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Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Ultimately, the success or failure of the Secretary of State will be judged in the communities that I represent in Orkney and Shetland by the continued security of the universal service obligation. Will she, therefore, bring early pressure to bear on Postcomm to publish in detail the targets and performance indicators that it will use to assess any possible threat to the universal service obligation? In all sincerity, I have to point out that nothing in Postcomm's performance in recent months gives me any confidence that it understands either the importance of universal service to communities such as ours or, indeed, what is required to preserve it.

Ms Hewitt: As I have already told the House today, the universal service obligation and its preservation are the No. 1 and overriding statutory duty of Postcomm, and I have no doubt that, as Postcomm has indicated publicly on several occasions, it takes that duty extremely seriously. Postcomm will shortly publish a further report—a consultation document—on the definition and scope of the universal service, and I shall certainly draw attention to the point made by the hon. Gentleman about the need to understand not only how important that universal service is in a constituency such as his but also the steps that have to be taken to ensure its delivery.

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Enterprise Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Motion made, and Question proposed,

'Proceedings on consideration shall be taken on each of the two days allowed by the Order as shown in the first column in the following Table and shall be taken in the order so shown, and each part of the proceedings shall, so far as not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the second column.


ProceedingsTime for conclusion of proceedings
First day
New Clauses (other than those relating to Part 10), New Schedules, amendments relating to Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clauses 2 to 12, Schedule 2, Clause 13, Schedule 3, Clauses 14 and 15, Schedule 4, Clauses 16 to 20, Schedule 5, Clauses 21 to 67, Schedule 6, Clauses 68 to 82, Schedule 7, Clause 83, Schedule 8, Clauses 84 to 87, Schedule 10, Clauses 88 to 162, Schedule 9, Clauses 163 to 178, Schedule 11, Clauses 179 and 180, Schedule 12, Clauses 181 to 202.10.00 p.m. (7.00 p.m. if it is a Thursday)
Second day
Amendments relating to Clause 203, Schedule 13, Clauses 204 to 231, Schedule 14, Clauses 232 to 234, Schedule 15, Clauses 235 to 241, New Clauses relating to Part 10, Clause 242, Schedules 16 and 17, Clauses 243 and 244, Schedule 18, Clauses 245 to 250, Schedule 19, Clause 251, Schedules 20 and 21, Clauses 252 to 257, Schedule 22, Clauses 258 to 262, Schedule 23, Clauses 263 to 269, Schedule 24, Clauses 270 and 271, Schedules 25 and 26, Clauses 272 to 274, remaining proceedings on consideration.9.00 p.m. (6.00 p.m. if it is a Thursday)'

—[Miss Melanie Johnson.]

stpa> 2.23 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Here we are again—yet another programme motion for the Enterprise Bill.

I do not expect to speak for more than a few minutes and I certainly do not want to divide the House on the motion, but it would be wrong to let it pass—[Interruption]—despite the obvious hilarity it causes the Government Whip, for reasons that may or may not become apparent—without saying something about the time that has been, and will be, allotted to such an important measure. I say that far more in sorrow than in anger. I have made the point previously—it is still valid—that there is little, if any, party politics in the Bill, but it is an extremely large measure. Like other Bills, it has gathered moss as it rolled down the legislative hill—bits have been added over time—and we have ended up with a substantial document. Despite our best efforts, it did not shrink during Committee but grew to 274 clauses and 26 schedules.

We have never been able to understand why the Government have been so enthusiastic about pushing the Bill through at such a gallop. The Bill is not only large

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but extremely complex; it affects a range of areas of the law, practice and business that are themselves massively complex—from competition and merger regimes to the new cartel arrangements, and from criminalisation to insolvency. All those matters need and deserve detailed scrutiny. We have done our best, with the Liberal Democrats taking the occasional walk-on part, to improve the Bill and to ensure that it was scrutinised, but we simply have not had enough time.

As I have pointed out previously, if ever a Bill cried out for pre-legislative scrutiny, it was a measure of this huge size and complexity. It remains a complete mystery to me why other Bills are afforded that treatment while this one was not.

The original programme motion—for the Bill's consideration in Committee—was tabled by the Government some time ago with no consultation at all. Relations then fell to an all-time low because the Government took a further unilateral decision to change the order of consideration just before the Bill went into Committee.

All that was made worse by the Easter recess; the Bill was published on the day the House adjourned and Second Reading was on the day we returned from the recess. I do not blame the Government for the Easter recess, but I certainly blame them for giving so little real, working time—not only to the Opposition parties but, perhaps more importantly, to outside bodies ranging from the Consumers Association to the CBI, to the insolvency practitioners, and to the whole range of outside bodies on whom nowadays the Opposition depend for briefings, for draft amendments, for indications of where the Government may have got something wrong and for proposals to improve legislation.

The net result was that chunks of the Bill were not debated in Committee. Sadly, that state of affairs is not unusual in our present system. It was especially unfortunate that one of the undebated chunks related to consumer protection measures. I hope that we shall have a chance to come back to those issues on Monday—or rather, to come to them.

In fairness to the Government, they eventually realised that they could not sustain the speed that they wanted so we got some extra time in Committee. However, it was not much more time and we completed the Committee stage in 18 sittings. As I have pointed out, for a Bill of this size—274 clauses—that is quite an achievement. I challenge anyone who reads the Hansard reports of the Committee to find any padding or time wasting on the part of Opposition Members. Things moved briskly. Many matters could not be considered but we worked hard to improve the Bill. Indeed, on a good day, the Minister accepted one or two of our proposals.

Things got worse after that, however. During the past couple of days alone, the Government have tabled about 223 amendments. There is obviously a panic to try to perfect the Bill—although that is probably beyond the wit of man—before it goes to the other place, but it simply is not on to introduce so many amendments at this stage of its consideration. Of course, a great number of them are minor and consequential, but one has to go through them, and the Bill, to come to that conclusion.

Some of the amendments are substantial, however. Today, we were due to debate one of the central issues although, by agreement, we shall now more sensibly

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debate it on Monday; it relates to whether, in insolvency, a bankrupt's home—their sole residence—should be taken into account as one of their assets. We touched on that huge issue in Committee and the Government said that they would reconsider it. Only a few days ago, however, they tabled a long new clause, which will require substantial debate, to deal with it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson): The House should be aware of a simple fact. The hon. Gentleman is trying to make something of the number of Government amendments. As he said, many of them are tidying, consequential and minor drafting amendments. Indeed, I wrote to him and all other members of Standing Committee B, which considered the Bill, to explain exactly which amendments are minor and consequential and what the remaining few amendments involved in each case were. So he has not had to go through all the amendments to find out which are minor and consequential. The vast majority of them are just that, and they have been drawn directly to his attention by a letter from me.

Mr. Waterson: I do not want to get into a spat with the Minister this early in the day, but with the greatest respect to her, it is not right that the Opposition should simply take it at face value when we are told that amendments are minor or consequential. It is important that we go through them to check for ourselves.

I am trying to make the point—I do so finally, so that we can get on to the substance of the Bill—that this large and complex piece of legislation will have all sorts of effects on business, the legal professions, accountancy and so on. It is very important that we get it right; otherwise we shall have to revisit it shortly, and the law of unintended consequences, of which this Government are masters, will kick in with a vengeance.

We have not had enough time to consider the Bill; I do not know why, because other business seems very light at the moment, but there it is. As I say, there is no party politics in it, so I have never been able to fathom the Government's motives. However, I am happy not to divide the House on the programme motion, in the hope that we can get on to the substance of the Bill.

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