Standing Committee B
Thursday 18 October 2001
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I beg to move amendment No. 50, in page 6, line 30, leave out subsection (5).
When I read the excellent explanatory notes prepared by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I observed that no explanation was offered for the clause. Apparently, it was a simple omission from the explanatory notes. That always rings alarm bells and one wonders why the Department has decided not to explain the clause. Of course, it is rather obscure. Subsection (5) is all about whether technology is controlled technology.
Incidentally, having referred on Tuesday to the length of a piece of string, I suppose it was inevitable that someone would ask me: ``Why 600 ft?'' It is quite simple, and I had better complete this point or people will never stop asking me. In fact, controlled technology is relevant as 600 ft is 100 fathoms, and 100 fathoms was the length of cable required to anchor a man-o'-war in the average depth of the English channel, which is 30 fathoms. That is the answer to the 600 ft question. However, I digress slightly. That explanation of the question ``how long is a piece of string?'' is almost as obscure as subsection (5). I tabled the amendment, as I could not for the life of me see the point of the subsection. I should be grateful if the Minister would now enlighten us.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): As the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said, the purpose of the amendment is to leave out subsection (5). The key point is that the definition of controlled technology is necessary to allow us to introduce proposed controls on technical assistance intended for weapons of mass destruction and related missile programmes. Technical assistance, to which controls can apply, will be that which is provided abroad for controlled goods and technology. The goods or technology to which assistance is provided will also be located abroad. Subsections (4) and (5) explain what is meant by controlled technology when it is held by a person, or at a place, outside the United Kingdom. Subsections (2) and (3) do the same for goods. Subsection (4) provides that controlled technology is that which, if transferred from the UK, would be subject to control. Subsection (5) allows an assessment of whether technology outside the UK is to be controlled based on the same considerations that would apply if it were transferred from the UK. That ensures that controls on technical assistance abroad can take into account the use to which the assisted technology will be put and to whom it is provided, as well as the type of technology in question. That is necessary where controls are determined by the end use of the technology.
I realise that that is a very technical point but it is an important one because, as I explained on Tuesday, we need to be able to implement controls on the provision of technical assistance to weapons of mass destruction and related missile programmes in order to implement the European Union joint action. In view of that explanation, I invite the hon. Member for Salisbury to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Key: I am grateful for that concise explanation, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 7, line 6, leave out
`an order under section 1 or 2 which contains any provision made by virtue of section 3(2)'
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 25, in page 7, line 6, leave out
`or 2 which contains any provision made by virtue of section 3(2)'
No. 8, in page 7, line 14, after `order', insert
`under section 1 or 2 which contains any provision made by virtue of section 3(2), or an order'.
No. 9, in page 7, line 17, leave out subsection (5).
Mr. Savidge: As with all my amendments, these are probing amendments and they hang together. Clause 12 is welcome, as it will ensure parliamentary scrutiny of the secondary legislation--that will be a statutory requirement. The Committee must agree that that is welcome.
Clause 12 provides for three levels of scrutiny for different areas of secondary legislation. The most stringent is the affirmative procedure, whereby a statutory instrument comes into force only if both the House of Commons and the House of Lords approve it. That will apply to all measures, although purely financial measures would, of course, be a matter for the House of Commons only.
The second most stringent level of scrutiny is the delayed affirmative procedure, whereby a statutory instrument must be approved within 40 days of being laid before Parliament.
The third most stringent level of scrutiny is the negative resolution procedure, whereby the statutory instrument comes into law, but can be nullified if a motion is passed against it in either House withinusually40 days.
It is clearly in the interests of good government that we should have the most thorough parliamentary scrutiny. That is not just in the interests of Back Benchers of whatever party, but is in the interests of the Executive, provided that the Opposition do not cause inordinate delay or unreasonable instruction.
