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Public Bodies Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 2)

Volume 534: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2011

I beg to move,

That the Order of 12 July 2011 (Public Bodies Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows—

1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order shall be omitted.

2. Proceedings on Consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.

3. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.



Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses; new Schedules; amendments to Clause 1 and Schedule 1; amendments to Clause 2 and Schedule 2; amendments to Clause 3 and Schedule 3; amendments to Clause 4 and Schedule 4.

7.45 pm

Amendments to Clause 5 and Schedule 5; amendments to Clauses 6 to 27; amendments to Schedule 6; amendments to Clauses 28 to 35; remaining proceedings on Consideration.

9.00 pm

4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 10.00 pm at today’s sitting.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister said yesterday that if there were any treaty change to shore up the euro, we should press for the repatriation of social and employment policy. Given that he has just been completely contradicted by his Europe Minister, could you advise us how we might clarify Government policy in that important area?

I have known the hon. Gentleman since long before his election to this House last year—indeed, for the best part of two decades—and I know of no one who surpasses him in ingenuity. I trust that he will deploy his ingenuity through the use of the Order Paper and other mechanisms in order further to convey his own views and to highlight his concerns. I think the Deputy Leader of the House may now continue with his oration.

I am most grateful, Mr Speaker. I think I can safely assume that that point of order was not related to the programme motion in respect of the Public Bodies Bill.

It is important that I first pay tribute to both the Chairs of the Public Bill Committee, the hon. Members for Southend West (Mr Amess) and for Glasgow North West (John Robertson), and my fellow members of the Committee. It scrutinised the Bill rigorously, but with good humour and professionalism that meant we were able to conclude consideration a full day ahead of schedule. It was a joy to serve on the Committee.

I also remind the House, because it is relevant to the programme motion, that the Bill is paving legislation. Although it is right and proper that we consider the inclusion of specific bodies in the Bill, as we did in Committee, there will be a further chance for the House to scrutinise its effect on particular bodies when the necessary orders are taken through the House, after the Bill has, as I hope, received Royal Assent.

The motion has been tabled to allow the debate to take place with schedules grouped alongside their associated clauses, as was the case in Committee. Following discussions with the usual channels, the use of a knife at 7.45 pm was agreed to, to facilitate debate on clauses and schedules of significant interest. There is a further change from our discussions in Committee, in that we are happily joined by some of our colleague Ministers from relevant Departments, who will be able to explain in far better detail than I could muster the consequences of the Bill’s proposals on their Departments.

I hope that the House will be able to come quickly to a decision on the motion and proceed with the Report stage of this important Bill. I commend the motion to the House.

There will be time later to pay tribute to the Chairs and other members of the Public Bill Committee, if and when we get to Third Reading. First, we have in front of us the programme motion. It is perfectly true that, as the Deputy Leader of the House has just said, the Committee concluded its deliberations somewhat earlier than had been predicted, but we did so on a clear undertaking from Ministers that no significant amendments would be brought forward, other than technical amendments. We therefore felt it appropriate not to continue to the final Thursday.

The Opposition object to the programme motion. I have no doubt that you, Mr Speaker, the Clerks and even Ministers have done their best to accommodate some of the key debates that arise from Committee—we are particularly thrilled that we will have a proper debate on the chief coroner, which is an important matter—but the process remains totally unsatisfactory, because at no stage has it allowed proper consultation on or scrutiny of the Bill.

You will no doubt remember, Mr Speaker, because you have a compendious memory, that the Opposition pressed the programme motion to a Division on Second Reading and in Committee. Given the scale of the changes made to the Bill in the other place, we thought it important to provide the opportunity for witnesses to come forward to make representations to the Committee, so that we could consider in detail their points of view.

The Bill changed fundamentally in the other place, and witnesses—above all, those from the Royal British Legion—should have had their views on the chief coroner heard by Ministers, shadow Ministers and Back Benchers in Committee. Similarly, many tens of thousands of quango employees, whose futures are being discussed—indeed, they are in jeopardy—might well have wanted to come forward to give their points of view. Finally, many users and clients of the services provided by quangos might also have wanted the opportunity to make representations to the Committee. They were all denied, which was a fundamental mistake, particularly in view of the scale of the changes that the Government envisage.

