European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 30th October 2003.

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[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 9:30 am, 30th October 2003

I beg to move,

That—

(1) during further proceedings on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, the Standing Committee, in addition to its sittings on Tuesday 28th October and Thursday 30th October at 9.30 am, do meet—

(a) on Thursday 30th October at 2.15 pm; and

(b) on Tuesday 4th November at 9.00 am and 2.30 pm;

(2) further proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely Clause 1 (so far as not already considered), Clauses 2 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 5.00 pm on Tuesday 4th November 2003.

Good morning, Mr. Cook, and welcome to the Chair of this experienced and interesting Committee. I have a slight sense of déjà vu. The programme motion states that we will sit from 2.15 this afternoon, and that we will sit on Tuesday at 9.00 am and 2.30 pm. It also sets out the order of consideration.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Good morning, Mr. Cook, and welcome to your chairmanship of the proceedings. As you are aware, we had an exciting but rather truncated and abortive first day because of the Government's significant defeat. I believe that that was the first time that the Government have been defeated anywhere in the House of Commons since 2001. Of course, they then used their majority in the Chamber to ram through a revised programme motion against our opposition. We object to all guillotines. To call it a programme motion is entirely inappropriate as it is simply a guillotine. We are against guillotines in principle, and we voted against them on the Programming Sub-Committee.

For those of us who were here on Tuesday, it turned out to be a rather more exciting day than might have been expected. Similarly, the week turned out to be a rather more significant political week than expected. I am indebted to my colleagues for their support, and also to the two Liberal Democrats, the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), and to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) from the Scottish Nationalist party. All Opposition Members were here, as we should have been, and the Government were defeated on the casting vote of your fellow Chairman, Mr. Cook, in the finest tradition of the Chairmen's Panel.

We still oppose guillotines despite the fact that we now have a revised programme motion in which the Government have given us the further time that we

argued for in the original Programming Sub-Committee and in the original debate on programming. We will oppose that guillotine this morning.

Having had two extra days, those of us who were interested have had time to peruse in detail the Electoral Reform Society's observations, which came in Tuesday's post, as I pointed out then, and the papers from the Electoral Commission. I am sure that that information will inform hon. Members from both sides of the Committee who wish to make contributions.

Despite those extra two days and the fact that we now have extra sittings next week, we oppose the programme motion because it is well known that the Opposition object to the way in which the Government use their huge parliamentary majority to ram through guillotines and curtail debate when they have all their people in the right place at the right time, as they did in the Chamber yesterday.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I am sorry to interrupt. My hon. Friend says that he will oppose the programme motion, but I am still trying to understand it. It states that we will sit at 2.15 pm today. There are important debates in the Chamber today, and I want to know when I can get down there. I cannot see from the motion when we will finish tonight. Does it mean that we can go on for ever? Do we go on until 5 pm? Might we go on through the night? If we were to continue through the night, who would determine when we stop? Are the Government saying, ''Well, look, so long as we want to go on, we'll just go on''? I do not think that that is a proper way to run things when hon. Members have other obligations. Has my hon. Friend had any guidance from the Government? One of the problems that I have experienced in Parliament is that there can be secret deals.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Order. The hon. Gentleman should be brief when making an intervention.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I will be brief. Has there been a secret deal on when we are going to finish today?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. We shall have to see. Unfortunately, Opposition Members are not in control. The Government may find that their Members do not turn up again, as on Tuesday, no doubt because of the huge doubts on the Government Benches about the legislation. Those doubts were apparent in the speech made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) on Second Reading. Mysteriously, despite his enormous ability, expertise and interest in the legislation, he was excluded from the Committee. The Government are in control, and they are determined to ram through the legislation and to stifle debate. So we shall have to see.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) that the clashes between the timing of Committees and the business of the main Chamber are unfortunate. As he knows, at every stage, I opposed from the Front Bench the ridiculous new hours that the Government sought to inflict on the House, because they exacerbate the

clashes. Many of my hon. Friends have opposed them as well.

Although the previous Leader of the House and former Foreign Secretary, who is now on the Back Benches, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), was keen on the new sitting hours, the new part-time Leader of the House—who is also part-time Secretary of State for Wales—the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) indicated in an exchange with the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), that he was not so keen on the new Committee hours. That was in September at business questions. I was on the Front Bench, next to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and I heard the Leader of the House say that.

