HC Deb 19 April 2000 vol 348 cc986-1071

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

3.43 pm
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I do not want to delay matters, but I wonder whether I could seek your guidance on a matter of record and on how the House is supposed to follow proceedings when the Government keep chopping and changing a particular Bill.

At column 730 of the 11 April report of the Standing Committee, a new clause that I drafted to consolidate the Bill is clearly marked as having been agreed to by a vote of nine to three. However, I am reliably informed by colleagues who were there that it was withdrawn. The problem is not that, after great running around, I have been able to get to the bottom of that; it is simply that people outside this place have the greatest difficulty following the Bill.

The matter is particularly relevant to today's recommittal motion, which I hope the Government will accept. The Bill has been a mess from start to finish, and the poor people outside the House who will be affected by its provisions have not had a chance to keep us informed of what they want us to do.

Madam Speaker

I shall not comment on the Bill's contents, as that is, of course, not my role. However, if it helps the hon. Gentleman, and particularly those of whom he speaks, I can make it clear that, as he said, there was—I can put it no higher or lower—a considerable printing muddle in parts of the Hansard to which he referred. I make it clear to him and to those whom he mentioned that that does not affect today's passage of the Bill.

3.45 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I beg to move, That the Bill be re committed to the former Committee.

The Utilities Bill has been unprecedented in Department of Trade and Industry Ministers' failure to know what is going on in other Departments, and it is unprecedented in the way in which the Government have handled its passage through Parliament. From the very beginning, it was clear that the Bill was poorly and hastily drafted—consultation was still taking place on the policy underlying the Bill. The press reported that 900 Government amendments were still required to the 134-clause Bill. The explanatory notes admitted that the Government intends to bring forward amendments later in the passage of the Bill to give effect to a long list of measures that the Government still intended to include in the Bill, the clauses for which had not been drafted.

The Utilities Bill is not an insignificant Bill. Initially, it was intended to provide a new regulatory framework for all four main utilities—gas, electricity, water and telecommunications. The new framework would impose new duties and liabilities on the utilities sectors that would increase the regulatory risk to those capital-intensive companies. It would provide for a new £0.75 billion electricity trading arrangement and for separation of the licences for electricity distribution and supply. It is a framework that would provide for limitless fines. This is no insignificant Bill.

The Bill was heralded as a flagship Bill of this Session, and it will provide the regulatory framework for many years to come. However, despite its importance, from the very start it has been handled with amateurish incompetence. The Bill that we are considering today bears very little resemblance to the Bill that left the Chamber after Second Reading at the end of January.

In Committee, the Government tabled 359 amendments to the Bill. Many of them were tabled on a just-in-time basis, with the ink barely dry. The Government have tabled an additional 22 amendments for today's debate. We understand that they plan to table yet more amendments when the Bill is considered in another place. Despite that, the Government have still not sought to legislate on categories mentioned in the explanatory notes. We had the Committee's notorious ninth sitting on 2 March, when the Government announced that they were removing from the Bill all clauses dealing with the water and telecommunications sectors.

Water was removed from the Bill because of a turf war between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions over policy, and the fact that DETR would be introducing its own water Bill later in the year. Telecommunications was removed because of the industry's outcry that a change in the regulatory structure would be imposed on it within two years of a further major upheaval after the telecommunications White Paper is published in the autumn. It beggars belief that a Government who claim to be up to speed with dot.com should have treated telecommunications like a sitcom. Nothing more clearly demonstrates the shambles at the heart of Government policy than their handling of utilities regulation.

As a result of the removal of those clauses, the so-called Utilities Bill was confined to dealing with gas and electricity. However, by the ninth sitting, clauses relating to telecommunications had already been passed. Those clauses—now clauses 101 to 105—remain in the Bill, despite the fact that telecommunications are no longer part of the legislation. The Government are seeking to delete those clauses today.

The Bill had half of its major provisions removed and some 359 Government amendments were tabled—of which some 260 were accepted—yet it still requires further amendment by the Government today and at later stages. It bears no resemblance to the measure that was originally drafted. To make matters worse, a number of the more substantial clauses were tabled by the Government in a way that prevented members of the Standing Committee from scrutinising them properly and from tabling amendments to them.

For example, 56 Government amendments were tabled late on Friday 31 March. The first that Committee members knew of those amendments was on Monday 3 April, by which time it was too late to table further amendments as the clauses were being debated on the following day, Tuesday 4 April. Even more seriously, that gave the interested public no time to examine the amendments and feed in their views to right hon. and hon. Members serving on the Standing Committee.

