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European Union Bill (Programme)(No. 2)

Volume 522: debated on Monday 24 January 2011

I beg to move,

That the Order of 7 December 2010 (European Union Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:

1. In paragraph 2, for ‘five days’ there shall be substituted ‘six days’.

2. In paragraph 4, in the Table, for the entries relating to the proceedings required (so far as not previously concluded) to be brought to a conclusion on the fifth day there shall be substituted the following:


Time for conclusions of proceedings

Clauses 15 to 17, Schedule 2,

new Clauses relating to Part 2,

new Schedules relating to Part 2, Clauses 19 to 22, remaining new Clauses, remaining new Schedules, remaining proceedings in Committee.

The moment of interruption on the fifth day.

Any proceedings on


Two hours before the moment of interruption on the sixth day.

Proceedings on Third Reading.

Two hours after the commencement of proceedings on Third Reading or at the moment of interruption on the

sixth day, whichever is earlier.

As the House will be aware, the Government have proposed a small number of amendments to the European Union Bill and they will be debated, subject to your grouping of those amendments, Mr Speaker, in greater depth and at the relevant time.

The Minister must be in absolute despair. In his very good ConservativeHome article, he said that this House would scrutinise this important legislation—the most radical since we went into the European Economic Community—but clearly we will not be able to do that today, because a number of amendments and clauses will not be reached. Is he not disappointed that the guillotine has not been lifted tonight?

As far as I am aware, it has not been a question of a guillotine. We have the normal 10 o’clock rule in place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) is aware, the Government were keen to ensure that the House had sufficient time to consider this important legislation. We therefore proposed five days for the Committee stage in the programme motion that was tabled on Second Reading. That had been agreed in advance through the usual channels. My recollection of that day’s debate is that there was no attempt to divide the House on the programme motion at that time.

With all respect to my hon. Friend, I am conscious that he cares passionately about the Bill and about the relationship of the United Kingdom with the European Union. He has strongly held, honourable and principled views on that matter, and I am sure that if he catches the Speaker’s eye in the course of today’s proceedings, he will speak trenchantly on the subject, as he has done on other occasions recently. But when it comes to a debate, there is also a duty on all Members of Parliament to consider the time available for the various amendments that have been grouped together, and to measure their own contributions to that debate accordingly.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if there were any attempt during the proceedings on the programme motion or at any point during the day that might give rise to suspicions that Members were talking matters out in order to prevent important business being arrived at, his words might sound rather hollow?

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who has been here for a long time, knows that a balance needs to be struck between the time that is needed to examine important political and constitutional issues fairly and in the depth that both the House and the general public would expect, and the time that is available for debate, bearing in mind the many other priorities that the House has to consider. I would say gently to my hon. Friend that I believe that he spoke at some length—more than 60 minutes—during the first day’s proceedings in Committee. I hope that so far he has not had reason to complain that his contributions are being crowded out.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are no fewer than 29 amendments, some of which are Government amendments, before we reach the fourth or fifth group, which contain the provision relating to whether there should be a referendum in the case of the accession of a new member state? That provision is extremely important, and without proper scrutiny being given to that, it could hardly be said that the Bill had had proper scrutiny in the terms that my right hon. Friend described? Would he regard it as unsatisfactory if we did not scrutinise that question, which is important for many, many people?

It would be improper for me to comment on the selection or grouping of amendments, which is properly a matter for the Chair and not the Government. My hon. Friend is right to say that the question of the possible need for a referendum on accession treaties is a matter of importance. I hope we get the opportunity to debate that in the course of today’s proceedings. One of the consequences of the programme motion, which I support, is that the House will get the opportunity of a sixth day of consideration. There will therefore be opportunities for my hon. Friend and other Members in all parts of the House to table further amendments and new clauses when we reach Report.

It would have been open to the Government, having decided to table amendments and hoping—I believe not unreasonably—that those amendments might be accepted by the House, to have said to the House, “Well, we now have to make provision for a Report stage, so what we suggest is that we curtail the Committee stage from five days to four, and that we have Report and Third Reading on the fifth day.” If it would be of some assurance to my hon. Friend, I want to make it clear that we had no thought of doing that.

We decided at the start that it was important to continue with the full five days in Committee that we had promised all parties in the House, so in order to provide for a debate on Report we have allocated an additional, sixth day for debate on Report and Third Reading. If, by some chance, the House decides not to accept any of the amendments tabled by the Government or other Members and to leave the Bill unamended in Committee, that sixth day would be available for a full parliamentary day’s debate on Third Reading.

