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I beg to move,
(1) in addition to the first sitting at half-past Ten o'clock on Tuesday 27th March, three further sittings shall be allotted to the consideration of the Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords],
(2) the second sitting shall be held on that day at half-past Four o'clock,
(3) the third sitting shall be held on Thursday 29th March at five minutes to Ten o'clock,
(4) the fourth sitting shall be held on that day at half-past Two o'clock, and
(5) proceedings on the Bill shall be brought to a conclusion at Five o'clock at that sitting (unless concluded earlier).
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I hope that the proceedings are as smooth and good humoured as those of yesterday afternoon's Programming Sub-Committee. The debates on the Bill so far have been well informed, good humoured and listened to by both sides.
This is my first appearance in a Standing Committee as a Minister, and I look forward to the forthcoming debate. I am especially pleased that you are in the Chair, Mr. Cook, because you precipitated my maiden speech in the Chamber. You tabled an amendment to the handguns Bill that provoked me into rushing into the Chamber to talk about handguns and the Commonwealth games, which had not been my prior intention.
Four sittings will be sufficient to give this important Bill serious and thorough scrutiny. It has already had what is probably the most intense pre-legislative scrutiny of any Bill. Before it was introduced in the other place, it had been discussed by the two Deregulation Committees—the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee and the House of Commons Select Committee on Deregulation—for 21 months. The Government listened to both Committees, and made amendments before the draft Bill was introduced in the House of Lords. Both Committees commented on that in their final reports.
We have also listened to comments made when the Bill was introduced in the House of Lords, and have made major amendments. One is that no order will be able solely to impose burdens. There are several consequent amendments with that. In response to the repeated comments of the Select Committee on Deregulation, the Government have also accepted amendments on subordinate provisions clauses, so that both negative and positive resolutions can be put forward.
As I stated on Second Reading—although I think that I was slightly misunderstood—and in the Programming Sub-Committee, the Government have no intention of tabling any further amendments apart from one regular procedural amendment. We want the entire time to be spent debating amendments already tabled by Committee members. I commend the programme resolution to the Committee. The Bill has been thoroughly debated and has received much pre-legislative scrutiny. The four sittings delineated in the programme resolution should give us plenty of time to scrutinise it further.
I join the Minister in expressing appreciation that you, Mr. Cook, are chairing the Committee. I recall—I may be misremembering—that you chaired a committee that considered trade and industry issues on which I served earlier in this Parliament, and that you have an understanding of and sympathy for business issues. That will help you to appreciate the context in which we set our discussion, although the debate is not intended to be a detailed discussion of the purposes of specific orders that may be introduced.
I share the Minister's belief that our discussions should be constructive. It should not simply be an opportunity for the Government to listen to debates on amendments and then simply reject them out of hand. The Government should not believe that a Bill is perfect when it arrives in Committee simply because it has received substantial pre-legislative scrutiny—although we may have understood them to have assumed that that was the case on Second Reading. It was found that pre-legislative scrutiny had not delivered a perfect Bill to the other place, where amendments were tabled. I understand that it is not the Government's intention to table amendments in Committee. Some of my colleagues in other Committees have been rightly critical of the Government tabling a great number of amendments because of the lack of preparedness of the legislation. Although the Minister is right to say that it is not the Government's intention to amend the Bill, I hope that it is not their intention to stand against amendments that are needed or those which should be reported to the House.
The Programming Sub-Committee's resolution has a tight time scale, but if we are constructive and purposeful, I hope that we can deliver a satisfactory report on the amendments so far tabled, and those yet to come. The Minister will have observed that we have not tabled any amendments in respect of the codes of practice on enforcement, but I hope that we will discuss that on Thursday.
As in the House of Lords, we have just short of 10 hours of Committee time for the debate. Judging by the House of Lords debate, we will be hard pressed satisfactorily to deal with the entire Bill and amendments. However, we are happy to concur with the programme resolution and hope to have constructive debates.
As a son of Dunblane, I too made a speech during the handgun debate. I was on your side, Mr. Cook, on that occasion and against the notion of banning handguns. I am sorry that my career since then has not been as glittering as the Minister's because had it been I would be sitting in his place rather than in this lowly position.