There must be some hope—this is the only long-term comfort that I can offer my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East—that if the new Leader of the House is allowed full rein in his view, as he is not keen on early starts to Committees or the new revised hours, we may return to the more traditional hours in Committee and in the House. [Interruption.] I am delighted that the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice), supports me on the issue of hours. She is being unusually vocal for a Government Whip, and I welcome that.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

It is important that the hon. Gentleman's comments are corrected. There was not a Government motion to change the hours of the House, but a free vote. Members on his side of the House voted for the new hours. As he probably knows, I am one of the Members who voted for the new hours and deeply regret it. However, it was not a Government motion.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, but had he listened carefully to what I said, he would have been aware that I did not say that it was a Government motion. I said that it was the Labour party, and the right hon. Member for Livingston in particular, who inflicted the hours on us. The proposal was bought forward by the then Leader of the House.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Yes, it was a free vote. However, as the hon. Gentleman has openly admitted, and has said publicly in the House—I respect him for it, as he knows—he has changed his mind. I opposed the changes all the way through. I have looked carefully at which of my hon. Friends, in that free vote, supported the new hours. I am pretty sure that, of all those who voted for the new hours on the Tuesday and the Wednesday, which was the proposal carried by the narrowest majority, only six of my colleagues—out of 169—voted for it. It was carried by the votes of a huge number of Labour Members, including the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris). He has had the great courage to admit that he was wrong, as have many of his hon. Friends.

The issue came up again at business questions last Thursday. The hon. Gentleman may have been in the Chamber then, as I was. The new Leader of the House said that despite his personal reservations, expressed in September, on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East, we have to stick with the hours for the rest of this Parliament. When he said that, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) intervened and put her views firmly on the record. Like me, she has always opposed the new hours. She said that it was absolutely crazy for the House to carry on with an experiment that clearly is not working. I urge the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart—he knows how powerful a personality the hon. Lady is and how much a focus for leadership she could be—to join her in organising a campaign. They could lead a huge movement from the Government Back Benches and put pressure on the Leader of the House to get back to common sense.

Those comments are relevant to today's programme motion because of the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East. We must get away from all these clashes between Committees and the Chamber. Unfortunately, the Government are in control of the situation at present. They have a majority on the Programming Sub-Committee and on the Committee, although they did not have their expected majority on Tuesday morning. We will have to wait to find out how late we go on this afternoon. I know that you, Mr. Cook, have a personal interest in the matter, as does my hon. Friend. As for the other Conservative spokesmen and me, we would be happy to go on all night.

Photo of Mr Peter Duncan Mr Peter Duncan Conservative, Galloway and Upper Nithsdale

Does my hon. Friend agree that many views on the unsuitability of the new hours that hon. Members of all parties express are to do with the amount of parliamentary scrutiny that they afford? This may be the first opportunity for Labour Members to strike a blow for parliamentary scrutiny by opposing the programme motion this morning.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

My hon. Friend is right that to say that it would be an opportunity. Perhaps we can tempt the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

He is a reasonable man. I know that not only from his speech this morning but from other speeches.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Order. Perhaps I ought to remind the Committee that it is customary for hon. Members to contribute to the debate through the Chair and, not by turning their back on the Chair and addressing comments to the wall.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I apologise for any unintentional discourtesy, Mr. Cook. I shall ensure that I speak through you and your fellow Chairman, Mr. Benton, when he is in the Chair. As you will appreciate, I was responding to the helpful intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan).

I hope that in response to my hon. Friend's helpful suggestion, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart

will take this opportunity to vote with us. Perhaps we will once again see, as we did after the sitting was suspended on Tuesday, the welcome site of the Government's deputy Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), rushing to the Committee Corridor with a face as black as thunder to find out what on earth was going on. We on the Conservative Benches would be very pleased to see that again.

We shall oppose the motion not only because we succeeded in opposing the programme motion on Tuesday but because we still believe that guillotines are wrong in principle. I hope that we will be able to persuade courageous Government Back Benchers such as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart to vote with us.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Thank you, Mr. Cook. I welcome you to the Chair this morning. My contribution will be slightly shorter than that of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins).

The Government were entirely humiliated on Tuesday. Their defeat in Committee was caused by the rather lackadaisical approach of some Labour Members. However, since then, we have had a coming together of minds. The Government have shown some common sense, in that at last they have been prepared to negotiate and discuss the Opposition parties' timing requirements rather than take them as read.

