Export Control Bill

[back to previous text]

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I add my welcome to you, Mr. Benton. We also made it clear on Second Reading that we support the Bill in principle. However, I suspect that we shall approach the Bill from the opposite direction to the Conservatives on most of the issues of substance.

We entirely endorse what Conservative Members have said. It is unfortunate that what should have been a discussion on a fairly uncontroversial Bill has begun in an unnecessary atmosphere of ill-will and suspicion. Our problems do not relate to the basic principles of programming, but to the way in which this legislation has been approached. It is a peculiar mixture of extreme delay and haste.

The report of the Quadripartite Committee contains fierce criticism of the languid pace at which the Government approached the issue. Nothing happened for five years, yet suddenly an extra day of parliamentary time is crucial. That sudden change of gear is difficult to understand. However, the reason is fundamental: the meat of the Bill is in the secondary legislation. The importance of that is clearly set out in the Quadripartite Committee report of 1 May, which was referred to on Second Reading. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) quoted the report, which states:

    ``We recommend that every effort is made to ensure that a draft consultative version of the relevant secondary legislation is published before the House is asked to give the Bill a Second Reading.''

That did not happen, and it still has not happened. However, it is important to have the secondary legislation because that enables us to judge whether the Bill is good or not. Our attitude to the Bill will be conditioned by the nature of the secondary legislation. If it is satisfactory, we shall do all that we can to expedite the process, to be sympathetic and not to table disruptive amendments. If it is bad, we shall adopt a totally different approach. At the moment, we do not know whether the Bill is good or bad.

The whole spirit of a multi-party group has been wholly disregarded. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire suggested various reasons why that has happened. We can only advance our own theory. I suspect that the Secretary of State—perhaps wanting to earn a few brownie points from Cabinet colleagues—introduced the Bill three or four weeks ago, assuring her colleagues that it could be got through without any hitches. She then got back to the office and discovered that the officials and lawyers could not deliver on the small print. An embarrassing cock-up has occurred, and rather than lose face and admit that there has been a mistake, the Department and the Ministers are determined to press ahead with the Bill. I urge them not to do so.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire has suggested that he is willing to move a new motion. Given the good will shown towards the Bill on Second Reading, I hope that the Minister will take our arguments on board. It would cost neither him nor his Department much to admit that they have fallen behind with the preparation. He could make his introductory remarks, and then say that he would like to adjourn proceedings until after the recess when we will have had plenty of opportunity to examine the secondary legislation. What would be the problem with that? The Government have a large majority; we face a long Session, and there is no danger of their overall legislative programme being derailed. It would cost the Minister and his Department very little to lose an extra day or two of parliamentary time in order to get this right. We appeal to him in a spirit of good will to do that, and to get both the legislation and the Committee into the right frame to provide proper scrutiny.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Like my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), I welcome you to your post, Mr. Benton, and your colleague, Mr. Malins. I should like to give some friendly advice to newer hon. Members. If they wish to curry favour with Mr. Malins, they should pronounce his name correctly, rather than as if it was spelled Mallins, because anyone who calls him Mr. Mallins will not be called. In his absence, and just between us, I wanted to give colleagues on the Committee that friendly piece of advice. I served for four years on the Select Committee for Home Affairs and know only too well how angry he gets when his name is mispronounced.

There is sometimes a ritual element to the way in which the Opposition deal with programme motions and with debates in Standing Committee. On this occasion, there is a deep-seated unease, certainly on this side of the Committee—as expressed by the hon. Member for Twickenham in support of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire—at the way in which the Government are dealing with the legislation. This is an enabling Bill. As the hon. Member for Twickenham said, the meat will be in the secondary legislation. The Quadripartite Committee strongly recommended that the draft orders should be made available in advance of Second Reading--let alone the Committee stage--so that we could examine the proposal in detail.

In the aftermath of what happened last night, the Government would be well advised to take into account the growing unease—not only among their Back Benchers, but among the public at large—at the way in which they are perceived as contemptuous of Parliament. Clause 1(1) shows the magnitude of what is involved. For the benefit of others, I shall quote it.

