§ 5.4 pm
§ Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I received notification yesterday that I had been selected to serve on the Standing Committee dealing with the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill. I was also notified yesterday that that Committee was to start its proceedings on Wednesday next.
You will understand, Mr. Speaker—I will not go into the merits of it — that that is a technical, complex, highly controversial and emotional Bill. It is imperative, therefore, that hon. Members who are to serve on that Committee have ample time in which to consult outside specialist bodies so as to frame intelligent amendments.
I gather that the procedure that has been followed in getting the Bill into Committee so early is entirely within the rules of order and that nothing untoward has been done either to bend or break the rules. I gather from information that I have received from the Public Bill Office that it is within your discretion, Mr. Speaker, to allocate Bills to particular Committees and that it is also within your discretion to change your mind.
I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that Back Benchers have the right to protection when a situation occurs in which we are not able to play a proper part in ventilating our views and the views of many members of the public on matters of critical importance. In this matter, it is abundantly clear that we shall not have time to frame amendments, still less to consult interested parties outside.
The matter is within your discretion, Mr. Speaker. I do not know how it could be done, but perhaps there is a way by which we could delay — for an indefinite period or for whatever the period might be—the initial meeting of the Committee to enable us to do the things that we want so much to do.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I, too, was notified yesterday that I was to serve on the Standing Committee. I was astounded when I saw that the Committee was to sit next week. I had no idea that that stage of the Bill would come forward so quickly. It is normally the procedure of the House that private Members' Bills go to Standing Committee C. From a reading of the Order Paper and the Vote, it was clear that a lot of business was before Standing Committee C and therefore I had not anticipated that I would be required to prepare myself within a week for this important Committee.
We are speaking of no ordinary Bill. It is no light measure and it is not an easy matter on which to speak. I made that point when I spoke on Second Reading. The speech that I made on that occasion took several days' preparation and involved a great deal of professional and scientific advice from outside the House. If I am to serve minority interests on the Committee — because the House gave an overwhelming decision in favour of the Bill, whereas I am against it — my arguments will depend on medical and scientific advice and I cannot be ready by next Wednesday. As one of the minority on the Committee, I shall be severely prejudiced.
When I pressed the Minister for Health in the House to bring forward his own measure, he pleaded that he could not do so in the time because of the great amount of 492 research and study that would be required. He has every facility on which to draw — scientific advisers, chief medical officers and a host of scientists. The ordinary Back Bencher seeking to speak on the Bill—one of the most complex scientific and moral measures to come before the House for many years — must be at a great disadvantage when rushed in this way. I therefore appeal to you, Mr. Speaker, to give consideration to the matter.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Torfaen)
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I plead with you to heed the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) and the supporting comments of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch).
I suddenly find myself a member of the Standing Committee. Today, Thursday, one is expected to prepare oneself for the Committee proceedings next Wednesday. However experienced we may be as parliamentarians, this preparation requires a great deal of work. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central in his insistence that it requires an extraordinary amount of consultation with outside medical and scientific bodies. We cannot do all this between now and Wednesday. Surely, on a Bill which requires such careful scrutiny and has such awesome consequences, the minority on the Committee must have an opportunity of being sufficiently informed.
In asking you, Mr. Speaker, to use your good offices to see that the Bill is postponed for at least some weeks, we are asking you to protect the minority on the Committee, who will have a heavy burden and will need constantly to consult with people who, by their very nature, are not very easily accessible. It cannot be expected that doctors engaged in clinical practice and scientists distributed throughout the country can become immediately accessible to give advice and guidance to those of us who will certainly require them. I therefore trust that there can be a hiatus so that we can have an opportunity of putting forward considered, carefully drawn amendments which may help to shape the proposition, which at the moment a minority of us regard as one that would adversely affect the interests not only of the scientific community but of perhaps a million infertile people, who, as I well know from my correspondence, are deeply concerned about this Bill.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not one of those selected for the Committee although I am working in co-operation with hon. Members who have an interest in this Bill, as I believe you know. I too would like to support the points that have been made. I have been in contact with medical people involved in research on disability. I was given advice that led me to believe that there were at least a few weeks before this Bill would come to Committee and those medical people told me that it would the end of March or the beginning of April before they would be in a position to give a considered opinion on this matter.
In view of the short period between the publication of the Bill and Second Reading and the fact there have not been opportunities for medical people to make proper representations, and bearing in mind the small number of people opposed to the Bill on the Committee because of the balance of the vote on Second Reading, I press very strongly indeed that you take the points made this afternoon.
§ Mr. Speaker
I have listened very carefully. I did have some foreknowledge that this was going to be raised. As the House well knows, it has been the practice for many years that an hon. Member—or a right hon. Member in this case — who has a Bill, can if he sees a slot in another Committee, transfer it from Committee C, which is the Committee that normally considers private Members' Bills. I have no authority to delay it.
The course for hon. Members who feel very strongly about it is to consult the Chairman of that Committee, because it is he who decides the day on which it will meet. The Chairman, as hon. Members probably know, is the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Mr. Knox). If they consult him, I am sure that he will listen carefully to their request.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful for the information and the guidance that you have just given to my hon. Friends. However, it might be for the convenience of the House, as the Leader of the House has just come in, if he could consider the representations that are being made, because it was quite unexpected that this private Member's Bill would be transferred from the normal private Members' Committee to what would normally be the Government's Committee, Committee D. Therefore the Leader does become involved in this process, and perhaps he could intervene on behalf of my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite.
§ Mr. Speaker
I do not think that it is anything to do with the right hon. Gentleman. This has been the practice for many years. The House well knows that I had some responsibility for this sort of thing some 10 years ago, and it has always been thus.