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Coroners and Justice Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Volume 490: debated on Monday 23 March 2009

I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected the amendment.

I beg to move,

That the Order of 26 January 2009 (Coroners and Justice Bill (Programme)), as varied by the Order of 4 March 2009 (Coroners and Justice Bill (Programme) (No. 2)), be further varied as follows:

1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order shall be omitted.

2. Proceedings on consideration and Third Reading shall be concluded in two days.

3. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken on each of those days as shown in the following Table and in the order so shown.

4. Each part of the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in relation to it in the second column of the Table.


First day


Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses, New Schedules and amendments relating to inquests into a person’s death that may be conducted without a jury; remaining

New Clauses, New Schedules and amendments relating to Part 1; New Clauses, New Schedules and amendments relating to Part 2 except those relating to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation.

The moment of interruption.

Second day

Remaining New Clauses, New

Schedules and amendments relating to Part 2.

New Clauses, New Schedules and amendments relating to Part 8; New Clauses, New Schedules and amendments relating to Chapter 1 of Part 4; remaining proceedings on consideration.

One hour after the commencement of proceedings on the Bill.

One hour before the moment of interruption.

5. Proceedings on Third Reading hsall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on the second day

I hope that we can agree the motion quickly so that we can consider the Bill’s provisions. It seeks to ensure that they get the scrutiny that they deserve. First, we have provided for the Bill to be considered over two days and, secondly, the motion orders the proceedings for the two days so that the provisions for private inquests, incitement to hatred on the ground of sexual orientation, data protection, data sharing and the sentencing council receive adequate time for debate. I hope that there will also be an opportunity to consider the other issues that Bill covers.

The Under-Secretary charmingly and disarmingly introduced the motion, but I am afraid that it does not attract the House. It is outrageous that, in the two days set aside for Report, the Government have already spoiled the afternoon by making not only one statement, but two. We accept that it is entirely proper for the Prime Minister to make a statement at the first available opportunity following the spring European Council, even though it took an hour or so out of the parliamentary day. However, it is wholly unacceptable for the Secretary of State for Justice, whose business the Bill is, voluntarily to insert his statement on rights and responsibilities into an already overcrowded first day of the Report stage.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that many of us suspect that the insertion of the statement was done simply for the personal convenience of the Justice Secretary, so that he did not have to be in the House on two separate occasions?

I have absolutely no idea whether that is the case, but it is a wholly improper constriction of the time of this House for the Secretary of State to make a statement today that he could have made on any day last week, any day the week before or any day in the remainder of this week. It was not time-precious—that is to say, time-urgent—for him to make the statement today.

I would suggest that it is an entirely cynical, albeit typical, Government business manager move to compress the debates on the Bill. The Bill, which is about the size of the mid-Suffolk telephone book, is yet another plum duff of a Bill—plenty of duff and very few plums. It deals with about 15 discrete areas of law reform. We had inadequate time in Committee to debate the Bill, and we can see from today’s amendment paper, which is about the size of the Rutland telephone book, that plenty needs to be discussed on Report. We can also see that there are nine groups of amendments and new clauses that have to be dealt with in today’s business alone.

It could be suggested—no doubt the Minister will confess to this in winding up the debate—that the whole purpose of the way the programme motion has been constructed and the way the Government have so organised this afternoon’s business was to prevent things that need to be discussed and scrutinised from being discussed and scrutinised. We will probably see many hon. Members wishing to discuss inquests into a person’s death that may be conducted without a jury, which is a highly controversial aspect of the Bill. However, there are other subjects equally worthy of discussion, such as: the death of service personnel abroad; coroner’s duties and powers; inquest juries; medical examiners; the governance of the coronial system; some new material on sedition and seditious and criminal libel; the reform of the law of murder; and finally, the subject of assisting suicide.

