Good morning, everyone. Before we begin, I have a few preliminary announcements. It is not particularly warm, but if hon. Members want to remove any articles of clothing, that is perfectly acceptable. Please will all hon. Members ensure that mobile phones and pagers are turned off. I will not be pompous and draw attention to it, but I can hear phones when they go off, and our proceedings are being broadcast. Devices should be placed on silent mode during the proceedings.
I inform hon. Members that as a general rule, I and my fellow Chairman do not intend to call starred amendments that have not been tabled with adequate notice. We are blessed with a wise Clerk, who will help hon. Members if they do not understand proceedings, and I am sure that if that can all be done privately, we will proceed efficiently. The required notice period in Public Bill Committees is three working days. Therefore, amendments should be tabled by the rise of the House on a Monday for consideration on a Thursday and by the rise of the House on a Thursday for consideration on a Tuesday.
I realise that although it is 16 months since the election, not everyone has served on a Public Bill Committee before. We are here to help. They may not be familiar with the procedure in Public Bill Committees, so I will briefly outline the way in which we proceed. The Committee will first be asked to consider the programme motion on the amendment paper, on which debate is limited to half an hour. Then we will proceed to a motion to report written evidence, much of which is arriving. Then we will begin line-by-line consideration of the Bill. I first call the Minister to move the programme motion agreed by the Programming Sub-Committee.
I beg to move,
(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.00 am on Thursday 8 September) meet—
(a) at 1.00 pm on Thursday 8 September;
(b) at 10.30 am and 4.00 pm on Tuesday 13 September;
(c) at 9.00 am and 1.00 pm on Thursday 15 September;
(d) at 10.30 am and 4.00 pm on Tuesday 11 October;
(e) at 9.00 am and 1.00 pm on Thursday 13 October;
(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clause 1; Schedule 1; Clause 2; Schedule 2; Clause 3; Schedule 3; Clause 4; Schedule 4; Clause 5; Schedule 5; Clauses 6 to 32; 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 5.00 pm on Thursday 13 October.
It is an enormous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I am sure that the rest of the Committee will have noticed your broadsides against the BBC this morning. We can assure you that we will conduct our affairs with high levels of seriousness and low levels of Botox.
The programme motion was agreed at the meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee. It allows for 10 sittings of the Committee over five days and proposes that the Bill be taken in clause order, with the schedules being taken after the clauses that introduce them.
Like the Minister, I welcome the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. This is the first time that I have done so. Your reputation runs well before you. You are a fair but firm Chairman. I have made this comment before: I hope that you will be fair with us but firm with the people on the other side of the room. I am sure that that will be the case and that your wisdom but also your wit will keep us in order and at least slightly amused as well.
It is good to see the rest of the Committee assembled here. I see many bright eyes and bushy tails, so we can look forward to an interesting set of debates. The matter at hand is the programme motion. The House is aware, because we raised the issue on Second Reading, that we are uncomfortable—I will seek a ruling from you on this in due course, Mr Amess—with the fact that members of the public were able to make representations on the Bill only prior to its appearance in the House of Lords. After having made that point in the House, I was told that it is the convention with a House of Lords Bill, which this is, for evidence to be taken from witnesses at the time at which the Bill appears in the other place. Of course that is true, but it seems to me that although conventions are there to take heed of and to pay careful attention to, they should be flexible enough to allow for some variation from time to time.
This Bill changed very substantially between the point at which it was tabled in the other place and when it was put in front of us. It is now such a different Bill. Moreover, large numbers of people believe that we should have had the opportunity to hear from interested members of the public. I wonder whether any other Member has had the pleasure of receiving several hundred e-mails per hour in favour of S4C. Perhaps it happened only to myself and one or two others. I must say that my knowledge of written Welsh is not as strong as it should be. I was helped by the fact that there was a translation at the bottom of the page.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in our proceedings. I can confirm to the Committee that I too have received several hundred e-mails. I just wanted to say that the translation into English is fully equivalent, and I hope that hon. Members scrolled down the page and spotted that particular facility.
We did scroll down, although after doing so several hundred times we decided that all of them were quite similar in character. The point I wanted to make was that it is unusual to receive that number of e-mails. Given that the Government’s ideas on S4C and other serious matters have evolved, it might have been a reasonable idea for us to have had the opportunity to hear from interested members of the public before we decided how to proceed.
