Standing Committee D
Tuesday 16 January 2001
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
The Chairman: Before we begin, I have two announcements. Hon. Members may remove their jackets if they wish. Under my chairmanship, that is blanket consent for the duration of the Committee. If Mr. Stevenson has a different view, he will no doubt express it.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) has telephoned me to say that he cannot be with us for the first hour this morning as he is speaking in Westminster Hall.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move,
(1) during proceedings on the Homes Bill, the Standing Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at a quarter to Ten o'clock and at half-past Two o'clock.
(2) 12 sittings shall be allotted to the consideration of the Bill by the Standing Committee;
(3) the proceedings on the Bill shall be taken in the following order, namely, Clauses 1 to 9, Schedule 1, Clauses 10 to 15, new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part I, Clauses 16 to 29, Schedules 2 and 3, Clauses 30 to 34, remaining new Clauses and new Schedules;
(4) the proceedings on the Bill shall be brought to a conclusion at the 12th sitting at Five o'clock.
I begin by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Gale. I am pleased that you will be chairing our proceedings. Last year, I had the privilege of taking a larger Bill through a Committee under your chairmanship, and Committee members on both sidessome relics of that experience are with us todayagreed that although some of the Bill was controversial, the Committee's proceedings were conducted in a constructive, courteous and amicable way, which owed much to your wise chairmanship. I look forward to seeing the same qualities in our forthcoming sittings.
The resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee sets out the times and dates for our discussions. It is proposed that we meet twice on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a total of 12 sittings. I believe that that time will be more than adequate to allow proper scrutiny of the Bill's 34 clauses and three schedules. Two years ago, I was responsible for the Greater London Authority Bill. Although it was almost 10 times the length of this Bill, it had just two and a half times the number of sittings. That comparison shows that the usual channels have, in their discussions, made every effort to ensure that we have more than adequate time to consider all the provisions that need scrutiny.
I believe that the time is sufficient to allow for adequate discussion of amendments and of new clauses, which the resolution proposes should be taken at the end of the discussion of each part of the Bill. With the exception of the final sitting on 1 February, we are not proposing an end time to either Tuesday or Thursday proceedings. The proposed order of consideration is a straightforward means of allowing our proceedings to be orderly and thorough. I hope that it finds favour with the Committee.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that the debate is limited to half an hour. I also remind hon. Members, as I asked the usual channels to tell them earlier, that we will be sitting this afternoon, which is unusual on the first day of a Committee. Any hon. Members who have other plans may wish to make alternative arrangements.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I do not think that you are a relic, Mr. Gale, but I also welcome you to the Chair. I am sure that our proceedings will be good natured, and that we will be able to disagree without being disagreeable. This debate is the third bite of this particular cherry. We debated the programme resolution after the Second Reading debate, and I endorse the comments and criticisms that I made there. Last night, there was a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee, and here we are again for half an hour this morning.
It is not good enough for the Minister to say that he believes that the time allowed is adequate to deal with the Bill, the amendments that we know about, the amendments that we do not yet know about, new clauses and Government amendments. How can he be sure? That is the basic criticism of any attempt to give a definite end date to our consideration.
It is not remotely relevant for the Minister to cite the number of clauses. There are 34 clauses and three schedules, but some are complex and worthy of considerable debate. The Maastricht ratification Bill had only a couple of clauses, and that took up a lot of time, as hon. Members will remember.
We hear much from the Government about open government but the opposite of that is happening in the House of Commons. There is a policy of suppressing debate as far as possible, which renders the House an irrelevance in the Chamber and in Committee.
It is important to remember the history. The original proposal for programming debateor guillotining, to give its proper descriptionpredated Second Reading, let alone any amendments tabled since. The proposal from the usual channels has always been the same: six days and 12 sittings. That has not altered since the beginning of the so-called programming process. There has been no real flexibility. It is rather like Henry Ford saying that people can have any colour they like as long as it is black. It seems that we can have any period that we like as long as it is six days and 12 sittings.
Yesterday evening, under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, I had the pleasure and privilege of sitting for the first time on a Programming Sub-Committee, which is the new constitutional device that the Government have introduced to deal with such matters. No record is kept of its proceedings, it is closed to the public and other hon. Members are barred from participating in its debates. In effect, it is held in secret. At that meeting, a decision was made to programme the Standing Committee along the lines of the resolution.
At the Programming Sub-Committeea new Government device to guillotine the discussion of legislationthe Minister let slip that the Liberal Democrats had agreed to Government proposals to limit discussion of part I, which deals with seller's packs, to three sitting days. As my comments will be the only record that the public will get on the proceedings, I note that the Liberal Democrats voted with the Government to limit the entire Standing Committee duration to six days.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether he had exactly the same discussions on the issue with the Government Whip as I did, and that he agreed to the same proposals as I did on behalf of the Liberal Democrats?
Mr. Waterson: I understand the hon. Gentleman's embarrassment and I am afraid that it is only just beginning. I cannot confirm whether we had the same discussions through the usual channels because I do not know what discussions they had. I would have thought that it was blindingly obvious that he reached a secret deal with the Government business managers and we did not.
