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Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 3)

Volume 559: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2013

I beg to move,

That the Order of 19 November 2012 (Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill [Lords] (Programme)), be varied as follows:

1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 shall be omitted.

2. Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

3. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

I hope that this will be the second day in a row when I can speak to a Bill on which there is broad agreement across the House. The programme motion allocates three hours for debate before we move on to Third Reading, which we think will allow us plenty of time to consider any issues that might be raised on what is—let us remember—quite a narrow and tightly focused piece of legislation, and one that enjoys considerable cross-party support.

I am always worried when a Minister starts by saying that Front Benchers and the usual channels have agreed on a Bill, because that means the legislation is almost certainly wrong. My specific point is that we had a programme motion that we agreed after Second Reading, so why is it being overruled? Why are we shortening scrutiny when the House and Parliament thought that we would have a whole day for it?

I gently point out to my hon. Friend that I did not say that this was something the usual channels were all okay with; I said that there has been a great deal of positivity across the House for the content of the Bill itself. It follows on from previous private Members’ Bills, and on Second Reading and in Committee it was generally welcomed by a large number of Members.

We believe that the programme motion allows sufficient time for scrutiny, because we rigorously tested the Bill on Second Reading and in Committee. Indeed, what we did not know when we passed the original programme motion was that consideration in Committee would finish early, so it was well scrutinised and the time that had been allocated was significantly more than ample.

I concur with the Minister that all members of the Committee were fine members. Perhaps I can help to answer question asked by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). One reason the Committee got through the Bill faster than anticipated, which we hope we might do again today, was the Government’s fantastic decision to change their mind and include in the Bill the power to impose financial penalties, which saved a lot of time and might also help us today.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Of course, the House is delighted that he, too, has received adequate recognition for his role in bringing that about. I believe that he was the Total Politics MP of the month because of his campaigning, which is obviously a great accolade—I understand that he collects those, as he was once given an award for being the sexiest MP of the year in Wales. He makes the important point that the Government have been in listening mode, and one of the main issues that various Members expressed concern about on Second Reading was that of fines. We have listened to that, and it was obviously discussed further in Committee.

In that context, I think that three hours will be sufficient to debate the amendments. I hope that I can provide my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and others with that reassurance. On that basis, I commend the programme motion to the House.

I do not have much to add to the Minister’s opening speech. Labour Members agree with the programme motion for the simple reason that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)—the Total Politics Member of the month—said, most of the discussion on Second Reading focused on fines. As the Minister said, the Government listened on that issue, although “caved in” is probably more like it, and decided to include fines in the Bill, under extreme pressure not only from Labour Members but from many organisations and, indeed, from some of her hon. Friends. Had I known that the hon. Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) had tabled so many amendments, we might have asked for more time through the usual channels. However, given that we are where we are and that we are relatively happy and content with what came out of Committee, we will support the programme motion.

I am always suspicious when a deal is done between the usual channels, and that is what has happened in this case. The Minister said that she thinks it reasonable that there is less time to debate the Bill on Report than was originally intended on 19 November because we do not need more than three hours to scrutinise it. That is very paternalistic. She then argued that because the Committee spent less time discussing the Bill than it might have done, we need less time to discuss it on Report. Surely the reason we need more time on Report is that only then do Members who were not members of the Committee that considered the Bill in detail have a chance to participate in the debate and to table amendments.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Does he agree that there is bound to be no proper scrutiny in Committee because the Government pack it with people who agree with them—supporters of the Bill whom they want to be there?

My hon. Friend is right. I am not aware of anybody on the Committee feeling that the Bill was too strong and should be weakened; the only people there either supported it or wanted it to be strengthened. That shows how unrepresentative the Committee was. We now have three groups of amendments and only three hours in which to debate them, after deducting such time as we will spend on considering this programme motion.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem arises because the Executive decide on the time for debate? Within just a couple of months, the Government are going to bring forward proposals for a House business Committee. Will that not solve the problem?

