Companies Bill [ Lords] (Programme) (No. 3)

Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 4:04 pm on 17th October 2006.

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Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Industry and the Regions) 4:04 pm, 17th October 2006

I beg to move,

That the Order of 6th June 2006 (Company Law Reform Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows:

1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order shall be omitted.

2. Proceedings on consideration and Third Reading shall be completed in three days.

3. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken on each of those days as shown in the first column of the Table and in the order so shown.

4. Each part of those proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in relation to it in the second column of the Table.

5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 6.00 p.m. on the third day.

FIRST DAY
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings
New Clauses relating to Chapter 2 of Part 10, Amendments relating to Chapter 2 of Part 10 7.00 p.m.
New Clauses relating to Chapter 1 and Chapters 3 to 9 of Part 10, Amendments relating to Chapter 1 and Chapters 3 to 9 of Part 10. 8.30 p.m.
New Clauses relating to Part 11, Amendments relating to Part 11. 10.00 p.m.
SECOND DAY
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings
New Clauses relating to Chapter 5 of Part 16, Amendments relating to Chapter 5 of Part 16, new Clauses relating to Chapters 1 to 4 and 6 to 12 of Part 16, Amendments relating to Chapters 1 to 4 and 6 to 12 of Part 16. 3.00 p.m.
New Clauses relating to Part 8, Amendments relating to Part 8, new Clauses relating to Part 12, Amendments relating to Part 12, new Clauses relating to Part 13, Amendments relating to Part 13, new Clauses relating to Part 4, Amendments relating to Part 4, new Clauses relating to Part 5, Amendments relating to Part 5. 5.30 p.m.
New Clauses relating to Part 15, Amendments relating to Part 15, new Clauses relating to Part 14, Amendments relating to Part 14. 7.00 p.m.
THIRD DAY
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings
New Clauses relating to Part 44, Amendments relating to Part 44, Amendments relating to Clauses 521 to 523, new Clauses relating to Part 17, Amendments relating to Clauses 483 to 520 and 524 to 553, remaining new Clauses, remaining amendments to Clauses, new Schedules, amendments to Schedules, remaining proceedings on consideration. 4.00 p.m.

The motion increases the time allowed on Report and Third Reading from one day to three days. It also sets out an order of consideration and a time for conclusion of proceedings on various parts, which has been discussed through the usual channels to assist us in making the best use of the time. This protects time for Members to debate the areas regarded as most important, and allows time for scrutiny of other areas of the Bill.

We recognise that the Bill is long and complex, but there has been a high degree of collaboration with interested parties. The Bill has had the benefit of detailed scrutiny in another place and of 11 days in Committee. There is a strong consensus on a great deal of it.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Before the Minister concludes her remarks, will she confirm that the Government are introducing 1,000 new amendments to the Bill at this late stage?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Industry and the Regions)

No, we are not introducing 1,000 new amendments. [Hon. Members: "How many?"] We are introducing six hundred and—[Hon. Members: "The Minister does not know."] It is not a matter of not knowing. It is a matter of looking at what those amendments seek to do.

If Opposition Members wish to spend the valuable time that we have to scrutinise the Bill on a programme motion, so be it. I draw their attention to the fact that the longer we spend on the programme motion, the less time we have to discuss the meat of the Bill, which people outside would expect us to do. We are attempting to get the framework of company law right for the next generation. On that basis, and in the hope that we can save time on this part of the proceedings, I commend the programme motion to the House.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry) 4:07 pm, 17th October 2006

The House has just heard a highly inadequate justification for a programme motion that curtails debate on a massive piece of legislation. We are about to move on to consideration of the largest Bill ever to come before Parliament. I believe I am right in saying that this is the biggest Bill in parliamentary history. Indeed, some people have estimated that if all the documents relating to the Bill, its amendments, its explanatory notes and its reprinted papers were put in a pile, the pile would be even taller than I am, and perhaps even taller than my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski.

The Bill has been eight years in preparation and has undergone significant changes already during its parliamentary study, before we come to consider 100 proposed new clauses and—perhaps the Minister can remember this figure—836 amendments, not to mention three new schedules. The vast majority of these are being proposed by the Government.