We object to programme motions when we are not consulted and are told what is an appropriate time for the Opposition to give proper scrutiny to a Bill. The Government then push through the measure on a majority vote. That is unacceptable. It is not the way to conduct effective business in this House. That is why we opposed the programme motion before the full House, and we opposed it on Tuesday for precisely the same reasons.

As I said, since then we have had consultation. I have made representations, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. We said that we felt that we needed a full Committee day in addition and that we wanted normal starting times to give us the time to do our work properly. The Government, having been forced into a humiliating defeat, realised that the game was up and that they had to retreat. They have done so, and it therefore seems entirely ridiculous now to oppose what we asked for. I have to say to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that I was very surprised to see the Conservatives voting in the Chamber yesterday against an additional day of sittings for this Bill. It seems perverse to vote against the extra time allocation for which we asked.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 9:45 am, 30th October 2003

I was grateful for the support of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends on Tuesday, but does he accept that our party has made it repeatedly clear in Programming Sub-Committees and in debate that we are against guillotines on principle? Of course we argued for extra time, but had we not voted against the Government's programme motion a Minister might have stood up in future and claimed that we were not against all guillotines because we had voted

in favour of, or abstained on, a programme motion with a guillotine on this occasion. We are simply sticking to our principled position.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is rather a sophistical position because the motion before the House yesterday was to increase the amount of time by one day and had it been defeated, we should have been back to the original timetable. For that reason, we supported it then and I see no reason to oppose it now.

I look forward to a very long sitting this afternoon, because we clearly have to get the work done and it is in the interests of Opposition Members to take as long as we need to discuss the important matters under consideration. I hope that the Government Whip and the Conservative Whip will not collude at any point to bring matters to an early end. That would be a quite disgraceful truncation of our proceedings, and I am anxious to have every opportunity to give the Bill the scrutiny required to improve it.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I want to make two brief points. First, I hope that the Government will bear in mind the fact that their defeat happened for a good reason. We had the emergence of a popular front, with parties that differ enormously on many issues coming together because they felt so strongly on this issue. Another reason for the defeat was the absence, to which I referred, of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart. He is one of the most conscientious Members in the House, and I now understand that he was not present because he was attending the funeral of the wife of a dear colleague. Obviously, I am sorry for any misunderstanding over that. My first basic point to the Minister is that people felt very strongly, and were united in saying that the timetable was wrong.

My second point is to ask why we cannot alter the timetable to try to get agreement between the popular front and the Government. Why can we not meet next Thursday as well, rather than have an open-ended meeting tonight? My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath is so committed to politics that he says that he will wait here all night if need be but, quite honestly, many of us have other obligations. There are other obligations in the House of Commons, and I have an obligation in Southend tonight. I am meant to be there at 9 o'clock, and I should like to be able to let my people know whether I will be there. It would be useful if the Government could either say that we will stop at 5 o'clock tonight and meet next Thursday as well, which would be ideal, or give us some idea of what work they want to get done by 5 o'clock. I should like to know. It is not satisfactory for you, Mr. Cook, and it is not satisfactory for hon. Members and their parties to be told that we might be going all night, but we have no idea. It would be far, far better if we could simply alter the timetable and have a sitting next Thursday as well.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

The hon. Member is a long-serving and very experienced Member, and as shrewd as anyone in the House. However, I have to point out to him that the motion before the Committee is about starting times, not finishing times. The only advice that I can offer—believe me, I shall probably be pursuing a similar line of inquiry—is that he sees the usual

channels between now and this evening to find out just what they have in mind.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Cook. Had you been here on Tuesday, you would have found the Government's defeat a very interesting and informative occasion.

My office is just off the Members Lobby, so I spent Tuesday afternoon and part of yesterday—while not involved in other things to do with my party—listening for the screams coming from the Government Whips Office of those who were unable to attend the sitting or attend it on time. I hope that Government Members were not injured too badly.

It is interesting to note that a popular front is emerging in this Committee. I would be happy to be a member of the popular front for the liberation of the United Kingdom from this dreadful Government.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

There is a leadership challenge from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway).

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I would love to explore whether it was right for the Labour party to expel the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin, but I am sure that you would rule me out of order, Mr. Cook, so I shall resist the temptation.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

I do not want to inhibit the flow of debate, and I positively encourage good humour, but for heaven's sake let us make the comments pertinent to the business in hand. Can we get on with the motion?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

We can. I was just about to observe that I am sure you would not have let me go down that route, Mr. Cook. You have confirmed that my assumption was absolutely correct.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

So you are not going to?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I am not going to.

