Energy Bill [HL]

– in the House of Lords at 12:32 pm on 18th March 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Hendon Baroness Miller of Hendon Conservative

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, knows that I am going to speak on a certain matter before we discuss the Bill itself. On our side of the House—no doubt this applies to the other opposition Benches, although we have not discussed it—we are very concerned at the huge number of amendments that have been tabled to Part 1 with which we shall deal today and probably also on Monday. I believe that there are in the region of 149 government amendments, of which more than 79 were tabled yesterday. They are all virtually new. None of us has had time to consider them—which is the appropriate thing to do—or to take advice or to decide how we intend to approach them. It has been impossible for us even to look at many of the amendments. That is discourteous and a disgusting state of affairs. It is a disgrace, as my noble friend says from a sedentary position.

I do not hold the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, personally responsible for this. I received a letter from him informing me that the amendments had been tabled on 11 and 15 March. However, the amendments had not been tabled on time and we did not receive them. If we have not had them, we have not had them. That is quite disgraceful. I do not know how this has happened but the Opposition do not have dozens of officials advising us on the amendments. We do not have the time to spend all night considering the amendments, and they have not been considered. That is a terrible state of affairs. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on the matter.

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative

My Lords, I support what my noble friend has said. In the years that I have spent in both Houses I cannot recall any occasion regarding a major programme Bill on which there is no immediate urgency being suddenly inundated at this stage of the Bill with a very large number of government amendments. As my noble friend said, what is perhaps more serious is that the amendments were tabled only in the past day or two. Indeed, this morning I picked up a supplementary list of government amendments. That is the first time I have seen them. Apparently, they were tabled yesterday.

I remind the House of the guidance on this matter. Government amendments for a Bill should be available at least a week before they are due to be debated. We are faced with amendments that were available one or two days before they were due to be debated. I reinforce what my noble friend said. On this Bill perhaps more than many others noble Lords rely on information, advice and guidance from the large number of extremely expert bodies outside that are involved with the industries with which this Bill is concerned. It has proved impossible to get any sort of guidance on any of these amendments. I suspect that it is for that reason that no opposition amendments are tabled to the government amendments. There simply has not been time to do so. The opposition would not have known what the government amendments comprised. The bodies outside do not know that.

I do not know whether the department of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, or the Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for this state of affairs but it gives the impression doubly of a total incompetence regarding being unable to comply with the guidance. It also gives the impression that no doubt hard working officials are absolutely inundated with far more work than they can cope with due to the volume of the legislation with which they are confronted. Either way, as my noble friend said, that we should be put in this position is a gross discourtesy to this House. Of course, we shall do our best to deal with the amendments in the days that are available on Report. However, I want to ensure that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and his colleagues on the Front Bench are aware of the genuine anger that their conduct regarding the passage of the Bill has engendered.

The noble Lord has sought to reply by letter to a number of the points that were raised in Grand Committee. Many of the amendments that have been tabled constitute responses to arguments and debates that we had in Grand Committee. But, for goodness sake, we are entitled to receive them in sufficient time to know whether they really do deal with our points or whether they go only part of the way and we need to amend them. We have not had time to do so. I hope that in responding to this debate the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will consider that he is justified in offering a very condign apology to the House for treating us in this way.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, I associate noble Lords on these Benches with the objection to the fact that the amendments that we are discussing were tabled so late. We have not had the opportunity to consider them or to table amendments to them. Indeed, the proceedings on this Bill might serve as an example when the appropriate committee of the House considers how Bills are dealt with. Given the controversial nature of the Bill all the opposition Benches felt frustrated that the Committee stage was held in Grand Committee. We felt very constrained as the Government had set out with a mindset to concede very little. Given the volume of government amendments that have been tabled, Report stage threatens to be equally unsatisfactory. I ask that the appropriate body of the House consider this Bill's progress to determine whether it fulfils the democratic opportunity that should be afforded to us.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, I should like to mention some obvious mitigating circumstances. I am not privy to what my noble friend the Minister will say. However, it is fairly obvious that among the mitigating circumstances is the fact that much attention—with all the correspondence and meetings and so on—has been devoted to dealing with matters raised in Committee. Certainly two government departments have a major interest in the matter. This is a difficult set of circumstances and it is not a particularly satisfactory position. However, I hope noble Lords opposite will note that some of us feel that it is not just for the Minister to say mea culpa, as it were, and that other matters are relevant.