So that the Committee can understand this somewhat convoluted set of amendments, I shall explain their effect in the simplest possible terms. The statutory instruments that currently would be dealt with under the second most stringent level of scrutinythe delayed affirmative procedurewould be moved up to the most stringent level of scrutinythe affirmative procedure. The statutory instruments that would be dealt with under negative procedure would be moved up to the delayed affirmative procedure. As no statutory instruments would be dealt with under the negative procedure, subsection (5) would no longer be needed, and would, therefore, be deleted.
As I have said, the amendment merely probes. The idea is to give the Committee the opportunity to discuss the level of scrutiny that is required. The hon. Member for Salisbury referred to that when we discussed clause 6. I hope that it also gives the Minister the opportunity to consider further what levels of scrutiny are appropriate for secondary legislation under the Bill, and to explain his thinking to the Committee.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I shall say just a few words in support of the amendment. The legal eagles may have noticed that my amendment has become rather redundant, as amendment No. 11, which originally referred to it, was withdrawn. I shall, therefore, speak in support of the hon. Gentleman's amendment, rather than my own.
He briefly and cogently made the point that all parties are interested in having good and appropriate parliamentary scrutiny. That was the spirit of the Quadripartite Committee, and both sides expressed the opinion that the Bill should proceed in that way. My interpretation of the amendments is that they would ratchet up the level of parliamentary scrutiny, so that delayed affirmative action would become affirmative, and negative action would become affirmative in all cases. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is in no way trying to obstruct Government business. This is simply an attempt to enhance the role of Parliament in these proceedings in a carefully thought through way.
It is not clear why clause 6 is not dealt with affirmatively. That seems a little arbitrary; perhaps the Minister could explain that. When we debated the issue on 17 July, I introduced amendments on increasing parliamentary scrutiny. The Minister told me that
``any orders made for reasons that fall wholly or partly out with the purposes must be approved by Parliament by the affirmative resolution procedure. That means that any orders made under the subsection would cease to have effect if not approved by both Houses of Parliament before the end of a 30-day period.''[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 17 July 2001; c. 28.]
I understand that it is a 40-day period, but he may have made a slip of the tongue, since I assume that he was not improvising policy as he spoke. I hope that he clarifies that point.
Vera Baird (Redcar): I support the spirit of the amendment, which probes the issue of the parliamentary scrutiny given to the Bill. The amendment would crank up the level of scrutiny provided for in the original drafts by a notch. That would allow the negative procedure to drop off the bottom, since it would no longer be applicable. Negative procedure does not require any debate in the Chamber, or even a significant amount in Standing Committee.
Members on both sides of the House have expressed great interest in the Bill. I re-read the Second Reading debate last night, in which many highly formed opinions were expressed. The nature of the subject demands that the Bill be laid down in skeleton form, with the meat provided by the statutory instruments. We should reconsider excluding the negative procedure from such applications. The amendment may not be relevant since clause 6 no longer stands part of the Bill, but I support the wish to probe Government thinking on levels of scrutiny.
Mr. Key: When we discussed clause 6, I drew the Committee's attention to the fact that if the clause were removed, the House would have less insurance on decisions on the subject. That was my one concern about striking out the clause. The Minister confirmed that danger. He said:
``The hon. Gentleman is correct in his observation that orders under clause 6 would be subject to affirmative resolution procedure and that that will no longer apply if clause 6 is removed.''[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 16 October 2001; c. 121-22.]
The House has an interesting opportunity to exert its authority, choose affirmative resolution, and ratchet up the procedure from the negative resolution to the delayed affirmative procedure. There is agreement across the Committee that that is a good idea. That is why I agreed to drop clause 6; I said that we would have another opportunity to discuss the issue later. For that reason, I warmly support the amendments and think that they should be agreed to.
The House is going through an interesting phase in which it is losing authority to the Executive. I wish to resist any further such losses, and promote opportunities for increasing the authority of the House over the Executive. That is why I support such a touchstone amendment.