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The point that I wanted to make was that all the Opposition amendments, except one, were withdrawn. Today we are introducing nine amendments which I will commend to the House, all of which respond to points raised in Committee with the intention of making the Bill more effective. None of them changes the policy intention that was fully discussed in one Committee sitting. In view of that, I believe that consideration and report can be concluded within the time set out in the programme motion. I commend it to the House.
Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): The House is aware that the Conservative Opposition disapprove of programme motions in principle for two reasons: first, because it is unknown what Members may have to contribute and, secondly, because it cannot easily be known what will be required in terms of a thorough analysis of and debate on proposals.
The Minister correctly pointed out that there was a constructive exchange in Committee and that the Government have one way or another taken in most of the issues and amendments that the Opposition proposed. However, clause 3, for example, is highly technical and is about what the arrangements will be in relation to national insurance charges when companies are taken over. Yesterday I received the Government's redrafts, and it was the evening before I could check out their precise implications with lawyers. It is apparent that they contain drafting errors and so will need more attention than just a few minutes during the forthcoming debate.
This is a classic example of circumstances in which, even with a relatively focused piece of legislation and with most of the material having been dealt with in Committee, the whole concept of programmed timetables does not work. If the programming arrangements are adhered to, the result will be not enough time for discussion of important, nitty-gritty clauses and, potentially, more time than needed on Third Reading later. Therefore, although we appreciate the Minister's acceptance of the various points that we raised, we do not feel that programming Bills is a good idea in principle. Even in this particular focused circumstance, yet again the motion is shown not to be delivering what is in the interests of the House and the country.
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): The Government amendments conceded in Committee were helpful and it would be churlish to say that the Bill is not welcome. It caps liability at 7 November 2000, but is certainly not perfect and leaves much to be desired. Improvements can and should be made. Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs
Hon. Members must realise that the Bill impacts on many companies in most constituencies. Many hon. Members may want to speak about the merits or otherwise of the Bill and about the amendments that the Government have tabled.
The Government have asserted that the quid pro quo for certainty--that is, fixing the employers' national insurance contributions for unapproved share option schemes as at 7 November 2000--is to fix that liability on that date with payments to be made shortly thereafter. There are other views which deserve consideration by and a response from Ministers. Some hon. Members will be concerned about bureaucracy and unnecessary Government expenditure. I have put to the Minister a satisfactory solution which would be simple and would provide value for money. Why not leave the liability open until exercise of the option, and then leave it open to companies to pay national insurance contributions either on the basis of the 7 November 2000 value or the value on the date on which the option is exercised? That is simple--
Members are likely to want to raise matters of bureaucracy and of fairness to taxpayers. These are important matters that deserve long debate and significant consideration. We shall oppose the motion.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): It has become apparent that each programme motion raises different issues about the approach that the Government have taken to programming under "modernisation". We are embarking on a voyage of parliamentary discovery. It started with the idea that life should be made easier for parliamentarians, especially Labour Members. It was thought that everything should be done more quickly and that scrutiny should be truncated. The idea has developed from there.
We see in each instance--this is a good case in point--that such an approach is entirely inappropriate to the parliamentary process. We now know--we should have known before--that each Bill is sui generis. It stands on its own and has a different character, history and personality. Members come to the Chamber with tales of what happened in their Committee: they may talk of consensuality, joviality and other good news.
We find that the Government's explanation for a vicious truncation of the parliamentary process tends to be different in each case. In this instance, we are told that we are dealing with a relatively small and technical Bill, that there is not much to be discussed, and that what went on in Committee may or may not have been very productive. However, it is about 1.45 pm and we are debating an absurd motion which states that consideration on Report will be completed at 3.30 pm. That would be bad enough, but we know that the programme debate can run for 45 minutes.
The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) has said that he believes there will be a Division, and I will join him in that. I hope that I have the opportunity to do so. It is possible that we shall not even get to on to Report until 2.30 pm. The Government are generously giving us until 3.30 pm to complete consideration on Report.
Optimists among Members may say, "There are only three groups of amendments to be considered." They may also say, "There are only"--as I count--"10 amendments to be considered." Even so, one hour divided by 10 gives us six minutes per amendment. I do not know what your view is, Mr. Deputy Speaker--we shall never know because you are not allowed to express it--but I suggest that six minutes is adequate for the House to consider an amendment to proposed law that deals with social security contributions and share options and will have a direct impact on many people's lives. Yet the Government have the gall and the arrogance to suggest that six minutes per amendment will be adequate.
There are 660 Members, and from that membership we can take away the bloated payroll, which probably runs now at about 150. We can take away also the members of the bloated Opposition Front Bench, which probably accounts for another 100. There are probably about 400 Members who are entitled to express an independent view on these matters. If we divide six minutes by 400, we have an idea of the amount of time that the Government are suggesting each Member has, potentially, to participate in a debate on these matters. That is a reductio, but not ad absurdum.
I am giving those figures to try to make the point that this is possibly the best--or, rather, the worst--example to date of the Government's view of the role of the parliamentary process, a Bill's Report stage and the role of the House of Commons in considering legislative proposals. Programme motions are simply legislative proposals, and embody what the Government think should happen. They are discussed in a Committee, and the whole House is here now to consider a particular programme motion. By my calculation--unless anyone wishes to challenge me--six minutes is the time that the Government are suggesting is available for each matter.
If we voted on Report, the Government seem to suggest--again, by my calculation--that we would have 30 minutes, from 3.45 pm until 4.15 pm, for Third Reading. Third Reading provides an opportunity for all hon. Members to come together and give mature consideration to the totality of a Bill that they have discussed on Second Reading and which a privileged few have looked at in Committee. We have gathered together now to look at a particular Bill on Report. However, on Third Reading, all hon. Members who have been unable to participate so far can come to the House of Commons and say what they want about a Bill, knowing its final form.
The Government are now telling us that we will have 30 minutes to do all of that; not 30 minutes each, but 30 minutes for the entire House of Commons to consider a piece of legislation on Third Reading. Surely, that illustrates better than most things thus far the absurdity and arrogance of the Government--as well as the cruelty that they are inflicting on the parliamentary process--
Mr. Burnett: Because the matter is detailed and technical, does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that it deserves careful scrutiny? Having detailed and technical provisions tabled last night is unacceptable. Does he agree that there is not enough time for careful scrutiny of these important matters?