I shall respond to some of the comments that have been made. It was suggested that a deal had been done, but it has not. If consultations had taken place, that might have avoided what happened yesterday morning. Knowing of your predicament later on that day, Mr. Cook, I indicated on behalf of the Opposition that we would do what we could to assist the Chair. However, that is not up to the Opposition, unless the Government again finds that Members cannot be bothered to turn up and we are able to defeat the motion. We would then be able to provide such assistance.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that it was wrong of us to oppose guillotine motions. If he thought about that, he would understand that it was right. He joined us in opposing a guillotine motion on Tuesday morning, and we defeated the Government and got them to concede something. The logic is always that, sooner or later, if we oppose in principle, the Government will not get a majority or they will admit that they are wrong.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

In the hon. Gentleman's slightly perverse logic, a sensible point is trying to emerge.

Had he succeeded in defeating the programme motion before the House yesterday, the previous programme motions would still have held and the Committee would have had to finish its considerations at 4.45 this afternoon.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

That is giving in to the inevitable. As I said on Tuesday—I will not repeat it because it is on the record and you will say that I cannot make the same speech twice, Mr. Cook—that is exactly the problem that the Liberal Democrats are regularly faced with. They bow to the inevitable or change their policy from one day to the next.

Guillotines are wrong in principle. We made the argument on Tuesday, and the Government have had to accept that they are wrong. Who knows how much time will be needed? The Government are defeated on a Tuesday and instead of replacing the amount of time lost on Tuesday, they immediately concede that they were wrong in their original guillotine. They have said, ''We have lost time. We'll give you your time back and we'll give you more.''

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

That point is terribly important for the future and for democracy. Is my hon. Friend saying that when we have the next Conservative Government, which may well come quite soon, we shall never impose a guillotine on anything? As someone who has fought hard on some European issues and found my speeches contracted, I would say that it is a wonderful new policy and a great breakthrough for democracy. I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that no future Conservative Government will ever impose a guillotine. That would be a great triumph for democracy, and make me feel that my time had been well spent.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Policy on these matters is made by the leader of the party. I am sure that when we have a new leader, my hon. Friend will ask what his policy is on such matters. The only thing I can say at the moment is that the hon. Gentleman and the Committee know what I believe to be right. I have been on these Committees over the past 17 years, and I can remember often being lectured by Labour Members on the inequities of guillotines, because they never believed in them. Lo and behold, they are now the arch users of them.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

This part of the popular front stands firm on the issue of guillotine motions. We shall support the hon. Gentleman in the Division. We also oppose guillotine motions as a matter of principle, unless we see a compelling reason why it should be put in place. He can rely on my support.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

That is music to my ears. The hon. Gentleman may or may not know that I have a soft spot for the SNP—[Interruption.] There is a far better reason for that than party politics. When pairing was allowed, my pair was a member of the SNP, so I have a soft spot for the party and fond memories.

Despite what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome says, I believe that guillotine motions are wrong in principle.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) said that his poodle might be standing. If there were to be a contest, the hon. Gentleman's poodle would do far better than I would. Even if I were proposed, I would not find a seconder, so I am not standing.

In principle, guillotines are wrong. It prejudges what will happen in the Committee. We do not know at the outset what issues will emerge. We do not know what mistakes we shall find in the drafting. From my experience of other Committees, there is usually at least one. We do not know what the debates will yield. How can we say at the beginning that we need four sittings? My opposite number thought that four sittings were enough. We were never told why, and I pointed out that I was against that, but four sittings it was. Immediately we had trouble, we were offered more. The principle that there is not enough time is already established. The reason why I shall vote against the motion is that I have no confidence that the new number of sittings is adequate. On that basis, the principle must be upheld. If Labour Members believe in democracy and proper scrutiny of the Government of the day—of any political persuasion—they will vote with us.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 6.

Division number 2 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 3 - Short title, commencement and extent

Aye: 11 MPs

No: 6 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

On a point of order, I have been told off many times for taking off my jacket before the Chair has given me permission to do so. That is what I wanted to ask you, Mr. Cook. I have suffered for half an hour.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

I accept the implied rebuke. Two hon. Members have pre-empted the event, but I am pleased that the female members of the fraternity have not set such a bad example. Hon. Members may divest themselves of their upper garments if they feel uncomfortable. We have enjoyed some fun, but we must get on to the real meat of our business.Clause 1 Piloting conduct at European and local elections