Not only did the Liberals Democrats cook up that secret deal[Interruption.]
Mr. Foster: Stop digging.
Mr. Waterson: The hon. Gentleman is the one who is in a hole, and a deep one. Given that there is no record of last night's proceedings, a fact that we would probably all agree is unfortunate, the task falls to me to explain to the rest of the Committee and to the general public what has been going on.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I shall clarify what went on. The discussions in which I might, or might not, have been involved were held under duress and I opposed the Government's procedure for timetabling the Committee in this way. However, the Liberal Democrats, acting under their Lib-Lab pact, were only too keen to acquiesce.
Mr. Waterson: There we have it: a rare shaft of light on the deliberations of the usual channels. As someone cleverer than me once said, Whips are as important to Parliament as sewers are to civilisation.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Sometimes the Whips say that about their own Front Bench.
Mr. Waterson: Let us not allow this seasonal hilarity to detract from the fact that the proposals were made on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and whereas we declined to accept them, the Liberal Democrats signed up with their customary alacrity. Perhaps the Minister slipped up when he revealed what he did last night, but he has revealed it. Is it not typical of the Liberal Democrats to do a secret deal with the Government to limit debate on this crucial part of the Bill?
Millions of people will be affected by the proposals to change the rules on house purchase, and they deserve a proper and wide-ranging debate. This latest example of Lib-Labbery will deny them that. I strongly wish to place on record the role of the Liberal Democrats in denying it to them, and my comments are the only way in which to do that.
Mr. Gale, I know that you said last night that you would deal with this point but, as it is pointless to go over the past any more, I want to consider the future and especially the issue of flexibility. Our plea is simple. How can the Government claim to be taking due account of the democratic process when they are putting the cart before the horse, by deciding before Second Reading, and even before they have seen any new amendments or clauses, precisely how long the Committee stage should take? That period has not altered one iota since proceedings on the Bill began.
We plead only for some flexibility. Whether that would amount to an extra day or two days we cannot yet say, for a number of good reasons. For instance, new issues might arise, such as the serious concern that was expressed by Labour Back Benchers about the effect of the seller's pack in low-demand, low-value areas. That important issue dominated part of the Second Reading debate, and we shall return to it frequently.
There is also the prospect of more amendments, new clauses and new schedules: some have already been tabled, and no doubt others will be. Unless they are to be dealt with in an unseemly flurry at the end of our proceedings, it is difficult to see how they can all be debated properly.
I have already commented on Government amendments, and I think that the Minister and I are ad idem about the matter. Every Bill involves consequential and drafting amendments that are tabled by the Government, and we have no difficulty about that. Most of them will probably go through on the nod. However, we are concerned about the habit, which has developed during the current Parliament in particular, of large rafts of Government amendments appearing late in Committee or during later stages that make substantive changes to legislation.
It is perhaps churlish of me to complain about that now, because we hope that on some of the big, highly technical and complex issues, the Government will see the sense of making changes. For example, on enforcement, alternatives to the criminal sanctions that they are pursuing might be proposed. We would welcome such Government amendments, or at least a detailed indication of amendments that they might table at a later stage. We cannot make advance provision for such amendments. So far, the Government have tabled only the programme resolution. Again, I put down a marker about that.
We are pleased that there are to be no time limits on sittings on given days but, in my experience and possibly in yours, Mr. Gale, merely sitting longer in the evening does not necessarily speed matters up. The option of sitting on other days between now and 1 February has been left open. We may have to reconvene a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee if progress on the Bill slips behind that which the Government's business managers had in mind.
Taking those considerations into account, we need a further indication of potential flexibility from the Minister. You have expressed a desire to put other related matters on the record, Mr. Gale, because of the slightly unsatisfactory fact that Programming Sub-Committee proceedings are not public. That is all we want. We will do our best to meet the timetable, but issues will arise. Just this morning, I had a flurry of new briefings from a variety of organisations that are intimately involved with part I. Even doing the best we can, I cannot see how we can commit to finishing part I in three sitting days. The Liberal Democrats may believe that that does not matter, because they are concerned more with part II. We are concerned with part II as well, but wish to see the whole Bill subject to proper scrutiny and debate in Committee and thereafter.
Hon. Members will agree that part I contains far more technical and legal complexities than part II. We want to go through part I carefully, as it will affect an average of 1.5 million transactions a year. Millions of people will be affected when dealing with the most important financial transaction that they will ever have to carry out: the purchase or sale of the family home.
It is a great shame that the Government are being so cavalier about the time that we have to debate the Bill, particularly part I. It is also unfortunate that the Liberal Democrats are happy to go along with the time limit for part I. We are determined to see that the points are debated properly with or without their co-operation, because we are, of course, the true party of opposition[Interruption.] I leave out any opposition from Government members to some parts of the Bill. Therefore, I urge hon. Members to vote against the programme resolution.