I beg to move,
(a) on that day at 2.30 p.m.; and
(b) on Thursday, 30th October 2003 at 9.30 a.m. and 2.15 p.m.;
(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely Clauses 1 to 8, the Schedule, Clauses 9 to 13, New Clauses and New Schedules, and remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(3) the proceedings, so far as not previously concluded, shall be brought to a conclusion at 4.45 p.m. on Thursday 30th October 2003.
On behalf of the Government, I welcome the Committee. We discussed the Bill on Second Reading relatively recently. As hon. Members will know, it is relatively short compared with other legislation, having 13 clauses in total. The Programming Sub-Committee met yesterday to discuss a likely timetable, and the agreement was to have two sittings today and two on Thursday.
As Conservative Members know about votes and counts, they will also know that a majority is a majority; we shall see whether they appreciate that point later in the week. Ample time has been allocated to consideration of this Bill, and in saying that I pay advance tribute to you, Mr. Benton. With your skill and dedication, I am sure that you will be able to see us through the myriad clauses and amendments in ample time and according to the provisions in the Programming Sub-Committee motion. I hope that the Committee will support that motion.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. I also welcome all members of the Committee and offer an advance welcome to your co-Chairman, Mr. Frank Cook, whom we will see later today.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) pointed out, there was a vote—indeed, there were two votes—in the Programming Sub-Committee yesterday, and a decision was reached based on the fact that Labour members of the Programming Sub-Committee voted in favour of the programme. The Opposition voted against it, but there is a new factor that I discovered only this morning. When I went to the Members' Post Office at about quarter to 9 this morning to collect my post, I found an enormous pile of documents relating to the Bill and the Committee, which had been sent to everyone by the Electoral Commission. It may be that other Members have yet to have the good fortune to go to the Post Office, so they will not realise that those documents have been sent to everyone. In addition, there is a slightly smaller, but nevertheless significant, bundle from the Electoral Reform Society.
I want to make several points that are relevant to the programme motion. There used to be a convention in this House—no doubt you, Mr. Benton, or through you your Clerk, will advise us on this matter—that when a Bill went into Committee, a complete parliamentary week was provided after the week in which Second Reading took place, and Committee proceedings did not start until the following week. The reason why was fairly obvious. Organisations outside the House, such as the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society, that wished to inform members of the Committee about important points for debate would need such a length of time—a clear week between the week in which Second Reading took place, and the week in which Committee proceedings started—to get the information to all Members, and to ensure that they had time to digest it and to take further advice. Unfortunately, the Government have started to ignore that convention. This is the first Bill with which I have dealt that has had such a short time scale.
The Conservative party voted against carry-over, but despite that fact, the Government secured it as a safety net. They are absolutely desperate—I do not use the word lightly—to rush the Bill through with what I can only describe as indecent haste, before the Queen's Speech for the new Session. There will probably not be enough time to ram the Bill through the other place, in the way that they are ramming it through here. None of us will have had time to read the huge pile of documents to which I referred—never mind to digest them properly—or to ask the Electoral Commission about them before today's two sittings, which account for half of the sittings. Had members of the Committee known about the documents, we might have approached the Programming Sub-Committee, which met last night in front of Mr. Cook, in a completely different way.
I do not blame the Electoral Commission—on which I shall have some comments to make when we have a substantive debate on it and its work—for the fact that we had no warning of the documents. The covering letter is dated 27 October, and because Second Reading took place only last Tuesday, the commission has obviously had little time to put together the information. In fact, the commission has done well to make this morning's post, and the same point applies to the Electoral Reform Society.
It is wholly unsatisfactory to be faced with material, on major legislation that will affect next year's elections and perhaps future ones, that none of us will have time to look at. I would certainly have spoken at length during last night's Programming Sub-Committee, had I known that the information was on its way. I would have said that four sittings are wholly inadequate, and that we ought to go into a further week. Actually, there is no reason why we should not do so. The Government would still be able to get the legislation through Committee and back to the House for Report and Third Reading, before the House rises. They have their carry-over, despite our opposition, so they could take further time to get the legislation through another place. The Government's final deadline is December because they want the Bill on the statute book in order to put in place the plans for next year's European elections.
Has my hon. Friend had a chance to consider the correlation between people's understandable cynicism about the Government and the process of deciding on legislation, and this guillotine motion? Are we not discussing the very problem that the Bill is purportedly meant to resolve?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. If the electorate are to understand what is being proposed for elections, and to have faith in the Government's proposals and what the House decides, they ought to be made aware of whether MPs—Front Benchers or Back Benchers, from whichever party—have had a proper chance to digest all the information. This material weighs a ton. [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) comments from a sedentary position on the stage-effect of a few small pamphlets falling on to a wooden table. The documents in front of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) are Electoral Commission reports that have been in the public domain for some time. They are not particularly voluminous—in fact, it is not a particularly burdensome pile of paperwork. If he looked through it, I am sure that he would manage to polish it off in a short time.
