Last night was another sorry coda to our long and distinguished history of Parliamentary debate.
Once again we are allowed just one and half hours after 8pm to discuss a fistful of important amendments and complex issues about the governmentâ€™s wish to bring the European Charter of Human Rights into our law codes through adopting the Constitutional treaty. The government had allowed four and half hours for a general debate on human rights, in order to prevent MPs getting into the important line by line analysis of the 358 Articles and 327 pages of the â€œConsolidated texts of the EU Treaties as amended by the Treaty of Lisbonâ€. Several MPs were unable to make the speech they wished to make on the first group of amendments. I had to cut my remarks down to a few minutes, preventing me from referring to any of the amendments in detail. Subsequent amendments on the order paper went undebated, thrown into the dustbin of history without word or vote.
This is a constitutional outrage. All previous governments have allowed substantial time for proper debate of constitutional bills on the floor of the House. Much of the time the House has met in committee, which means MPs have time to move amendments and speak to them. Some move probing amendments, to test out what Ministers think the words of the legislation they are recommending mean and will do. Some are important amendments designed to change the bill, to correct errors or remove harmful clauses and provisions.
Bill Cash invited a number of us concerned about this legislation to meetings before the debates began in the House. We all agreed that we needed to move a series of amendments to strike out the varying parts of the Treaty and Bill which transfer substantial powers from the UK to the EU. Bill kindly produced a wide ranging series of amendments which we co-signed and lodged. I am grateful to him for his hard work in producing them. Anyone who values a democracy in the UK should be glad he took the trouble and set out to make a fight of it before these powers are lost.
The government turned down the official Oppositionâ€™s request for 20 days of consideration. We were offered 12 in committee, plus a day on Second Reading to discuss the overall picture, and a day to discuss the so-called timetable motion. The Official Opposition argued passionately against the whole Treaty, and we voted against it on a three line whip. We all argued passionately against the very restrictive timetable, and voted against that on a three line whip.
We were promised by the government â€œline by line scrutinyâ€ of this massive piece of legislation, as if this were new or a concession. â€œLine by line scrutinyâ€ of legislation was what we usually had before this government. Most bills went through on no timetable, allowing the Opposition to table as many amendments as they wished and debate for as long as they liked. Parliament often met into the early hours in the morning to hammer out disagreements on complex bills.
What takes my breath away is the audacity of the government to introduce a constitutional outrage on this bill of all bills. Their decision to allow only one and half hours a day to stifle debate on amendments and to replace time in committee with a series of longer general debates is a cynical manoeuvre designed to prevent the Opposition revealing all the danger in the detail as we see it. It implies Ministers are unsure of their ground and their case, that they do not wish to be exposed to the usual cross examination on the wording of each part of this long and complex text.