Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]

– in a Public Bill Committee on 19th October 2004.

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[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North 9:10 am, 19th October 2004

Copies of the resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee have been made available in the Committee Room. I call the Minister to move the motion.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Industry and the Regions and Deputy Minister for Women), Department of Trade and Industry

I beg to move,

That—

(1) during proceedings on the Civil Partnership Bill [Lords] the Standing Committee shall, in addition to its first meeting on Tuesday 19th October at 9.10 am meet—

(a) on Thursday 21st October at 9.10 am and 2.30 pm;

(b) on Tuesday 26th October at 9.10 am;

(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely, Clauses 1 and 2, Schedule 1, Clauses 3 to 36, Schedules 2 to 4, Clauses 37 to 70, Schedule 5, Clause 71, Schedules 6 to 8, Clauses 72 to 80, Schedule 9, Clause 81, Schedule 10, Clauses 82 to 84, Schedule 11, Clauses 85 to 122, Schedule 12, Clauses 123 to 134, Schedule 13, Clauses 135 to 141, Schedule 14, Clauses 142 to 189, Schedule 15, Clause 190, Schedules 16 to 18, Clauses 191 to 199, Schedule 19, Clause 200, Schedule 20, Clauses 201 to 205, Schedule 21, Clauses 206 to 239, Schedule 22, Clause 240, Schedule 23, Clauses 241 to 244, Schedule 24, Clauses 245 and 246, Schedule 25, Clause 247, Schedule 26, Clauses 248 to 251, Schedules 27 to 29, Clauses 252 to 254, new Clauses, new Schedules, remaining proceedings on the Bill;

(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 11.25 am on Tuesday 26th October.

To begin, I welcome Committee members and you, Mr. Cook, to this Committee. I look forward to what I hope will be constructive discussion and debate during the next few days as we scrutinise what is by any stretch of the imagination an important, landmark piece of legislation. I am sure that there will be an extremely constructive debate and I look forward to working with all Committee members.

It is important that we continue the high quality of debate that began in the House on Second Reading, and that the legislation receives the proper scrutiny it deserves. We should also ensure that sufficient progress is made so that the legislation can be enacted during this Session. Although it is a big Bill, the principle of it is relatively simple. I am sure that we shall have a lengthy debate on clause 1, but once that clause, which introduces the concept and general principles of civil partnership, is accepted, we should find the policy to be reasonably straightforward.

It is important that we consider the issues in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but it is worth pointing out that parts 3 and 4, which relate to those countries, replicate part 2, which makes provision for civil partnerships in England and Wales, while still recognising the legislative history of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Is the Minister going to address the terms of her motion, particularly why it will not be possible for the Committee to sit next Tuesday afternoon? Under the

programming motion agreed by the House last night, the Committee does not have to report until the end of Tuesday next week. It seems as though the Minister has arbitrarily decided that the Committee should not sit next Tuesday afternoon, irrespective of what progress is made. Would she explain the thinking behind that?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Industry and the Regions and Deputy Minister for Women), Department of Trade and Industry

Far from being an arbitrary decision, it was a decision made by the Programming Sub-Committee yesterday evening. As I stated, the Bill, while being a significant and important piece of legislation, has nevertheless been considerably scrutinised in the Lords—some of the changes I hope that we shall make in this Committee notwithstanding—and it is therefore reasonable to expect that we shall be able to provide it with the scrutiny it needs and make sufficient progress to enable us to fulfil the recommendation of the Programming Sub-Committee.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Well, if that is going to be the tenor of how we proceed—

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Order. I misunderstood. I did not realise that the Minister had finished.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I echo the Minister's welcome to you, Mr. Cook, your fellow Chairman Mr. Gale, and all Committee members.

We do not like programming motions in my party. We habitually vote against them, as we did immediately after Second Reading, but we have discussed the sittings motion. There was the possibility that, in extremis, we might be able to go a little bit longer on Thursday, but if we are serious in the business we are to conduct during the next four sittings, we hope that that will not be necessary, as long as we have given the Bill the scrutiny it deserves.

As the Committee well knows, in my party this Bill is a matter of conscience. My colleagues enjoy a free vote on any matter before us, although it is clear from the Second Reading debate that the vast majority of Conservative Members support the Bill and would like to see it put into law in its original form. Some do not, and their views and opinions should be respected. Although in principle we say that we do not like programming motions, we should without further ado try to make better law for the country by getting on with the scrutiny of the legislation.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I add my own words of welcome to you in the Chair, Mr. Cook. As the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) has just said, I do not think that many of us like programming motions, but they are a necessary evil and if the motion is approached in a way that allows a degree of flexibility—that was the basis of the discussions that we had yesterday in the Programming Sub-Committee—we will have a reasonable amount of time. That is reliant on everybody bringing to the arguments points that are relevant, rather than seeking to proceed in a manner

that might, according to one view, be seen as intending to frustrate the Bill.

