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Business Of The House: Prevention Of Terrorism Bill

Volume 670: debated on Thursday 3 March 2005

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

11.31 a.m.

My Lords, perhaps I may offer the House a short explanation of where we are in regard to the grouping of amendments for the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. We are extremely close—by "we" I mean the usual channels and everyone with an interest in the Bill—to getting agreement on a sensible grouping of amendments, but I am afraid that we are about 10 minutes short of the deadline, which is so often the case.

For the convenience of the House and everyone who wants to ensure—as we all do—that there is an orderly debate, it would be sensible to adjourn until quarter to twelve so that there can be absolute clarity about the first group. We can then do what we all want to do, which is to have a sensible debate on a sensible group.

My Lords, we have done our best to accommodate the Government's perceived need to complete the Bill quickly but the House is being placed in a very difficult position today, not only in regard to the groupings but altogether. I remind your Lordships that the clauses of the Bill were never discussed at all in Committee in another place—they never reached that stage—because of a very tight timetable. So the clauses of the Bill have never been discussed at all.

Since then, I think 37 government amendments have been tabled this morning—they are all starred amendments—and they involve knocking out some clauses and inserting whole new ones. At the same time, as we have just heard, we have no groupings to go by. So it is not only difficult for the Front Benches to sort out where we are but also particularly difficult for individual Members who wish to take part in the various debates.

I am absolutely sure that we should adjourn for at least a quarter of an hour, but I am not sure whether we will be able to resolve matters satisfactorily in that time. I draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that the Constitution Select Committee of this House—an all-party committee, obviously, as all Select Committees are—has this morning reported that the proposals in the Bill are of major constitutional significance and that they and any possible amendments—it is referring to the Government's amendments as well as to others—should be given particularly careful consideration. The Select Committee is quite right, but the House will have a very difficult time doing that.

My Lords, from these Benches I wish to associate myself with the remarks of the Opposition Chief Whip and to add that, for us to do our job properly and to consider the Bill carefully, it is extremely important on this occasion that we get the groupings right and that we separate the different issues so that we can consider them properly. I believe that the delay is in the interests of the whole House and therefore we support it.

My Lords, I appreciate that these are usually matters for the usual channels but, as a humble Back-Bencher—perhaps not so humble—I would like to protest in the strongest possible terms. I have cleared my diary because of the importance of this matter. As far as I can see, there is not even a Minister on the Bench responsible for the Bill. People have had to work all night on these amendments and it really is outrageous if Ministers cannot get their act together when we are faced with the presentation of legislation on this kind of timetable.

I struggled this morning to understand the government amendments and those tabled by other Members of the House. It is impossible to follow matters because the Government are rewriting the whole Bill by amendments which have not been considered by the other place. If I were a Member of—the other place—which I was for a number of years; and I have never seen anything like this—I would feel grossly offended by the Government's treatment of the House of Commons. Given the Government's past treatment of the House of Lords, it is rather ironic that we should be here to save the Government's bacon in pursuing procedures which are unheard of and which are making it impossible for this place to do its job properly.

My Lords, following up on the point made by my noble friend, I hope the Government Chief Whip will help the House on this matter. We are about to embark on a most unusual procedure. The House of Commons has at no time discussed, even for a moment, the proposals now being put forward by the Government, and we are to be invited, I understand, to send back to the other place a very different Bill incorporating the radical amendments put forward by the Government.

We know from reading the papers and Hansard that the way in which the Government have conducted themselves over this matter did not find favour with the House of Commons the other day. We have some responsibility here not to stir up trouble between this House and the other place, and I wonder how the other place will feel we have conducted ourselves if we send back radical amendments with which it has to deal under a ridiculously tight timetable.

The Government Chief Whip at least owes us this: that we should not embark on any discussion of these amendments today without a clear statement from the Government on the amount of time that will be made available in the Commons to discuss these amendments, if and when they get there. If the answer is that they will all be discussed under a timetable which restricts debate to one hour, I cannot see that we would be right to deal with these amendments at all.

My Lords, perhaps I may put the counter view that this is Parliament working at its best. The Commons protested—indeed it rebelled; the Government listened and introduced amendments that are now to be debated in this House. This is Parliament working at its best.

My Lords, was not the Government Chief Whip slightly optimistic when he indicated just now that a postponement of a quarter of an hour would achieve as a result absolute clarity? It seems to me very unlikely that absolute clarity is ever going to be found in the pages of the Bill.