S4C is a serious matter. We know that it is a major national issue in Wales. Equally important, though—or perhaps even more important—is the chief coroner issue, which is a serious matter. I totally accept that the Government have a point of view, and we will hear it argued later. The truth is that many people in our country, including the relatives of people in the armed forces who have fallen, are deeply concerned about the decision to press ahead with changes to the manner in which we deal with the coronial service. The British Legion has been to see me—and probably other Members, too—and said that this is not the right decision. It would have liked the opportunity to say a few words here, so that we could understand its point of view. We do not necessarily have to accept what the British Legion has to say about the coronial service, but the organisation does represent our heroes and there is no difference between the various sides represented here about the esteem in which we hold it.
It would have been good—and it still may be—for us to have found time to listen to witnesses. There are other people, too. I noticed that the safety in sports ground issue, which I will refer to later, is also up for abolition. Tens of thousands of people went on the website that No. 10 created, which is a good innovation, to talk about what happened at Hillsborough. There will be relatives of people who died at Hillsborough who have a view about how safety at sports grounds can be guaranteed. They might well have wanted an opportunity to make their points. I raise these matters not in a partisan way—we will be partisan from time to time—but to say that the wisdom of the House is that if we are to bridge the gulf between ourselves as politicians and the wider public, we have to open up our procedures and processes. No. 10 has set up this site, which is a good innovation, and said that if 100,000 people sign a petition it can be debated and voted on in the House.
Another good innovation is allowing people who have a passionate interest in a matter being discussed by us to come here to make a point or two to us. On the question of how we are to conduct ourselves over the next few weeks, I seek your advice, Mr Amess, on whether it is still possible for the Committee to find a little time, if the Government are prepared to do so, to listen to some key witnesses. That would perhaps help the people in S4C; at least they would know that their voice was being heard—if only briefly—by this Committee. Others may have points to make on the matter.
I also look forward to serving under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, and that of your colleague Mr Robertson. I am glad to be on the Committee for this wide-ranging Bill.
As a Welsh Member, my particular interest is in Sianel Pedwar Cymru, or S4C. I am glad to see here a substantial contingent from Wales, and of people who have a Welsh interest. I am sure we will contribute to the debate in general, as well as on that particular issue.
I want to support the points about evidence made by the hon. Member for Hemsworth. With other colleagues, I have met people from Wales who now see they have missed their opportunity to make their points in evidence. That would have been useful. We will obviously have a debate on S4C a little later, and I look forward to that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, and to follow the hon. Member for Arfon. On the matter of organisation, the Opposition would be happy for a number of the sittings currently scheduled within the programme motion to be devoted to evidence. We made that fairly clear at the Programming Sub-Committee. There would be an opportunity within the current programme motion for the Government, if they chose, to come back and say they are willing to break and take evidence. Alternatively, the Opposition are happy to add sittings to the programme motion in order to invite people in to give evidence. I place that before the Committee because the Opposition are keen to ensure full scrutiny of the Bill.
I understand that the Committee has, under Standing Orders, the authority and power to break and take evidence at any time it chooses. I look to you, Mr Amess, with your long-standing experience in these matters. I place on record the Opposition’s view that we would be happy to look again at the programme motion and break at any point to take evidence, or to add sittings. To be fair to the Government, I think there is sufficient time within the programme motion to consider the Bill in some detail. We do not have a particular axe to grind on the out-date of the Bill, but we think it would be good to have additional scrutiny and the opportunity for witnesses to attend the Committee.
My husband, Mr Townsend, would be most upset about that. It is a great pleasure to serve with you as Chair, Mr Amess, and to be in your company and that of other hon. Members.
I add to the call for witnesses to this Committee. As a lawyer, I am concerned about some of the powers in the Bill. I have never read any Harry Potter books. I got to the first page and thought it was not for me; it was not my level. However, reading the Bill, indeed the first clause, is like waving a magic wand and saying, “Expelliarmus! You are out.” That causes me, as a lawyer, great concern. I have had to write to some of the bodies affected by the Bill because I am not clear what consultation has taken place. I would like to ask the Minister: what consultation has taken place with these bodies? We are talking about huge, important serious bodies such as the Human Tissue Authority and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. They all have brand names. They are going to be shoved into an organisation. I have sat on the Health Committee, so I have seen and heard the way the Care Quality Commission operates and I have serious concerns about that.
