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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Export Control Bill

Export Control Bill

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 17 July 2001


[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Export Control Bill

10.30 am

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, I should like to say that it is in order for members of the Committee to remove their jackets.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): I beg to move,


    (1) during proceedings on the Export Control 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 half-past Nine o'clock and half-past Four o'clock;

    (2) the proceedings on the Bill shall be taken in the following order, namely, Clause 1, Clause 3, the Schedule, Clauses 8 and 9, Clause 2, Clauses 4 to 7, Clauses 10 to 15, New Clauses, New Schedules;

    (3) the proceedings on the Bill shall be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 23rd October at One o'clock.

On behalf of all members of the Committee, may I welcome you, Mr. Benton, and your co-Chairman, Mr. Malins? It is appropriate that you are chairing the Committee on the Export Control Bill, given the tremendous contribution that Merseyside has made, and continues to make, to exports.

It is important to the Committee and to the Government that we should consider the Bill in as timely a way as possible. The timetable for considering the Bill is accepted by all as appropriate for a 15-clause Bill, and will enable us to deal with one or two clauses per sitting. I believe that that will be an efficient and effective use of the Committee's time. Moreover, it will enable the Government to honour an election pledge to give the United Kingdom a modern system of export licensing and control, thus replacing an emergency measure that was rushed through during wartime, and which is now more than half a century old.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): Mr. Benton, I echo the Minister in welcoming you to chair the Committee, along with Mr. Malins, who will no doubt appear in due course.

I regret that I must start the proceedings on a discordant note. Conservative Members are in favour of the Bill, but we feel that the Government's handling of the whole affair has been lamentable. What I have to say will come as no surprise, as we had a preliminary discussion of the matter in the Sub-Committee that met yesterday. I want to register properly and firmly our concern that parliamentary democracy—proper scrutiny of the Bill—is being cast to one side by this cavalier Government. In the Chamber yesterday even Labour Back Benchers felt that enough was enough—the voting told its own story. These proceedings are following exactly the same route. Parliamentary democracy—proper scrutiny—is being flouted.

That is not the Minister's fault. Pressure is being put on him to rush these matters through. It was interesting to read in this morning's Financial Times that one of the Prime Minister's senior advisers has called for the Department of Trade and Industry to be scrapped because it suffers from a paucity of ambition and imagination. It is amazing that the Labour party has been in Government for four years and the fourth Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is in office. I hope that the present one lasts a little longer than her predecessors.

I am not making this point of order as a delaying tactic. Mr. Benton, you have been in the House long enough to know that Opposition spokesmen make long and detailed objections and points of order just to delay getting on with the Bill. I will not do that. I will not spend hours making my point because, as I said, we welcome the Bill—

The Chairman: Order. I am sorry for intervening so early in the proceedings, but I must point out that the hon. Gentleman is not making a point of order: he is replying to the Minister.

Mr. Page: You are right, Mr. Benton. I began to make a point of order, but now understand that we are debating the programme motion. When I have made my comments on the programme motion, I would like to put a point of order to you.

The Chairman: We should be clear that the hon. Gentleman is no longer making a point of order. He is making a contribution.

Mr. Page: That is right. I felt that I should register my objections at the start of the sitting, because although we did not vote against the Bill, we voted against the programme motion in the House, just as we voted against the programming details in the Sub-Committee yesterday.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he objects to programme motions on principle? Does he take into account the fact that the Bill has been considered in its draft form in a detailed evidence session of the Quadripartite Committee? It has been scrutinised prior to Committee stage.

Mr. Page: I do not object to a programme motion in this case; I object to the way in which the Bill has been programmed. If the hon. Lady will relax, I will come to her point in a moment. I have previously mentioned that we are in favour of the Bill. The Second Reading debate proved that the Bill's teeth are in the secondary legislation, and unless we can view that legislation, it will be difficult to tell whether the Bill is correctly drafted.

On Second Reading, many hon. Members expressed their concern that we would not have the secondary legislation before us in Committee today. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) made that point, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), who said that

    ``we have no idea when that important secondary legislation will be introduced. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that it will at least be available in dummy form before the Bill goes into Committee.''—[Official Report, 9 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 570.]

Although we are now in Committee, the secondary legislation is still not before us. I do not want to delay the Committee, but because of that gaping omission, I ask you, Mr. Benton, to accept an amendment that the whole matter be referred back to the House, and that the Programming Committee review the matter again. We should cancel the next two sittings, and the Committee should adjourn. When the House re-assembles in October, we should sit for only one day, because we do not want to delay the Bill's passage. The Bill is allotted a couple of days this week, and two or three days after the recess, but we should deal with it as a piece, rather than fragment it. The Government have already had four years in office, but who knows, perhaps by October they will have the secondary legislation in place. We could then make progress. Are you prepared to accept such an amendment, Mr. Benton?

The Chairman: I have no power to refer the Bill back to the House. The hon. Gentleman may move an amendment to the programme motion, but he would need a precise text.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I welcome you and Mr. Malins to the chair, Mr. Benton.

