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10.4 pm

Mr. Heald: Three weeks ago, we had the week of the guillotine--proceedings on the Freedom of Information Bill, the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, the Disqualifications Bill and the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill were all guillotined.

The Government have set a pattern. It is a disgrace that there have been 25 guillotines in three years. The Minister has the effrontery to say that the arrangements have been agreed through the usual channels, but it is unprecedented to intervene in those discussions in such a way. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) is the other Whip involved and he denies that an agreement was reached.

The Conservative party believes that such motions are wrong. The Government should not stipulate how long a Committee can sit before they know the scope of the debate. The Minister is pointing his finger, but, as he admitted, 50 issues were raised in the debate, and there is a huge scope for discussion in Committee. How on earth is it possible to programme the sittings of a Committee before Second Reading? That is nonsense. The 10 Committee sittings that are proposed in the programme motion are inadequate. We need many more than that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) spoke for one hour and 19 minutes, and every point was concise. The issues that he raised are relevant not only to the Bill's broad thrust, but to detailed discussions in Committee. The same is true of the contributions that were made by hon. Members on both

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sides of the House. Serious matters have been raised. It is unacceptable to table, ahead of Second Reading, a motion that allows wholly inadequate time for discussion in Committee. It is clear that eight or 10 sittings will be inadequate.

I have referred to the bread of the issues, but it is worth mentioning that Member after Member highlighted important issues. The Government were asked how the law will operate with regard to the retrospective fitting of immobilisers and how Home Office reports and the Bill have dealt with research into the use of cars in crime. Hon. Members asked whether the powers of search should discriminate against one vehicle dismantler in favour of another. Why should the registered person have a harsher regime imposed on him than the non-registered person? The Government were also asked whether the DVLA is able to refuse to produce documents for a vehicle even when it is known that it has been dismantled.

Many issues were raised about the way in which cancellations will work. What will be the period for cancellation? What recompense might be made available if people are falsely deregistered? The Government were asked whether the inclusion of VINs on the plates was the way forward, or whether there would be a different method of identification. There was concern that the European convention on human rights might stop vehicles being returned to the owner after they have been written off.

The views of the Association of British Insurers were challenged. The Government were asked whether it was right to reallocate the money from traffic cameras in a way that was akin to taxation. There were many questions about the costs on business. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise and conversation in the Chamber.

Mr. Heald: The Bill has raised a substantial range of issues. Many of the questions are important to business. There is concern that a balance should be struck in the regulation of motor salvage operators. Is it right to impose burdens on the smallest car repairer who might choose to salvage two vehicles a year? Is it right that he should be subject to the same regulation as a large company that deals with thousands of vehicles? Will we be able to ensure that abandoned vehicles are collected by motor salvage operators if we over-regulate them? What are the costs involved? We did not even know how many motor salvage operators there were.

We must consider enforcement. The Motor Vehicles Dismantlers Association has made it clear that the regulation will work only if it is rigorously enforced. Honest operators will register and follow all the procedures in the Bill, but those involved in crime will not do so and they will gain a competitive advantage. It is important that the balance of regulation should be properly considered. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made salient points, as he so often does, and teased out some of the difficulties in the regulation.

Hon. Members questioned the practicability of the vehicle inspection regime, which has been questioned by industry sources. The Bill contains nine sets of regulations, and it was described by one hon. Member as a sea of regulation. My hon. Friend the Member for

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Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) pointed out that assurances are always needed when there is a risk of legislation being gold-plated.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): Surely one of the iniquities of this heinous programme motion, which will provide only five days of consideration of this complex Bill, is that it will deprive us of the chance to table new clauses. It is inevitable that, in considering such a Bill, the industry and all those who are interested, including the police, will spot problems, but there will be no time to table new clauses for consideration at the end of the Bill because there will be only five days in Committee.

Mr. Heald: My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Bill gives rise to a wide range of issues, and a number of bodies have an interest. The Federation of Small Businesses is most concerned about the measure, but other industry representatives take a different view. Each and every one of the 26 bodies that responded to the consultation should have the chance not only to suggest a new clause at the beginning of the consideration but to see how the debate unfolds and to respond accordingly.

In a recent Standing Committee, my right hon. Friend and I found that it was only after about 10 sittings that we started to discover the full detail and scope of the Government's intentions. That was largely because we received representations about the Bill from outside bodies and because many members of the Committee happened to have experience of Home Office matters and were able to tease out some of the difficulties. Over time, that led to better amendments and new clauses being tabled in Committee and, at a later stage, to the Government taking steps to improve the Bill. It is often a mistake for the House to rush through legislation, rather than allowing it to go through the proper stages and be given adequate time.

The Labour party is associated with the idea that modernisation means less time for debate. If the Government were honest, they would admit that it is extremely bad for their image. Apart from demonstrating contempt for the history of this place, marginalising Parliament and ensuring that there is no proper scrutiny of legislation are not actions that any true democrat could seek to justify.

The Opposition do not disagree with the broad principles in the Bill, but we are entitled to play our traditional role and to scrutinise it in great detail, if we think it necessary. In this case, debate has demonstrated that there is a range of issues to be considered, and the time provided in the programme motion is inadequate. We ask the Government to think again.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is objecting to the timetable motion before the House, or to timetabling in principle. We all know that timetabling enables us to make progress and spend time on the contentious parts of a Bill, which is what we all want to do.

Mr. Heald: I object to both. First, let me examine the principle of programming. I was a silent one--a Whip--when the House considered the Bills that became the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Scotland Act

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1998. I spent a great deal of time discussing how long was needed for each group of clauses; however, it is not easy to judge what the mood of the House will be or in which direction the debate will turn. One of my objections is rooted in the fact that, on occasion, we programmed Bills in good faith and by agreement, but found that hon. Members who had a strong opinion on an issue and sensible comments to make were unable to speak in the House. Is that democracy? In my view, it is not.

At the outset, I was quite in favour of programming, because it seemed modern and I like modern things, as the hon. Lady knows--she recently praised my website in The House Magazine, so she is aware that I am not of the luddite tendency. However, I believe that in programming lies a danger to democracy. People who come here from their constituencies, perhaps with a constituency angle on a national question, do not get a chance to express it. To programme the Committee stage before Second Reading has taken place is nonsense.

Mr. Blunt: I am extremely concerned about the remark made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), that we have only to focus on the contentious issues. Issues of contention between the parties are not necessarily the ones that should be focused on. We are about making decent legislation, and we are not going to be able to put decent legislation on the statue book after only eight Committee sittings.

Mr. Heald: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making a point that ties in with the comment made by our right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), which is that a certain amount of time is needed for a debate to mature and for outside bodies to arrive at an understanding of the details of the legislation. Given the range of issues involved in the Vehicles (Crime) Bill, merely to guess how long will be required is not adequate.

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