Despite the eight years of preparation, and the fact that the parliamentary Session began back in May last year, this enormous Bill did not receive a Second Reading in another place until 11 January this year. Unsurprisingly, it took their lordships nearly six months to complete their consideration of it. They did that in a thorough and expert way and did their best to consider the Bill, as Parliament should, clause by clause, line by line and argument by argument. The Bill received its Second Reading on the third sitting day after the House received it from another place and duly proceeded to Committee. The Bill, which was already enormous when it left another place, was then made into a parliamentary leviathan by the Government's late but none the less welcome acceptance of the argument that it should be a consolidation measure and should replace the whole of the Companies Act 1985. The Opposition welcomed that decision, but we consistently urged the Government to enable us to do our duty as legislators on the detail of the Bill in Committee, and asked them to take the summer recess as additional time to get the generally uncontentious consolidation measures right and allow the Committee stage to extend into October.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My hon. Friend has made it plain that the Opposition will be perfectly willing to assist the Government if they give us sufficient time. Does he agree that a carry-over motion might be appropriate, as in the case of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill of last week?

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry)

That option is definitely available to the House, but I doubt whether I will persuade the Minister to entertain it, because instead the Government insisted on the Committee stage finishing in July, and Standing Committee D was not able to examine any of the consolidation measures that were passed without debate at the end of the Committee stage, as the programme motion required.

As a consequence, we estimate that, during the next three days, the House is being invited to consider about 200 amendments to amendments that the Committee was not able to consider in July, but which have since turned out to be defective in some way. Those amendments to amendments, together with the hundreds of other new amendments and 88 new clauses, were tabled only last week. That has inevitably placed the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen in some difficulties, even with the assistance of their advisers— and even with the best will in the world, it is simply beyond the capacity of any Back Bencher to have any sensible appreciation of the scale of what is being attempted.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am sorry to intrude on my hon. Friend again, but he has spoken of the problems experienced by his advisers and himself. Would he also confirm that one of the consequences of so many amendments being tabled last week is that the outside interest groups do not have an adequate opportunity to make representations to the House?

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry)

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Perhaps I can just pay credit to those on the Opposition Front Bench, particularly my hon. Friend Mr. Djanogly, and those who have slaved away with him for the best part of a year on the Bill. No sooner have they climbed the mountain and reached the summit than the Minister gives us yet another mountain to climb. Unbelievably, a further 24 new amendments have been tabled only today. Not only are some of these politically sensitive, but we did not even have so much as a courtesy call from the Government to say that they had been tabled.

In trying to put some order around the vast array of amendments that the House is being invited to consider, you, Mr. Speaker, have identified nine separate debates for today, 12 separate debates for Wednesday, and under the programme motion presented by the Government, 31 debates on Thursday. Proceedings on Report on Thursday will be further curtailed by the weekly business statement and by the Third Reading debate, which I understand is due to commence at 4 o'clock. That means that each subject identified by you under the rules of the House, let alone individual amendments, will have less than seven minutes for the Government to explain the case for their amendments, for the Opposition then to raise their concerns and for the Government to reply, let alone leaving any time at all for Back Benchers to make a contribution—and that is only if there are no Divisions, which would eat into the time available.

There is simply no way that the House has been or will be able to discharge its duty to exercise proper scrutiny over this enormous piece of legislation. We contend that the way in which the Government have managed and programmed the Bill during its progress through the House has further undermined the reputation of the House of Commons in its role as scrutineer of legislation.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry)

No.

On the basis of the evidence, we ask the House to reject the programme motion and make it clear that the Bill's management has been highly unsatisfactory, to request the Government to learn from the experience of the Bill, and to invite them to provide a better opportunity for the House to undertake its primary responsibility as legislator.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister (Energy), Trade & Industry 4:14 pm, 17th October 2006

I sympathise with what Mr. Duncan has just said. The real problem is not just the amount of time allowed on Report, given all the new amendments and new clauses, but more importantly, the timing of this stage of the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman said, Opposition Members have had only a short time to digest, understand and consider the various late amendments.

