Pre-legislative Scrutiny

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 6th January 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North 9:30 am, 6th January 2004

It is ironic that while a peasant farmer who had access to a satellite dish in China could e-mail responses on the Communications Bill last year, a Member of Parliament who wished to do the same would have had to leave this place—the mother of Parliaments—and go outside, perhaps to their home, to tune in and exercise a similar right. However, my hon. Friend and I have been working closely with the Select Committee on Information to try to put that right. Indeed, I believe it may now even be possible, for the first time, for Members of Parliament to participate in making laws even though they are not sat in Committee, which is great progress.

The role of the independent mediator, a role taken by the Hansard Society for the Communications Bill, would be to look at the e-mail traffic, distil the gems and nuggets on a side of paper and put that in front of the Committee the next day. One of the beauties of the idea for Members who are technophobes—I probably count myself among their number—is that those conducting the evidence taking and those giving the evidence are not in direct interface with the technology. The Committee proceeds exactly as before; the only difference is that it receives a sheet of paper with some bright ideas, from whoever it may, about the evidence given the day before or on the Bill's clauses.

The great thing about the idea is that electors with practical experience in an area can feed the Committee useful advice as it develops its scrutiny of a Bill. Imagine, for example, if serving police officers, housing officers or victims of antisocial behaviour had been able not only to listen to the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary giving evidence on the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, but to improve the various concepts and ideas through their practical experience of the nuts and bolts of how things might work best for them. The Government may say that they already have their version of pre-legislative scrutiny and that they consult with people. That is true; but Parliament too should have the right to do that, as it is our responsibility to ensure that legislation is in good shape. For example, on the Anti-social Behaviour Act, although the Government might rightly have taken advice from the Association of Chief Police Officers on antisocial behaviour, a serving police officer in Macclesfield, Nottingham or Milton Keynes would have been able to say, "On-the-spot fines are a super idea, but if only you did it just like this, it would help us on the ground so much more."

The more voices that are allowed to be heard, the more likely we are to get the ideas to make good legislation even better. Many of the legislative disasters that Governments have imposed on Parliament—I speak generically—could probably have been avoided. To refer to my own experience, I led for my party in opposition on the Child Support Act 1991, which has had to be rewritten about five times. I have no doubt that had we had a sensible process of pre-legislative scrutiny—either online or offline—and had we listened to the practitioners and to those whom it affected, we would have been able to make that law far better, far earlier.

We have all, as constituency Members, heard voices, not as timely advice from those with experience, but as screams of anguish and despair from the most obvious victims of Government mistreatment of the parliamentary process. Not one Member of the House has not had experience of child support cases that we know would have been handled better had the law been framed properly in the first instance. We all share the blame for not getting the process right. That is not merely a dry parliamentary point; if we get things wrong—in this instance, the Child Support Agency—people die, people commit suicide, and misery is inflicted on people for many years. To take an extra few weeks to listen to the voices and get it right is a very small price to pay.

We are now in Second Reading season. Who knows how many of the Bills before the House this week and in coming weeks will have to be revisited next year or the year after? I have heard my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary say that people cannot wait to get a Bill on the statute book and that they need the relief and the remedy now. However, by hurrying Bills through without proper legislative consultation we slow, not speed, the process. Time and time again we come back to put things right that we did not get right because we acted in haste and without allowing Parliament to do the job that it is elected to do.

Proper parliamentary planning of evidence on Bills could create a schedule—a sort of parliamentary Radio Timesif we got our act together and listed which Bills were coming forward and when evidence could be given. That would allow a tremendous opportunity for access. Interest groups could plan their viewing—so to speak—and their input into law months ahead, where legislation affected them. For example, to stick with the issue of child support, if we were to produce a new child support Act, battered wives or "children need fathers" groups could know in advance when particular evidence was going to be given on particular parts of the Bill and could make provision to meet at their community centre, around the communal personal computer, with their social worker or community worker. They could view the evidence, have a sensible discussion and then make a contribution.

In the past, we might have said something that sounded like a great idea—for example, that we must put the man back into a relationship, even a financial relationship with the woman. However, battered wives might say that that is absolutely the last thing that they want and that if we want to help them we should operate in one way rather than the other. They might agree with our sentiment, but ask us to work in a practical and helpful way. The intelligence, experience and advice in our communities could help make our good intentions real and practical.

Pre-legislative scrutiny has received endorsement from the Government, most notably in the 2002 Gracious Speech. Thanks to the introduction of carry-over Bills and timetabling with a period of pre-legislative scrutiny built in, that is now theoretically far easier than ever before. If we are to believe newspaper reports in what we are told is a post-spin age, there are plans to abolish the monarch's annual address on the opening of Parliament. If that happened, a desire to avoid pre-empting the Queen's Speech would cease to be a valid excuse—if ever it were one—for not alerting Parliament, Select Committee Chairs and others about future Bills and allowing each departmental Committee to plan its pre-legislative programme further in advance. What is my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons doing now to plan next October's parliamentary Session? Is he engaging with the Chairs of Select Committees on the long list of potential Bills that is circulating in Whitehall? It is important to plan ahead, so that the procedure can be built in.

The trend is for more draft Bills to be published in each parliamentary Session, and it is important that all of us, whichever party we come from, put on the record our gratitude for the fact that the Government, in co-operation with the Opposition, are putting more Bills through the process. That is a welcome development, and I congratulate not only the Minister but my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cook, on the progress that has been made. Now we need to take a major step forward. The process needs extra impetus and political leadership if it is to progress. I hope that the Minister will be forthcoming on that issue. Robert Blackburn, the author, has rightly stated:

"Further development depends more on Government than on Parliament."

The Government control our agenda on a minute-to-minute basis, so the ability of the Cabinet and the business managers to decide in advance the legislative programme and of Departments to give drafting instructions, particularly given the limited resources of parliamentary counsel, are vital to the control of Government. It is not good enough for Government to say, "This is a matter for Parliament." Parliament cannot move without Government being supportive and promoting and encouraging further developments.

The process should not live or die according to who is Leader or Deputy Leader of the House. One of the most helpful contributions that the Minister could make this year would be to settle on one form of pre-legislative scrutiny. Early on, we welcomed lots of different forms; that was important at that stage. Perhaps we should not close off options, as an alternative form might be helpful in some circumstances. However, to assist the civil service, Select Committee Chairs and Members of this House, it is important to pull the strands together and to institutionalise the form in which pre-legislative scrutiny online takes place. There are too many excuses around for those who do not want the process to be a success to allow them myriad possible pitfalls.

It is important to identify the most commonly used and most favoured form of pre-legislative scrutiny, and I hope that the Minister will consider putting it in Standing Orders, so that it can be applied as a matter of course to all future Bills—not the odd one that we think might go well through the process—in order for there to be a feeling that that is standard practice. On occasion, it would not be necessary, but the common practice would be to follow the procedure specified in the Standing Orders. We should simplify and institutionalise the process.