The Minister says ''a short time''. Before the sitting began, the time available to me—however fast I may try to read—was from 8.45, when I opened my post, until now. Indeed, many members of the Committee may not even have had the chance to open this morning's post. The Committee will begin
discussing the Bill as soon as we finish debating the programme motion. That shows, even if some of the documents have been in the public domain, that the Government's haste is indecent, and that this is not the proper way to conduct parliamentary proceedings.
It may not be over-burdensome for the hon. Gentleman to read the documents, although I question that notion, but those of us who have yet to receive them have to read them over his shoulder from the far end of the Bench. That is quite a difficult feat.
I agree entirely. The people who make up the Electoral Commission will, I am sure, read the Hansard account of this debate with great interest. They will be pretty angry at the way in which Parliament is being asked to rush the Bill through with indecent haste, without any member of the Committee's having had the chance to read the documents that the commission and the Electoral Reform Society have provided for us. That is simply not an appropriate way to carry on. Had I known that the documentation was coming, I would have spoken about it last night, but it arrived only this morning. It would have completely changed the nature of the Programming Sub-Committee debate.
My party has always opposed guillotines, but what has happened this morning gives us a much stronger reason for saying that this programme is unsatisfactory, and that there should be debates for a further week.
There would be a lot more sympathy from our party if there were less synthetic anger from Opposition Members, and more genuine belief in what they were saying. We all recognise that the hon. Gentleman came into this Room with fixed views, no matter what document came through the post; that was never going to change anyone's mind. With fewer amateur dramatics and more seriousness in the debate, we might be able to get on.
The hon. Gentleman knows me very well, and I can honestly tell him that none of this anger is synthetic. There may have been such occasions in the past, but the hon. Gentleman is a past master at participating in them as well. If he wants to talk about amateur dramatics, his last-minute appearance at the Whip's behest to prolong last week's debate on Second Reading was certainly such an instance, given that he had not heard any of the earlier debate.
In a moment. It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman, of all people, to talk about amateur dramatics and synthetic approaches, after his performance in the Chamber last week. I can honestly tell him that Opposition Members are genuinely concerned and genuinely angry. The concern that we always have about the Government rushing such matters through has been reinforced by our not having
the opportunity to look at detailed papers, which arrived only this morning, from the very body that the Government set up to advise us.
I expect the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his comment. Had he been awake and looked around the Chamber, he would have known that I intervened earlier in that debate. I am sorry that he missed that—perhaps he requires a visit to an optician. We should remember that some of us are genuine, in terms of the constituents whom we represent, and do not need to run round the country for a new constituency. I hope that he will withdraw his remarks.
The hon. Gentleman's belated appearance in the Chamber was noted on both sides. I recognise that he may have made a brief intervention earlier, but we all saw the manoeuvrings that went on. He did not rise to catch the Deputy Speaker's eye until the last minute, after everyone else had spoken. He needs to understand that our anger is genuine.
I have made all the arguments that I want to make. This is a deeply unsatisfactory way to conduct our business, and the Electoral Commission will share my concern when it reads Hansard.
May I first correct the oversight in my earlier intervention and welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton? I also welcome other members of the Committee to this Bill, which brings us into double figures in terms of Bills in this Session from the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Some of us have served on an inordinate number of Standing Committees, so we are very familiar with this Committee Room and with other Rooms on this Corridor.
I shall not speak at length or repeat arguments that have already been made. This is an opposed Bill about which we have grave reservations. It is important, because it affects this country's democratic systems and the way in which we conduct our electoral system. It requires public scrutiny, and the programme motion is opposed because it does not give us the opportunity to consider the Bill with proper care. The point that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath made about the Electoral Commission material was well founded. I have yet to receive those documents, and I suspect that the majority of members of the Committee have yet to receive them, simply because our offices are in far-flung parts of the parliamentary estate and the post does not reach them at this time of the morning.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the argument whereby some of the documents received have been in the public domain for some time is totally spurious? If every Member were to read every document published on the off chance that, in a year's time, we will be on a Standing Committee relating to the subject in question, we would do nothing but read documents.
That is true up to a point, but it is reasonable to expect Members to prepare for a Standing Committee on which they serve when documents have been made public. I am worried, because without sight of the documents I have no idea whether there is any new material from the Electoral Commission. If there is, then I take the matter very seriously, because the Bill is based on the commission's recommendations.
The commission is not a pressure group or a body of individuals trying to affect the conduct of our proceedings. It is a statutory body, and Parliament seeks its advice and recognises its expertise. If we were to proceed without having a chance to scrutinise the advice that it has provided, the role of the Committee and of Parliament in scrutinising the Government's proposals would be seriously undervalued.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that the Electoral Reform Society's response to last week's debate, which is undoubtedly new material, was not seen by any of us until this morning, and then by only one or two Members because it only arrived in today's post, is a matter of almost equal concern?