As the Opposition Whip, I would like to make some short points about the programming procedure. I have sat on a number of pre-legislative scrutiny Committees and it has been made clear that the fact that a Bill goes through such Committees should not in any way shorten proper consideration of the legislation. I am glad that the Minister has not overdone that argument. I merely flag it up as something that we should not allow to occur. Pre-legislative scrutiny should not lead ultimately to a reduction in the amount of proper scrutiny that takes place in Committee.
Conservative Members are opposed to the entire notion of programme resolutions. From that point of view, I welcome the proceedings in yesterday's Programming Sub-Committee in that nothing happened that would not have happened prior to the introduction of the procedure. It was agreed informally that the Bill would be out of Committee by this Thursday, and that we would sit twice on Tuesday and twice on Thursday. Both those matters have always been resolved through the usual channels. The Programming Sub-Committee did not involve any detailed programming of which clauses have to be completed by a certain time. Everything that happened would normally have been arranged through the usual channels.
The Committee took place in secret: no record was taken. Although that would be the case with the usual channels, it is wrong in a properly constituted Committee of the House. The Minister should not need to have to reiterate what he said yesterday about not intending to table large numbers of Government amendments. He needs to do so during this short debate only because no record was taken. Equally, if a record had been taken, it would be unnecessary for me to make several of the points that I am making.
What happened on this occasion has reconfirmed our general view of programme resolutions. The matter could have been sensibly handled through the usual channels without that unnecessary meeting yesterday, where it was even agreed that the usual channels should discuss the Bill's passage through the Committee in the normal way—in the Corridor outside the Committee Room. We welcome that.
I am happy to join my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) in saying that I hope that four sittings of the Committee will be sufficient to enable us to discuss the Bill in detail. The fact that it is relatively uncontroversial and that there is a relatively large degree of cross-party consensus should help us in that process. However, the fact that there is cross-party consensus makes it terribly important that the Committee should consider and discuss the Bill in detail. That is why we have been so unhappy about the conduct of several other Committees that have taken place recently—especially the Committee that considered the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, on which the Government Whip and I served.
The Programming Sub-Committee is a bit of a waste of time. It needs to do nothing in particular, leaving the usual channels to do their historic and worthwhile work.
Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to say his piece. However, I should state clearly and emphatically for the record that what transpired in the course of the Programming Sub-Committee yesterday evening was entirely in keeping with the due procedures laid down and agreed by the House of Commons. As such, everyone who participated in those exchanges did so as required by the House. The fact that we must return to the matter today is also in accordance with procedure. I do not have to agree with that, but the House has laid down the procedures and it is my duty to see that they are followed to the letter. I shall continue to do so, as I hope that the record will show.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I was pleased to hear from other hon. Members who know about such matters that you have business interests arising from your background—[Interruption.] Oh, I thought that you had previously conducted Committees concerned with business matters.
Order. I should perhaps clarify that point. I have some experience in business, but I have no vested interest in it. My sole purpose in being here is to ensure that members of the Committee behave themselves.
I have obviously started off on a bad footing, Mr. Cook. I did not wish to imply that you had any interest. Indeed, I should declare my interest as managing director of a small manufacturing company. I have no specific interest in terms of the issues that will be raised in Committee, but I share the general interest of all those in the business community in ensuring that the House safeguards their interests and does not goldplate matters or take other nasty measures that are unhelpful to business.
We had a useful discussion yesterday, when the Government told us that they did not plan to table a large number of additional amendments. As a result, I am satisfied with the amount of time allotted for discussing the Bill. It is perfectly in tune with the need for hon. Members to give a lead by being business-like, rather than waffling on indefinitely. When I was a member of the Committee that considered the National Minimum Wage Bill, certain Opposition Members who are now sitting to my right waffled on indefinitely, unnecessarily and, as it turned out, erroneously about irrelevant matters. However, we have a clear picture of the time available to us, so I am sure that we shall have none of that nonsense. Indeed, you would not allow it, Mr. Cook, and on that basis I look forward to getting to the meat of matters.
Question put and agreed to.