    ``The Secretary of State may by order make provision for or in connection with the imposition of export controls in relation to goods of any description.''

The Bill gives that huge, sweeping, blanket power to the Government, and the idea that we must rush it through in just four and a half sittings—two and a half of them separated by the recess—is a contempt of Parliament.

I do not particularly blame the Minister, who has been helpful in trying to provide us with information, because he inherited the problem. However, I hope that, given the debate of the past few years, he realises that people outside Parliament will fail to understand why the Bill must suddenly be rushed through its Committee stage. We are supposed to be engaged in detailed scrutiny, but we do not have the legislation that we are supposed to scrutinise. It is like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark—I was about to say Hamlet without the Prince of Darkness, but I do not want to cause any more problems for the Government.

We have a serious problem. The Minister kindly wrote to us all last week to express his delight that we had been selected as members of the Committee.

The Chairman: Order. For clarification, I remind the hon. Gentleman and other members of the Committee that only five minutes remain to debate the programme motion. I ask the Committee to bear in mind the fact that the Minister has yet to respond, and I want to give the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire time to propose his amendment.

Mr. Howarth: That was extremely helpful, Mr. Benton, and I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion.

The Minister wrote:

    ``I know the Committee will be keen to see draft dummy orders made under the Bill and I intend to make sure they are laid before Parliament as soon as possible.''

We welcome that, but those orders are not yet available. Half of our detailed consideration of the Bill will have taken place before the House rises for the recess, and it seems unlikely that we shall have any more information before then. The Minister also wrote:

    ``I would like to be as helpful as possible to the Committee so I have asked my officials for information we could make available to the Committee before the first meeting.''

I did not arrive in the House until late last night, and I have not seen any such information. It is a travesty of our proceedings that we should be asked to consider such draconian and extensive legislation without having the very meat of it before us.

Nigel Griffiths: May I make it clear that clause 1 does not expand the Government's powers, and statements to the contrary are simply wrong. Indeed, the powers in the Bill are more limited than those in the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939, because they are subject to the purposes laid down in the Bill. The secondary legislation to be made under clause 1 will be a rationalisation and consolidation of current legislation.

For the benefit of the Committee, I have put copies of the current legislation on the Table. I can assure the Committee that the secondary legislation to be made will have substantially the same effect as that already in force, which I am sure hon. Members will have been poring over in preparation for our debates.

Mr. Gray: Will the Minister guarantee that the statutory instruments produced in the autumn will not expand the Government's powers in any shape, size or form, in any iota or in any detail?

Nigel Griffiths: I think that I can give that guarantee to the Committee. I therefore hope that no amendment is moved, and that we can make progress.

Mr. Page: I hear what the Minister has to say. I ask him carefully to consider that remark. Indeed, I would be quite happy if he withdrew it, because I believe that he is putting his career at risk. I would not want that, especially after his dramatic return to the Front Bench.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), the hon. Member for Twickenham and the Quadripartite Committee of senior Members of the House have all said that the secondary legislation should be in place. Even my Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), has argued that that is necessary. I therefore move a manuscript amendment to the programme motion.

Manuscript amendment proposed:

    ``To leave out from `That' in line 1 and insert—

    `the Standing Committee reports back to the House that proceedings in the Committee shall be brought to a conclusion when it shall have met for nine sittings after the production of the secondary legislation required to allow proper scrutiny of the Bill.'''--[Mr. Page.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Division No. 1]

AYES
Cable, Dr. Vincent
Gray, Mr. James
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian
Page, Mr, Richard
Tonge, Dr. Jenny

NOES
Baird, Vera
Griffiths, Nigel
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Joyce, Mr. Eric
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Marris, Rob
Pearson, Mr. Ian
Savidge, Mr. Malcolm
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Tynan, Mr. Bill

Question accordingly negatived.

11 am

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 17 July 2001