Clause 17 - Calculation of time periods

Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:15 pm on 7 March 2006.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

I just wonder whether the Minister could confirm that, in calculating the periods of time referred to in clauses 13 to 16, time does not run in the vacation. Sometimes, one reads these things and finds that they have almost the opposite effect to what one thought. It will be extremely helpful to know what is meant.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am fairly clear that the recess, being a period during which the

“House is adjourned for more than four days”,

would not be counted, but what concerns me is what apparently would be counted. A “period of days” could be calculated either side of a Prorogation or Dissolution. I am extremely concerned that orders might be laid before a Dissolution, and then picked up in the opening days of a new Parliament, as Parliament sits, and while swearing in takes place. The clear implication of the clause is that orders can persist over a period of Dissolution or Prorogation; it cannot be interpreted in any other way. I have to say that that is not acceptable. The Minister will have to go away and come back with better wording, because I certainly am not about to accept the principle that such orders could persist during the Dissolution of Parliament. That would be a constitutional outrage, frankly, and I   do not believe that it can possibly be intended, although I am quite incapable of reading the words to mean anything else.

My other point is about the interrelationship between the provisions in this part of the Bill on legislative procedure, Standing Orders and rules of the House. I would like an assurance from the Minister that he has had appropriate discussions with the Leader of the House regarding draft changes to Standing Orders being prepared and that we may have sight of those in the House in the context of Report stage, because they refer to our House. We should be clear what the consequential changes in Standing Orders would be to give effect to the legislative procedural proposals that fall within the Bill.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence) 6:30, 7 March 2006

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is interesting that in its report, the Regulatory Reform Committee detailed some of the changes that it thought were consequential on these changes. It would be helpful if the Minister indicated whether he wanted those changes, or whether, having thought about it and discussed it with the Leader of the House, there might be other changes. As the hon. Gentleman said, it would be helpful to have those matters laid out as we consider the rest of the Bill before Report.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support, but this is more than important—it is essential. I am not a great buyer of pigs in pokes, and I am rather fed up with the Bill, because I am being asked to buy a great number of pigs in a substantial number of pokes. Will the Minister remove at least some of the aforesaid pigs from their pokes and give us a clear assurance that if the Leader of the House has not done this work already, he will do so as a matter of expedition and will, perhaps, write to you, Sir Nicholas, as Chairman of this Committee, and Committee members explaining the draft proposals for the changes in Standing Orders, because that is absolutely instrumental to our understanding of the safeguards that are to be put in place as a result of the Bill?

I repeat the point, which has repeatedly been made throughout our discussions on the Bill, that we are not prepared to accept assurances as to what will be parliamentary procedure. We want to see it in black and white and make sure that it accords with our expectation of what will happen in practice when dealing with orders of this kind.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Perhaps I may reinforce it by reminding hon. Members that the Procedure Committee raised with the Minister the issue of why the Government were precluding the House authorities from deciding that a different Committee might deal with the procedural side of the orders, as opposed to the substance of the orders. Rather than leaving that open to the House authorities and Standing Orders to resolve, the Minister is taking powers in the Bill to require that   there should only be one Committee deciding the procedure and the substance of the orders. I hope that he will take the opportunity of this wide-ranging clause stand part debate to expand on his thinking on that.

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, with his pig in a poke comparison, refers to his previous occupation. I think that he was a pig breeder in a previous life.

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

That was before he became an optician. I have no idea. Certainly, that is where he gets his analogy from.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Christchurch, it is still the Government’s opinion that the assessment of the correct procedure to be followed and the policy content of an order best rests with one Committee.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

But why should that be for the Government to decide, rather than the House?

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

Because in our view, that is the most effective way to deliver this enabling Bill. The Regulatory Reform Committee will be able to assess the policy content of the proposed order. It will, based on its assessment of that content, recommend which procedure should be followed, rather than making an assessment of the policy content and passing the procedural assessment and recommendation-making power to another Committee. That is simply the most effective way for us to work in the House.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence)

There is a good point to be made here about what the Bill will be used for. Given that the Minister says that it is for deregulation, it would be perfectly appropriate for the Regulatory Reform Committee to consider the nature of proposals. If the Bill is used, as its scope allows it to be used, for things other than deregulation, it is not entirely clear whether that Committee is the right Committee, or whether it would have the competence to assess matters outside its scope of policy.

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Gentleman, characteristically, makes a reasonable point. I touched on this issue in some of the evidence sessions, I believe. If not, I make it clear now that it is for the House to decide which Committee is appropriate, but we believe that the same Committee should deal with both procedure and policy content. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.

I move to the point about Prorogation. I think that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire used the term “vacation”; regardless of the legal background, I am not sure that Parliament has a vacation. As far as recesses are concerned, the clause is fairly similar to the relevant clause—clause 10, I think—of the 2001 Act, but is slightly more open or generous in that it refers to “either House”. Clause 17 sets out the method for calculating the length of the parliamentary scrutiny period. When calculating the time periods mentioned in clauses 13 to 16, any time in   which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued, or in which either House—here is the distinction from the 2001 Act—is not sitting for more than four days does not count towards that period. That approach is the same as that in the 2001 Act to which I have alluded. I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. If it does not, I shall seek to provide him with any additional information that he requests.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I say, in parenthesis, of my pig-breeding that my Tamworths were not so much an occupation as a regulatory burden.

The Minister simply read out what is written in the clause as a reassurance, but it does not reassure me. I accept entirely his preparedness to reconsider it and write to me again, but there can be no question of time during which Parliament is dissolved counting as part of the time period for the benefit of clauses 13 to 16, because the orders fall. Therefore, the reference to time in which Parliament is dissolved is either superfluous or sinister. Either way, it should not be there. I do not believe that an order can persist during a period in which Parliament is dissolved. It should not persist during a period in which Parliament is prorogued, but that is a more arguable case. The fact that the Minister finds it necessary to say that those time periods will not be counted for the purposes of totting up the periods under these clauses suggests that someone, somewhere believes that they will.

Mr. Murphyindicated dissent.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The Minister shakes his head. That is a hopeful sign that, once again, what the Bill says is not what he intends. If that is the case, he will need to write to us to explain why it says what it says and how it could be construed in any other way than that which I have suggested. I do not intend to pursue this any further now, but I do expect the Minister to write, as promised, to explain the purpose of those words in those circumstances.

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I do not want to dwell on the hon. Gentleman’s previous role as a pig farmer; I am a vegetarian, so I do not want to get involved in such a conversation. I am vegetarian because I worked in a   slaughterhouse that slaughtered pigs, so there is one connection between him and me. Of course I will write to him, but the relevant provisions are a restatement of the 2001 Act position. It has worked well and there has been no evidence to the contrary. In fact, the provisions go wider than the 2001 Act because they refer to either House. That is an important additional protection, but I will of course take up the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to correspond with him and copy in all members of the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.