However, most of the problems go back to a decision, which unfortunately seemed to have had universal consent, at least in all parts of the other place, to bring into the Bill's scope a massive consolidation exercise, including hundreds of new clauses from existing company law. This Bill was originally called the Company Law Reform Bill, and its intention was to reform parts of company law. It is now called the Companies Bill, thanks to an interesting vote in Committee, which the Government managed to lose—technically it was a free vote on their side. The Bill is now a general Companies Bill. It tries to consolidate the whole of the existing law, and it is that specific decision which has led to the various difficulties.

The Government have been courteous and helpful to Liberal Democrat Members in making sure that there is enough room to debate the topics that we want to debate. Given how much is going on in the Bill, however, the fundamental problem is that there is not enough time for debate, because at this time of year there is not enough time to allow additional days for discussion. We are in a very difficult position, which was entirely foreseeable when all sides decided to change the Bill from a reform Bill into a consolidation Bill. As it stands, the programme motion is not adequate.

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby 4:16 pm, 17th October 2006

I must preface my remarks by saying that I will, of course, vote with the Government on the programme motion. Having been absent from so many votes owing to illness, I want to burnish my record of loyalty and show just how grovelling and subservient I can be.

This is a fairly shocking way to proceed, because we do not have time adequately to consider the Bill and the amendments. The Bill is based on a series of concessions to the vested interests in the field, which is the antithesis of what we should be doing. We should learn from America, where running a company has become a matter of engaging in financial manipulation to enhance the share price, which enhances the income of the people at the top through share options and pay schemes. Those dodges are being used both here and in the United States, and such practices led to the collapse of Enron and many prosecutions by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is now, as they say in the United States, "seeing the perps walk". We should be countering those practices, which brought about the collapse of huge American companies and which are all practised here. We should also combat the trend towards excessive rewards, and collusion between auditors and people who run companies to enhance profits, share prices and returns to shareholders and directors.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The hon. Gentleman is putting a case for or against the Bill—I do not know which—but we are concentrating on the programme motion.

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby

You are, of course, right, Mr. Speaker. I am expressing my pent-up feelings, which would have come out earlier.

The Government have clearly claimed their prerogative to amend the Bill, because they have tabled more than 800 afterthoughts. If the Government are rethinking at this stage, it indicates that the thinking process at an earlier stage was not satisfactory: we are effectively dealing with a new Bill. The strongest critics of the Bill were not members of the Standing Committee, so they were unable to table amendments in Committee. The Bill has not been given the intense scrutiny that it needs.

The Bill is effectively a new Bill, because there are so many amendments. My head bursts when I read through the amendments. Some hon. Members are accountants and auditors, and they cluck appreciatively when they read such amendments, but my head is strained by trying to digest them. If I were to read out the amendments, it would take three days. There is just not time for us to deal with all the inherent complexities and all the changes that need to be made from any point of view that is either critical of the way in which companies are run or deferential to the vested interests that deal with those companies.

We need more time if we are to produce a Bill that will endure. After all, the Government have had nine years in which to introduce this Bill. A new companies Act was necessary to change the balance when we first came to office. Now, after nine years of gestation, we have a Bill that requires, at this very late stage, 800 amendments that there will be no time to consider. I have tabled, with my hon. Friend Jim Cousins, several amendments of genius that I would want to discuss in full. Some have been selected, mercifully, while some have not, but there are serious issues to discuss in relation to each one. Having read the selection list, I find that all my amendments are crammed into Thursday, when we have about 36 groups to deal with. Thursday is going to be hell on the basis of this timetable. I plead for more time, while affirming my deference to our Front Bench and to the purposes of this Government whom I so loyalty support.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 4:21 pm, 17th October 2006

I very much support what was said by my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan, by David Howarth, and by my relatively close neighbour, Mr. Mitchell. What we are doing is profoundly unsatisfactory. This House faces a very large number of amendments, new clauses and new schedules, many of which were tabled very recently within the past few days. There is no point in the Minister's shaking her head in a despairing way; we are despairing of the conduct of Government Front Benchers. The fact that these amendments—hundreds of them—were tabled but two or three days ago means that right hon. and hon. Members cannot form a view as to their merits. Worse than that, neither can the outside interest groups that would wish to make representations to this House. That is wholly wrong.

The other point to keep in mind is that this Report stage is the first occasion on which the House as a whole, as distinct from the Committee, can consider the detail of the Bill. The effect of a timetabling motion of this kind is to preclude the House from doing so. Because of the way in which the knives will fall, a whole range of important issues will not be addressed or examined, far less voted upon.