The Bill is a travesty in terms of democratic representation. Even if the 56 amendments had been tabled on the Thursday, which would have given hon. Members enough time to table amendments, it still would not have been a satisfactory way in which to scrutinise such important legislation. Our procedures have not evolved to deal with substantial re-writes of legislation in Committee without significant notice being given. By convention, there is always a week or more between the Second Reading of a Bill and its consideration in Committee. That enables the public to make representations to Members of Parliament. That convention should also apply to major Government amendments to Bills in Committee, but in this case that convention has been flouted.

Despite an apology from the Government Whip, the same thing happened again with 14 Government new clauses being tabled late on Thursday 6 April for debate on Tuesday 11 April. Once again, they were not available to Committee members until the Friday. Therefore, although it was technically possible to table amendments, in practice there was far too little time for effective consultation or to receive representations. The Electricity Association said: We do not have any comments on the new clauses and schedules at this stage other than to say that it is completely unsatisfactory to have significant amendments with far-reaching implications being laid at this stage in the Parliamentary process. We will be working up our position on these amendments during the coming week. British Gas plc said of the new clauses: They have been brought forward in a piecemeal way and have not been the subject of any industry consultation. Yet the Government claim that they listen to business.

During the 22nd sitting of the Standing Committee, the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) about how many more Government amendments the Minister intended to table, said: I will undertake during the Committee's deliberations to have a check made on the number of amendments that are likely to be tabled and on what issues.—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, Tuesday 4 April 2000; c. 667.] In other words, it was a matter not for the Minister, but for her civil servants. It was been clear throughout the Standing Committee that Ministers were not properly engaged in the detail of the Bill and that it was very much a case of reading from prepared briefs.

It is clear that the Government have handled the Bill poorly. It is riddled with errors, poor drafting and policy confusion. The Government's handling of the Bill has resulted in many of its amendments being subject to minimal scrutiny by the Standing Committee. Today we are considering a completely different Bill from that which went into Committee. It is our view that the Bill needs to be scrutinised again in Committee before it comes back to the House on Report and Third Reading.

We would add that we are keen to ensure that what is now clause 66 is put on the statute book at the earliest opportunity, to enable the new electricity trading arrangements to start in October this year. Therefore, if the recommittal motion is passed today, we will support the Government if they wish to fast track clause 66 on to the statute book through a separate Bill.

Parliamentary scrutiny is vital in protecting people's freedom from the ever-growing power of the state. That scrutiny has been undermined by the Government during the passage of this important Bill to re-regulate the gas and electricity industries. I urge the House to support the motion to give the Bill the extra scrutiny it requires and to recommit it to Committee.

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell)

I will ask the House to vote against the Opposition's motion to recommit the Bill to Committee for further consideration. I contend that this attempt by the Opposition is a last-ditch effort to deprive consumers of the benefits of this Bill. They are showing yet again that they are the fat cats' friend.

The attack on the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) for his amateurish handling of the Bill was grossly over-exaggerated. He may not have been terribly good, but he spent much of his time in solitary confinement in Committee because his Back Benchers failed to come and support him, and that is an indication of how important this Bill really is to the Opposition.

Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman, who has never knowingly understated anything in his life, repeatedly claimed that there would be 900 amendments to the Bill. More than 700 amendments were tabled in total, of which 303 were Government amendments. Indeed, on the first day in Committee I drew his attention to the activities of the previous Administration who, during the passage of the Companies Act 1989, tabled 400 amendments in the other place and 110 to one part of the Bill on Report. I do not know why the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) is getting so worked up, given that she was a member of that Administration. Indeed, they tabled 60 amendments on the very first day in Committee.

The Opposition have been inconsistent in their handling of this Bill. The hon. Lady attacks the Government for the withdrawal of the telecommunications clauses, despite the fact that on 29 February the hon. Gentleman said that he would help the Government to remove them. It is time that the Opposition started talking to each other.

On Second Reading, the Opposition confirmed their support for the reform of the electricity pool, the merging of the gas and electricity regulators and the establishment of the consumer council. When I asked the hon. Gentleman on 7 March whether he was going back on those commitments to helping to get the Bill on the statute book, he said, "No, of course not." He also said at the last sitting of the Committee that he looked forward to further consideration on Report. Obviously, someone higher in the pecking order has told him that he should not have done so, because of the failure of the Opposition to organise themselves properly in Committee.