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative

My Lords, I wish to speak again and raise two points. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, said in Grand Committee:

"One of the difficulties I am having throughout the Grand Committee is that while we do not vote we are stacking up a great deal of stuff for the Report stage".—[Official Report, 12/2/04; col. GC 552.]

The noble Baroness was exactly right. One has only to look at the Marshalled List to see just how much stuff has been, in her lambent words, "stacked up". I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, that if we count up the number of amendments that he has tabled compared with the much larger number—many, many times larger—of amendments that have been tabled by noble Lords on this side of the House, both on the part of the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat Benches, I am not sure how seriously I should treat the excuse that he offered. He has had particular interests in the matter—one or two of them will arise on Report—but I do not think that any of what he said excuses the government departments and the Ministers responsible for treating the House in a thoroughly shabby way.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Conservative

My Lords, the answer to the attempt at an excuse on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall—it certainly was not an apology—is that all the factors that he mentioned were readily apparent before the Bill commenced its passage through the House. When the Bill was drafted and was to appear on the Floor of the House, everyone knew the timetable for its passage through the House because it is set in Standing Orders. It was known that two government departments were involved, and therefore their procedures and co-ordination should have been of the highest order. For whatever reason, that has not happened. I thoroughly support my noble friends.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour 1:00 pm, 18th March 2004

My Lords, far be it from me to start a dialogue about this. The fact that hundreds of amendments have been tabled while somebody like myself has tabled only two or three could be, in part, because I have been more highly focused than some noble Lords in what they think should be put down at this stage of the Bill. I will leave it there.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, in response to the noble Lord, the House has to go through the whole Bill. I accept that the noble Lord may have a direct interest in only specific parts, but it is the responsibility of every Member of this House to look through the whole Bill.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, I would like to apologise to the House—particularly to the noble Baroness and to others to whom I wrote about the timetable—that we did not entirely manage to meet the dates that we had set ourselves for tabling these amendments.

In mitigation, I would point out that we are dealing with very complex areas, some of which relate to pensions and taxation and therefore involve more than two government departments. These were raised at Committee stage. There is not a huge difference between the issues raised by noble Lords in Committee and the Government's plans to amend the Bill.

The substance of the amendments is a good indication of how a sensible discussion at Committee stage can lead the Government to make concessions and changes in complex areas. As we come to those areas, noble Lords will see that, in the main, their views have been taken into account in the drafting of the amendments, complicated though some of them undoubtedly are. I will not talk further on the substance of those points; I will wait until we reach them.

On the other hand, I repeat that I regret that noble Lords did not receive those amendments at an earlier stage. I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, about this being unprecedented. This Bill started in the House of Lords, and a lot of people's consciousness relates to Bills that come to us from the House of Commons. Bills from all parties over the past 10 years and more have frequently had a significant number of government amendments at Report. This is partly to correct the Government's drafting.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, may be correct—we ought always to get it perfect the first time, but no Government ever have, and nor has any energy council, despite their high level of expertise in those matters.

We tend to bring in technical and clarifying amendments at the earliest possible stage, so that the Bill is clearer in subsequent stages, both here and in another place. The number of amendments is not extraordinary. I have dealt with Bills in which there have been more government amendments, and I am sure noble Lords opposite have too. There is always a narrow period of time between the end of Committee and the start of Report. That is within the rules but is not in my control. Nevertheless, we should have met the original deadlines.

When we come to debate those amendments in detail, noble Lords will recognise that they reflect the discussions in Committee, and they should—not without reservation, but on balance—be pleased with what the Government are attempting to do with them. There will be one or two exceptions to that, which no doubt noble Lords will oppose or argue about in the normal way.

We can proceed on the basis of the government amendments and those tabled by other parties and noble Lords. We have a lot of business to do today and on the subsequent days of Report.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Hendon Baroness Miller of Hendon Conservative

My Lords, I made it clear that I did not hold the Minister personally responsible, but that it was a departmental matter.