We are doing this far too often, and there are examples of the chaos that results. I often have to handle the Criminal Justice Act 2003 in the courts, as does my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Garnier. We know full well that the timetabling motions with regard to that Act produced one of the worst criminal justice Acts that the courts have ever had to deal with. We are now doing the same thing, but in this case it is worse because we have not only a new Bill but the new companies legislation incorporated into it.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The point that my hon. and learned Friend is making in expressing the criticism that the Government should face is underlined and made all the worse by virtue of the fact that the Bill is largely politically uncontroversial in seeking to bring up to date, consolidate and modernise the law governing corporations, yet the Government say that they are in a tremendous hurry and must allow it go through at an accelerated pace, probably because of their own incompetence.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend. His comments lead to another point: we could use the carry-over procedure. The Bill is important, so let us use the carry-over procedure. We were willing to use it for the Corporate Manslaughter Bill last week. The measure that we are considering is as difficult, if not more so. Let us take time over it.

I introduced many Bills when I was a Minister. I suppose that I handled six, seven, eight or nine Bills on the Floor of the House or in Committee. I am therefore well versed in their conduct. As hon. Members know, I am not an especially modest man, but they will accept that it was my considered view that a Minister had to master the detail of a Bill as well as any official; otherwise, the Minister cannot overrule the officials or set policy. Ministers cannot handle Bills that are much more than 30 clauses to that standard of excellence. Bills that are much longer need teams of Ministers to deal with them.

It is inevitable that Ministers will not understand what they are doing when measures are the size of the Companies Bill. They are thus wholly in the hands of their officials. That is not a proper exercise. Moreover, it makes timetabling even more inappropriate. Any honest and sensible Member knows full well that it is a disgrace and that we are not doing our duty, and will vote against this timetable motion, as against many others.

I am now looking at the Conservative Whip. When we get into office, he and the Front-Bench team will find people such as me unwilling to support timetable motions. The Conservative party, when in office, had better not ask people like me to vote for such motions because, in general, we will vote against them.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford 4:26 pm, 17th October 2006

In principle I support the Bill, which is well conceived, and I disagree with David Howarth about consolidation. It is a good thing that we have turned the measure into a proper, new Companies Bill—potentially an Act. Producing a long Company Law Reform Bill alongside the Companies Act 1985 would constitute a bad day's work by Parliament.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

The Bill's gestation period was long. We said that there should be consolidation four years before the Committee proceedings started. The Opposition have therefore long held their view on consolidation.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford

Indeed. The matter is bipartisan, not tripartisan, because the Liberal Democrats do not appear to agree with consolidation.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister (Energy), Trade & Industry

I did not mean to say that I was against consolidation. I intended to convey that the difficulties that we are experiencing with the timetable are a consequence of the decision made by all parties to go for consolidation. Although consolidation is a long-standing idea, the decision to go for it was made only this summer.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford

I may have drawn the wrong conclusion from the hon. Gentleman's remarks, in which case I am happy to apologise and acknowledge that perhaps—although he has not said so explicitly—he is in favour of consolidation. I repeat that consolidation is sensible.

However, this afternoon's proceedings are a sad and worrying example of what is wrong with Parliament and the way in which the legislative process has been eroded. The Executive branch has achieved a dominance in our constitution that has unbalanced what used to be a fine constitution. That is deeply worrying. I greatly object to the Minister for Industry and the Regions telling hon. Members that if we objected to timetabling we would lose time for discussion of the Bill. That is arrogant because it shows the Government automatically assuming that they have a majority. It also means that the notion of timetabling includes an element of blackmail. The House is constantly told, "You mustn't object, speak your mind or ask for more time because if you do, you'll get even less time for debating the Bill." That is wrong.

Even worse, the Minister said that the Bill had already been the subject of considerable scrutiny in another place. It is true that the other place spent six months or so on the measure and did a fine job. The other place contains people of great distinction and often technical expertise, whose deliberations are extremely useful to us when we take a Bill from the Lords. The fact remains, however, that the other place consists almost entirely, apart from some hereditaries, of nominated Members—people who have no democratic mandate whatever. The role of the House of Lords as an additional stage in the process is one thing, but the idea that it can replace the House of Commons and that, if a Bill has received a certain amount of consideration in the other place, it requires no more than perfunctory consideration from ourselves, is deeply offensive. It is against the democratic idea that legislation should be undertaken by elected representatives who are directly responsible to those who sent them to the legislature.