It is important that we get this legislation on the statute book as quickly as possible because it will lead to a reduction in wholesale electricity prices of around 10 per cent. Already, in the futures market, we are seeing a 30 per cent. reduction in forward prices for electricity. It is also important that we reverse the set-up under the previous Administration whereby shareholders have priority over consumers. It is important also to take into account the provisions for fuel poverty in this Bill, as well as the provisions for renewables.

4 pm

I contend that the Opposition have tabled this motion in an attempt to keep the Bill off the statute book for as long as possible. They are wasting the valuable time of the House and of those hon. Members who considered the Bill in Standing Committee A. I believe that the Bill is ready to be considered on Report and on Third Reading. I invite the House to vote against the motion for recommittal.

Question put:—

The House divided:Ayes 137, Noes 282.

Division No. 171] [4 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Heald, Oliver
Allan, Richard Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Amess, David Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Hood, Jimmy
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Horam, John
Ballard, Jackie Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Beggs, Roy Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Bercow, John Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Beresford, Sir Paul Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Body, Sir Richard Jenkin, Bernard
Boswell, Tim Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Key, Robert
Brady, Graham King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Brake, Tom Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Brazier, Julian Lait. Mrs Jacqui
Breed, Colin Lansley, Andrew
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Letwin, Oliver
Browning, Mrs Angela Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Lidington, David
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Burnett, John Loughton, Tim
Burns, Simon MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Burstow, Paul McIntosh, Miss Anne
Cable, Dr Vincent MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
McLoughlin, Patrick
Cash, William Madel, Sir David
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Maples, John
Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Clappison, James Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) May, Mrs Theresa
Cormack, Sir Patrick Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Moore, Michael
Donaldson, Jeffrey Nicholls, Patrick
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Oaten, Mark
Duncan Smith, Iain Öpik, Lembit
Evans, Nigel Ottaway, Richard
Fabricant, Michael Paice, James
Fallon, Michael Prior, David
Fearn, Ronnie Redwood, Rt Hon John
Flight, Howard Robathan, Andrew
Forsythe, Clifford Robertson, Laurence
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Ruffley, David
Fox, Dr Liam Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Fraser, Christopher St Aubyn, Nick
Garnier, Edward Sanders, Adrian
Gibb, Nick Sayeed, Jonathan
Gill, Christopher Shepherd, Richard
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Gray, James Soames, Nicholas
Green, Damian Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Hague, Rt Hon William Spring, Richard
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Hancock, Mike Steen, Anthony
Harvey, Nick Streeter, Gary
Hawkins, Nick Stunell, Andrew
Swayne, Desmond Wells, Bowen
Syms, Robert Whitney, Sir Raymond
Tapsell, Sir Peter Whittingdale, John
Taylor, Matthew (Truro) Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Taylor, Sir Teddy Willetts, David
Thompson, William Willis, Phil
Tonge, Dr Jenny Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Tredinnick, David Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Trend, Michael Yeo, Tim
Trimble, Rt Hon David Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tyler, Paul
Viggers, Peter Tellers for the Ayes:
Walter, Robert Mrs. Eleanor Laing and
Waterson, Nigel Mr. Keith Simpson.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Cox, Tom
Ainger, Nick Crausby, David
Alexander, Douglas Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Allen, Graham Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Darvill, Keith
Ashton, Joe Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Atkins, Charlotte Davidson, Ian
Austin, John Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Banks, Tony Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Barnes, Harry Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Barron, Kevin
Battle, John Dawson, Hilton
Bayley, Hugh Dean, Mrs Janet
Beard, Nigel Dismore, Andrew
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Dobbin, Jim
Begg, Miss Anne Doran, Frank
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Dowd, Jim
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Drew, David
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Benton, Joe Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Bermingham, Gerald Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Best, Harold Edwards, Huw
Betts, Clive Ennis, Jeff
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Etherington, Bill
Blears, Ms Hazel Field, Rt Hon Frank
Blizzard, Bob Fitzpatrick, Jim
Borrow, David Flynn, Paul
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Bradshaw, Ben Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Brinton, Mrs Helen Fyfe, Maria
Brown, Rt Hon Gordon (Dunfermline E) Gapes, Mike
Gardiner, Barry
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Gerrard, Neil
Buck, Ms Karen Gibson, Dr Ian
Burgon, Colin Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Butler, Mrs Christine Goggins, Paul