As ever, my hon. and learned Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that the subject of assisting suicide has aroused considerable interest among many of our constituents, who expect such issues to be debated in Parliament? Wherever one might come down on the subject, surely our constituents are entitled to see such subjects debated, rather than seeing them prevented from being debated, which is what the Government have in effect done.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Each of those subjects—for example, the reform of the law of homicide, the reform of the law on assisting suicide and the reform of the coronial system—should have been detailed in separate Bills. Then the House would have had proper time to deal with each Bill separately, as would the other place, but the Government are not content with that. They rush round their Departments, just tipping stuff into their shopping trolley in the hope that it can make a useful compendium Bill, but it does not: it leads to chaos, cynicism and a total lack of confidence in the Government’s ability to order their affairs.

What we are seeing from the Government is not just indifference; it is a reckless disregard for the House of Commons and the proper parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. This Government are now beyond shame. I have yet to see a Minister who can look the House in the face and say that what they are doing this afternoon would be worthy of any Government. I regret to say that this programme motion is a shameful motion. It needs to be treated with the House’s utter contempt, and I hope that the House will show that contempt in a few moments’ time.

I do not think this is a shameful programme motion, but I do think there is a serious problem with it, which is why we tabled an amendment to it. The problem lies in the balance between the two days. The first day jams together amendments on juryless inquests with five other groups of amendments on coroners, including new material from the Government, on the new topics of sedition and seditious and criminal libel, as well as on the whole of the law of murder and assisted suicide.

The problem with the programme motion is that anything on that list that we do not reach by 10 o’clock tonight will fall. We will then start again tomorrow with a reserved hour for the law on homophobic hatred, followed by a fairly leisurely stroll through the rest of this Christmas tree Bill. We have just had two statements, which have taken up 90 minutes, as well as other matters, and it will now be very difficult to reach the amendments on the law of murder today. That would be a disgrace. Murder is the most serious crime in the law, and the Government’s proposals seriously distorted a Law Commission proposal. The Committee stage demonstrated that there were real difficulties with those proposals.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the programme motion demonstrates a strange order of priorities by giving the law of homophobic hatred an hour, when its likely use in any given year, if implemented, will probably be tiny, while the law of murder is applied every week in our courts?

I completely agree. I have tabled the lead new clauses in the groups on murder and on homophobic hatred. If asked which I would want to give reserved time to, I would say the murder group, not the homophobic hatred group. I put it to the Government that there should have been a two-day debate without any internal knives at all. In such circumstances, I am sure that the House would have paced itself through those two days properly. I urge the Government to withdraw the programme motion.

Not for the first time, I rise to oppose a timetable motion. I strongly object to the timetabling of this Bill on Report. The consequences of timetabling, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) have said, is that important sections of the Bill will go to the other place wholly undiscussed. What is more, a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), will not have the opportunity to discuss new clause 42. Whether or not one supports the new clause, it is quite plainly a matter that ought to be discussed by this House. It is urgent and topical, and people want to discuss it, but we are simply not going to reach it. Indeed, I have a strong suspicion that we shall not go beyond the first of the nine groups of amendments.

It is not just that people in the House want to discuss new clause 42; the public outside the House expect us to discuss it.

My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. Consent for legislation depends on a belief that this House does its duty properly, and the truth is that we are being prevented from doing our duty by this timetable motion. Moreover, on a related point, the Report stage is the only occasion on which right hon. and hon. Members who are not on the Committee have the opportunity to discuss the detail of the Bill. This Bill contains some extraordinarily important clauses. For example, the whole of the first group of amendments and new clauses deals with jury-free inquests. The important thing to keep in mind is that these provisions represent a concession—I concede that it is a concession—announced by the Government last week, on which there has been precious little public discussion and whose details we have a right to discuss. We are not going to be able to do so in sufficient detail, however.

On a different point, the draft changes on murder are extremely important. I agree with what has already been said about that. As the Secretary of State for Justice knows, I have often appeared in murder cases. Provocation has been an extremely difficult area of the law, and we have a right to have the opportunity properly to debate it on this occasion, but we are not going to be able to do so. The definition of an inquest in respect of which a jury should be required seems to me to be a matter of very considerable moment, but we are not going to reach that provision; it will go to the other place without our having had proper discussion. That is also true of the matter of assisted suicide, to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough has referred.