I would like to say something very serious. The Minister started off by apologising, but said that it is no wonder the amendments have come late because they all deal with complex matters. It is because they are complex that we are concerned about how we deal with them. If they were complex for the noble Lord and the officials—who could take briefings on every single point—what on earth were we supposed to do? The mere fact that he talked about complex matters makes my case.

The Minister also said that there was a short period between Committee and Report. Who decided that? These are matters for the Government. The Minister said that it was not his fault. The arrangements for how these matters should be dealt with are a matter for the Government.

We never understood that we were going to have the Report stage so soon after Committee. That is not appropriate. We are in an extraordinarily difficult position. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, said, this Bill should never have gone into Grand Committee. If a Bill goes into Grand Committee, it should be uncontentious; we should not have to go through it in every detail—as indeed we did; and there should not be such a pile of government and opposition amendments.

Both the Government and the usual channels should look seriously at how we change the procedures at Report. What a state we have come to. Matters are dealt with in Grand Committee that we cannot divide on, so we cannot go into great detail on them—although we try. We then wish to deal with them at Report, where we can each only speak once. This is not the way to properly conduct a Bill if we are to give it complete scrutiny.

I have brought in other matters, but the position is extraordinarily unsatisfactory on all the points that we have made, and the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer.

We feel very much at a disadvantage. The Minster said that some of the amendments are technical and some are concessions—I can see those right at the beginning, they concern confidentiality, which is an important matter. But unless the amendments are gone through with a toothcomb, it is impossible to know whether they are technical matters, concessions or new measures. The Minister put his hand up and said that some are new. We cannot deal with matters in this manner.

The Bill ought to have been recommitted to a Committee of the Whole House, which would have given us a chance to deal with these matters properly. I believe that we suggested that to the Government—I look to my Chief Whip for guidance. That has not happened. Here we are at Report. I do not want to take up any more of this valuable time—this short time—that we have to discuss important matters.

The Government should know that we take an extraordinarily dim view of this matter. We hold nobody personally responsible, but everyone who had any part in putting this forward is collectively responsible.

Just look at that huge groupings list of government amendments, all in one block. How could anybody deal with that properly and appropriately? It is a disgrace.

Photo of Lord Shaw of Northstead Lord Shaw of Northstead Conservative

My Lords, I have not intervened at all in this matter, but I have listened to all that has been going on. There has been an important break in our proper procedure in this House. I am astonished that the Leader of the House is not here to help us in this matter.

I sat for many years as a chairman in the other place, and was fully aware that amendments—particularly important ones—had to go down in sufficient time for all parties to consider them properly.

I remember that on occasion I stopped a government amendment from being tabled because the short notice gave the Opposition no chance to consider it.

If, as I believe is the case, there has been a break with procedure, I would expect the Government to move for an adjournment and delay consideration of the matter for another day in order to give appropriate time. That should be done and we should insist on it.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, I am sure that all the speeches made from the other side of the House are made in good faith and are based on experience. However, are we not combining the lateness in tabling amendments with two or three other questions; for instance, whether the Bill should have gone into Grand Committee?

Did not the whole House agree a procedure—it may be deemed an experimental procedure because it can be changed—whereby such Bills go into Grand Committee? I do not recall—it would be difficult to take up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller—that a contentious Bill should not go into Grand Committee. It would be angels on the end of a pin defining what should be contentious. Did the Opposition put that proposition to the usual channels? I am talking about the general principle of the procedures that we are, in the interests of the whole House, utilising. Either in the Moses Room or in the Committee room upstairs, Bills are from time to time considered in Grand Committee and it is a well known fact that we do not at that stage vote. Three or four days will therefore be spent on Report.

With great respect, those questions are different from the late tabling of some government amendments. We should not widen the discussion out of all reason relative to the matter before the House today.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Hendon Baroness Miller of Hendon Conservative

My Lords, I do not want to speak at great length about that, but I do want to make one point. We would never have widened the debate into consideration of whether the Bill should have gone to a Grand Committee or whether there was insufficient time between Grand Committee and Report.

