HC Deb 17 July 2001 vol 372 cc150-2
44. Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

What proposals he has to increase the amount of pre-legislative scrutiny. [2625]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

The Queen's Speech announced four draft Bills, including major Bills on communications and rail safety. I will aim in future Sessions to introduce as many Bills as possible in draft, but in view of constraints such as the availability of parliamentary draftsmen, it will take time to achieve a system in which scrutiny in draft is the norm.

Mr. Clelland

Is my right hon. Friend aware that during the last Parliament I had the privilege of serving on the Armed Forces Bill Committee? As he will know, the Committee was something of a hybrid, being part Select Committee and part Standing Committee. That gave us an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and visit establishments affected by the legislation before beginning the Standing Committee procedure and considering amendments. I know that the Government's enthusiasm for Select Committees has taken a bit of a knock recently, but does my right hon. Friend feel that the same process might be suitable for other legislation in future?

Mr. Cook

First, let me assure my hon. Friend that my enthusiasm for Select Committees remains undiminished. Indeed, this Government have established the Select Committees faster than any previous Parliament. I agree with his central point, however: if we achieve legislation in draft, we are more likely to have good legislation when it is published. In this case good scrutiny makes for good legislation, and for good government.

I certainly give my hon. Friend an undertaking—in the light of his, and my, experience of draft legislation—that I will seek wherever possible to introduce Bills early enough for them to be considered in draft.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Last night the House was concerned primarily with who should be our parliamentary watchdogs, and a shot, or a fuselage of shots, went across the Government's bows.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Mr. Tyler

I am sorry—a fusillade. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting me.

Now, however, we should move on to consider how we can make the Select Committees more effective. I know that the Leader of the House has in mind pre-legislative scrutiny that is appropriate to such Committees, and I think he also has in mind a rolling programme of legislation so that we do not try to cram it all into one Session. Can he give an assurance not only that those issues will be addressed urgently, but that Committees' scrutiny of European legislation will be improved? It is primitive and far less effective in this House, in this place, in this country than in most neighbouring European countries.

Mr. Cook

I am not entirely sure that all the shots last night went over our bows, hut I absolutely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said about Select Committees. Indeed, in the previous Parliament, the Modernisation Committee identified Select Committees as one of the forums in which pre-legislative scrutiny of draft Bills could be carried out. I would encourage departmental Select Committees to fulfil that function.

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the way in which the House carries out its European scrutiny. That issue will need to be addressed by the Modernisation Committee, but I put down a marker that one of the ways in which it could be addressed is to mainstream European scrutiny throughout the departmental Select Committees, rather than hiving it off into a separate forum.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that, in the Scottish Parliament, pre-legislative scrutiny is part of the legislative process. Will he undertake to look into how that is working in the Scottish Parliament: not only the upside on how well it is working, but some of the flaws of the system? For example, I believe that there is some problem with the foxhunting Bill because of the composition of the Committee that has been considering it. However, I join others in arguing that if there is merit in the proposal, and I believe that there is, the scrutinising role of Select Committees should be enhanced in that way.

Mr. Cook

I am very happy to say to my hon. Friend that I have already met my opposite number in the Scottish Parliament and hope to visit the Scottish Parliament in September to see what lessons we can learn. It has had an advantage that we do not have: it has created the rule book from scratch. There has been no base on which to build and nothing to constrain it. There may be lessons that we can learn and I am happy to study them.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Although the House welcomes the pre-legislative scrutiny—after all it was a Conservative Government who first brought in the notion of publishing draft Bills in advance—will the President of the Council acknowledge that no amount of pre-legislative scrutiny should reduce the important scrutiny of a Bill once it has gone through its First and Second Readings on the Floor and is in Committee? At no stage must that scrutiny, which after all is party political—pre-legislative scrutiny tends to be cross-party—be reduced.

Mr. Cook

Nobody is suggesting that there is a trade-off between scrutiny in draft and scrutiny of a Bill brought before the House on Second Reading. The procedures for scrutiny in the House will continue. At the same time, if we get the draft right as a result of pre-legislative scrutiny, we can save the time of the House and hon. Members as well as of Ministers. In the previous Parliament, the International Criminal Court Bill went through the House more quickly than it might have done if it had not been scrutinised in draft first.

Forward to