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Public Bills

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 22 January 2009

2. If she will take steps to ensure that all Government amendments and new clauses to public bills are debated by the House on Report. (250011)

As far as possible, we always try to make sure that the Government do not table new issues on Report and that there is plenty of time for full debate. I have been working with Ministers in charge of Bills to ensure that we do better this year, but I confess that it is an art, not a science. No matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent Members’ loquacity or prolixity.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his response. Does he recall that during proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, huge swathes of Government amendments and new clauses were never reached, which meant that this House failed to do its job in holding the Executive to account and carrying out the scrutiny that the Prime Minister rightly says it is a priority for him to improve? On the Coroners and Justice Bill, for example, will the Deputy Leader of the House give us an assurance that every effort will be made by Government business managers to ensure that this House can debate both Government and Opposition amendments and new clauses? If necessary, will he provide the second day on Report that is so often needed for us to do our job properly?

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to make sure we do our scrutiny job properly, and that means devoting enough time to every element that needs to be debated. However, he is wrong in the sense that some Government amendments introduced at Report stage are in direct response to requests from the Committee. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is chuntering again, but the truth is that that applies to the majority of Government amendments. I have spoken already to the Minister responsible for the Bill that he mentioned. We are trying hard to make sure that we are not introducing new elements and areas of debate and, if necessary, we will try to provide a second day for debate on Report.

Since 1997, there have been 66 criminal justice Bills. That is too many, and too often they merely undo improperly scrutinised earlier Bills, thereby wasting the House’s time. For proper scrutiny, and to avoid that problem in the future, may I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that we have two days on Report stage much more frequently?

I think that we need to have the right amount of time, but two other things can help. First, my hon. Friend has campaigned for a long time for pre-legislative scrutiny, which is an important way to make sure that we do a better job before a Bill is introduced into Parliament. Secondly, post-legislative scrutiny can identify legislation that is not working or has not been useful. For that matter, it can also be used on legislation that has not been fully implemented. We should take such legislation off the statute book and not let it lie there dormant.

The Deputy Leader of the House will know that the current regime for proceedings on Report was introduced about 10 years ago, following recommendations from the Modernisation Committee. Should they not be reviewed now? How might that happen, given that the Modernisation Committee has apparently stopped meeting?

I am not sure that this might not be a matter for consideration by the Procedure Committee; it has a splendid Chairman, who is unfortunately not able to be with us at this moment, and it does a very good job. However, the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, as hon. Members of all parties have occasionally not been satisfied with how the Report stage has progressed. Sometimes, they have confused Committee stage with Report stage, and that has made it difficult for us to do our job properly. So perhaps this is something that the Procedure Committee should look at.

It did not take long for the Deputy Leader of the House to forget that Report stage is the key moment for Back Benchers to scrutinise Bills properly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem is not that Back-Bench Members speak for too long, as he suggests, but that programme motions do not take account of the business that is to be transacted? Moreover, far too many Government amendments are introduced at Report stage, not because they respond to points raised in Committee but because, as a result of the idleness or incompetence of the Ministers responsible for the Bill in the first place, they were not ready earlier.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important for the Government to consider all the relevant issues before legislation is introduced. We should not bring in new elements after that, so it is important that the short titles of most Bills are fairly tight to render that impossible. However, he is wrong to suggest that the vast majority of the amendments tabled by the Government are new ones of their own devising. The vast majority are concessionary to the Opposition, and sometimes they are even a concession to a good point made by the Liberal Democrats.