Pre-legislative Scrutiny

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

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest and support—it is important that this should remain a cross-party and pro-Parliament issue. He makes a good point; something can be lost if we focus on a single, mainstream type of pre-legislative scrutiny. However, we are at the point at which we need to plump for something that might be regarded as the standard process, albeit one that does not preclude us from acting in a slightly different way in particular circumstances. We are trying to change from thinking that anything goes to introducing something that will ensure that the new concept survives and flourishes.

We have seen that the appointment of a new Leader of the House with a different approach can kill that concept. However, if it is institutionalised, so that it is clear how the civil service, hon. Members and Ministers should operate—allowing for some flexibility—we will be able to maintain and grow the concept of pre-legislative scrutiny online. If I were to plump for a favourite, I would go for a process involving a Special Standing Committee that would be created after First Reading, which would be the announcement of just the long title of the Bill. The process would last for eight weeks and would be based on a full ministerial brief on what the Bill is intended to achieve, not on the Bill or Green Paper. The Bill would not be published until Second Reading. Instead of hon. Members being sucked into the detail of the arcane language found in Bills, there would be a more open evidence-giving session about the general ideas and intentions of Ministers and the Government. That is my view, but what is important is not that that view wins, but that the Government, if they are taking this process seriously, start to coalesce policy over the next 12 months or so around a preferred way of scrutinising Bills in this House.

The advantages of such an approach are numerous. It would involve Parliament either in the drafting of legislation or the reality checking of concepts behind it, and it would mean that problems could be corrected before they became part of an entrenched political position after Second Reading on the Floor and the farcical process of Standing Committee, which wastes so much ministerial time, let alone parliamentary time. The end result would be better law.

There would also be political benefits—regardless of party. Recently, there has been a progressive proposal for the introduction of back-loaded university tuition fees, which has been severely criticised on both sides of the House. Why? It is not because of the substance of the policy, which many people adhere to when it is properly explained, but because of the manner in which it has been dropped fully formed on to Parliament out of nowhere—nowhere being No. 10 Downing street in this instance.

If hon. Members will permit me a flight of fantasy, I ask them to imagine that at some point after the last general election, when the Government realised that their manifesto commitment not to introduce top-up fees was becoming untenable, they came to Parliament and said, "We made this manifesto commitment in complete good faith, but now, in equally good faith, we cannot be bound by it when faced with the financial collapse of our world-class university system. We are putting to you—Parliament—a proposal for variable tuition fees, and we would like you to take the time to work through it, find the snags and suggest the improvements." Several parliamentary Committees could have begun scrutinising that idea from different angles. The proceedings and evidence taking, broadcast over the internet, would have allowed students, prospective students, parents, teachers, the National Union of Students and other interested parties to register and submit their comments.

Even with the half-baked process that we have, there have been a lot of improvements in the past few weeks. In a proper process, the package would have been tightened and improved along the way with, for example, larger maintenance grants for poorer students or less subsidisation of tuition fees, so my proposal would be cost free. If the matter had been handled in that way, the different groups participating, including the Government, would have mutually educated themselves about the policy and bought into an agreed package that they had all helped to produce; we certainly would not be engaged in the brinksmanship and last-minute crisis management that we are now involved in.

Full online pre-legislative scrutiny might yet offer a sensible way forward for a new and positive relationship between all Governments and Parliaments, regardless of parties. It would also send a clear signal to Members of Parliament that Prime Ministers of all political colours would be willing to listen to them and take their ideas on board, as well as those ideas from the public that hold water. Above all, we in the House, with our new partners, the public, would be able to make better law—law proposed by another new partner, the Government.