HC Deb 13 January 2004 vol 416 cc667-9
34. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

To ask the Leader of the House what assessment he has made of options for post-legislative scrutiny. [147108]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

Some argue that Parliament should do more to monitor the effects of legislation passed. Departmental Select Committees can do that at present if they wish, but I am open to suggestions as to how the matter can be taken forward.

Mr. Heath

With a Government who churn out legislation, create new offences by the hundred—more than 660 before last summer—and have new Home Office Bills such as antisocial behaviour Bills, asylum and immigration Bills and criminal justice Bills queuing up for attention, we often see measures taken that are considered to be the panacea for a particular ill, but are then repealed or replaced even before they are implemented. Is not there a strong case for Parliament to take a reasoned view of what happens after Acts leave this place and how they work in practice, and to examine the consequences of what we pass for the public whom we are trying to serve?

Mr. Hain

There are two issues in that question. The first is the list of Bills to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Is he suggesting that we should not be doing something about illegal human trafficking? Is he suggesting that we should not be doing something about antisocial behaviour? Is he suggesting that we should not crack down on criminals who are evading the net of justice? The way in which he and his colleagues have sometimes voted suggests that that is indeed Liberal Democrat policy. On the wider point about procedures in the House, he has a good argument. I am sympathetic to the case for post-legislative scrutiny. It is important that the impact of the Acts that the House passes is evaluated properly. As for how that can be done, several ideas exist, some of which the Modernisation Committee canvassed a few years ago. I do not want to overload departmental Select Committees, which are the obvious vehicles for such post-legislative scrutiny. On the other hand, we need to find a way forward.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that I had the privilege of leading for my party in Committee on the Child Support Act 1991, which was introduced by Baroness Thatcher, and that everyone agreed with those principles, but that because we had not consulted battered wives or Families Need Fathers, we have had to make four or five subsequent efforts to try to get that legislation right? Such considerations apply to all parties. Does my right hon. Friend accept that if we listened to such groups earlier in the process we would avoid problems? Progress is no faster if we rush legislation through this place; it is better to have full consultation and get things right—as he may feel that we could have done on foundation hospitals and university fees.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend has advanced a powerful argument in respect of the Child Support Agency. I remember finding, as a constituency Member, that the Act was proving a disaster within weeks of its implementation. He has also made a strong case in respect of post-legislative scrutiny, as did the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) —but the stronger case is for pre-legislative scrutiny, for which he has also been a powerful advocate. As he knows, the Government have been introducing more and more Bills that have been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, so that there is proper consultation and we get things right. Sir Humphrey does not always get things right.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

The Leader of the House is absolutely right: both pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny are very important, relevant responsibilities of the House. He is also right to stress the importance of Select Committees, especially in the context of post-legislative scrutiny. My own Procedure Committee is currently dealing with the consequences of devolution for the House. If the Leader of the House agrees with me that post-legislative scrutiny is the responsibility of Select Committees, will he ensure that they have the staff and resources that will enable them to perform that function?

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have improved resources. His Committee and others play a valuable role, and I am grateful for the work that he does. There are a number of issues associated with the hon. Gentleman's proposition. If we gave departmental Select Committees extra responsibilities for post-legislative scrutiny on a systematic basis—of course, they sometimes do the job voluntarily—we would have to consider not just increasing resources even beyond their present level, but the size of Committees and whether Sub-Committees should be established for particular purposes. I know that the hon. Gentleman's colleagues on the Liaison Committee have strong views on that, but if a solution can be found, I am willing to look for it.