I want to raise several procedural points that derive from one curious procedural fault in this House, which is that no records are kept of meetings of the Programming Sub-Committee. There is, therefore, no record of yesterday's Programming Sub-Committee meeting. I know that the Speaker is considering that matter, but will the Committee ask the Speaker whether a Hansard Reporter could be present at the Programming Sub-Committee? If a Hansard Reporter were present, important programming debates would be on the record and could be considered by all members of this Committee, not just those of us who are privileged to sit on the Programming Sub-Committee.

Given that no Hansard Reporter was present at yesterday's Programming Sub-Committee, it is necessary to repeat some of the points raised for the record.

I shall not delay the Committee with our principled objections to the whole notion of programming, which are well known and which apply as much to this Bill as to any other. Bills have proceeded perfectly well over the years without any form of programming. The Government have accepted that principle in this Session in respect of the Homelessness Bill. There was no programme motion for that legislation, so one wonders why there is a sudden need for a programme motion on an uncontroversial and widely supported Bill such as this one.

The Minister says that the Bill is important as it is a manifesto commitment, and it is important to rush it through. There is no reason why it should be important to rush through a Bill that amends legislation that has been in place since 1939. We all agree that it is important to amend the legislation. The Quadripartite Committee considered that matter, and we acknowledge its valuable work.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). The House has long established that pre-legislative scrutiny should in no way reduce scrutiny of a Bill on Second Reading or in Committee. Those stages must be conducted as if there had been no previous scrutiny. After all, the Quadripartite Committee sought to be non-partisan and to agree its conclusions on the Bill.

I acknowledge the Quadripartite Committee's valuable work, which should improve the Bill. It is, therefore, odd that the Government should choose to rush the Bill through using a programme motion, when they have already demonstrated in this Session that they do not need to do so in other uncontroversial measures such as the Homelessness Bill. Will the Minister explain why, in the last week before the summer recess when we would all rather be doing something else, the Government are so determined to get the Export Control Bill through? It is unsatisfactory to get half the Bill through before the summer and half through after the summer.

It is also odd that we should be discussing clause 1, or at least discussing a programming motion that suggests that we discuss it today, without the statutory instrument to which clause 1 refers. I understand that the statutory instrument will not be available until the autumn. That is eminently unsatisfactory. We discussed that in some detail yesterday at the Programming Sub-Committee, and when we raised it with the Minister, there was a strange convolution of ideas.

First, the Minister told us not to worry, because the statutory instrument will not expand the Government's powers, which will remain exactly the same. It will merely clarify existing statutory instruments. I told him that we would accept that if—to use hyperbole—he would put his hand on the bible and swear on oath that it will not expand the Government's powers by one jot or one iota. He would, however, have to stand by that in the autumn when we finally see the statutory instrument. We said that we would examine it in the greatest detail to see whether it exceeded the Government's existing powers in the slightest, so the Minister would be staking his career and his position as Minister on the promises that he had given us. The Minister then told us that that was not quite the case, but that the intention was to try not to expand the Government's powers when the statutory instrument was introduced. He said that the Government could not be tied down too much. That is fundamentally unsatisfactory.

The Minister asks us to consider clause 1 and to take his word that the corresponding statutory instrument, which we shall not see until the autumn, will not expand the Government's powers unnecessarily. However, when we truly pressed the Minister and said that his position would come under scrutiny, he backed off pretty sharply. That form of scrutiny is entirely unsatisfactory.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) said, the House asserted its power over the Government yesterday when it refused to be pushed around. We are also being pushed around. The Government say to us, ``Please, get this Bill through. We want to rush it through.'' Even though the legislation has been around for 70 years, we are being asked, for reasons that we do not know, to rush through the first part of its scrutiny in the week before Parliament rises. Even though we do not have the statutory instrument to look at, we are still being asked to start considering the Bill now because it is important. The Government are saying, ``Don't worry, leave it to us, the SI will be fine when you see it in the autumn.'' That is a fundamental abuse of the whole scrutiny process. It is wrong, and is symptomatic of what the Executive have done recently.

10.45 am

My hon. Friend is right to say that a more satisfactory procedure to scrutinise the Bill is required. The Bill is not controversial; we did not oppose it on Second Reading. However, it is important that we get the detail right, because if we get it wrong we could damage the arms manufacturing industries in some of our constituencies. Surely it would be more sensible to delay scrutiny of the Bill until the autumn when we could examine it quietly, because we would not be rushing around trying to do everything that we are trying to do this week. We could examine the Bill in the light of the secondary legislation, and we could give it quiet, sensible, non-partisan consideration, rather than the deeply unsatisfactory scrutiny that we shall give it this week.

I entirely support what my hon. Friend said. It would be much better to table an amendment to the programme motion to refer the Bill back to the House, so that its detailed scrutiny could be delayed until after the recess. In return, as my hon. Friend said, we would happily reduce the length of time that we request for Committee stage. As a result, the Bill would be delayed by only one day, and we could give it the careful scrutiny that it deserves.


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Prepared 17 July 2001