The Electoral Reform Society's document is not as bulky as that of the Electoral Commission—the hon. Gentleman's point about the commission has particular cause—but it is important to note that the submission of such a crucial, independent and respected a body as the Electoral Reform Society, which clearly contains new material because it is based on its response to Second Reading, did not come in until this morning.
The hon. Gentleman underlines the point that it is necessary to have a reasonable interval between Second Reading and the Committee stage, just as it is necessary to have a reasonable period between the Committee stage and Report, in order to ensure that Members who wish to contribute are properly informed and can make a reasoned contribution.
For those reasons, I am extremely concerned that the Government have chosen to rush the Bill through. I want to ensure that we at least use the time that is currently allocated to debate the important provisions, so I do not intend to prolong the discussion.
I welcome you to the chair, Mr. Benton. It is the second time that I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship, and I am sure that this time will be equally enjoyable.
It is also the second or third time that I have been in Committee with the hon. Members for Surrey Heath and for Spelthorne. Both are doughty fighters and are well known for making a very good argument, although it seems to be the same argument every time we sit.
Can I answer the hon. Member for Spelthorne first? The hon. Gentleman is consistent, and Government Members hope that he will remain so, because he will then always be in opposition. If he and his party continue as they are, they will be filling the Opposition Benches for a long time yet.
The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne and me, and I thank him for that and reciprocate the sentiment. He will recognise that one thing is different from the debates on programme motions that my hon. Friend and I have raised during previous Committees on which we have both served. There has never before been such a squeeze in time: Second Reading on a Tuesday with the Government attempting to start the Committee stage the following Tuesday. We have always had all the material from outside bodies and lobbying organisations in plenty of time for us all to read it. The new point we are making explains what has changed between the Programming Sub-Committee last night and today. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I can honestly say that documentation and inputs from various bodies come in regularly during proceedings on every Bill. Unfortunately, sometimes they come in after certain elements have been discussed. Along with the hon. Gentleman, I sat on the Committee debating the Communications Bill, so he will know that some of the information came in late. That was not the fault of the Government. His opposition to the programme motion is a bit spurious.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I was coming to that point. I have a filing cabinet in my constituency that is full of documentation from the Electoral Commission. I am sure that the documentation, although very interesting and important, would not add a lot to the discussion today.
I should like to put the record straight by speaking up for my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley, who made an excellent contribution on Second Reading. I did not realise Chorley was that informative, and I was very interested to hear of the trials that took place. He spoke at length about the first trial, and I would tempt
him to speak about the second trial, on which he was cut short through lack of time. Those trials have already taken place.
We have heard such arguments before. Information has come in from various bodies during the proceedings on every Bill I can think of. I am sure that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath put forward a very similar argument during the debate on the Proceeds of Crime Bill. I could be wrong; I am quite happy to examine the record, and if I am wrong I apologise to him in advance.
I speak for Scotland on this issue, and I know that I have sentimental support from the SNP member of the Committee, the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart). The Bill is very important to Scotland. He and I, probably for the first time in Parliament, will be speaking together on this Bill. We want to get on with it; we do not like having these arguments about programme motions all the time.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It has been argued that it would suit poorly supported parties, such as the Conservatives, for there to be low turnouts in the election in order to produce an iffy result. We want to ensure that everyone is enfranchised, and if postal or electronic ballots are the way forward, that is the way we should go. That is what we shall discuss during the debate.
I have spoken a lot longer than I anticipated, thanks to hon. Members' interventions. I reject the Conservatives arguments about the programme motion. It is time that we got on with the proper debate. We have heard all the arguments many times before. The hon. Member for Spelthorne is right to say that the Opposition are consistent. They are consistently annoying in opposing programme motions without giving any care or thought to the subject being discussed at the time.
I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. I look forward to serving with you. I also welcome some of my sparring partners from previous occasions. I assure them that I shall not disappoint them. I shall say things this morning that I have said before, and I make no apology for that.
One of the arguments used by people who abuse democracy is, ''Oh well, we have had this argument before, we have abused democracy in the past by having guillotine motions. Now you have spoken your opposition to that, just shut up and let us get on with it.'' A guillotine motion was passed on the Floor of the House, we were not given the opportunity to debate it and we have the opportunity now to talk about what is being done in the Labour Government's name, so I am afraid that I make no apology for saying, as I have before, that this is yet another example of the Government's total disregard for democracy. The
motion was rammed through on the Floor of the House with no discussion, so the public were not aware of what was going on.