I agree entirely with what has been said about the way in which Parliament is being treated. The House of Commons is having no chance to discuss these matters and the House of Lords is being treated by the Government as their wash-pot.

My Lords, I have been in Parliament for nearly 60 years, in both Houses, and never before have I witnessed the way in which the Government are conducting this Bill of some national importance.

My Lords, this is not a Bill to reorganise Scunthorpe Borough Council but a Bill which will allow—or which will attempt to allow—the Government to lock up a British subject founded on bizarre rumours and enhanced by evidence from overseas intelligence services which could well have been extracted by torture. That is what the Bill will allow.

It is completely disgraceful that this should be rushed through on a timetable Motion of the House of Commons. The amendments produced for your Lordships' House are not yet even ready in proper order. Suddenly, we have to overturn 800 years of British liberties as a result of what will politely be called a foul-up—though I could think of a lot of other terms. I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. Parliament, for once, is doing its duty.

My Lords, perhaps I can be helpful. It is vitally important that we have sufficient time in this House to deal with all the amendments. I suggest that, in those circumstances, as I am sure all noble Lords will agree, we would be willing to work this evening until ten o'clock and, if needs be, to come in tomorrow.

My Lords, may I make this short intervention? There is growing apprehension among the judiciary about exactly what they are being asked to do. There is great concern that they may be dragged into the political scene by being asked to rubberstamp a procedure quite alien to their function. During all these discussions, I hope that someone has had the good sense to raise this type of question with the senior Law Lord and the Lord Chief Justice. Unless that has been properly covered, we are really in the dark on the position.

My Lords, perhaps I too can help. Is it not a fact that we now have in front of us a proposal from the Chief Whip that we adjourn for a certain period of time—in other words, a business Motion? That should exclude some of the comments which have been made about the substance of the Bill. The issue before us currently is not the Bill's substance; it is the business Motion moved by my noble friend the Chief Whip.

My Lords, surely the muddle is being caused by the unnecessary speed with which the Government are trying to get the Bill through both Houses of Parliament. The Government have said that, with a Bill of this importance, they wish to achieve a degree of unanimity. However, they tabled amendments only yesterday, and have rewritten the Bill in a major way. As my noble friend Lord Waddington very sensibly suggested, we should adjourn the debate not for half an hour but until the beginning of next week. We could then see whether there is a chance of getting the various amendments together and making sense of the Bill.

My Lords, I have listened to the discussion and will now suggest that we should adjourn until twelve o'clock. Given that the first grouping of amendments was agreed a short while ago, that should give us all enough time.

I am very tempted, although I shall resist the temptation, to respond to a number of former Ministers. Unless my memory has gone completely askew, they were not at all averse to supporting guillotine Motions in the House of Commons over—if my memory serves me correctly—18 years. I routinely remember the arguments used at those times, including those of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, who said that he was grossly offended by what had taken place. I can remember being grossly offended on numerous occasions in another place when the positions were reversed.

I will leave it there. However, I have to say to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that he has to be careful about what he says about the people of Scunthorpe. I think that that will travel back to the people of Scunthorpe and, if he is not careful, it might be interpreted as the Conservative view of them.

I simply repeat that I think that it would be sensible to adjourn until noon.

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he say whether he will get me an answer to my question by twelve o'clock? How much time will be allotted in the House of Commons to consider amendments put to them by this place?

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, an answer to his question now. He would be grossly affronted, I think, if the House of Commons issued rules and edicts about how long we in the House of Lords should spend debating Bills. He would never have done that while he was in the House of Commons. I certainly cannot give him an answer to that question now. It would be quite improper for me to do so.

My Lords, could the Government Chief Whip explain one thing? He suggested originally that we adjourn the House until 11.45 a.m. That caused so much steam that everyone discussed it, and now it is 11.45 a.m. I cannot see why we now have to adjourn until twelve o'clock. Presumably the point of adjourning until 11.45 a.m. was to allow the Government to get the facts straight so that we could proceed. Does the noble Lord really mean that the Government do not have the facts straight and that they therefore need another quarter of an hour?

No, my Lords; it simply means that I have been listening to the debate. I am just anxious to make everyone happy. Another quarter of an hour might do that. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until noon.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 11.45 to noon.]