On that point, my hon. Friend will be aware that many people who work in those public bodies are very concerned about TUPE arrangements and feel that the arrangements in the Bill are not strong enough. It would have been good to hear from them in Committee and to get a chance to debate those issues in full then and today.

I totally understand and agree with my hon. Friend. The TUPE provisions of the Bill are covered by the programme motion, but the only way we can arrive at discussion of them is by compressing the debate on the chief coroner proposal, which I fear could be substantial given the scale of the concern in the country.

The Opposition pressed programme motions to a Division in the House and in Committee, but the Government then told us that debate on Report would take place next Tuesday, which would have allowed time to consult stakeholders and others. On Thursday, it was suddenly decided that the debate would be squeezed in today instead. That left all the stakeholders—organisations, clients, employees and everybody else concerned with quangos—only a few working hours while the House was sitting to make representations and to suggest amendments. Thus we saw the list of amendments only yesterday.

Clearly, there has been no opportunity to consult widely on the nature of the amendments. However, the most disturbing thing is that 30 of the 62 amendments are Government amendments, some of which are far beyond merely technical amendments. Frankly, it is reprehensible that things have been handled in that way.

Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the problem was compounded by the fact that the business was announced when a large number of Wales MPs, who have a great interest in S4C, were at the Welsh Grand Committee in Wrexham, and therefore could not table amendments without making specific arrangements?

I was not aware of that. It is clear that S4C is a major issue in Wales. It was debated at some length but not comprehensively in Committee, and the House therefore deserved proper notice so that it could debate the provisions. It will not do for the Minister simply to say, “Well, you had a debate in Committee, so it is okay to proceed at short notice to a debate on the Floor of the House.” The reason that it will not do is that many thousands of people in Wales will have listened to his arguments, might have been persuaded by some of them but not by others and would have wanted to make representations to the House before today’s debate. However, the timing has been so compressed that it has been impossible to listen to the views of people in Wales and elsewhere.

We now have five hours to discuss the fate of several hugely important organisations, which shows that the Government had no interest in consultation or scrutiny of the Bill. Do they think it appropriate to engage in what can only be represented as a shambolic process, given that such important issues are at stake? The bodies involved include the Agricultural Wages Board, which protects 152,000 low-paid workers in England and Wales; the Youth Justice Board, which oversees the interaction between youth organisations and ensures that young people are properly protected when taken into custody, and without which it would have been nearly impossible to open the courts on a 24-hour basis during the August disturbances; S4C, which we have just mentioned; and the TUPE arrangements, which my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) mentioned. All those things are vastly important, and debate on them ought not to be compressed into the time available this afternoon.

Furthermore, there is the matter of the chief coroner, about which I have no doubt we will hear more. The House should have had the opportunity to reflect on the arguments made in Committee and to listen to the bereaved families and people who have lost loved ones who have had experience of the coronial service. We have not had the time to listen to their representations, however, and now we have a maximum of one and a quarter hours to debate those issues. I do not think that the programme motion allows us to deal with these matters appropriately.

Other issues are not programmed for debate at all, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is important to human rights in our country, the regional development agencies and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. We could have discussed all those bodies had we been given enough time.

These are not minor issues. The Bill’s ramifications have not been properly scrutinised, but they could well be huge. The Bill effectively gives powers to Ministers to do almost whatever they want with the quangos named in it. Their powers would stifle the ability of most of those organisations to work from day to day, leaving the public without the necessary services and employees uncertain about their future. No doubt Ministers will say, “All of this is simply enabling legislation and therefore the programme motion is fine”, but given how they have handled the programming, the problems with the Bill and the lack of consultation, I have no confidence that the processes to be set in train if the Bill becomes an Act will be satisfactory. I therefore put it on the record that we oppose the programme motion. As the House knows, the problem is that if we push the matter to a vote, it will take time away from the debate, and therefore I shall not seek to divide the House. However, that in no way means that I think that the programme motion is adequate.