There is another vice about this—if the time allowed for Report is constrained, we can be quite sure that Mr. Speaker will be unable to select as many amendments as we would wish him to select. As we know from the Order Paper, I tabled scores of amendments—I make no complaint about the fact that only a few have been selected—but if debate is unnaturally and too tightly constrained, right hon. and hon. Members are shut out and a Bill is not properly discussed at all.

I suggest that any feeling of outrage should be compounded by two further considerations. We all know that the business of the House has been extraordinarily light for the last few weeks. We need only look at the Order Paper to know that. It would have been quite easy to provide two, three or more days to allow proper debate of this Bill, but we are not permitted to do so, which is an outrage.

In supporting the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument, may I respectfully remind him that there is a one-liner throughout next week, so there would be plenty of time to deal with these very important issues? Murder and jury-free inquests are vital issues that we should all be able to discuss at length.

I do not know about the nationalist Whip, but I know that other parties have an extraordinarily light Whip and we have had extraordinarily light business for weeks and weeks and weeks. We could well have given this Bill much more time than is being allowed.

Does this not serve to bring this House into disrepute in the eyes of our constituents, who feel that issues that occupy and concern them are not being discussed even for a moment in this place?

I agree and I find it impossible when I go to schools and other places to explain why it is that whole chunks of legislation are going through this place undiscussed. The Criminal Justice Bill in 2003 was the worst example that readily comes to mind, but there are countless other examples, of which this Bill is going to be another.

Then we come to the perverse fact that we have had two statements today—a day of tight business. I understand that the Prime Minister felt obliged to make a statement and it was a remarkable performance. The poor fellow, I fear he is getting very tired, so I suppose one ought to feel sorry for him. However, there was no need for the Justice Secretary to come here today. I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough that, assuming it was not for the personal convenience of the Justice Secretary, it was certainly to take up time—and that stinks as a practice.

I was not going to divide the House because I knew that the Division would take up time from our substantive debate, but now that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough proposes to divide the House, I am going to join him in the Division Lobby with enthusiasm.

I have an obvious interest in the programme motion because I have new clauses in one of the later groups to deal with freedom of speech—a matter that should be of interest to all Members. I am also a sponsor of the new clause dealing with assisted suicide. I think it is fair to say that I raised my concerns with the Government before I saw the groupings. I put some questions to the Leader of the House just last Thursday. I said:

“Mr. Speaker, you will be selecting the amendments”

for the Coroners and Justice Bill

“and, as there are so many parts to the Bill, they will inevitably fall into at least eight substantive groups.”

Well, there are 14. I continued:

“We are grateful to the Leader of the House for providing two days’ debate”—

which was not the case in respect of the Criminal Justice Act 2008 when, as with so many others, we had just one day—

“but does she recognise that the ability of the House to scrutinise the legislation will be measured”—

by our constituents and the media—

“in part, by whether we have time to debate all those groups?”

I then asked her a simple question:

“Will she take steps to ensure that there is adequate consultation between the parties so that those two days are used effectively to scrutinise all the parts of this important piece of legislation?”—[Official Report, 19 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 1065-66.]

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) said, there is not enough time to do more than we are doing because of the mismatch between the two days. He was available all last week to debate such matters, and the same applies to those on the Conservative Front Bench.

When the Prime Minister was first selected as the new Prime Minister, he said it was his priority to ensure that the House improved the scrutiny that it delivered. At the time, I asked him whether that would include scrutiny of all legislation—particularly criminal justice legislation—by the elected House. I asked whether he agreed that it was unacceptable for huge tranches of legislation to go through the House, and sometimes even Committee, unscrutinised. As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said, this is the only chance that those of us who are not on Public Bill Committees have. Surely the Government accept that the House is not doing its job of scrutiny unless it can debate all groups of amendments.

