that Parliament is, as it is at present, irrelevant to their lives.

Annotations

Tom Forrest
Posted on 30 Mar 2007 3:47 pm

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