I rise to observe that the programme motion does not allow sufficient time for discussion of Government amendments 47 and 48. It would have been good to have had time to ensure a full discussion of the matter, because, on a rare occasion that I wish to raise an important constituency issue—concerning the future of the Dover harbour board—I would have been able to make the case for Ministers reconsidering the amendments. With that time in the programme motion, I would have been able to speak on the matter, without it being crowded out by the debate on the chief coroner, and to have explained to Ministers how, in a statutory public referendum in my constituency, 98% of people voted in favour of the people’s port as opposed to a sell-off of the port of Dover.

There would also have been time to tell the House that the unions, business and the community had united and were in agreement on this matter, and to acquaint the House with the fact that seeing that kind of thing happening in public life is actually the most incredible rarity. There might also have been time to tell the House of the unity around the desire for the big society to be built in Dover, where our English border is to be found, and where we keep watch upon our friends across the channel, in the European Union and elsewhere. It would have been most welcome to have had time to tell the House that, rather than carrying out the sell-off, it would be really great to have a community-owned port and a flagship landmark of the big society.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. May I put it on record that he spoke eloquently and convincingly to his amendment in Committee? How disappointed was he that he won his argument only because of the support he received from Labour Members, and despite limited support from those on his own side?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. As so often happens, he sparkles in the Chamber and puts across his fabulous point of view in trying to give me problems with my own party. Had there been time, I would have explained to him that, just as Rome was not built in a day, so the port of Dover was not sold—[Hon. Members: “Sold?”] I mean that it was not saved in a day. Work in progress takes a long time, and it is not always easy to get straight into the harbour to safeguard oneself from the storm. I am confident, however, that the ship is heading in the right direction—

Indeed, the ship of state is moving in the right direction, and I am confident that a safe harbour and place of safety will be found, and that the people of Dover will find great contentment with the end result. I am grateful to have had the time to make those few points, and to make the case for my constituency.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on being better off than many Opposition Members and perhaps some of his own colleagues, in that his proposals have been selected for debate, even though they might not be reached.

I want to make the general point that this whole approach is a disgrace and an insult to previous Members of the House of Commons who, over many hours, days and years, laboured over the establishment of the various public bodies in question. We are now being asked to dispose of them in an afternoon. I am particularly interested in the fate of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and I have checked the various debates in the House of Commons on its original establishment and on its improvement. Those debates took up more time than this Bill is taking to shift it around, mess it about and do away with it and a large number of other useful public bodies.

I do not think that this is the way to legislate. It is a disgrace, given that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister prated on about a new approach to government. I think that everyone expected a more liberal—with a small l—approach, but it has turned out to be a more absolutist one. I believe that Members of both sides of the House will eventually realise that it is a good idea to allow enough time to debate the things that need to be debated.

May I add my voice to those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), while supporting what my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) has said? This is a shambles. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was not even consulted about whether it should appear in the Bill and the same goes for the Human Tissue Authority. I, too, want to express my disappointment at the fact that amendments on these issues have not been selected for debate. More importantly, provisions on the Equality and Human Rights Commission are not included, yet it does amazing and important work on equality issues.

I thus add my voice of concern about these proceedings, which seem to mimic the passage of the Bill generally. Yes, I agree with the Minister that we had a good time in Committee, but we managed to air the issues that were a matter of concern. We are talking about huge swathes of public servants who are carrying out their jobs without understanding what is going to happen to them. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras was right about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and it also applies to the Human Tissue Authority. There are some parents in the Gallery whose children’s organs have been removed without consent. Such institutions are the guardians of consent regarding human tissue and the protection of the embryo. I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth said; we should have been allowed time to debate such issues.

Briefly, I echo the thoughts of hon. Members of all parties about the short time available for debate. My particular interest is in the debate on S4C, although the debates on agricultural wages and rural affairs are also substantial, to which I know hon. Members from Wales are keen to contribute. I support them in that intention.