The Minister seems to have forgotten some of what were always essential foundations of our political system. The Bill is a sad example of a malaise, which, I am afraid, has been getting worse for many years. Often, there is no one dramatic moment when everyone focuses on what has happened—but, suddenly, after a few years, we turn around and realise that the fundamental balance of the constitution has been eroded and lost.

The Minister today gave a particularly bad example of the Government taking its large majority for granted. She has added insult to injury by producing all these amendments at the last moment. What she is telling the House and the country is that the bureaucracy is instructed that even if the Committee stage ends in July, it has two or three months to do any necessary work deriving from the Committee stage and to produce further consequential amendments. It does not need to bother to introduce those until 24 hours before the parliamentary process begins, because the stupid politicians will have no time to spend on them anyway, and they will be rolled over by a large majority. The parliamentary process has therefore become just a decorative aspect of the constitution—a time-consuming and rather trying formality that is really just a rubber stamp for what has been agreed in Whitehall.

By behaving in that fashion, the Minister has dramatically demonstrated the extent of the contempt for Parliament in Whitehall and in sections of the Government. That is deeply upsetting. We may be defeated in a few minutes, and we may be able to do nothing about it for the moment. Certainly, however, as my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg said, the next Government must change that. I can think of few other examples of serious problems in our country that so urgently need to be addressed by a change of Government.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 4:33 pm, 17th October 2006

I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Davies. As my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg said, a Bill as big as this—it is bigger than the Leicestershire telephone book— [Interruption] It is also bigger than the Rutland telephone book. I shall not go into the other variations. My right hon. and learned Friend was entirely right that a Bill of this size needs a team of Ministers to achieve mastery of it. Perhaps what upset me most was the attitude that the Minister displayed to the House when she moved this short motion, as she did not have mastery of that, let alone of the content of the Bill. She did not even know how many schedules and amendments we would have to discuss in little eight-minute sections. Of course, there are many of these topics for which we will even have an eight-minute section.

The Government do not care. After nine years of this appalling Administration, we are all used to their incompetence, intellectual dishonesty and political shenanigans. What we cannot tolerate, however, and what I find so offensive, is the smugness with which they overlay their incompetence, stupidity and political and intellectual dishonesty. If the Minister thinks that it is appropriate for her, as a Minister of the Crown, to defend her Government's policy and to explain the detail of the Bill in the way that she just has, she ought to be ashamed of herself and of her Government.

This Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation to come before this or possibly any other Parliament, as my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan, the shadow Secretary of State, said. The Government's treatment of it is offensive—to me as an individual, although my personal feelings do not matter, but also to Parliament and, more importantly, to the people who sent us here. Their approach speaks volumes about their attitude to the electorate and to good governance. The sooner we get rid of this lot, the better— [Interruption.] My words appear witty and amusing to Kitty Ussher, the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, who clearly likes to poke fun at people like me. I must seem an easy joke as I stand here in my pinstriped suit and make remarks about the Government's conduct. However, I am concerned about the calibre of the Government and of this Bill, and about the attitude displayed by the Minister and her hon. Friends to the people of this country. I warn them that they ignore our people at their peril, as the electorate will grab the Government firmly by the throat and remove them from office.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that we who practise in the law know that people will say subsequently that it was a disgrace that a Bill such as this was not discussed properly by this House?

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I do not want to embarrass the Minister, but I understand that she is quite close to people who know a little about the law. I hope that she is sometimes advised at breakfast in a way that she finds more acceptable than is the case this afternoon. Frankly, this is not a motion that this House should ever entertain.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow 4:36 pm, 17th October 2006

I am the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on corporate governance, which has taken a considerable interest in the Bill, for obvious reasons. Some of the largest corporate entities in the country are represented on the group. Many have made representations about the Bill during its passage through the House, and they are horrified by the proposals in the programme motion. The Minister's predecessor handled this brief for four years, but she has not had the same benefit and I fear that she will have difficulty in coping with the Bill's ramifications. Before she puts the motion to a vote, she should consider whether she wants to embarrass herself and her Government in front of corporate Britain plc.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire 4:37 pm, 17th October 2006

I served on the Standing Committee considering this Bill, and wish to put on the record my concern that it has not been properly managed or discussed, even though it has been before Parliament for some eight years. It is certainly true that not enough time was spent on it in Committee, and it is regrettable that the Government chose to end those proceedings in July rather than carry them over from the summer, which is what the Bill deserved.