The point is that the Government have tabled so many amendments in one go without giving us time to look at them. In other words, if the Bill had been committed to a Committee of the Whole House where we would have discussed everything and been allowed to vote, we would not have had to deal with so much now. We have tabled amendments on all the issues that are important to us and are faced with a whole load of others that we have not seen. That means that the Grand Committee stage has compounded our problems. That is it.

I would not have dreamt of widening the issue, although it is a serious one which I hope the usual channels will discuss. That is neither here nor there. The fact is that the Bill contains many matters with which we must deal on Report but on which we have not taken advice or been able fully to consider simply because of the way it has been handled by the Government.

Photo of Lord Cope of Berkeley Lord Cope of Berkeley Conservative

My Lords, one way in which we might alleviate the difficulty is to stop our proceedings when we reach the starred government amendments. There are no starred government amendments in the first 26 clauses, although I believe that some were tabled only in the past day or so. The first starred amendments occur in Clause 27 and therefore I suggest that the usual channels should consider whether today's proceedings should conclude at that point.

I do not want to negotiate across the Floor of the House, but the usual channels might well discuss the proposal.

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative

My Lords, I went through the first Marshalled List yesterday and counted up all the government amendments. Seventy-nine of them were starred. That means that 79 government amendments were tabled with only one day's notice before today's debate. That is not good enough.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, clearly, we cannot debate across the Floor how far we proceed today. The amendments relating to Clause 27 are some way down the Marshalled List and therefore the usual channels will have plenty of time to discuss them. While I respect the suggestion that that may be one way out of our difficulties, I believe that we must proceed with the Bill at the normal pace and only the usual channels can discuss such matters.

If it further helps noble Lords' concerns on the issue, I can say that for reasons which are rather extraneous to this debate but have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, I do not intend to move the first two government amendments, Amendments Nos. 3 and 4. They do not arise from material we discussed in Grand Committee, whereas the subsequent amendments relate to earlier discussions and in many cases to amendments tabled by other noble Lords.

I do not therefore propose to speak to the first group of government amendments and it may be sensible that the usual channels discuss the suggestions made. In any event, Clause 27 is well down our proceedings for today.

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative

My Lords, the Minister is being disingenuous beyond what I thought would have been conceivable. The reason he is not moving Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 is because I rang him up yesterday and said that following the exchange at Question Time a few days ago, I referred the advertisement for the chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. That committee is sitting this morning and I have not yet received a note of its conclusion. I suggested to the Minister that he would be very unwise to move those two amendments when there was a possibility that the Committee on Standards in Public Life would consider that the matter came within its remit and that it proposed to examine it, whether in the context of wider studies or whatever.

The Minister has just tried to pretend that he is somehow making a concession to the Opposition in order to smooth over the appalling business of these late amendments—79 starred government amendments yesterday. I am sorry, I cannot accept that.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, the noble Lord may have misheard me. I indicated that I was doing so for reasons unconnected with the current debate on procedure. The noble Lord correctly describes the position.

I was making the point that Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 do not relate to the debate on whether we are dealing with new material—one of the concerns expressed. However, the bulk of the other amendments—government and others—reflect discussions which took place in Grand Committee and are related to other amendments on the Marshalled List. I do not believe I was being disingenuous—I was simply explaining, and I readily concede, that some of the amendments relate to entirely separate proceedings. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for his conversation with me, and I believe that some of the anxieties about new and contentious material being placed on the Marshalled List would be slightly relieved if those two amendments were not moved.

Photo of Lord Cope of Berkeley Lord Cope of Berkeley Conservative

My Lords, we are close to the time when the lunch break is due to commence; that is, half past one. Would it not be sensible if we drew this debate to a close, which will give time for consideration of all the matters. It would be helpful if the noble Lord, Lord Davies, would move that we adjourn for the lunch break as soon as the debate is concluded.

Report received.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, in view of that discussion, I beg to move that consideration on Report be now adjourned. In doing so, I suggest that the Report stage begins again not before 2.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 1.20 to 1.30 p.m.]