There seem to be three issues on which the Minister must guide the House: first, whether the Government thought that there would be no amendments and, therefore, no need for debate on Report, which seems a rather odd thing to have assumed in the first place; secondly, whether he believes that the extra day is sufficient for debating on Report any amendments that might have been made by then and any that might not have been made; and thirdly, whether he intends to avoid debate on matters on which there is substantial interest in the House. I do not intend that to be a criticism, but I would be grateful if he would comment on those three issues.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and will deal with each of his three points in turn. On the question of amendments, the terms of the original programme motion provided that on the fifth day we would deal with the Committee stage and with remaining stages, so the assumption was that if there was a need for a Report stage, there would be provision for it. The Government have looked closely and carefully at each of the amendments that have been tabled, from whichever side of the House they came. As I hope to have the opportunity to explain when we debate the substance of the Bill and the various amendments selected for debate, we have been influenced in our policy and in the amendments that we have tabled by the amendments that have been tabled by Back Benchers.

On the question of whether the additional day will allow adequate time for debate, I ask my hon. Friend to look at the provision of time overall for consideration of the Bill. I think that a full day for Second Reading, five complete days in Committee and a full day for the remaining stages is a pretty fair allocation of time. I am confident that it will be possible for all the important issues that colleagues on both sides of the House wish to see debated to be debated within that time, but how long Members take to debate each group of amendments or how long they spend on particular clause stand part debates is, of course, a matter for them and for the House. The Government have no intention of trying to constrain debate artificially. I very much hope that we have time to consider all the important issues that have been raised in the amendments.

This is a fascinating and intriguing Bill. There have been times in the past few weeks when, because I have had trouble sleeping, I have simply reached for a copy of the Bill to read and have been off in a wink. There are a number of important points to make. The Government have tabled several significant amendments that need to be debated and considered fully in due course by the House. They are in part concessions to comments that have been made by Government Back Benchers. One of the amendments due for consideration today relates to the treaty change for which the Germans are pressing strongly. Amendments have also been tabled due to the complexity of the Bill. From the start, one of our criticisms has been the Bill’s undue complexity, and that point has been borne out, because the Government have tabled amendments to try to clarify things. There has been tremendous debate among lawyers in the Foreign Office and elsewhere about whether the Bill is compatible with existing legislation, and that simply underlines the fact that the Bill is an extremely complex piece of legislation.

We have had one day in Committee of the whole House, and during the course of the debate we heard that there are grave reservations about the inadequacy of the explanatory notes. I hope that the Government will rewrite them, given that we have an extra day, and come forward with a full and comprehensive explanation for the changes that they are bringing about.

In the light of that, and because of our belief that we need the maximum amount of time to debate the Bill, we have no objection to the motion.

I appreciate that I am eating into our time in Committee of the whole House, but that is due to an unfortunate manoeuvre that the Government now use instead of adding on time for the programme motion. If the Government had been serious about scrutiny, they would have moved a motion to lift the moment of interruption, and there would have been no point in filibustering, because everybody would have known that the debate could continue until any hour. To the people outside, it must seem extraordinary that Members of the House of Lords, who on the whole are much older than Members of this House, can speak and debate through the night, but that this House effectively has a guillotine on its proceedings. This is exactly what the previous Government did when they were in power; it is exactly what we said we would not do when we were in power; and it is an utter disgrace.

The days of the guillotine started before the 1970s, when the then Labour Government began using it for all kinds of things that most people did not want. They were in effect a minority Government, passing legislation that was not doing any good to anybody, and there were great objections to the guillotine. Some of the greatest speeches were made by Michael Foot defending it and by Conservatives attacking it. Since then, we have carried on with it for some 35 years.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), and today is not necessarily the day to suspend the rule and go on through the night. On this issue as on others, one or two of us, if we speak for 60 minutes, have only just cleared our throats and are perfectly capable of going on for two or three hours. That would not resolve whatever issue the Government are trying to resolve.

What matters most to me is that if the Government are deliberately, and rightly, adding extra debates for the Committee’s consideration, there should be injury time. That will not happen all the time, but on this Bill I welcome the fact that the Government have made the change voluntarily and at an early stage of the Committee’s proceedings. We are coming up to day two of Committee of the whole House. I praise them for making an early change and recognise it openly.

What worries me is the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), who asked, “Is there a possibility that, because of how the programme operates, certain major debates will not take place?” That is what I hope we were addressing in opposition and will not do in government. We should say, for example, “What would a Backbench Business Committee do if it was considering the issues that should be debated?”

I am not concerned about the Speaker’s groupings; I am concerned that there should be debates on any issues that most people in the House say should be debated. So I put it to those on both Front Benches, that Back Benchers on both sides of the House expect there to be debates about the issues that we believe matter most. There obviously needs to be room for the particular enthusiasm of one Member, if they can get a relevant amendment accepted and debated, but, on those amendments that are clearly accepted as important to the whole House, let us not reach the point at which, by some chance or design, they are not debated.