As has been stated, this is the largest Bill ever to go through Parliament. Its consequences are far reaching, affecting the very lifeblood of our economy. It is therefore especially regrettable that the Government should introduce almost 1,000 new amendments and a huge number of new clauses when, once again, the time available for debate is very limited.

The Government's abuse of power has also been referred to, and that is the right term in this context. The Minister is abusing her power, and she demeans herself and her office by treating the Bill in this cavalier fashion. More importantly, she also treats with contempt the people who will be affected by the Bill—the mainstream public and the businesses that run the economy. The Government amendments and new clauses are detailed and specific. If we do not consider them properly, we risk producing shoddy legislation that will have a negative impact on the business community and on the public at large.

This Bill is a consolidation measure and comes some 20 years after the Companies Act 1985. However, it does not take into adequate consideration the fact that the global business environment has changed considerably. Business is now compelled to take into account environmental issues and the protection of data, as well as a huge number of other issues that simply did not exist in 1985. Again, we fail in our duty by failing to consider all those issues properly, in the context not only of Britain and the European Union, but of worldwide business.

Sadly, the Government's not allowing enough time today, tomorrow and on Friday—or, indeed, in previous years—to debate these issues will result in the sad consequence that we shall do a disservice to the business community. In failing properly to scrutinise the Bill, we also fail in our duty to the House and to the country.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills 4:40 pm, 17th October 2006

I can well understand why the Government have tabled this motion: it has become a habit for them to assume that Parliament need no longer scrutinise legislation. The second reason why I understand this was also given by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg—that Ministers are not masters of their briefs on such an extensive Bill as this.

The House recognises the importance of this legislation, as we have heard from hon. Members on both sides. We recognise that it is a landmark. It is a consolidation measure, but it also covers new ground. The Government have tabled almost 1,000 amendments, and no doubt the Minister will have taken advice from her civil servants on what will actually be constituted by the proposed changes. However, the Government will not allow the House to find a rhythm for the consideration of a landmark piece of legislation that will guide company law. It will directly affect those who run companies, as well as those who are employed by them. It is a major ethical statement of what we regard as appropriate law. That the Minister has come forward with a timetable motion such as this shows a contempt for the House and a failure to understand the central importance of the authority of Parliament.

I am terrified that a misjudged clause in the Bill could have ramifications right across the business community. That is why Ministers should listen carefully to the people who represent businesses and to those who work in them. They should give consideration to sensible proposals such as that to allow carry-over in these circumstances, so as to permit proper consideration of these matters and to give the Opposition and other Members with opinions the opportunity to comment. As is my tradition, I shall oppose all guillotine motions whenever I am able to do so. This motion traduces the proper purpose of the House.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Industry and the Regions) 4:43 pm, 17th October 2006

I have to say to Opposition Members that, by starting the proceedings on Report and Third Reading of this historic Bill by opposing the programme motion, they are playing a very poor political game. They are effectively trying to score a questionable political point at the expense of spending time allotted by the House to the serious and considered scrutiny of the Bill. Indeed, I put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is the knockabout politics that Mr. Cameron is trying to prevent. Mr. Duncan has shown himself to be an old Tory by the way in which he has approached this debate.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Industry and the Regions)

No.

The Bill has been developed in a unique way. We have ensured the full involvement of all the interested parties throughout the process.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Industry and the Regions)

No.

We have sought and achieved a high degree of consensus on the overwhelming majority of the clauses in the Bill. We have—for those who bothered to turn up—approached the parliamentary scrutiny of the Bill in a very co-operative spirit, and been more than ready to listen to suggestions—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not think that the right hon. Lady is going to give way. I felt that it was right, in view of the criticisms that have been made in several quarters, that she should be given ample time to reply to the debate.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Industry and the Regions)

If I have time, I will give way to Mr. Davies.

