HC Deb 13 June 2002 vol 386 cc1033-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Order of 10th April (Enterprise Bill (Programme)) (as amended by the Order of 1st May (Enterprise Bill (Programme) (No. 2)) be amended by substituting for paragraph 4(2) the following— Proceedings on consideration shall be taken on each of the two days allowed by the Order as shown in the first column in the following Table and shall be taken in the order so shown, and each part of the proceedings shall, so far as not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the second column.

Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings
First day
New Clauses (other than those relating to Part 10), New Schedules, amendments relating to Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clauses 2 to 12, Schedule 2, Clause 13, Schedule 3, Clauses 14 and 15, Schedule 4, Clauses 16 to 20. Schedule 5, Clauses 21 to 67, Schedule 6, Clauses 68 to 82, Schedule 7, Clause 83, Schedule 8, Clauses 84 to 87, Schedule 10. Clauses 88 to 162, Schedule 9, Clauses 163 to 178, Schedule 11, Clauses 179 and 180, Schedule 12, Clauses 181 to 202. 10.00 p.m. (7.00 p.m. if it is a Thursday)
Second day
Amendments relating to Clause 203, Schedule 13, Clauses 204 to 231, Schedule 14, Clauses 232 to 234, Schedule 15, Clauses 235 to 241, New Clauses relating to Part 10, Clause 242, Schedules 16 and 17, Clauses 243 and 244, Schedule 18, Clauses 245 to 250, Schedule 19, Clause 251, Schedules 20 and 21, Clauses 252 to 257, Schedule 22, Clauses 258 to 262, Schedule 23, Clauses 263 to 269, Schedule 24, Clauses 270 and 271, Schedules 25 and 26, Clauses 272 to 274, remaining proceedings on consideration. 9.00 p.m. (6.00 p.m. if it is a Thursday)'
[Miss Melanie Johnson.]

2.23 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Here we are again—yet another programme motion for the Enterprise Bill.

I do not expect to speak for more than a few minutes and I certainly do not want to divide the House on the motion, but it would be wrong to let it pass—[Interruption]—despite the obvious hilarity it causes the Government Whip, for reasons that may or may not become apparent—without saying something about the time that has been, and will be, allotted to such an important measure. I say that far more in sorrow than in anger. I have made the point previously—it is still valid—that there is little, if any, party politics in the Bill, but it is an extremely large measure. Like other Bills, it has gathered moss as it rolled down the legislative hill—bits have been added over time—and we have ended up with a substantial document. Despite our best efforts, it did hot shrink during Committee but grew to 274 clauses and 26 schedules.

We have never been able to understand why the Government have been so enthusiastic about pushing the Bill through at such a gallop. The Bill is not only large but extremely complex; it affects a range of areas of the law, practice and business that are themselves massively complex—from competition and merger regimes to the new cartel arrangements, and from criminalisation to insolvency. All those matters need and deserve detailed scrutiny. We have done our best, with the Liberal Democrats taking the occasional walk-on part, to improve the Bill and to ensure that it was scrutinised, but we simply have not had enough time.

As I have pointed out previously, if ever a Bill cried out for pre-legislative scrutiny, it was a measure of this huge size and complexity. It remains a complete mystery to me why other Bills are afforded that treatment while this one was not.

The original programme motion—for the Bill's consideration in Committee—was tabled by the Government some time ago with no consultation at all. Relations then fell to an all-time low because the Government took a further unilateral decision to change the order of consideration just before the Bill went into Committee.

All that was made worse by the Easter recess; the Bill was published on the day the House adjourned and Second Reading was on the day we returned from the recess. I do not blame the Government for the Easter recess, but I certainly blame them for giving so little real, working time—not only to the Opposition parties but, perhaps more importantly, to outside bodies ranging from the Consumers Association to the CBI, to the insolvency practitioners, and to the whole range of outside bodies on whom nowadays the Opposition depend for briefings, for draft amendments, for indications of where the Government may have got something wrong and for proposals to improve legislation.

The net result was that chunks of the Bill were not debated in Committee. Sadly, that state of affairs is not unusual in our present system. It was especially unfortunate that one of the undebated chunks related to consumer protection measures. I hope that we shall have a chance to come back to those issues on Monday—or rather, to come to them.

