HC Deb 03 April 1996 vol 275 cc437-40
Mr. Spearing

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 2, line 40, at end insert— '(2A) In subsection (2)(b) above, "supplementary, incidental and consequential provision" does not include any financial provision which has not previously been approved by the House of Commons.'.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 7, in page 3, line 2, leave out 'subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either' and insert 'laid before Parliament in draft and shall be subject to approval by resolution of each'.

Mr. Spearing

Amendment No. 5 relates to the curious power exercised in respect of the second set of contracts, under which secondary functions can be taken on by a contractor. In such cases the Minister is empowered to pay for anything that goes wrong. The exact words are: make such supplementary, incidental and consequential provision as the Secretary of State considers necessary or expedient. We shall deal later with amendments seeking clarification of the wording; at this point I just want to know how much the Minister envisages being paid.

My amendment declares it desirable not to include any financial provision which has not previously been approved by the House of Commons. Without that, we might find ourselves in some difficulty.

Amendment No. 7 relates to the powers of Parliament. Proposed section 31B(5) states: A statutory instrument containing an order under this section shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament. Of course, it is possible to pray against such instruments, when the arrangements of the House permit that, but I suggest that it would be more reassuring to allow for the affirmative procedure in this case. If an instrument is nodded through, well and good. But if a transport matter needs debate—nowadays, that is done in Committee—my amendment would provide a secondary safeguard in respect of this labyrinthine Bill. Transport matters do not always get the scrutiny they deserve.

Mr. Norris

The first amendment would place an unreasonable burden on the Secretary of State. We are dealing here with supplementary, incidental or consequential provisions. That being so, I do not believe it right for the Secretary of State to be placed under a duty of the sort that the amendment suggests.

As for amendment No. 7, there is plenty of precedent for the negative resolution procedure—it would be entirely usual. Indeed, it is not unknown for there to be no parliamentary involvement at all in this sphere.

Section 27(4) of the 1984 Act provides—except in the case of powers taken under that Act or any statutory provision amended by it—for statutory powers to be transferred by means of a transfer scheme, prior to the sale of a business belonging to LRT, without any parliamentary scrutiny. We have not followed that precedent. There is scope for parliamentary scrutiny of orders under new section 31B, but I frankly do not think that the affirmative resolution procedure is justifiable. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

6.45 pm
Mr. Spearing

I am grateful for that explanation—it is always useful to get the Minister's reasons on the record. That is what my proposed amendment has achieved. I cannot say that I agree with the Minister's reply. Indeed, I am sorry that he did not agree to the affirmative procedure, which I regard as superior. However, I will leave it at that.

The Minister did not deal with the point about expenditure incurred by a contractor for an emergency or a deficit. If a second contractor finds himself unable to continue with, say, railway track, signalling, communications or ventilation service—I showed in Committee that such services may be contracted out—I would like to be certain that the liability incurred is not unlimited but will be paid for out of a contingency fund voted to the Secretary of State for Transport by this House in a Finance Bill and relevant appropriation Bill. In that way it would be visible to Parliament, and would thus constitute a necessary safeguard.

I will readily give way to the Minister if he wants to deal with this issue. Meanwhile, he talked about a burden on the Secretary of State. I do not see how prior approval by the House amounts to a burden. The Public Accounts Committee, and this House in pursuit of the stewardship of taxpayers' money, would be wise to require such approval. I repeat my offer to give way to the Minister so that he can explain why the provision is unwise. I believe that it would protect tax money and the travelling public in London.

I note that the Minister remains seated. I can only hope that his silence will be noted elsewhere.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Spearing

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 2, leave out lines 41 to 43.

If the issues raised by my amendments had been unimportant they would not have been selected by the Chair. We come finally to what may be a lacuna in the Bill. I mentioned it in Committee, but received no satisfactory answer. I shall read out the relevant words of the Bill to get the matter straight.

Proposed section 31B(3) reads: This section does not apply to any function of London Regional Transport under this Act or any other statutory provision specifically amended by any provision of this Act. That appears not to apply, then, to the core activity. But line 29 says: the Secretary of State may by order provide for any functions of London Regional Transport under any statutory provisions to be exercisable by that person (whether to the exclusion of or concurrently with London Regional Transport).

If the clause is to achieve its purpose—which, because of the Minister's silence, I am not too sure about—there will be difficulty, in court at least, because those phrases are mutually incompatible, although I may have got that wrong or misread the clause. There may be a perfectly simple explanation for the confusion.

If we are to get our legislation right and ensure that it is not only clear but seen to be clear, we must ensure that it can be understood by people who read it. If hon. Members cannot understand it, how can we expect the public to be able to do so? I hope that the Minister will tell us that, even though a lawyer may be able to understand it, that anomaly will be dealt with at a later stage in the Bill's passage.

Mr. Norris

There are times when even those as prolix as myself recognise that there is a value in silence. On this amendment, I merely point out that it is a pièce de résistance, even by the standards of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), as it has the totally perverse effect of allowing the transfer to a contractor of LT's principal functions under the London Regional Transport Act 1984. Thus, for example, the amendment would allow LT to transfer its duty to provide or secure the provision of public passenger transport services. The amendment would allow LT to facilitate someone else setting fares and service levels.

It may be that we are witnessing a Pauline conversion of unprecedented proportions—

Mr. Wilson

It is new Labour.

Mr. Norris

The hon. Gentleman suggests that this may be a manifestation of new Labour. If new Labour has suffused even the depths of the people's republic of Newham, there will be much rejoicing in Epping Forest and elsewhere, where those glad tidings will be greeted with unalloyed joy. However, I fear that the hon. Member for Newham, South is misguided if that was his intention.

The serious point is that, as we have said, we are at pains to ensure that none of the obligations laid on LRT by the 1984 Act can be transferred by LT. It is no part of that Act to give LT the power to divest itself of the responsibilities that it holds under the 1984 Act. This modest Bill, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have frequently described it, will allow LT to take advantage of contracts arranged under the private finance initiative, the purpose of which are to secure better value for the travelling public in London.

I almost hope that the hon. Member for Newham, South will press the amendment because those on the Opposition Front Bench might then be in the unenviable position of having to vote against him. In all fairness to him, it might be kinder to ask him whether he might think of seeking leave to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Spearing

I assure the Minister that the idea of withdrawing amendments has been constantly before my mind as I have moved amendments which are, as I am sure the House will agree, justifiable probing amendments. I hope that the Bill will not cause the trouble that I fear that it may cause.

The Minister is absolutely right: my amendment to leave out section 34(3)(c) is not a serious amendment to the Bill. I wanted him to explain—which he did not do—the apparent anomaly in the wording of the Bill. I understand that he wants that wording for the purposes that he mentioned, but I suggest that it is confusing because it appears that the one clause says opposite things.

I hope that—surreptitiously, in another place—that confusion will be rectified. On that understanding, Madam Speaker, I will again take the Minister's advice—perhaps for the last time in this debate. For the reasons that I have outlined, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported, without amendment; read the Third time, and passed.

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