Pre-legislative Scrutiny

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:39 am on 24th February 2004.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Parliamentary Secretary 10:39 am, 24th February 2004

My view and, more importantly, the Government's view is that a Bill should be published in draft form unless there are good reasons for not doing so. Such reasons may be broader than my hon. Friend suggested. He talked about the need to respond to emergencies and about the 11 September tragedy, but other forces majeures may require a legislative response from the Government. There may also be financial pressures, and the financial year is a key determinant in planning the legislative programme. I can also reveal that the business managers set about the timetable for the Higher Education Bill because of demands by the printers of university prospectuses. It was therefore a real-world timetable, which had little to do with the parliamentary timetable.

Some Bills are timetabled in response to decisions by our courts and the European courts. The timetable for the Gender Recognition Bill, which had its Second Reading yesterday, was drafted in response to the need to protect the British taxpayer against liabilities as a result of the judgment by the European Court of Human Rights. Those are examples of real-world pressures on timetables. Famous "events" can also change things. However, on the basis of a shared understanding of that framework, the Government's objective is to move towards the presumption of a draft Bill.

I understand why hon. Members have not gone into detail about the consequences of the greater use of draft Bills for other aspects of the parliamentary legislative process. The Government have given Select Committees greater resources, including staff resources. The new scrutiny unit is now fully functioning, and one of its primary functions is to assist with pre-legislative scrutiny. Following an independent review, the number of staff working directly for Select Committees will be increased over a three-year period. Hon. Members will also know that the payment of Select Committee Chairmen has been introduced. Those are some of the implications. Of course, Select Committees and the Liaison Committee have advised us formally and informally that the scrutiny of draft Bills has increased their work load extensively. That is why Joint Committees may be used increasingly and why we must be flexible in learning lessons at this stage. We should not tie our hands too tightly if we are to ensure that we can proceed.

The proposals also have implications for carry-over. If one is to have a successful programme for scrutinising draft Bills and for legislating subsequently, it is advantageous to have the facility to carry Bills over from a Session. Of course, the timetables and Standing Orders of the House of Lords and the House of Commons are not in sync.

We have touched on the important issue of programming in Standing Committees and on Report, and I am a big fan of programming, as are the Government in general. However, we recognise, as the Modernisation Committee did in its advice, that the current arrangements are not perfect. The hon. Member for Somerton and—