Thereby hangs a subject for a separate debate. The coalition agreement contained a commitment to have a House business Committee by the third year of this Parliament. We now know that that is being interpreted as meaning the end of December 2013, which is rather an extension of the use of the English language. However, that may be the subject of another debate on another occasion. As my hon. Friend suggests, this shows, in essence, that Front Benchers are not to be trusted on these issues, and until they prove their point and we are satisfied, we will be suspicious.

As a member of the Committee that my hon. Friend criticises, it is difficult not to take offence. Surely he must recognise that the debate that he is forcing now will reduce the amount of time that we have to scrutinise the Bill, and surely the quicker we can get on to that debate the better off we will be.

My hon. Friend scores a bit of an own goal. If we had had the original programme motion, we would have been able to continue the debate until 7 pm. If, as I imagine, he will support this programme motion, he will be supporting a curtailment of the debate.

An outrageous slur has been made on my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who has made it clear that he wants more time for debate. The simple answer is that when the House divides on this programme motion and we defeat it, the previous programme, which gave us a whole day for debate, will be in place. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) should apologise to my hon. Friend.

I do not expect hon. Members to apologise to me. I think actions speak louder than words on these issues.

My hon. Friend said that there would be only an hour to debate each of the three groups of amendments because there are three hours and three groups. He was being overly generous, because any Divisions will eat further into that time, so there may be only a maximum of 45 minutes for each group.

My hon. Friend is right.

I am going to finish soon because other people want to participate in this very short debate. Before I do so, let me point out that the Minister says that one of the justifications for curtailing the amount of time to debate the Bill on Report is that the Committee changed the Bill to introduce an ability for the adjudicator to fine without that having to be the subject of regulations in future. That is a fundamental change to the Bill. I would have thought that that is an argument for having more, not less, discussion on Report.

The hon. Gentleman stated that actions speak louder than words. Will he point to where he or the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) raised issues of contention during the Second Reading debate, which surely would have been the opportunity to telegraph to Front Benchers the fact that there were such issues that needed more time for debate at this stage?

I do not think that Front Benchers needed any telegraph messages from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) or me, because one of the precursors to this Bill was a private Member’s Bill in the previous Parliament that my hon. Friend fought against line by line, in which I joined and supported him. The Bill before us is one that several colleagues and I are still very concerned about. The fact that I did not speak on Second Reading is not an argument that can be used against me, because now we have the chance to consider amendments, whereas on Second Reading we would only have been able to flag up general concerns, and I did not think that necessary because I had done so previously.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I do not wish to prolong this debate on the programme motion. Is it not fair to say that at the time of Second Reading the country was not engulfed in the anxiety about the food chain that has arisen subsequently, and that it would be a disaster if there were not enough time to debate at least amendments 34 and 35, which cover matters that are on the public’s mind?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The amendments in the first group include two new clauses in my name, which have been driven by the fact that this issue concerns more than just the United Kingdom. We are talking about a very complicated global supply chain, and we need further explanation of how the Bill will impact on that.

I have severe reservations about changing the programme motion. It is indicative of the fact that this Government are lacking in self-confidence. Why do they not have the self-confidence to allow us to debate these issues for a whole day on Report, as they originally intended? Why do they wish to close down debate? Are they frightened of scrutiny?

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope).

I want to query a couple of things that the Minister said. She is a first-class Minister, and I think that had she been a shadow Minister, she would have been arguing for more scrutiny. I notice that she has now been left alone on the Front Bench with just one Whip, which seems to indicate that nobody in Government wants to be associated with this programme motion. When the Deputy Leader of the House sat on the Opposition Benches, he was a fine proponent of opposing programme motions, and it must be very sad for him to have to take this line today.

There is an intellectual flaw in the Minister’s argument. If she is saying that this is not controversial and that three hours gives us plenty of time for debate, why bring in another programme motion, because the debate will automatically finish within three hours anyway? The centralist, Stalinist approach of this Executive is such that they want to be wedded to programme motions.