I would like to know what consultation has taken place, and whether we can look at the possibility of hearing evidence from some of these serious bodies, because the powers in the Bill are huge. The Minister might happen to be in a good mood on one day, and decide to absorb and get rid of some of the bodies, but he might be in another mood on another day and decide that he does not want to do so. As someone who did constitutional law, that rankles. I plead with the Minister to allow those bodies to come forward; whether they do so in Welsh or English, I do not mind.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I would like to express my view that it is imperative that witnesses are called to the Committee, simply to broaden and deepen our knowledge of certain issues. I, too, have received many e-mails about S4C, which reflects in no small part how important this issue is across Wales. If one goes back into the history of the Welsh-language channel, when Welsh-language broadcasting was first mentioned in this House—I think it was in the 1930s, although obviously I do not remember that—the speaker was laughed at. Things have changed so much, however, and one might argue that the reason why S4C exists is because listening took place at a very senior level. The opportunity to call witnesses is important. Many Members of Parliament have said that they were unaware of the strength of feeling until receiving such e-mails, and it would be even better if we heard from witnesses in person as well as via e-mail.
I apologise for interrupting you, Mr Amess. I am, like others, grateful for the opportunity to endorse the comments that the hon. Member for Clwyd South, in particular, has made about S4C and the need to broaden the information base of members of the Committee. She and I both have the luxury of serving on the Welsh Affairs Committee and of having undertaken a detailed inquiry, and, of course, there was also an extensive debate in the House of Lords on the matter. The debate has moved on sufficiently in Wales for many of us who have a Welsh interest to take evidence from S4C and from other interested parties such as Cymdeithas, but I suspect that there is a slight bafflement or bemusement among other members of the Committee. The opportunity to call witnesses, not least because the Opposition have said that that could happen within the existing time frame, would be immensely helpful.
Order. I apologise to Mr Williams; I had not realised that he wanted to speak. I would still like to respond before the Minister speaks. I thank the hon. Member for Hemsworth for his kind words; I am very susceptible to flattery. I say to the Minister that I have not had botox, although I am sure that I need it. I will now respond to the hon. Member for Hemsworth, who kindly gave me advance warning on what he intended to say.
I wanted to say to Members at the outset that this whole procedure of taking evidence before the Committee stages of Bills is quite new; indeed, I chaired the first evidence session. The procedure is only just over two years old. We are in new territory here. If we want to break precedent—I am looking at the two Whips—I know that things are normally done through the usual channels, and there could be a discussion when we break at 10.25 am. It is, however, a matter for the Committee ordinarily in consideration of the resolution of its Programming Sub-Committee, to determine whether it wants to take evidence. Of course, I chaired that committee. Hon. Members should know that it has not been the practice for Committees on Bills starting in the Lords to take oral evidence, but there is no prohibition in the Standing Orders on their doing so. This is the first time that I, whether as a Chairman or ordinary Member, have had all these e-mails. I am not even computer literate and I do not quite understand, although I am now told there is an English translation. This is a new phenomenon and it is entirely up to the Committee to decide.
Thank you for that, Mr Amess. I am sure that the Committee will have noted your remarks about your susceptibility to flattery. You can expect to bathe in the stuff over the next few sittings. In a way, we have had this debate before. The Government take great pride in our commitment to transparency and genuine consultation. But the programme motion was agreed at the meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee and we will not change our mind. You made it clear what is considered precedent and process here. I think the Committee needs to be reminded that evidence sessions were never programmed for Bills starting in the Lords under the previous Administration. So the current passion for doing so seems to be a conversion on the road to Committee Room 9.
We know full well that the Bill contains substantial powers, as the hon. Member for Walsall South said. Some of the issues underlying the proposed reforms are extremely emotive, such as the Coroners Bill and S4C. We understand that completely. The debate so far has missed an important point in terms of the Bill’s objectives. It is an enabling Bill, which allows Departments and Ministers to come to the House with secondary legislation on proposed reforms. Clause 10 makes it quite clear that in each of those cases there is to be appropriate and adequate consultation on the specific proposed reforms. Therefore the public will have an opportunity at that secondary stage to make their views known. As you made clear right at the start, Mr Amess, there is nothing to stop the public making written submissions to the Committee at this early stage. So I must make it clear that the Government are not prepared to change their mind.
We do not want to put the Minister or other members of the governing parties in a difficult position by forcing a Division, which will look as though they are attempting to prevent the British Legion or S4C from making their views known. I do not want to force a Division, but I am prepared to do so. When the orders are placed before the House, will there be an opportunity for the British Legion or S4C to appear before the House to give their opinions? I believe that is not the case, but can the Minister confirm that?
I would be very surprised if all the parties that feel passionately about the issues that are being debated feel that they are short of opportunities to make their case known to Ministers. As the hon. Member for Hemsworth said earlier, both the emotive issues mentioned so far have been extensively debated in the House of Lords. As we speak, the Departments responsible for those reforms are in consultation with the bodies. There is a very active process of engagement on these issues. But there is no precedent for evidence sessions for Bills that start in the Lords. It is a duplication of scrutiny as far as we are concerned and we are not prepared to change our mind.