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23 Jan 2003 : Column 466continued
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I am disappointed with the Minister's opening remarks. My understanding is that nothing has been agreed through the usual channels. The timetable that we face today has been imposed on us by the Government. The Minister referred to the time available for the scrutiny of this very important Bill in Committee. I think he was being slightly disingenuous, because I stated quite explicitly during an earlier stage of the Bill that I recognised that the time allowed for consideration of the Bill in Committee was probably adequate, and that the problem was that the four key clauses underlying the principles of the Bill that were debated on the Floor of the House had been given a grossly inadequate amount of time. In fact, the House did not manage to debate all those issues.
The issue before us today is that we have a little under three hours left in which to consider a Bill of constitutional significance. That significance has already been recognised by the fact that part of the Committee stage of the Bill was taken as a Committee of the whole House. I would suggest to the Minister that in future the Government show a certain amount of self-restraint. When we have only a short period of time available for Report and Third Reading, the Government must resist the temptation to allow a second Government statement before that business begins. I hope that the Minister will agree with me on this, as he is not shy of debate and is generally keen to engage with important issues such as those that we are discussing today. Although I do not expect him to say anything publicly, I hope that he will privately make his views known to the Leader of the House, because a lot of his hard work preparing for the later groups of amendmentswhich will probably not be considered this afternoonwill have been wasted, as will the hard work of many Conservative Members, myself included.
The new clauses and amendments that have been selected give wide scope for debate on some of the fundamental issues that have troubled Conservative Membersand, indeed, some Labour Membersduring the earlier stages of the Bill. So this is a good selection of amendments, and it will provide a good opportunity to debate the issues that have caused some difficulty. I am only sorry that we shall not get through all those groups this afternoon. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) said in his point of order, seven groups have been selected for consideration. Frankly, it is inconceivable that we shall get to the last of them.
There seems to be a serious flaw in our arrangements and procedures. On Report, new clauses are quite properly considered first, but on this occasion, all the new clauses have been tabled either by the Opposition, the Liberal Democrats or Back-Bench Members. Although I live in hope, I try to be a realist, and it is likely that the Government will resist all those new clauses. It is therefore likely that they will not be added to the Bill. I remain an optimist, but it is also likely that all the Government amendments will be made. They will be voted on, and the Government will use their majority to carry them, but they will not be debated because they appear towards the end of the selection list for today. It will necessarily almost always be the case that the items on the amendment paper that are certain to make it into the Bill will be those least likely to receive proper debate and scrutiny on Report. So the Government get their amendments without any debate or scrutiny, which effectively places the burden of scrutiny on the other place.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Does my hon. Friend agree that it was presumptuous in the extreme for the Minister to imply that, because Government amendments on Report are principally responses to representations made by members of the Standing Committee, this should be an-open-and-shut case? Is it not possible that Members present today who were not
Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but it is not true that all the Government amendments are responses to points raised by Opposition Members in Committeealthough it is true that at least one group is a direct response to the Minister's resistance of a point raised by them then. Not the least of my disappointment when I learnt that we would probably not reach that group today was due to the fact that the Minister would have no opportunity to proffer his thanks to the Opposition for drawing attention to the issues involved.
Mr. Raynsford: I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that Government amendments Nos. 8, 9, 10 and 11which are indeed at the end of the list and therefore may not be reached if he and his colleagues speak at length; I hope they will not do soare a direct response to an amendment that he tabled in Committee. I said then that I would table amendments to meet his objective, and I hope he will accept these amendments as an expression of my appreciation and thanks for his efforts.
Mr. Hammond: I am glad we have managed to get that out of the way. But I think it disingenuous of the Minister to suggest that a debate on seven groups of new clauses and amendmentsone important group, the second, contains four new clausescan be completed in the time available, which is less than two hours and 45 minutes. That is clearly not the case. This has nothing to do with delaying or other tactics on the part of any Members on either side of the House; it is simply a reflection of the inadequate provision of time.
Let me respond to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) by saying that at least one Government amendment and subsequent Opposition amendments to it are in response to representations received by the Government from the Electoral Commission. Given that the commission is an innovative body, I think that Members would be interested in exploring the process whereby the Government have published a Bill, the commission has made representations to the Government, and the Governmentto give them their duehave responded. That too is an innovative process in our constitutional arrangements, involving a new body, which bears scrutiny and questioning. Sadly, it will be subject to neither.
As I was saying before the Minister intervened, it is ironic that changes in our procedural rules designed to make this place more modern and efficient have cast the burden of scrutiny on to the other placethe unreformed other placewhich must now do the work that most of our constituents think they have sent us here to do: the work of scrutinising legislation properly before it is enacted.
I shall end shortly, because another irony is that the longer we discuss the inadequate allocation of time the more time we use up. Let me say to my colleagues, however, that the second group of amendments and new clauses will allow debate on what I believe to be key issues. I hope that we reach later groups, and I certainly
It is conceivable that, on some occasions, timetables can work, but if they are to work they must be fair and reasonable. Timetables such as this, providing less than three hours for consideration of a constitutionally significant Bill, bring any timetabling system into disrepute. To the Government's shame, an important constitutional Bill will yet again go through this place on the nod, and another nail will have been hammered into the coffin of our parliamentary democracy.
The Minister is right that the Conservative spokesmen spent a long time debating whether the word "but" should begin a certain part of the Bill, thus wasting a fair amount of the time available, but he was wrong to propose the motion in this way. The two statements have taken up time, and according to our modernised procedures the business of the House ends at 6 pm. That has truncated the time available for this important Bill, which we deeply regret. We cannot therefore support the motion.
I entirely rebut the claim by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) that time was wasted in Committee. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I had the privilege of serving on the Committee, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt that the Committee's proceedings were measured and focused, and raised important issues.
As for the alleged killer point that some time was spent in discussing whether the word "but" should feature, does the Minister recall the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer)who is sitting behind himmaking a point that some of us were making? He said that court cases could take weeks and months, and that tens of thousands of pounds could be spent on deciding the meaning of the word "and" or the word "but" in a statute. It is actually quite important to ensure that legislation is accurate, and a "but" or an "and" in the wrong place can make a big difference.