Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Consumer Accountability and New Mutuals

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1965 to allow for the creation of community mutuals; and to improve accountability of key services to consumers: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 July, and to be printed [Bill 48].

14 Feb 2001 : Column 324

Health and Social Care Bill (Programme)(No.2)

3.57 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Denham): I beg to move,

The motion proposes that the remaining stages of the Bill should be completed this afternoon. I pay tribute to members of the Standing Committee for what were uniformly constructive and often enjoyable debates. The Bill came under close scrutiny and the Committee stage was, as it should be, a valuable exercise.

There were 14 Committee sittings in total. In only two of the seven afternoon sittings did we fully utilise the time available. Indeed, something like five hours and 38 minutes of scheduled time for the Committee was not utilised. None the less, I think that we gave the Bill good scrutiny.

There was agreement in the Programming Sub- Committee, and the Government showed flexibility in extending time to discuss additional amendments on primary care although, in the event, the extra time that was allocated was not fully necessary.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Minister has shown his customary courtesy in praising the members of the Committee. Will he go further and praise the Select Committee on Health, which opposes the community health council abolition proposed in the Bill?

Mr. Denham: I am not aware that the Health Select Committee has formed an opinion on a specific proposal in the Bill. However, the proposals for a better and more powerful system of patient representation and health service scrutiny were discussed in some detail in Committee.

It is worth noting that the Committee did not utilise all the time that was available and scheduled for discussion of the issue of scrutiny of the NHS, even though it was arguably the most publicly contentious part of the Bill.

14 Feb 2001 : Column 325

However, we gave it a good degree of scrutiny and, depending on the interest in the House, I imagine that that subject will attract a great deal of attention later when Opposition amendments are debated, along with those of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). I look forward to that.

In Committee, the Government tabled a number of amendments. Some were technical and some reflected direct responses to comments that had been made by Members of the House as well as professional and lobby groups. Today's debate and the amendments tabled by Members on both sides of the House will allow us to revisit--albeit in a new form--the major issues on which the Committee spent the most time.

The Government's amendments are for the most part technical and consequential; other amendments pick up on and, I hope, accurately reflect concerns expressed by hon. Members in Committee. We are not introducing by way of Government amendment any major new issues of principle so, in my judgment, one day should give us ample time to debate the remaining stages of the Bill.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): It may well be that the Government are not introducing issues of principle, but the Opposition most certainly are doing so. For example, amendment No. 6, which deals with the abolition of CHCs, is a matter of major importance. That will inevitably mean that many Members will want to speak. The effect of the timetable motion will make that extremely difficult.

Mr. Denham: In Committee, when those matters were discussed in some detail, we did not take all the time allocated for their scrutiny. I see no reason why we should not hold a perfectly adequate debate later today, which will enable us to examine the issues that hon. Members want to raise.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): As the Minister has twice asserted that the Committee did not use all the available allocated time, will he make it clear to the House--for the avoidance of doubt--that the timetable contained fixed milestones? Because of those fixed milestones, it was not necessarily open to the Committee to debate issues that needed further consideration. The total amount of unused time is not an indication that all matters were fully debated.

Mr. Denham: No, but in this case there could have been more discussion of the particular topic that has been mentioned today. The Government showed flexibility by agreeing to additional time--not all of which proved necessary--to deal with the amendments that we tabled on primary care.

With those comments and in the hope that we can move on to Report at the earliest opportunity, I commend the motion to the House.

4.2 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): I oppose the motion on grounds of both principle and practicality. Throughout the appalling number of recent debates on such programme motions, we have made no secret of our belief that a contempt for parliamentary process is being systematically operated by a Government who want to

14 Feb 2001 : Column 326

avoid scrutiny wherever possible. In recent years, there has been an unhealthy strengthening of the Executive--this is the latest and greatest manifestation of that trend. It diminishes the authority of Parliament itself; it diminishes the voice of each us to represent the needs, wishes and interests of our constituents on a range of issues.

Increasingly, with automatic timetabling, there is an abuse of process and a contempt for scrutiny, coupled with Ministers playing fast and loose with a strict interpretation of the honest truth. For example, it is unusual for us to talk in the House about discussions between the usual channels, but I must refer to the comments made last night during the debate on the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill by the Minister for Public Health. Replying to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), she said:

I am told that that is not true; no such offer was made through the usual channels. Having said that it was, the Minister needs to come back to the House and explain exactly what she meant by her words. Our use of the English dictionary would not show that an offer for more time was made in a way that we would normally understand.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I am somewhat surprised, as well as perturbed, by what my hon. Friend says about the Minister for Public Health. Is he aware that that statement by the hon. Lady is in stark contrast to, and incompatible with, what she previously told the House? Previously, she said that she had held no discussions with representatives of the Government Whips Office about the timetabling.

Dr. Fox: My hon. Friend makes a valuable and serious point. Those two statements seem mutually exclusive, and I am sure that he will carry out further investigations because the House will want to know the exact truth. We cannot have Ministers saying that discussions have taken place through the usual channels, which is how we maintain civilised relations and order in the House, when it appears that they have not taken place. That can only undermine confidence in those discussions.

The Government's ethos is one of intensely disliking scrutiny, and they do all that they can to avoid it. The Prime Minister's demeanour at Question Time shows that he regards Prime Minister's questions themselves as impertinent. That is shown in his answers as well as his body language. So that the Government are not scrutinised properly, they ensure that those Labour Members with strong views are not represented in Committee, which causes a further diminution of scrutiny.

During a point of order this afternoon, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) made it clear that some Government Back Benchers have not the faintest idea that one of their jobs is to scrutinise the Executive on behalf of their constituents, rather than simply being Lobby fodder and the Whips' poodles, which they are so often in the House.

The timetable motion is another example of the Government playing fast and loose with the House. They have tabled more than 120 amendments to the Bill since

14 Feb 2001 : Column 327

the end of its consideration in Committee, and most of them were tabled at the last possible moment. They first appeared at 10.15 the night before last, and the explanatory notes were not available until last night. What are we to conclude from that?

Next Section

IndexHome Page