HC Deb 09 July 2002 vol 388 cc740-3
51. Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

What plans he has to present proposals to improve scrutiny of Government legislation. [65351]

52. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

What plans he has to ensure that more Bills in the next session are subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. [65352]

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

I set out my proposals for better scrutiny of legislation in my memorandum on modernisation, which is currently being studied in the Modernisation Committee. A key proposal is that, over a period of time, publication in draft should become the norm rather than the exception for Bills, thus enabling more to be the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny. It would be possible to arrange for longer and more thorough scrutiny of each Bill if the House agreed to carry over measures into subsequent Sessions.

Dr. Stoate

I found serving on the Pre-legislative Committee for the Food Standards Bill rewarding and that I was more in touch with the programme for the measure. The Committee was able to improve the Bill before the House considered it and we therefore debated better legislation. Will my right hon. Friend use his best efforts to ensure that as many hon. Members as possible can take part in pre-legislative scrutiny and thus secure the widest possible representation?

Mr. Cook

I agree with my hon. Friend that one of the advantages of pre-legislative scrutiny is that it ensures that several problems are snagged out before the Bill comes before the House and that the relevant Department has a fair and accurate idea of hon. Members' views.

Pre-legislative scrutiny is first a matter for the relevant Select Committee. It is a great advantage that hon. Members who are most expert on a topic examine the draft Bills. However, that requires the Select Committees to accept pre-legislative scrutiny as an obligation to which they should give priority. From time to time, we can consider other methods of pre-legislative scrutiny, for example, through a Joint Committee, which is currently considering the Office of Communications Bill.

Kevin Brennan

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) and the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) served on the Special Standing Committee that considered the Adoption and Children Bill. We all accepted that it was useful to be able to take evidence before considering a Bill. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that procedure should be applied to all major Bills? Does not it have the advantage over Select Committees of ensuring that the latter maintain their independence when considering departmental matters?

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that I accept that a tension or conflict exists between the two methods of proceeding. I do not understand why a Select Committee should not undertake pre-legislative scrutiny and, when appropriate, we should not provide for a Standing Committee to call evidence. I agree with my hon. Friend that a Special Standing Committee has advantages. I regret that we have been able use that method for only one Bill—the Adoption and Children Bill—in the Session. I should like more Standing Committees to have the freedom to call witnesses if they choose. The speed at which we are required to get Bills through the House to fit the current sessional straitjacket stands in the way of that. If Bills could be carried over from one Session to the next, we could have more Special Standing Committees.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, even with pre- legislative scrutiny, many clauses and Government amendments pass into law without debate because they fall victim to programme motions or the House's failure to manage the business properly? Does he agree that a strong business committee with some independence of Government should be in a position to manage business and to ensure adequate time for proper discussion?

Mr. Cook

I fully accept that there should be adequate time both in Committee and on Report for hon. Members to focus on the main provisions of a Bill. That does not necessarily mean that we have to spend an equal amount of time on every clause, which is why it is helpful to have programme motions that ensure that there is a considered view on where the priority areas of debate within a Bill should be. As I have said, I would welcome a situation in which we could provide for more time for Bills to be considered, but to do that, I need a longer time perspective. That is where the carrying over of Bills could be not only of value to the business management of the House but of real benefit to Members carrying out their job of scrutiny.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

Will the right hon. Gentleman promise that, in any reforms to improve scrutiny, he will use the Oxford dictionary definition of the word—"a critical, close investigation"—and that he will not base any reform plans on what appears to drive most new Labour Members, namely a desire for short debate, shorter speeches, early nights, long weekends, deferred voting and a further curtailment of opposition rights?

Mr. Cook


Mr. Knight

I have not finished. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when my party was in power, all the reforms that we implemented under the Jopling proposals were introduced by consent, following usual channels agreement between the Government and the official Opposition? Will he give the House an undertaking that he will do the same?

Mr. Cook

I seem to remember from my many years in opposition frequent occasions on which I turned up in the House to vote against guillotines on which there had been no consultation, and certainly no consensus between us and the Conservatives, who were then insisting on ramming through their legislation, including a number of Bills—such as the one that introduced the poll tax—which they lived to regret.

Through the Modernisation Committee, we are introducing a balanced package that will provide for improved scrutiny rights for the House, and will not just be about making life easier for Members of Parliament. Indeed, the purpose of modernisation is not to make life easier, but to enable Members of Parliament to do their job more effectively. Personally, I think that that might well involve starting the day in Parliament at an earlier hour and making sure that we return to this place in September. I hope that I will get the right hon. Gentleman's support for that.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in addition to taking evidence from experts in the pre-legislative scrutiny process, there is a lot to be said for taking evidence from practitioners who have experience of the issue being discussed, and who will ultimately be implementing the law? Does he agree that such consultation could result in our being less likely to make laws that are difficult to implement?

Mr. Cook

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Proceeding by pre-legislative scrutiny, or by Special Standing Committee—or, indeed, both—gives those outside the House the opportunity to comment. It is important for us to remember that pre-legislative scrutiny is a matter not only for MPs but for the wider civic community and for all those involved in the topic under consideration. If we can ensure that that process works satisfactorily, we might have fewer errors on the statute book of the kind of which there were many during the 18 years of Conservative Government.