Mr. Vara said that he was concerned that there had not been sufficient scrutiny of the Bill. He was so concerned that, one morning in Committee, only Mr. Djanogly was present to defend the Tory line, and there was no scrutiny whatever by any other member of the Committee. When we started to discuss important issues to do with the takeover panel, I was impressed by the ability of the hon. Member for Huntingdon to talk for more than two hours—in fact, he talked the sitting out—without saying anything to purpose. [Interruption.] Opposition Members do not like being brought to account.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Industry and the Regions)

I am sure that those outside the House who hope that there will be considered scrutiny of the Bill—

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that it is the practice of the House, and good manners, that a Minister who launches an attack on an hon. Member gives way to them, so that they can respond

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

That is not a point of order for the Chair, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman will recognise. It is possible that the Minister might yet give way at some stage to the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, but it is up to her.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Industry and the Regions)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had intended to give way to the hon. Member for Huntingdon when I finished the point. He will remember that he spent an entire morning—two and a half hours—talking out a Committee sitting, to absolutely no purpose, just when we were about to discuss the takeover panel. I am sure that those outside the House who hoped for considered scrutiny of the Bill by Her Majesty's Opposition will have been as impressed by his tactics as I was.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I thank the Minister for giving way. The reason why I spoke for two hours on the takeover panel is that it is an important aspect of corporate life in this country, but perhaps she fails to appreciate that. We needed to speak about it. She mentioned the number of people in Committee, but I must remind her that it was during Committee that, for the first time in history, the Opposition defeated a programme motion because the Minister could not get her own people there.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Industry and the Regions)

The record will speak for itself. Those who were present when we considered the takeover panel will recognise that the hon. Gentleman was doing no less than filibustering, rather than focusing on providing proper scrutiny of the Bill by Her Majesty's Opposition. As for why so many amendments have been tabled this afternoon, I was correct in thinking that there were about 600 of them—there are 655 Government amendments. The other amendments were tabled by members of the Opposition and have been discussed not once or twice, but probably three, four or five times during proceedings on the Bill in this House. The reason for the 600 Government amendments is twofold. First, we all agreed that consolidation would take place, and many of the amendments simply put in place correct cross-references and make the changes required to follow them through. Secondly, we have listened to representations from Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members, and so have come back to the Chamber with other propositions.

We have wasted enough time on process. Let us now get on with the business of the House and let us give proper consideration to an historic Bill that requires Members on both sides to take the matter seriously. I hope that Members of all parties will now support—

It being forty-five minutes after commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(8).

The House divided: Ayes 303, Noes 231.

Division number 308 Points of Order — Companies Bill [ Lords] (Programme) (No. 3)

Aye: 303 MPs

No: 231 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I inform you that, today, the Ministry of Defence published an extremely important document, "Defence Technology Strategy", which follows from "Defence Industrial Strategy", published last December? The new document sets out some of the key technology capabilities that it is believed we must maintain in the United Kingdom.

I must report to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Defence within the past few moments. He assures me that copies have been sent to the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Dr. Fox, to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence and to Nick Harvey. None of them has received the documents, yet those in industry have copies on their desks. I understand that the media have them, so it is parliamentarians who do not have copies, save for one copy of a 200-page document in the Library. Mr. Speaker regards it as being very important that Ministers report adequately to the House.

Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, refer this matter to Mr. Speaker? Without this document, we simply cannot hold the Government to account. The press will respond to the document today, and if we do not have adequate advance knowledge of it, it is very difficult for us to participate in the debate. The Government get just one bite of the cherry, and we get none. Could you please take up this issue with Mr. Speaker? It is a grave discourtesy to the House.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

The hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to put this matter on the record, and I am sure that it will be noted by Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman probably supplied the answer to his concern in his remarks. Mr. Speaker has indeed made it clear that he expects hon. Members to have as much early notice as is possible of matters of importance in the form of publications or whatever. Certainly, Mr. Speaker will be concerned that some problem arose with the dispatch of these documents and that parliamentarians did not have what others outside the House had. I am sure that Mr. Speaker will take note of that fact. However, there is indeed a copy in the Library at the moment.