In fairness to the Government, they eventually realised that they could not sustain the speed that they wanted so we got some extra time in Committee. However, it was not much more time and we completed the Committee stage in 18 sittings. As I have pointed out, for a Bill of this size—274 clauses—that is quite an achievement. I challenge anyone who reads the Hansard reports of the Committee to find any padding or time wasting on the part of Opposition Members. Things moved briskly. Many matters could not be considered but we worked hard to improve the Bill. Indeed, on a good day, the Minister accepted one or two of our proposals.

Things got worse after that, however. During the past couple of days alone, the Government have tabled about 223 amendments. There is obviously a panic to try to perfect the Bill—although that is probably beyond the wit of man—before it goes to the other place, but it simply is not on to introduce so many amendments at this stage of its consideration. Of course, a great number of them are minor and consequential, but one has to go through them, and the Bill, to come to that conclusion.

Some of the amendments are substantial, however. Today, we were due to debate one of the central issues although, by agreement, we shall now more sensibly debate it on Monday; it relates to whether, in insolvency, a bankrupt's home—their sole residence—should be taken into account as one of their assets. We touched on that huge issue in Committee and the Government said that they would reconsider it. Only a few days ago, however, they tabled a long new clause, which will require substantial debate, to deal with it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson)

The House should be aware of a simple fact. The hon. Gentleman is trying to make something of the number of Government amendments. As he said, many of them are tidying, consequential and minor drafting amendments. Indeed. I wrote to him and all other members of Standing Committee B, which considered the Bill, to explain exactly which amendments are minor and consequential and what the remaining few amendments involved in each case were. So he has not had to go through all the amendments to find out which are minor and consequential. The vast majority of them are just that, and they have been drawn directly to his attention by a letter from me.

Mr. Waterson

I do not want to get into a spat with the Minister this early in the day, but with the greatest respect to her, it is not right that the Opposition should simply take it at face value when we are told that amendments are minor or consequential. It is important that we go through them to check for ourselves.

I am trying to make the point—I do so finally, so that we can get on to the substance of the Bill—that this large and complex piece of legislation will have all sorts of effects on business, the legal professions, accountancy and so on. It is very important that we get it right; otherwise we shall have to revisit it shortly, and the law of unintended consequences, of which this Government are masters, will kick in with a vengeance.

We have not had enough time to consider the Bill; I do not know why, because other business seems very light at the moment, but there it is. As I say, there is no party politics in it, so I have never been able to fathom the Government's motives. However, I am happy not to divide the House on the programme motion, in the hope that we can get on to the substance of the Bill.

2.31 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I am keen to move on, so that we can debate the major items, but I wish to make a brief point. I could not possibly claim that there has been insufficient time to debate the Bill, having served on the Standing Committee and felt rather as though we were ploughing through the desert on certain occasions. We now have two days in which to deal with the remaining stages, so all that seems perfectly adequate. However, have we not made an error in the division of time between the two days? Is the balance right?

Time has been taken up with two very important statements today, so the time that we have left compares very differently with the second day. We have to deal with 270 amendments today, but only 86 on the second day. Such things are not decided by mathematics, since some amendments and clauses will be more significant than others, but 202 clauses have to be covered today and only 72 on the second day. We have to deal with 11 different batches of amendments, but only eight on the second day.

Many of the amendments deal with the earlier clauses. That is perhaps natural because they tend to help to define what comes later and the major principles involved. So if the division between the days were to come at about clause 40 or 41, it might represent a much more serious attempt to spread out the different matters that need dealing with.

Something similar worked in Committee. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said, there was an occasion on which the timetable bar came down and certain things were lost, after which changes took place. On the second occasion the bar was due to drop, it was removed altogether. During the 16th sitting, we were ploughing into the desert with a host of amendments that seemed to come from the CBI and the debate looked as though it would go on and on so that we would not make the 7 o'clock cut off.

Suddenly, when the bar was lifted, everything miraculously progressed and we finished at four minutes to 7, and we did everything that needed to be done up to that point. Indeed, our final sitting—the 18th—lasted just over an hour, and the arrangement was similar to the one that exists now: we are likely to finish more quickly on the second day than on the first.