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Golding, Mrs Llin
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Cann, Jamie Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Casale, Roger Grocott, Bruce
Caton, Martin Grogan, John
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Hain, Peter
Chisholm, Malcolm Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Clapham, Michael Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Hanson, David
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Healey, John
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hepburn, Stephen
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Heppell, John
Clwyd, Ann Hill, Keith
Coaker, Vernon Hodge, Ms Margaret
Cohen, Harry Hood, Jimmy
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Cousins, Jim Hope, Phil
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Howells, Dr Kim Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Mountford, Kali
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Mudie, George
Humble, Mrs Joan Mullin, Chris
Hutton, John Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Iddon, Dr Brian Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Norris, Dan
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Olner, Bill
Jamieson, David Organ, Mrs Diana
Jenkins, Brian Palmer, Dr Nick
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Pearson, Ian
Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Pendry, Tom
Perham, Ms Linda
Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW) Pickthall, Colin
Pike, Peter L
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Plaskitt, James
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Pollard, Kerry
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Pond, Chris
Keeble, Ms Sally Pope, Greg
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Pound, Stephen
Kelly, Ms Ruth Powell, Sir Raymond
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Kemp, Fraser Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Prescott, Rt Hon John
Khabra, Piara S Primarolo, Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Kidney, David Purchase, Ken
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Quinn, Lawrie
Kumar, Dr Ashok Rammell, Bill
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Rapson, Syd
Raynsford, Nick
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Lepper, David Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Leslie, Christopher Roche, Mrs Barbara
Levitt, Tom Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen Rooney, Terry
Linton, Martin Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Rowlands, Ted
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Roy, Frank
Llwyd, Elfyn Ruddock, Joan
Lock, David Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McAllion, John Salter, Martin
McAvoy, Thomas Savidge, Malcolm
Sawford, Phil
McCabe, Steve Sedgemore, Brian
McCafferty, Ms Chris Sheerman, Barry
Macdonald, Calum Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McDonnell, John Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
McGrady, Eddie Singh, Marsha
Skinner, Dennis
McGuire, Mrs Anne Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
McIsaac, Shona Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Mackinlay, Andrew
McNamara, Kevin Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Mactaggart, Fiona Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Soley, Clive
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Southworth, Ms Helen
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Squire, Ms Rachel
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Steinberg, Gerry
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Stevenson, George
Stinchcombe, Paul
Martlew, Eric Stoate, Dr Howard
Maxton, John Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Meale, Alan Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Michie, Bill (Shefld Heeley) Stuart, Ms Gisela
Miller, Andrew Sutcliffe, Gerry
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Mitchell, Austin
Moonie, Dr Lewis Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway) Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Temple-Morris, Peter Whitehead, Dr Alan
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W) Wicks, Malcolm
Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W) Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Tipping, Paddy Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Todd, Mark Wills, Michael
Touhig, Don Winnick, David
Wood, Mike
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE) Woodward, Shaun
Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown) Worthington, Tony
Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Twigg, Derek (Halton) Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield) Wyatt, Derek
Tynan, Bill
Ward, Ms Claire Tellers for the Noes:
Wareing, Robert N Mr. Tony McNulty and
White, Brian Mr. Robert Ainsworth.

Question accordingly negatived.

  1. New Clause 3
    1. cc993-1002
    2. INTERPRETATION 4,637 words
  2. New Clause 2
    1. cc1002-30
  3. Clause 9
    1. cc1030-6
    2. OBJECTIVES AND DUTIES UNDER 1986 ACT 3,227 words
  4. Clause 10
    1. cc1036-46
  5. Clause 19
    1. cc1046-7
  6. Clause 35
    1. c1047
  7. Clause 37
    1. c1048
  8. Clause 48
    1. cc1048-50
  9. Clause 57
    1. cc1050-61
    2. Financial Penalties 5,693 words
  10. Clause 60
    1. cc1061-3
  11. Clause 108
    1. c1063
  12. Clause 109
    1. c1063
    2. EXTENT OF PART III 14 words
  13. Clause 110
    1. c1063
  14. Clause 113
    1. c1064
  15. Schedule 2
    1. cc1064-6
  16. Schedule 3
    1. c1066
  17. Schedule 6
    1. c1066
  18. Schedule 8
    1. c1066
    2. REPEALS 61 words
  19. Title
    1. cc1067-71
    2. UTILITIES 2,613 words
Forward to