I add my concern to that of other hon. Members over the time allocated for the Committee of the whole House. I suspect that had the Bill been referred to a Committee that was not of the whole House, more time would have been available to discuss the amendments. Given that this is a constitutional Bill of great importance, it is right that it be considered in Committee of the whole House, but we should have at least as much time as would have been given to a Committee not held on the Floor of the House. Given that more people are likely to want to speak in a Committee of the whole House, surely that time should be expanded even further. I therefore echo what other hon. Members have said.

I am one of the Members—perhaps rare beasts now—who regret the introduction of the guillotine and the way in which it has been used in recent years. Time and again we miss out on speaking, are curtailed in what we want to say and cannot speak at the length that we think appropriate, because of the time limits. I have argued on many occasions that we ought to have two-day debates for Second Reading, because it deals with the principle of the Bill. Time and again, large numbers of people want to speak and are not able to. I therefore echo what other hon. Members have said.

I enter this debate with some trepidation, because there is the most complicated series of amendments and proposals that I have seen in my short career as a parliamentarian. I will make a couple of points. First, when we are debating critical legislation that sets out for the first time since 1973 how we define our relationship with Europe, I find it astonishing that fewer than 10% of sitting Members are in the House and that the Opposition Benches, in particular, are rather empty. Given that we are debating a shortage of time and a lack of ability for people to be heard, it is extraordinary how few people have bothered to show up.

Secondly, I urge hon. Members from all parts of the House to focus on the fundamentals of the debate, rather than on the time-wasting proposals that the Opposition parties have tried to table. I am still confused about whether the Opposition parties support or oppose the principle of the Bill. I think that perhaps they support the principle, but cannot bring themselves to stand up and say so. I hope that we will have a debate on the fundamentals of the Bill over the next few hours. I therefore hope that we will pass the motion and proceed to the debate.

I rise briefly to plead that we do not divide the House on this matter, because time is pressing. However, I am prepared to forecast that we will not get beyond the first group of amendments today. The Bill, if about nothing else, is about what might trigger a referendum, and the first group is concerned with that matter. It is extremely likely that we will not discuss much else today, given that that is the heart of the Bill. That suggests that the timetable motion is ill-conceived. Although it is generous of the Government to add an extra day, that does not resolve the problem we will have today, which is that it is most unlikely that we will discuss anything about clauses 2, 3, 4 or 5, the new clauses relating to clauses 1 to 5, or anything else. That is not what was envisaged when we discussed the strengthening of Parliament in the previous Parliament. A great disadvantage of these very curtailed debates on contentious pieces of legislation is that there is an incentive for people to use up the time for the convenience of the Government, rather than to provide a platform for those who actually want to discuss the Bill.

Does my hon. Friend recall the speech made by Mr Speaker only last week, in which he drew attention to the necessity not only to maintain the sovereignty of Parliament, but to ensure that the Government are held properly to account? That was from Mr Speaker himself—a most unusual, but very important speech. What we may witness today would be in defiance of the principles that he enunciated.

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have yet to find a way of respecting the Government’s right to obtain their legislation in reasonable time, subject to the consent of the House, and of reasonably limiting the time spent on debate, while ensuring that all parts of the Bill are debated properly. We do not want to start following the example of the other place, where a tiny minority of Members are brutally filibustering, but we do need to improve the procedures that we have today. It is a sad comment on the state of the House of Commons under this new Government, who purported to believe in something called “new politics”, that we are carrying on the old politics implemented by the Labour Government.

I rise rather sheepishly, because I almost feel partly responsible for the Government adding an extra day. Some of their amendments have taken over from ones that I had previously tabled, so I find them quite important.

I am particularly pleased that the Government have tabled amendments 57 and 58, which are about the European public prosecutor, because they had inadvertently left a gap in the Bill relating to opt-in arrangements under the EU treaties. They are now closing that gap. They have also tabled the important amendment 60, relating to the common foreign and security policy, so I am pleased that we have the extra time for debate.

I understand what hon. Members have said about what will happen later today, but from a personal point of view I have been chasing amendments such as those that I have mentioned for quite some time, to close the gaps in the Bill, and I am very pleased that the Government have paid some attention to what I and other hon. Members have said.

The accession of new member states can be fairly insignificant numerically, but there could be an extremely large new member state, with a population probably larger than Germany’s. For the House to pass a Bill such as this without having reached the point of discussing the matter would be an abdication of duty. Will the Minister undertake that, should we not reach that point today, he will find time for the House to return to the matter for however long it takes?

I will not often rise in sympathy with the hon. Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Stone (Mr Cash) during the passage of the Bill, but I share some of the fears that they have expressed. One is that, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and others have said, some very significant issues might not be reached today, especially in light of how the grouping of the amendments has panned out.