The Bill is important and we are determined that it should proceed in a businesslike manner. On that basis, it seems to me that the time that has been made available to the Committee is already sufficient. If experience dictates otherwise, there might be an opportunity for the Programming Sub-Committee to reconvene, look again at the matter and bring a further motion. However, in the meantime, the arrangements are adequate and I can wish no more for the Committee than that its members should enjoy a debate that is of the same standard as that which the House enjoyed on Second Reading.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am sorry to introduce the first note of dissent. However, before I explain why I dissent from the programming motion, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I can see that this is going to be a very important Committee and one in which the experience that you bring to the post will be valuable. I speak as one of the members of the Committee who is not in tune with the expressions of my Front-Bench team, or the Liberal Democrat or the Government Front-Bench teams. You will know, Mr. Cook, as a Chairman of a Standing Committee, how important it is that other voices can be heard, particularly in a case such as this, where I suspect that I speak for a large majority of the population, who are concerned about the Bill and who are keen to ensure that there is proper scrutiny of it. Sometimes a Committee can have a slightly intimidating atmosphere and one feels that one is almost a pariah. I hope that the atmosphere in this Committee will not be like that.

I found it rather disappointing that when I sought to intervene on the Minister for a second time to ask her to explain and justify why we could not sit next Tuesday afternoon, should that prove necessary, she sat down and sat on her hands. I hope that that is not going to be the attitude during the rest of the Committee's proceedings, because if it is, I can see that we will not make the constructive progress that I hope for.

It is all very well for the Government to say that this matter is straightforward, important and fundamental, and that we should just get on and deal with it in four sittings. One of the problems with the programming motion is that it involves sittings on three mornings—Tuesday, Thursday and the following Tuesday—and morning sittings are curtailed: they cannot go on beyond 11.25 am. In the past, it has been possible for afternoon sittings to be extended, should that be necessary. Unfortunately, under the terms of the Programming Sub-Committee motion, there is no scope for extending to a late hour on any day other than Thursday 21 October, which is a matter of regret. Although reference has been made to the Programming Sub-Committee by all three people who have spoken so far, you will know, Mr. Cook, that I and other Back Benchers are not party to that Sub-Committee and so had no chance to participate in it.

There are many Government amendments, which the Government refuse to bring forward in the other place out of pique and which now dominate the

amendment paper. Why should the Government be able to have it both ways? Why should they be able to dominate the amendment paper and then deprive us of the opportunity of scrutinising their amendments and putting forward our own? I hope that that will not be the impact of the programming motion. I have some concerns and severe reservations about the way in which the motion is being forced through.

If the Minister had been prepared to take my second intervention, I would have asked her what the great hurry was. The Bill could be carried over to the next Session. The Government have said that in any event they have no intention of getting it on the statute book before the autumn of next year. Why deprive the House of Commons of a day or two of proper scrutiny of a Bill so that it can be got through in this Session when we know that the Government often allow Bills to be carried over from one Session to the next? Next week, the School Transport Bill will have its Second Reading in this House and will definitely be carried over, as will the Mental Capacity Bill. Why can we not allow the Bill under consideration today to be carried over?

It is not our fault that the Bill is being considered in Committee for the first time on 19 October, right at the very end of this Session; it is the fault of the Government. They are in charge of timetabling. They chose not to publish the Bill until the spring, allowed the matter to drag on in the other place, got themselves in a complete mess with a voting reverse—not for the first time—in the other place and then took away their playthings and deprived the other place of the chance to scrutinise the Bill further.

I do not wish to take up any extra time but, as somebody who is not a party to my Front Bench's potential agreement—I will not call it collusion, because that is putting it too strongly—with the principles of the Bill, which fly in the face of the expressed opinion of the other place as revealed in its vote at the end of July, I wish to put it on record that the present proposals for the Committee not to sit on the afternoon of Tuesday 26 October are unnecessarily draconian and that there should be some flexibility. I hope that in response to the motion the Minister will take that into account and indicate some flexibility in this matter.

We started off in slightly bad odour. I received a postcard—as I suppose did other members of the Committee—saying that the Committee would meet this morning, tomorrow morning and in the morning and afternoon of Thursday. That postcard came out of the blue—I imagine, on the Government's instructions. The Minister is smiling. If the Government thought they could ride roughshod over the basic conventions that Committees normally meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I do not know what they were thinking. Fortunately, wiser counsels have prevailed, but that little episode demonstrates an arrogance that I and many millions of people outside the House find increasingly intolerable. If the opportunity arises, I will vote against the programme motion.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 1.

Division number 1 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 4 - Best interests

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 1 MP

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

I remind Members that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill and that copies of it are available in the Room. I also remind Members that adequate notice of amendments should be given. As a general rule, my fellow Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any starred amendments that may be reached during an afternoon sitting.Clause 1 Civil partnership