There is an option other than a third day: consulting on the programme motion. I have been told by those who know more about the matter that whichever Committee of the House suggested programme motions never intended them simply to be imposed and to have the consequences, by design or accident, that we see today. They were always intended to be a vehicle for the House to arrange its business so that we could debate such matters. Does the Minister recognise that it must be sensible to negotiate the programme motion so that we do not have such a half-hour debate, Divisions and unpleasantness? I am assured that there was no negotiation—

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be cautious about negotiation, because the implication is that it takes place between Front Benchers, but Back Benchers have a view about the matter. When the Conservatives are elected to office, I shall be hard to persuade to support any timetable motion.

Politics is the art of the possible, and regardless of how much trust Back Benchers have in Front Benchers, consultation is possible. We ask our Front Benchers to take into account the interests of the whole House. I would rather argue with them over their failure to negotiate a good position than have such frustration. At least my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge tabled an amendment, which was not selected, that would have addressed the matter.

It is amazing that the elected House will not get to debate murder law reform, and that we will probably not get to debate free speech, which has not been debated in this House for centuries—not since the days of the Star Chamber—in the terms on the Order Paper. It would be unacceptable if the House discussed only one group today. We must show self-restraint. No programme motion will ever deliver proper scrutiny if we spend a whole day on the first group, important though it is. With self-restraint, the House of Lords managed to get through its business. In that spirit, I will finish.

The House knows that this is a compendium Bill and that it touches on fundamental issues that affect the nature of our society. I want to draw attention to a conclusion of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which comprises Members of the House of Lords and Members of this House. Few people will have had the opportunity to read the Joint Committee’s report. It states:

“The breadth and size of the Bill and the legal complexity and diversity of the topics it covers have been the subject of concern during the Bill’s passage through the House of Commons given the limited time provided for scrutiny. We add our voice to those concerns. Large, multi-purpose bills of this sort are almost impossible to scrutinise effectively within the limited timescale provided by the Government. Given the range and significance of the human rights issues raised in this bill, the Government should have introduced two or three separate bills, each of which would have been substantial pieces of legislation in their own right or ensured that there was sufficient time for full pre-legislative and Committee stage scrutiny in the House of Commons. We welcome the fact that two days have been given over for Report stage in the House of Commons, a step not taken in relation to previous Bills of similar size, including the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill”.

It does not take much wit or imagination to appreciate that a Bill that covers certified or secret inquests, data protection, consumer reforms, witness anonymity, changes in the criminal law and procedural changes deals with big, big issues which the House should take seriously. What the Government are consistently doing is denigrating this Chamber—my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) raised that point during questions on the statement by the Justice Secretary earlier this afternoon—rubbishing us, in one sense, and pushing the whole duty of legislative scrutiny down to the other end.

There are matters in this Bill that we simply cannot reach. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), we shall not be able to discuss contentions that affect every one of our citizens. What is the purpose of the House of Commons if the Government persist in introducing guillotine motions with timetabling that does not enable us to discuss the business involved? This is a denial even of the Justice Secretary’s Bill of rights and responsibilities. What about the responsibilities of a Government to ensure that Parliament—the elected House of Commons—can discuss matters such as secret coroners’ courts?

I do not intend to delay the House for long, but I want to express my support for what has been said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).

This is happening far too regularly. It is not a case of the Government’s having made a genuine mistake; week in week out, there is not enough time to debate Bills in Parliament. One would have thought that, given that it is happening week in week out, the Government would have done something about it if they genuinely believed that the House was supposed to debate important matters. The fact that they do not do anything about it can only lead people to the conclusion that they do not want matters to be debated in the House: that they do not like being scrutinised, and do not want a proper debate to take place. If they allowed a proper debate, they might find that there were differing views among those on their own Benches, and they do not want to tolerate such a situation, so they filibuster by tabling needless statements such as that made earlier by the Justice Secretary—which did not need to be made today—in order to restrict the time available for debate on Bills such as this.

