Clause 26 - Parliamentary scrutiny

Civil Contingencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 10th February 2004.

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Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark 3:45 pm, 10th February 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 113, in

clause 26, page 17, line 18, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

'(a) these regulations shall be put to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament consisting of members of the Privy Council chosen to reflect the political balance of the House of Commons (to be known as the Emergency Powers Committee), before their acceptance, to provide an initial parliamentary check.

(aa) a senior Minister of the Crown shall then, as soon as is reasonably practicable, lay the regulations before Parliament, provided that he believes on reasonable grounds that he has used his best endeavours to consult the Emergency Powers Committee.

(ab) a senior Minister of the Crown may dispense with the requirements of paragraph (a) above if he thinks it is necessary to do so by reason of urgency.'

The amendment would replace the phrase in subsection (1)(a)

''a senior Minister . . . shall as soon as is reasonably practicable lay the regulations before Parliament''

with the phrase

''these regulations shall be put to a Joint Committee of both Houses''—

hereinafter referred to as the emergency powers committee—

''consisting of members of the Privy Council . . . to reflect''

the membership of the House of Commons

''before their acceptance, to provide an initial parliamentary check.''

It is clear that if a traumatic disaster of the sort that we are trying to legislate for overcomes the country, speed will be extremely important. We understand from the Minister and from the way in which the regulations have been articulated that speed is crucial.

The purpose of trying to establish an emergency powers committee is that proposed ministerial regulations could be investigated quickly and, when necessary, the committee could act as a proxy for Parliament. That should provide a quick but effective check in the hands not of a senior Minister, but of a picked number of extremely experienced, thoughtful and practical people who, if the Government nominate them beforehand, train them and give them due warning, could act as a most useful democratic check in such circumstances.

It is particularly useful to see what happens in the United States, albeit that its constitution is completely different from ours. Had such a committee been available to Mr. Bush in the aftermath of the attacks on 11 September, he would have found its advice and the necessary checks and balances imposed by such a committee extremely useful. That is why we have come up with this concept—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark 4:15 pm, 10th February 2004

I shall start where I left off. The idea of the emergency powers committee is to act as a check and balance and to be a sounding board for the Government in times of great emergency. Above all else, it should assist the Government in a balanced way, but quickly.

My experience of our discussions so far is that any idea that is intended to assist the Government with fresh thinking or any form of initiative, and which is practical rather than semantic, falls on deaf ears. I am sure that that will not be the case with this amendment as it is both practical and democratically important. I am extraordinarily optimistic that the Minister will acquiesce.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

There is a lot of merit in the ideas put forward by the hon. Member for Newark, particularly in relation to the kind of dire emergencies that have been described. Every effort should be made to seek cross-party agreement on any regulations laid under the Bill. The specific and privileged role of Privy Councillors is important. Having already discussed Orders in Council, we are again grappling with arcane parts of the British constitution. Privy Councillors could have a significant role, and perhaps, more so when events are developing in a dangerous fashion. It is entirely appropriate to consider whether the Government can assure us that they would, at least, seek to involve a wider range of people than themselves, and to take alternative counsel.

Following a slightly heated exchange earlier, we recognise that the authority to take action in such situations duly rests with the elected Government but it would be in their interests to involve others, particularly Privy Councillors, and that would give emergency regulations additional force.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Cabinet Office) and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

In response to the hon. Member for Newark, I respectfully suggest that it is not the origin of the amendment that matters, but its merit. In that regard, I the Government may hope that the Committee will support later amendments—in a matter of minutes, in fact. Unfortunately, this amendment does not fall into that category, and the Government cannot support it. We resist its inclusion for several reasons.

The Government are sympathetic to the principle of wider consultation with representatives of key parties when emergency powers are to be used, but they do not believe that the amendment sets out the best way to go about that. The Committee will be aware of the long-standing convention that the Government should seek in times of serious emergency to build consensus across the political spectrum. The Prime Minister regularly briefs senior figures from all the major political parties on a Privy Council basis—most recently for the Iraq conflict. Those tried and tested procedures allow the Government to obtain the views of senior parliamentary figures in a flexible and efficient way, and that means can be tailored to the needs of the situation at hand. The amendment would not guarantee parliamentary oversight. Any Government seeking to use emergency powers for

anti-democratic reasons could simply cite the urgency caveat and dispense with the requirement in the amendment. The urgency caveat could be removed, but that would make the process inflexible, particularly for situations in which action is urgently needed, or in which it is impossible to consult the relevant Privy Councillors.

