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4.7 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Following your general nudging of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thought that I would say a few words about the Bill. That seems to be the order of the day and is what the House expects on Third Reading. I shall have a go and see if I can deal with the Bill in the limited time that is left.

First, an irregularity that struck me--and which, I hope, will attract the attention of their Lordships in another place--is the Bill's long title. These are difficult, complicated matters to do with tax and high finance, and understanding them is obviously limited to a small number of people, of whom I am certainly not one. In those circumstances, the layman is allowed to speculate about why on earth the Bill deals retrospectively with a period beginning with 6 April 1999 and ending with 19 May 2000.

That tells one several things, including the fact that the problem was certainly not noticed when it should have been and/or was not dealt with properly when it should have been. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we shall reach back into the recesses of time and try to deal with it now. That strikes me as something that we would normally deprecate and be uneasy about. Against that background, I am a little unhappy with the consensus with which the Bill seems to be easing its way forward.

Following your helpful advice to look at the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my eye lit upon clause 2(5), in which, I thought, some sinister elements appeared. It contains the condition:

A lot of use of "appears to" and "but for" is creeping in. At the very least, that indicates something that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) was at pains to point out from the start:

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the measure has not been properly thought out and, despite the expertise and tender ministrations of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), we still have not got it anywhere near where it should be at this stage of the proceedings. After all, the Bill is in the last gasps of its proceedings through the House of Commons. I wonder whether the Government are up to their old tricks, hoping that it will be sorted out properly in another place. That is a constitutional and parliamentary proposition of extremely dubious value.

This place should take responsibility for sorting out Bills that originate here. One could say that, when a Bill originates in another place, we expect it to come here in good order. The same must surely apply in the other direction. What seems to be happening recently, not least in respect of this Bill, is that we have come to rest more and more on the presumption that we can do sloppy, untidy, hasty, poor work here--making the law of the land, let us not forget, and affecting people very directly, as our measures must inevitably do, and this Bill no less than most--and pass it to the other end of the building, saying to their lordships, "You have more time. You can sort it out." That is not a sound constitutional principle.

My doubts grew even stronger when I read in clause 2(5)(a) the words:

That is probably fair enough, but the clause goes on, almost unbelievably, in paragraph (c):

not a reason, but an excuse. Excuses have now entered our statute as a term of art.

I am not a lawyer. The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon is an eminent lawyer. It is probably too late for him to comment now, but I leave the thought with him and not least with the Minister: if we are writing excuses into our statute, matters have gone beyond all reason. It makes me wonder how on earth we could have arrived at this point in our deliberations, with all the accumulated brain power of my hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon, the Minister, who has been praised lavishly today and whom I will praise modestly, and all the panoply of talent available to the Minister via the parliamentary draftsmen, when they are not engaged on hundreds of amendments to other Bills at the last minute.

The best that the Government can come up with in the Bill is a reference to someone having a reasonable excuse for having failed to do something within a specified period. It is pretty desperate stuff, when one thinks about it. It is not the stuff of which proper statutes should be

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made. It will provide a field day for the lawyers. Imagine them getting their minds around that, and their fees around it, as well. I will not tempt my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who, if he were listening to me, which he wisely is not--

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I was listening closely to my right hon. Friend. He was speaking about fees.

Mr. Forth: I shall have a quiet word later with my right hon. and learned Friend. Leading up to the talk about fees, I was speaking about excuse as a concept in the law. He and I can discuss that later; even though it is in the Bill, I am sure that Mr. Deputy Speaker would not want me to elaborate further.

At that point, I was put off reading the Bill any further. I thought, "If things are as bad as that so early in the Bill, I do not see why I should upset myself or anyone else by reading on." I concluded without too much effort that it is yet another example of a Bill poorly conceived, poorly drafted and--I say this with considerable regret--poorly scrutinised, mainly because the Government have not given us proper time or opportunity to give it the attention that it deserves.

As has been pointed out, the period allowed between identification of the flaws in the Bill in Committee and its Report stage today would usually be sufficient to permit proper reflection, advice to be taken from other sources and the expertise of those whom I mentioned previously to be brought to bear. None of that has been allowed. If we are to learn a lesson from the Bill, it is that the way in which the Government are requiring the House to deal with legislation is inadequate. It palpably does not work, and the Bill is a perfect example of that.

Although I sense that we shall probably give the Bill an unopposed Third Reading--would that that were not the case, as I would love to vote against it--I hope that, at the very least, we can invite Members of another place to give it much more scrutiny than they might otherwise do.

4.14 pm

Mr. Timms: The climate for enterprise and entrepreneurship in the United Kingdom is better than it has ever been, and the Bill makes it better still. We have made a number of changes to the Bill. It has been a good example of effective scrutiny. I take great pleasure in commending it to the House.

It being a quarter past Four o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Order [this day].

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,

The motion proposes that the remaining stages of the Bill should be completed by 7 pm. The programme is supplemental to the one approved for the Committee stage, which finished in good time, before the programmed date of 1 February. Indeed, we did not use all the time that was allowed in Committee under the programme motion agreed by the House.

The Bill was debated thoroughly in Committee; the debate covered a range of relevant matters in detail. There was a high degree of consensus, and I am grateful for the co-operation of the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) and other hon. Members on the overall aims of the Bill. However, that did not prevent detailed and vigorous discussion and a thorough examination of the provisions.

The Government have not tabled any further amendments. Only a small number of Opposition amendments were tabled in Committee, and the amendments before us this afternoon were discussed in Committee, so we should have plenty of time for debate in the time allocated for consideration of the amendments. Similarly, I hope that, given the consensus, Third Reading would not require more time than has been allocated. If the Opposition do not oppose the motion and we commence Report and Third Reading shortly, we will have two and three quarter hours for the debate. I commend the motion to the House.

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