What is the motion all about? It is about one simple thing: the Government could not care less about the details of the Bill. It does not matter to them what issues may crop up during the next four sittings. All that they want is to get the legislation though in their timetable.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if we rush the Bill through it could cost an awful lot of money? Has he seen in the Electoral Commission's review—I have read all the papers, which I received this morning—the astonishing statement that e-mail costs will be £20 for every vote cast? If we add that up for the whole country, the extra £20 for every vote cast by e-mail will involve an awful lot of money at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer is borrowing so much that it is becoming frightening.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am full of admiration for anyone who can get up early enough to read through that amount of paper before coming to the sitting. I shall look to my hon. Friend to keep me well briefed on anything that I have yet to read.
It is one of the great surprises of my life that I find myself in the Opposition Whips Office. That may have been an attempt to shut me up, but it does not appear to have done so.
We are again dealing with the trampling on democracy of a Government who are determined to have their way, irrespective. It may be perfectly possible for us to deal with this Bill in one sitting, I do not know, but it might need 10 sittings. We will not know that until we get to the middle. The Government could not care less about the real issues that crop up, as long as it suits their timetable.
On this occasion, things are worse. Normally, it is the convention of the House that Committees meet at 8.55 am, but oh no, the Government have come along with a motion that says that we shall meet at 9.30 am. That reduces our sittings by an hour and 10 minutes compared with what we might normally expect. They compound the felony of trampling all over democracy by taking away another hour. The motion downstairs said that our consideration had to be completed by 30 October. We were not consulted on that; we were told when it was going to finish. That is not now good enough, and it must finish at a quarter to 5 on 30 October. What about the other hours up to midnight when we could have considered the Bill? It does not suit the Government's purpose either to respect democracy or to work hard and to sit for the length of time needed if they really want proper scrutiny of the Bill.
I am delighted that Labour Members are prepared to join in the debate. It makes it much more fun when there is an exchange of views. I went through 39 sittings on the Proceeds of Crime Bill, with a load of people sitting on the Labour Benches full of admiration for the points that we made and hoping beyond hope that we did not carry on in that way.
The hon. Member for Chorley made an interesting point when he asked whether any argument that was put would have changed my mind? I ask him the same question. Did he come to this Committee prepared to listen to our arguments and perhaps even, in the Division that is coming, to vote with us, or was his mind closed as well?
Yes, I am prepared to admit that my mind is closed when a Government ask me to join in the abuse of democracy. I am not prepared in any circumstances to accept that democracy can be treated in that way. If that means that I have a closed mind, I plead guilty. I do not mind. I am not prepared to be dictatorial or to behave in the same way as this squalid Government, who could not care less about the House.
The argument is not a spurious one, and no one needs to apologise for it.
It being half an hour after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, The Chairman put the Question, pursuant to paragraph (9) of the Order of the House of 28 June 2001 relating to Programming Sub-Committees.
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 8.
I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution with the Bill, of which there are copies in the Room. I also remind hon. Members that adequate notice of amendments should be given.
Generally, my fellow Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached in an afternoon sitting.
On a point of order, Mr. Benton. I do not want to detain the Committee after all the problems that we have had, but I seek guidance on whether it is right for the Minister to state in the explanatory notes that the Bill is compatible with the European convention on human rights despite the fact that article 3 of protocol 1 of the convention entitled, ''Right to free elections'' makes it clear that any electoral system that undermines the secrecy of the ballot would be in conflict with the protocol. The Minister appears to accept that that is a problem because he states in paragraph 26 of the explanatory notes that
''the piloting scheme addresses the issue of secrecy with a number of safeguards, both statutory and non-statutory.''
Having carefully read the Bill several times, I cannot see any provision that requires pilot schemes to ensure that the secrecy of the ballot is guaranteed in any new voting procedures. There is provision in clause 4 for the Electoral Commission to express views on electoral offences and malpractices, but that will not happen until after the elections.
My simple question, Mr. Benton, is whether you can require the Minister to alter the explanatory notes after Committee stage if the secrecy of voting is not guaranteed. If the point is not accurate, it should not be printed. I am sorry to trouble the Committee with that, but it is an important issue. I hope that Ministers will think about it.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Benton. I want to associate the Opposition's Front-Bench spokesmen with the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East. We agree entirely with his concerns and, like him, we shall be very interested in your ruling on this important matter.
On a point of order, Mr. Benton. As I understand the Standing Orders of the House, after the Government's defeat 20 minutes ago—and we should be clear about the fact that it was a defeat for them—it rests with the Chair to suspend the Committee again should there be any further argument on these matters. I hope that the Government will accept their defeat with good grace. Should they attempt again to flout democracy by overturning the Committee's decision, I hope that you will take into account my view that there should be unanimous consent among all the political parties represented on the Committee for anything else that might be proposed. I hope that we shall not allow the Labour Government to steamroller through another abuse of democracy.