I am glad to say that we had a good debate on S4C in Committee. I note that there were positive contributions from Members of all parties, and I am grateful for those extended debates. However, as already noted by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), there have been subsequent changes, not least the fact that Members from Wales were up in Wrexham at the time when we could have tabled amendments on Report. In the meantime, there has been further discussion between S4C, the BBC and the Government, and only today has the substantial agreement between the BBC and S4C been published. I have had the opportunity to look at it, but I know that other hon. Members have not had time to do so, let alone digest it.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that throughout discussion of the Public Bodies Bill—whether in Committee or anywhere else—fewer than four hours have been spent debating S4C and that, although there might have been substantial coverage and publicity, that happened thanks only to the energy and enthusiasm of Welsh language campaigners across Wales and had absolutely nothing to do with the shambolic performance of the Government in this place?

I rather agree with the hon. Lady. I would add that I was fortunate to get a Westminster Hall debate on S4C for half an hour, which was well attended and a contribution to the debate. The problem that I have, as I have said, is that further significant changes have occurred. Given that the amendments on S4C are the last to be dealt with before 7.45 pm, I am concerned that we might not reach them. In that case, I will take my own advice and shut up.

Order. It is not possible to intervene on someone who has finished his speech. I think I am correct that the hon. Gentleman has finished.

It is inappropriate and against the rules to criticise the Speaker’s selection of amendments, but may I say that that selection is often influenced by the availability of time in which to debate those amendments? A number of staff of different organisations will be disappointed to know that we are not having a debate on the Floor of the House on amendments dealing with the Equality and Human Rights Commission or the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council.

I have been struck by the fact that the Government are not only being bullies in the amount of time allotted for debate on the subject of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but have nationalised—it is the only word I can use—the commission’s grant-giving power, showing that even without this Bill they can behave like Henry VIII.

The problem for those of us who are not members of Bill Committees as a rule—goodness knows why not—is that such points can only be made to them at this stage in the process.

Let me say briefly—because I do not want to take up any more time—that, although the TUPE amendments that I tabled are critical, it seems highly likely that they will not be reached because of the timetable motion. They are critical because tens of thousands of staff will be transferred from one body to another, and eventually, regrettably, many will lose their jobs. In Committee the Minister read some further commitments from the Government into the record, but it would be much more valuable if we had a brief opportunity to engage in further discussion on the Floor of the House, and if the Minister could read the letter that he sent to me today into the record as well. That would provide some comfort and security for the staff members whose positions are under threat.

I urge the House to enable us to reach those amendments, if only for a few minutes, so that more clarity can be given to public servants whom the Bill will affect.

Some political gamesmanship took place during Thursday’s business statement when the debate on the Bill’s remaining stages was moved forward by a week. That left only 24 hours for Members to table amendments. At the time only one had been tabled, but over the past few days Members have made a gigantic effort to table a number of further amendments, which demonstrates the extent of the continuing concern about the Bill.

Of the 35 amendments that we shall debate today, 21 are Government amendments. Amendments that I tabled dealing with unfinished business relating to consumer advocacy in Wales were not selected owing to the shortage of Government time allocated to the Bill. It is clear that a single day’s debate will not be sufficient.

The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) tried very hard to persuade the House that this was an outrageous proposal from the Government on the grounds of lack of opportunity to consult, but written into the Bill at every stage is a statutory duty to consult on proposals before they become substantive, so consultation is not an issue.

The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) were concerned about matters that had not been selected for debate. It is not the Government who select amendments for debate; we can only table programme motions relating to the selection that is before us.

I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) presented the important case relating to Sianel Pedwar Cymru in Committee, and I hope that we shall have yet another opportunity to discuss those matters today. As the hon. Gentleman said, and as I think most right-minded people will recognise, progress has been made during our consideration of the Bill, and we are keen to ensure that the outcome is right for S4C.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised an important point about TUPE. Let me say, in case his amendments are not reached, that I will ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd)—who gave him all the assurances that could be given—to place his letter in the Library, so that it is on the record and there can be no doubt that those assurances were given.

I believe that we have an opportunity to engage in substantive debates this afternoon on an important Bill which, despite being paving legislation, opens up the possibility of further debate at a later stage, and I think that we should not delay progress any further.

Question put and agreed to.