It would be convenient for the House—it would certainly be convenient for me, given the amendments that I have tabled—if the arrangements were adjusted more sensibly. If that cannot be done, I hope that the Opposition are listening, as they may have a curious interest in the amendments that I have tabled, even though they could not possibly support them, and they may wish to find out where those amendments lead us.

2.35 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

May I apologise to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) for not having been present throughout the entirety of his speech? I think that I picked up the gist of it—certainly towards the end.

May I tell the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) that I dearly wish we lived in a world where the business was ordered for the convenience of such a gentle and thoughtful hon. Member, but unfortunately, my experience of the past year leads me to think otherwise?

I wish briefly to place on record the fact that Liberal Democrat Members share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Eastbourne. Good progress was made in Committee, but sufficient time has not been allocated to debate the Bill on Report. A substantial number of Government amendments have been tabled, not necessarily exclusively because of undertakings given as a result of debates in Committee.

I accept—I may as well place this on record now because we shall never be able to debate the issue later—that the Minister has tabled very welcome amendments in relation to the cartel offence and, in particular, to obtaining warrants in Scotland, for which I take this opportunity to thank her publicly. However, one inevitably has to wonder about the efficacy of a system that involves our sitting in Committee, week after week, getting assurances from Ministers that the parliamentary draftsmen have got it right, only to find that such a large number of amendments need to be tabled on Report.

2.37 pm
Dr. John Pugh (Southport)

In rising to speak, I am mindful of something that the Minister said in Committee. During one particularly dreadful moment in a long sitting, she said that brevity was a mark of intelligence.

I accept all that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) has said about the undue haste that the Government have shown at times, about the fact that important issues need to be debated, and about how the law of unintended consequences can easily kick in. However, in relation to his comments in Committee, there was almost a failure of prioritisation.

It is true that we may not have had enough time, but I looked through Hansard and found that we had discussed the Oxford philosopher, G. D. H. Cole, and the uncle of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). A lot of that was very amusing, and I certainly enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Eastbourne—I think that he enjoyed listening to himself, too. However, not only did I feel that we were losing the wood for the trees, but that we were sometimes losing the trees for the leaves. The Hansard record will show that an inordinate amount of time was consumed in saying very little, so I shall not take up any more of the House's time.

2.38 pm
Miss Melanie Johnson

I shall be brief. I can assure the House that I will be extremely brief in speaking to groups of Government amendments that are entirely trivial and consequential, about which the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) need not concern himself.

On the question of time wasting, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not pursue that path too vigorously, because I am sure that scrutiny of the record will show that time was not entirely well spent during debates in Committee, as the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) has just suggested. I could add some other instances to those that he gave.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) is not directly included in the processes of the usual channels in discussing programme motions. However, I understand that this programme motion has been introduced on the basis that it has been agreed through the usual channels. That was certainly the case with the programme motion in Committee—it, too, was agreed.

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Eastbourne may not have got to grips with the contents of the Bill when it was published before Easter, but by the time we discussed the programme motion for the Committee, he must have been able to get to grips with the Bill and therefore to raise any concerns that he had about that programme motion. He did not raise such concerns about the division of time for those sittings.

Mr. Waterson

I would not want the Under-Secretary to be in danger of misleading the House. First, I made a different point, which was about all the outside bodies and organisations that were totally taken by surprise, first by the Bill's publication just before the Easter break, and then by the change in the order of consideration.

Secondly, I can only place it firmly on record—I do not think that anyone can contest it—that we were never consulted on the length of time allotted in the original programme motion for proceedings in Committee. Indeed, partly over the Easter break, I prepared a draft of how I thought we could allocate time. That, although proffered to the usual channels, was not thought to be helpful to the discussion. Let us be clear on those points.

Miss Johnson

A large number of outside bodies were very well aware of the Enterprise Bill and its general contents—and, indeed, some of its specific contents—well ahead of its publication.

I reiterate that the vast majority of the Government amendments are technical and consequential. They are attempts by parliamentary draftsmen to get the Bill exactly right. There is nothing wrong with that; it is part of the normal passage of a Bill. We have two days for Report, and I hope that the House will rapidly agree the programme motion and make progress on the substance of proceedings.

Question put and agreed to.