Pre-legislative Scrutiny

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:05 am on 6th January 2004.

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Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes 10:05 am, 6th January 2004

My hon. Friend makes the very point that I was going to make. The House divides scrutiny into pre-legislative and post-legislative stages, but the process is ongoing. Any post-legislative scrutiny should inform future legislation. A couple of years ago, the Public Administration Committee produced a report on innovations in consultation. One of the key things to come out of that was the fact that people wanted to know how their views influenced the system. They were not particularly interested in whether their views were accepted, but they wanted to see how the system responded to external inputs. The consultations in which that process was transparent were successful, but those in which it was opaque were the ones that people found frustrating. There are therefore serious issues relating to the way in which we conduct our scrutiny.

I have served on two pre-legislative scrutiny Committees—a Select Committee and the Joint Committee considering the Communications Bill. My experience of the Joint Committee was better than my experience of the Select Committee. One of the problems with the Select Committee was that, although we were considering the Freedom of Information Bill, the time and effort that went into pre-legislative scrutiny meant that the rest of the Committee's work did not receive proper consideration. I prefer the scrutiny powers of Joint Committees, and I would not want Select Committees to have the ability to produce draft legislation. It is important to get a balance, and so I disagree with my hon. Friend about having an institutionalised way forward.

When talking about online input, we ought to consider pre-pre-legislative scrutiny—in other words, what the civil service does in discussions with Ministers. The Communications Bill is a good example. The team for that Bill was set up and there was consultation with the industry. Parliamentarians were also involved, through the European information society group, which I chair. The process brought parliamentarians and the industry together. The Bill team went out and made use of the consultation—ironically, the team used online consultation as well—and that ensured that when pre-legislative scrutiny took place there was a much better understanding of the issues. The Bill team was more responsive, and, when it participated in the pre-legislative scrutiny, it was prepared to take part in the debate. However, when the team working on the Freedom of Information Bill took part in pre-legislative scrutiny, it took a step back from the Committee process, which raises some interesting issues.

It is often said that, if only we had pre-legislative scrutiny, we could avoid all disagreements. However, that is not a good idea, as it is important that there should be disagreement. Pre-legislative scrutiny can eliminate certain debates if the Bill is simply wrong. It is reckoned that some 400 amendments to the Communications Bill were avoided as a result of getting the minutiae right, but pre-legislative scrutiny did not resolve disagreement. There were debates about different options, and it was down to the Minister involved to choose the preferred one. The other options were still valid, but the Minister had to make a choice, and everyone knew that.

Similarly, some issues simply involved a choice of A or B, particularly between BSkyB and the public broadcasters. Either A or B would lose out but, whatever the decision, there was a fight in Committee. Pre-legislative scrutiny should not be used to avoid debate and disagreement.