Ultimately, it seems most appropriate to rely on the clear requirements for parliamentary scrutiny in clauses 26 and 27, which provide for sensible, timely and well tested scrutiny. I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

I suppose that optimism must always be tinged with the well-tried phrase, ''This it is an amendment that the Government cannot support''. I have no doubt that the Minister is right and that amendments stand or fall on their merits. I am not referring only to this amendment, but to the fact that he knows my strong feelings and those of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam.

The Minister should be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and I made it quite clear on Second Reading, that we wished to support the Government—help, aid and abet them—on the broad thrust of the Bill. We are acting in their support. The way in which the Minister and his colleagues have conducted themselves, especially on such an eminently sensible and practical amendment, leaves me a little nonplussed about the support that the Government can hope to receive in future. If they continue to prove themselves completely closed to reason, which is extraordinary frustrating to Opposition Members, they give no hope that if an emergency overcomes this country in the style that we have been discussing, the Government will hope to form the quick, effective consensus that the Minister described.

Despite those words, I recognise the complete futility of trying to beat my head against the Government's intransigence, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I beg to move amendment No. 33, in

clause 26, page 17, line 39, at end insert—

'(3A) Paragraph (1) of House of Commons Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union Documents) shall not apply to proceedings in the House of Commons under this section.'.

The amendment was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and arises out of his observations on Second Reading. He pointed out that measures of the type we are discussing should not be dealt with in the 90 minutes of debate that are traditionally allowed. He said:

''we have good reason to remember just what the affirmative resolution procedure entitles us to—90 minutes of debate on what is listed''.

He went on to make a moving speech in which he said that he felt that liberty was worth more than that, and that it was necessary to have more 90 minutes for such a debate. He referred to some remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and said:

''If I were a pretty nifty Government, I would get my amendment in first and Mr. Speaker would select it. In any event, how can amended regulations be subject to proper debate on the nature of the amendments if we have only 90 minutes?—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1147.]

My hon. Friend then made some comments, which were generally thought quite amusing, about Whips presenting the regulations. He said that it beggars belief that they can introduce emergency regulations, but that we have only 90 minutes in which to discuss them. Amendment No. 33 is all about not applying Standing Order 16 to such proceedings.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that it is important for us to consider this matter, which was sensibly and correctly raised by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. We could be dealing with legislation as significant as such pieces of primary legislation as the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which had to be put in place on an emergency basis.

To be fair, the Government have conceded the point about amendment of the regulations, which I understand was included in the 1920 Act. They have carried forward to this Bill the principle of amendment of regulations, although it is not normal in other legislation, which does not permit amendment of secondary legislation. That raises the issue of the procedures under which such amendments will be debated. I suspect that the answer is that the will of Parliament will prevail. If Parliament wishes to debate the regulations at greater length or to set different procedures for selecting amendments, it has the power to do so. However, the reality is that unless we give a more explicit steer about our expectations at this stage, we will effectively be presented with the normal procedure of an hour and a half and an opaque system for selection of amendments; it is certainly opaque from the point of view of people who try to steer the process and want certain issues debated rather than others.

Let us consider our ability to debate primary legislation and the way in which we can freely table amendments and have them selected. Let us debate such issues, and consider what might be a restricted debate on a subject of, dare I say it, great significance to the ordinary person because of the kinds of powers that will be taken. The Minister has a responsibility to explain the Government's expectation of how we will deal with the regulations once they come to Parliament.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Cabinet Office) and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

The Government accept that 90 minutes is unlikely to be sufficient to debate regulations as important as these will be. It is likely that there would be a call for a major debate on the crisis in a time of emergency, and the Government would respond by providing appropriate time. That said, the Government do not support and will resist the amendment. We are not convinced that it is appropriate to amend Standing Orders. We would have to be sure that it was necessary and appropriate to complicate them with varying procedures for different kinds of regulations.

The Government frequently table Business of the House motions to provide more time than the

Standing Orders stipulate. I assure the Committee that the Government will be ready to discuss the appropriate length of debate through the usual channels when and if needs arise. The key point is that Standing Orders are ultimately a matter for the House authorities, and they can be duly amended if the Government feel it necessary.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The Minister does not give much away, does he? My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills feels particularly strongly about the amendment, and we will want to return to the matter on Report. To echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark, it is disappointing that we have not had a sausage from the Minister, despite the Opposition's consensual approach. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.