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National Insurance Contributions Bill

Dawn Primarolo accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for, and in connection with, increasing national insurance contributions and for applying the increases towards the cost of the national health service: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed.

1 May 2002 : Column 1013

Draft Communications Bill (Joint Committee)

Motion made, and Question proposed,

7.41 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): This measure appears to be straightforward enough, but underneath it lie a number of difficulties. I want to say straight away that we very much support the concept of pre-legislative scrutiny, and that we want to encourage much more of it. We recognise its value, and we are rather pleased that, however belatedly, this example is coming before us. We also support the concept of a Joint Committee of the two Houses of Parliament, because, at its best, it will combine the expertise and impartiality of their lordships with the legitimate, political, representative nature of this House. Provided that we can get the blend of the membership correct, I have no doubt that Joint Committees of this kind can make a valuable contribution to parliamentary scrutiny. That is as it should be.

The problem arises, however, in the composition of the Committees. The difficulties present themselves from a number of directions. The first relates to settling the overall size of the Committee, although it is well established that there should properly be parity of representation of the two Houses of Parliament. That is a legitimate recognition of the different contributions that the two Houses can make, and there should be no controversy over that issue.

Difficulties arise, however, when we consider the composition of the two Houses, and the overall composition of the Houses, in an effort to determine the composition of the Joint Committee. That is because the political composition of the two Houses is quite different, although I do not see anything wrong with that. At present, the Government—one party—have a substantial majority in the House of Commons, and it is proper that that should be recognised in the make-up of the Joint Committee.

The composition of the upper House presents a rather different picture, however. We should recognise that it is the creation of the present Government, in that they have changed its composition and introduced what they like to characterise as a transitional or temporary arrangement—

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albeit one that seems to be going on for an unconscionably long time. This House, Parliament as a whole and the Government have to deal with the numbers as they are, not as they would like them to be or as they imagine they will be in future. We are therefore faced with the difficult challenge of how to arrive at a composition of a Joint Committee that will give proper recognition to the differing compositions of the House of Lords and of the House of Commons.

In our view, the resolution does not adequately meet that challenge. We have considerable difficulty with the proposed membership of the Committee from this House, which comprises four representatives from the Labour party, one from Her Majesty's official Opposition, and one from the Liberal Democrats. It seems rather odd that my party, which proudly has some 160 Members in this House, should have parity of representation with a minor party that has only 50-odd Members.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): If having 166 Members out of 659 makes the right hon. Gentleman proud, what would make him ashamed?

Mr. Forth: I would never characterise the right hon. Gentleman as being too clever by half, but what I meant to say—I regret it if I failed to convince him of this—was that the contribution that my party of 160-something Members makes is one in which I take great pride. Nevertheless, to have only one member of Her Majesty's official Opposition, which has 160 or so members, on the Committee is neither proper nor adequate. That is at the core of our argument.

There is a need for much further consideration of the composition of such Joint Committees, and it will have to embrace their overall size, the differing representation from the two Houses of Parliament, and the proper representation across the political spectrum of the various parties and interests. I say that because there is—very properly—a large group of Cross Benchers in another place that must never be taken for granted or ignored. It must have proper representation on Joint Committees, given the enormous contribution that Cross Benchers from another place can make. That is a very real issue.

The official Opposition are prepared, on this occasion, to accept the resolution in its present form for the sake of making progress, because we are anxious to proceed with this matter. I also want to make it clear, however, that we are very dissatisfied with the proposed composition of the Committee. I hope that the Leader of the House—if he is replying to this brief debate—will make it clear that, although he welcomes my offer to allow the measure to proceed, this must not be regarded as a precedent, and that, in the Government's view, it is legitimate that we should look at these issues again and arrive at a proper dispensation.

There is another issue which, although it is, perhaps, of secondary importance, must not be ignored; that is, whether we can expect to see Front Benchers or spokesmen from the different parties represented on such Committees. It is not evident at present whether that is the intention. I do not want to prejudge the matter, but I want to flag it up as another issue that needs to be dealt with. The House will realise that, for our part, the names on the resolution reflect the fact that we have chosen to put a very distinguished and experienced Member—

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currently a Back Bencher—on the Committee, who I believe will make a positive contribution to its deliberations. All I will say at this stage is that that is not the case for all the parties.

We should look carefully and deliberatively at how we see these pre-legislative Joint Committees operating, what we expect of them and what their role will be. We should then fit all that together in terms of the relative representation of the two Houses of Parliament—reflecting not only their separate composition but their aggregate composition—in the hope that we can arrive at a solution that will properly reflect the will of the electorate, so far as the House of Commons is concerned, and the proper balance of the parties and Cross Benchers in the other place.

I make these points not in any spirit of difficulty or obstruction—tempting though that always is, in my case—but in a genuine attempt to allow this particular measure to proceed now. I hope, however, that the Leader of the House will be able to help me—as I have persuaded my colleagues that they should allow this matter to proceed today—by indicating his clear recognition that this does not set a precedent to which reference can be made in future, and that we will have proper further consideration to resolve the matters that I have raised. In that spirit, I hope that we will be able to allow the matter to proceed.

7.50 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to put on record our concerns about this resolution. I shall not detain the House, as I know that English Members have other places to go this evening—I understand that there is an election or something tomorrow.

The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru had no intention of opposing the resolution when it appeared on the Order Paper last night, and we have no intention of opposing it this evening. However, we are concerned that we were not properly informed and consulted about the Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament, so had no opportunity to put forward a case for minority party participation on a key Bill that is important to all the nations of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, just as the official spokesman for the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), has expressed concern about the composition of the new Joint Committee, we who represent the majority community in Northern Ireland are concerned that, like other minority parties, we are excluded and cannot participate in it? The Committee should be so composed that minority parties are directly represented.

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