Northern Ireland Bill (Allocation of Time)

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 1:20 pm on 4th March 2009.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 1:20 pm, 4th March 2009

I beg to move amendment (a), in paragraph 1(1), leave out 'at today's sitting' and insert

'in two allotted days, which shall not be consecutive,'.

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Hain, who is known for his support of democracy, although I was slightly unhappy with what he said. I hope that when he hears about my amendment, he will realise that it will not significantly delay progress. I intend to press my amendment to a vote, if I have the opportunity to do so.

The effect of amendment (a) would be that the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill would take place today until the moment of interruption and a further day would be allocated for Committee and Third Reading. This would allow proper scrutiny of the Northern Ireland Bill. This is not a wrecking amendment. It would allow the Bill to proceed with proper scrutiny on the Floor of this House. Amendments (b) to (f) in my name on the Order Paper are consequential to amendment (a).

My interest is in the allocation of time motion, which I believe dilutes parliamentary debate and scrutiny and, therefore, our democracy. I will not be talking about the Northern Ireland Bill itself, as that should be left for Second Reading, which, if my amendment were carried, would continue until the interruption of business this evening.

The Executive have put Parliament in a real Catch-22 situation, because the longer that we take to debate the allocation of time motion, the less time we will have to debate the Northern Ireland Bill. Parliament has been given three hours to debate the allocation of time motion and, if the debate runs the course, that will give MPs only one hour for the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill. If there are Divisions, Second Reading could be reduced to the farcical time of just 30 minutes, giving time only for the Minister to speak and no proper debate. This is a gross abuse of Parliament by the Executive. It is electoral dictatorship by a control-freak Executive. There is, of course, a strong argument for debating this allocation of time motion for the full three hours, which would involve Parliament actually standing up to the Executive. Not even this Government would dare to proceed on the basis of a Second Reading debate of only 30 minutes.

It is important to set out the reasons why all stages of the Northern Ireland Bill should not be read on one day. Let us consider the circumstances in which the Government can legitimately push through all the stages of legislation in one day. I understand that in national emergencies, such as those relating to terrorism, or when introducing economic measures that are extremely market sensitive, a swift progression through Parliament is needed. However, the Northern Ireland Bill is not one of those, as the right hon. Member for Neath has conceded. The Bill is a complex piece of legislation that changes the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Act 1978 and the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. Those Acts were not uncontroversial, and amendments to them need proper scrutiny by Members of Parliament.

Since 1997, only 15 Bills have been pushed through the Commons in all their stages on one day. Let us look at the type of Bill that has gone through and the precedent that that creates for this allocation of time motion. On 4 April 2001, the Elections Bill went through all its stages on one day. That was due to the national crisis caused by the foot and mouth epidemic. On 2 September 1998, parliament was recalled from its summer recess to pass the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill in all its stages as an urgent response to the terrible Omagh bombing. On 19 February 2008, the Banking (Special Provisions) Bill was passed in relation to Northern Rock and therefore needed to be rushed through the Commons. The House sat until midnight on that day.

None of the exceptional circumstances to which I have just referred applies to the Northern Ireland Bill. If this guillotine motion goes through, the Government will have set a dangerous precedent for curtailing debate and excluding proper parliamentary scrutiny on controversial issues. This is an abuse of Parliament and democracy, and normal rules are being abandoned so that the Government can get things through on the nod.

I have a lot of respect for the Secretary of State, but the arguments that he made today were rather weak. The Government have stated that the Northern Ireland Bill needs to pass through this place in one day to fit in with the schedule of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Deputy Leader of the House stated last Wednesday in the Business of the House debate that

"The House requires speed only because there will be further stages after the Bill completes its passage here—namely, a Bill in the Assembly to establish the department of justice and a resolution by the Assembly, followed by Orders in Council, which must then come before the House."

However, that is simply not true.

In the same debate last Wednesday, representatives from both sides of the Northern Ireland divide stated quite clearly that there was no rush for this Bill to go through and that time should be given for proper scrutiny. Moreover, several Northern Ireland Members who also sit on the Northern Ireland Assembly were not aware of any time limit given by the Assembly to the Government. Mr. Dodds said that

"the urgency on this matter seems to be coming entirely from one direction—the Government."

Mark Durkan stated that:

"Legislation for the optics, especially to suit a party that is not here, is not the best way for this House to conduct its business."—[ Hansard, 25 February 2009; Vol. 488, c. 328, 334-335, 336.]

It seems to me that the only party that is keen for this Bill to be rushed through is Sinn Fein, which does not even bother to take its seats in this Parliament. I sincerely hope that the Government have not been pushed into rushing something through by one absent party. There are parties in Northern Ireland that take Parliament seriously and that want more time to debate such an important Bill, which will have major consequences for their constituents.

I wish to praise all the hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies who take their seats in Parliament, whatever their political persuasion. Their dedication to the cause of peace and stability in Northern Ireland is highly commendable. I also wish to congratulate my Front Bench team, who work tirelessly and effectively. My hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) work extremely hard on the complex task of bringing devolution to Northern Ireland while at the same time ensuring the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Another argument why this Bill must be pushed through could be that we lack the space in the parliamentary business calendar to be able to spare any more time to debate it. But we all know that this is one of the lightest Sessions we have ever had. We will sit for only 128 days this year, of which 13 are reserved for private Members' Bills. There have been several occasions in this parliamentary year where debates have collapsed and sittings have ended way before their time limit due to the lack of business. Yesterday the House adjourned at 8.44 pm rather than 10 pm. Only last Wednesday, the business finished at 3.58 pm rather than at 7 pm. Lack of parliamentary time cannot be an excuse for this motion.

So how does this motion fit with the principle of Parliamentary sittings? The current timetabling for parliamentary sitting is broadly based on the Jopling reforms, which encompass three principles. First, the Government must be able to get their business through and, within that principle, ultimately control the time of the House. Secondly, the Opposition must have the opportunity to scrutinise the actions of Government and to improve or oppose legislation, as they think fit. Thirdly, Back Bench Members on both sides of the Chamber should have reasonable opportunities to raise matters of concern to their constituents.

If the Executive were to come to their senses at this stage and agree to my amendment that there should be at least one day's gap between Second Reading and Committee and Third Reading, all three principles would be met. That is exactly what amendment (a) would do. Clearly, the second and third principles are not being met. It is apparent to all that Parliament has more than enough time in this, the lightest of parliamentary years, to allow for separate days so that MPs have time to debate and scrutinise the Bill. Committee and Third Reading should not be on the same day as Second Reading, as required by the motion. My suggestion is that Second Reading should be held on one Wednesday—today—and that Committee and Third Reading should be held on a subsequent Wednesday.

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