I am obviously not criticising Mr Speaker at all, but he has wisely included a very large number of amendments in the first group, covering three different clauses and various arguments. I suspect that that is likely to lead to a long and convoluted debate. That will almost inevitably take up a large part of our time, so we might not reach issues such as enlargement, which, as the hon. Lady said, could be very significant.

My other fear is that debates such as today’s, by their nature, can sometimes be hijacked by what one could unkindly call filibustering. Reference has been made to the shenanigans up the corridor in the other place in recent weeks, which I am afraid are not an enlightening example of how to conduct parliamentary business. If the other place has traditionally conducted itself in a more gentlemanly way, with such things not being allowed to disrupt debate, it has certainly failed that test in recent weeks. I therefore reluctantly accept that there is an argument for having guillotines and knives, to prevent a debate of such importance from being hijacked in that way.

However, I ask the Minister to reassure all of us that, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, if significant issues cannot be debated today and are cut off by the guillotine, we will have some opportunity to address them later in the process, at the very least by allowing significant time on Report. I hope that the Minister will welcome debate on enlargement in particular at that time.

I, too, rise to welcome the fact that the Government have agreed to add a sixth day. The Bill is receiving better consideration than many such Bills, and so it should, because it is an important constitutional Bill.

Notwithstanding that, I have sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who would like further time to discuss the Bill because of its immense constitutional significance. I personally regret that we will not reach discussion of the ambit of the Parliament Act, because it is right that the House has time to consider what happens in our Parliament, including in another place, and the sort of behaviour that we have witnessed of late, particularly by former members of the Labour Whips Office, who are behaving most disgracefully.

Perhaps my hon. Friend is going on to say this, but I would have thought that he would be disappointed that we will not have time to discuss amendments 48, 49, 50 and 51 on holding an in/out referendum, which he champions. Personally, I do not champion it, but does he not regret that we are most unlikely to be able to discuss those amendments?

I agree with my hon. Friend. What will we discuss? A wrecking amendment, tabled by the Labour party, which cheated the nation of a referendum in the past.

Order. If it was a wrecking amendment, it would not have been selected. I remind the hon. Gentleman that amendments are selected with due consideration.

I defer to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and apologise for using language that was perhaps too simple. Of course, the amendment could not be a wrecking amendment; it is an amendment that would bring destruction on the Government’s intent and purpose in the Bill. I hope that I remain in order with that description.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who makes an important point about the time that is needed to discuss the purpose of referendums and whether we should have a national debate—perhaps a referendum?—on whether to hold an in/out referendum. It seems that we will not have time to discuss that today. I hope that, at some point—perhaps not in the Bill, but sometime—the House will be able to discuss that properly.

I should be delighted to share that information with the House. For the record, my Whip did not ask me to take part in the debate; he simply asked me whether I intended to rebel—I think he had some interest in that matter. As my hon. Friend probably realises, when we discuss in/out referendums, one is slightly off-piste in the context of the general approach of both major parties. Nevertheless, the House should have time to discuss the matter at greater length. [Interruption.] I will ignore the sedentary chuntering that tempts me to digress from being in order. I recognise that the clock is ticking and I do not want to eat further into the time for debate.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Several Members on the Government Benches have referred to proceedings in another place. Page 435 of “Erskine May” clearly states:

“Members are restrained by the Speaker from commenting upon the proceedings of the House of Lords.”

For the guidance, particularly of newer Members on the other side of the House, could you give a ruling on that point?

With the leave of the House, let me reply briefly to some of the main points. I do not want to take up much time.

I found it difficult to take seriously the strictures of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) about the Bill’s alleged complexity. If there is complexity in the Bill, it flows from that in the Lisbon treaty, which he and his party, when in government, negotiated, supported and rammed through the House.

Members from both sides of the House made important points about the amount of time available. I am grateful for the acknowledgement of the Government’s offer of a sixth full day. I point out that, with no statements or urgent questions today, roughly six and a half hours are available for debating the motion and proceedings on the amendments. There is a balance to be struck between time available and Members’ self-discipline in the length of their speeches.

On Report, hon. Members on both sides of the House will obviously have the opportunity to table amendments and new clauses to raise subjects that they believe need further debate or that they think have been overlooked and ought to be debated. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who has been in the House since 1997—almost as long as I have—knows well how the rules of order operate and how to draft an amendment to maximise its chances of selection and of being high up in Mr Speaker’s groupings on Report. I am sure that Back Benchers on both sides of the House will be happy to take her advice on the canny ways of achieving those objectives.

A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Lady, mentioned the question of accession treaties. It is obviously for the Chair and not for me to determine whether the content of any speech is in order. I simply point out that the first group of amendments includes proposals to remove the exemption conditions altogether from the Bill, but the exemption conditions include an exemption for accession treaties. I invite the House to draw its own conclusions, but I hope that it supports the motion.

Question put and agreed to.