I know that that is not the Prime Minister’s view, because in his excellent speech “Fixing Broken Politics”, which he made in May 2009—I am sure that every Member has read it—he roundly criticised programme motions and said that they reduced scrutiny. Basically, a Bill is thought up in Downing street, pushed through its Second Reading and then goes to a Committee that is stuffed full of Members who support it. There is no way of getting on a Committee unless the Whips support the decision. Then, when the Bill comes back to the Chamber to be considered, Back-Bench Members who are interested in it but who could not get on the Committee do not have enough time to make amendments or discuss it. I guarantee that that is exactly what will happen today if the programme motion goes through. Amendments will not be reached and they will not be discussed, and that, of course, is fundamentally what the Government want. They do not want scrutiny of this Bill. Such a situation occurs when Members on both Front Benches are in league together. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), has let slip that he is happy with the programme motion and that the usual channels have agreed to it.

How does my hon. Friend square that argument with the fact that every single Government member of the Committee criticised the Bill on Second Reading?

I hate to criticise the Whips Office, but it was clearly not doing its job properly when it let hon. Members such as my hon. Friend—serious parliamentarians who want to scrutinise the Bill—slip through.

I think that what my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) was trying to say was that every Government member of the Committee was critical of the Bill because it did not go far enough and they wanted it to be strengthened. In effect, that is what the Government wanted them to say, because they could then say, “We’ve had so much pressure put on us that we’ve had to strengthen the Bill.” Those Government Members were put on the Committee not to be unhelpful, but to be as helpful as possible.

I am afraid that that rings true. On occasion, I myself have been asked to do things on behalf of the Whips and I am afraid that sometimes I have succumbed and made noises that appeared to be contrary to the Government’s views but that turned out to be what they thought all along. The European Union Act 2011 is a fine example of that.

I want to make a brief point of principle. The problem with the timing results from the fact that the programming of Parliament is controlled entirely by the Executive. Parliament has already agreed to a timetable motion, which in my opinion it did not need to do. It does not need programme motions; we should be able to scrutinise Bills for the time that Parliament thinks necessary. The programme motion, which went through on Second Reading, gave a whole day to consider the Bill and give it its Third Reading. That is what we should be doing today. The only reason why the debate is being restricted—again, the shadow Minister let this slip out—is that amendments have been tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Christchurch. The Government are trying to restrict scrutiny.

The Deputy Leader of the House is back in his place—

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) is not the Deputy Leader of the House— he is a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now

Oh, sorry. Good God! I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister. I now understand entirely why he has to be here—had he been Deputy Leader of the House, he would not have been present. I understand that he is now part of the great Government machine and that when someone on a sofa in Downing street decides something, it has to be forced through. I apologise for misunderstanding why he is sitting on the Front Bench today.

The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) is a very good Minister and she is doing a fine job, but if she believes her own arguments that the Bill is uncontroversial and that three hours is enough to debate it, why not withdraw the programme motion and let the House take its own course? She would then be a star of Parliament—she already is a star, but she would be an even greater star—and that would show the public that the Government are not afraid of scrutiny.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the quickest way to get through this afternoon’s business would be for the Minister to agree with all our amendments? We could then move on to the other debates.

No. That is exactly the wrong reason. We want to discuss the issues and argue about them. The hon. Gentleman’s amendments might be very good and when I listen to the debate I might support them, but alas we might not get to many of them, because of the restriction of time. Clearly, there is disagreement in the House. Would it not just be easier to withdraw this programme motion and go back to the previous one, which went through, I think, without dissent? I had hoped that the Minister would agree to that, but we will now have to see whether the House will divide on this programme motion.

This is another case of the Executive doing what they want at the expense of Parliament. It is a shame on this Government. It is not what I expected when the new Government came to power. What they promised beforehand with regard to parliamentary scrutiny has not come to pass. The sooner we get a business of the House Committee to run Parliament, this place will be far better.