Numerous constituents have raised with me such issues as assisted suicide, which has attracted a great deal of interest. Constituents on both sides of the argument have urged me to support their views. They expect these matters to be debated.

My hon. Friend is making a very good case. That is exactly the point: our constituents expect us to be debating the issues, and they do not understand why we do not get around to doing so because of some incompetence on the Government’s part, and some procedural motion that prohibits proper discussion.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is either incompetence on the Government’s part, or a deliberate attempt to prevent a debate from taking place. The Government can choose which it is. I am quite relaxed about allowing them to choose whether it is incompetence or a deliberate attempt to stifle debate, but it is one of those two things.

What am I supposed to say to my constituents who contact me about these matters, ask that these matters be debated, and urge that their own views be heard? Am I supposed to say, “I’m sorry; this is the House of Commons, this is an important issue and the Bill was meant to deal with it, but the Government have ensured that there is not enough time for it to be debated, and so the view of the House has not been tested”?

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is perfectly entitled to a debate on the new clause that he supports. I might well take a different view from the hon. Gentleman, but the people in the country—our constituents—are entitled to know where we stand on these issues, and to know that they are being debated.

Is not a bad situation made worse by the fact that debate on the timetable motion is taken out of the time for debate on the Bill? It would have been a little better if the 45 minutes for this debate had been ring-fenced, so that after that we could get on with the Bill.

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and he was entirely right when he said in an earlier intervention that this type of thing was bringing the House into disrepute. The standing of the House of Commons is falling as every day goes by. We should be trying to do something about that. We should be trying to arrest the slide in public support for what goes on in this place. We should not be helping it to fall into further disrepute by not debating matters that are of great importance to our constituents. We are already considered an irrelevance by many people; we are making ourselves irrelevant by not debating particular issues because it might be inconvenient for the Government to have them debated. As we have heard, the business has been fairly light in recent weeks, and it will be so next week in particular, when it seems that the Government are scrabbling around trying to find business to put on in order to allow the House to sit. That would have provided a perfect opportunity to have proper debate of these issues.

My constituents have raised these important issues and they expected them to be debated. I could not allow this debate to go by without making the point that the Government have prevented their being debated through their programme motion. We have two days set aside on the Order Paper. Given the way things have been arranged, it is entirely possible that we may reach almost none of the key amendments today and finish early tomorrow because the business ends particularly early, when we could have allowed time for some more of these issues to be debated. That would have been entirely possible.

This business has been organised in such a way as to prevent debate on matters that are important to Members and our constituents. The Government should be ashamed of themselves. I am delighted that my Front-Bench colleagues have said that they will oppose this programme motion, and I will support them enthusiastically.

I have heard a lot of nonsense spoken in this House on many an occasion, but not quite as much as I have heard from the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) today.

No, because I want us to get on to the main substance of the debate.

Let me address a couple of points. First, we spent 43 hours and 32 minutes in Committee, so the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who is very concerned about process in this House, will know that proper scrutiny took place in Committee over several days, including an extra day. We have also allowed two days on Report. I will not take any lessons from the nationalists, who did not bother turning up to the Committee stage of the Bill. However, I will say to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who was concerned about the balance between amendments to the law of homicide and to incitement, that there were more names down in support of the amendment to the incitement provisions than in support of any of the amendments to the homicide law, which might indicate that people do want to have a proper debate on the incitement provisions.

Finally, I say to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who rightly tabled new clauses to the Bill, that if a disciplined approach were taken by the Opposition—which I doubt, however—we might well get on to his proposals tonight, and he might hear some positive responses from the Government.

Whether we reach all the parts of the Bill that are down for debate tonight is entirely in the hands of Opposition Members.

I will not give way, as I want us to get on to the substance of the Bill. If the Opposition could exercise a little discipline, we might well reach all those clauses. It is entirely up to them.

Question put.