Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: I want to resist the aspersions cast by the hon. Gentleman as they are unhelpful. I say to him and to the whole Committee that there is a genuine problem. It has been clear on a number of occasions that Opposition Members have wanted additional time to carry out a thorough scrutiny of the Bill. That has been repeatedly offered and resisted. With the best of intentions, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East thought that it would be helpful—we discussed this—if we were to get ahead of the knives with a discussion this evening of the clauses from clause 115 onwards. That was certainly not done with any intention to restrict hon. Members' ability to make points in the debate or to table additional amendments. Some amendments to clause 121 have already been tabled by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough.

Chris Grayling: Will the Minister give way?

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Mr. Timms: No, I will not. We have absolutely no intention of restricting debate, quite the opposite. We want to ensure that members of the Committee have the time that they clearly want to consider these matters fully and carefully. That is the intention behind the proposals that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East has made. My hon. Friend wants to make a further suggestion, given the concerns now being expressed. It is very important to make it clear on the record that the motivation behind these proposals is to give additional time. There has been frustration on our part that those offers have been resisted up until now. My hon. Friend has made a helpful suggestion, and I think he will want to make a further point on it in a moment.

Chris Grayling: The offer that was made yesterday took place after the deadline for the tabling of amendments for discussion today. Therefore, it would be impossible for hon. Members to adapt their plans to debate issues tonight.

Mr. Heppell: Opposition Members should have tabled amendments already.

Mr. Turner: One of the things that I have learnt from sitting on this Committee, which is only my third Committee, is that it makes sense to table some amendments in the expectation that they will be debated. It also makes sense not to table other amendments, because that is a waste of time not only for me, but for officials who presumably have to prepare briefings for every single amendment whether or not it is likely to be debated, just in case we should miraculously reach it. Perhaps I am doing them a disservice. It seems to me that it is appropriate, and the most sensible way of conducting ourselves, to put down amendments reasonably late but obviously in time to ensure that they are debated.

Members of the public have come to me or written to me and asked me to consider tabling amendments. I have taken on some of their proposals for earlier clauses, and for clauses that I expected to be debated later in the Bill. That is why some amendments are put down late, but still in time to be selected. I hope that in his response, the Minister will understand that that is the situation that people outside this Committee face.

Mr. Heppell: The problem tends to repeat itself. We make an offer of more time, it is not taken up, and a day later the Opposition complain that they have not had enough time.

I know that there are concerns about the knives, but I will make the offer again, so that it is on the record and so that everyone can hear what I am saying. Whenever the Opposition agree to do any extra time, we will be happy to move the knives for whatever amount of time they require. That offer has never been

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taken up in the past, on any occasion. I can see that the proposal to continue this evening is causing difficulty—although not for me, I might add.

The Government's timetable does not require us to finish at seven o'clock. It states that we start at half-past four on Tuesdays and at half-past two on Thursdays. [Interruption]. I see that you are nodding, Mr Pike. It is normal in Committees for knives to fall when votes will be made. There is nothing wrong with getting ahead of schedule instead of being behind schedule, which seems to be the Opposition's aim. The timetable does not say that we finish any night at seven. I thought that hon. Members understood that. We have already worked two nights after seven o'clock. [Interruption] Yes, I know, I am coming to the rest.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough on one point.

If the hon. Gentleman had argued that he did not have time to table amendments before Christmas, I might have agreed with him. However, we are half way through January, and he should have recognised that there was a chance that we might reach this point. It is not the Government's job to second guess the incompetence of Opposition Members who fail to table amendments when they should.

I recognise that there has been a misunderstanding, although I know that the Opposition Whip received my letter, and that he understood my intentions, because we had harsh words last night, when I said that we were going to ensure that there was extra time, regardless of whether he wanted it. I took that view because I was sick of Opposition Members constantly carping that they did not have sufficient time to consider matters, even though whenever I offered them time, they refused it. Having said that, I respect the fact that the letters were placed on the board when it was late, and that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough did not receive the letter. As he has tabled amendments, it would be unfair of me to insist that we continue tonight.

I am glad that we have had this debate because it has given us a chance to clear the air. I say again that if the Opposition want to change the knives, that is not a problem, as long as they offer time in exchange, or tell us which point the Committee would reach.

Everything that needs to be said about the matter has been said. I support the Adjournment motion of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: I wish to clarify a few of the perceptions that have been generated by what seems to be a particularly narrow—or blinkered, even—view of what might be the normal expectation of what can be achieved by dialogue or by a deal between parties that are seeking to make our democratic proceedings work.

I hope that the Liberal Democrats agree that, for the Opposition, a principle is at stake. There was recognition at the outset that, whatever the merits of

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the Programming Sub-Committee, 24 January was always going to be a tight date to set for the end of our consideration in Committee. Many issues were raised with the Chairman at the time, and the anticipated difficulties have, by and large, occurred. I am being up front about that.

For example, this afternoon we have covered no fewer than 43 clauses. We have managed to cover that ground within the time that was granted for this sitting, about which there was no dispute. The difficulty is not the extra time. We accept that there has been extra time in Committee. There is no unwillingness about that. On the contrary, there is a deep willingness on the part of the official Opposition—and, I think, of the Liberal Democrats—to have more time.

The distortion within our debates has been caused by the knives. That is the controlling mechanism that—along with the extraordinary approach of the Government Whip—is distorting the Opposition's ability to do their duty and to choose what they believe to be the areas that need to be subjected to the most debate and scrutiny.

Mr. Lewis: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is right that the Government Whip has taken this action on the basis that it would be wrong if there were not to be an opportunity to debate amendments that have been tabled in good faith by members of the Committee? I believe that my hon. Friend has taken the right and honourable course of action.

We have talked about scrutiny, but does the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) accept that the Opposition have been offered—by my reckoning—an additional nine to 12 hours during the course of the Committee's deliberations, and that if they had not declined those offers, we would have been able to scrutinise far more clauses than we have to date?

Mr. O'Brien: It is clear that the Minister has—possibly deliberately—failed to understand that it is the operation of the knives that causes the distortion. It is simply ridiculous for the Minister to suggest that we forget the knives. The knives are the operable part of the Government, and they are not in the gift of Opposition Members.

I am sure that you, Mr. Pike, as the safeguarder of Back Benchers' rights, would be the first to support us in doing our job. The Opposition should table amendments either to improve the Bill or to probe the Government's thinking. The Bill must be scrutinised and we should debate whether clauses should stand part. It is difficult to hold discussions with a Government who are intent on simply holding to a timetable with knives that may mean that we do not cover the areas that we believe require scrutiny and time.

Mr. Heppell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way and I shall make a further undertaking?

Mr. O'Brien: Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I want to say that we are often assured that the knives will be considered, provided that we promise to reach a certain point. I must make the point

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that it is completely outside my gift or power to say that I can deliver the Liberal Democrats, and I should be appalled if the Liberal Democrats said that they could deliver us. We are independent parties, as well as independent Members of Parliament. We would expect to have to agree to reach the end of a clause, but it is possible that at the point at which a knife falls we may not believe that there is a point of contention, whereas the Liberal Democrats might believe that there is. That is perfectly legitimate.

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Prepared 15 January 2002