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Consumer Rights Bill (Carry-Over Extension)

Volume 590: debated on Monday 12 January 2015

I beg to move,

That the period on the expiry of which proceedings on the Consumer Rights Bill shall lapse in pursuance of paragraph (13) of Standing Order No. 80A shall be extended by 67 days until 30 March 2015.

We have this afternoon and early evening considered the amendments made to the Bill in the other place, and the result of our deliberations now needs to be considered there. We are mindful of the fact that the Bill was introduced in this House on 23 January 2014. As set out in Standing Order No. 80A, as a carry-over Bill, it will fall if it does not receive Royal Assent within 12 months of its First Reading, and that date is now approaching.

Given the strong support for the important measures contained in the Bill, it is only right for us to safeguard against this. The Bill is the biggest overhaul of consumer rights for a generation. It sets out a simple, modern framework of consumer rights that will promote growth through confident consumers driving innovation and more competitive markets. I therefore trust that hon. Members will support me by agreeing to the motion.

I simply rise to agree that this is an important Bill, and we are looking forward to progress being made and the Government finally agreeing with us in the Lords on ticket touting. We look forward to its return to this House for us to approve it.

Order. Mr Spellar, this is not the time to tell secrets. My apologies for temporarily not calling you correctly to speak.

I understand, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is an age-related thing.

I congratulate the Minister on moving the extension right up to the end of her period in Parliament. We wish her well in her future career. As she and the Opposition spokesperson said, this is an important Bill, in which case one wonders why the Government have taken so long to bring it to fruition on the statute book. What is their problem? It is not as though we are burdened with business. Week after week, the Government are filling time in this Parliament—not just since we came back after the Christmas holiday, but certainly since we came back in September. What have the Government been doing and why are they taking so long to pass the Bill? This Parliament has rightly now been described as a zombie Parliament.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that since the introduction of fixed five-year Parliaments, there is no excuse for not knowing when the general election will be, meaning that the proper programming of Bills should be a piece of cake for the Government?

My hon. Friend is exactly right; it should be a piece of cake for any properly run Administration. We realise that there are substantial internal tensions in the Government. That is why several private Members’ Bills are held up in the proceedings, and why other important issues, such as one dear to his heart in his role as deputy defence spokesman for the Opposition—the failure to advance the programme on the renewal of the Trident submarine programme—are also held up. On those matters, we understand, although we do not agree, with the delay. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) has several times drawn to the attention of the House and the Prime Minister some of the internal contradictions of the coalition. We understand those problems.

What are the problems with the Bill before us? There might be differences between the Government and the Opposition, as we saw with the Government’s disgraceful support for the ticket touts against the interests of supporters and fans of sport, music and the arts, but there are no internal differences to hold up the progress of the Bill. That brings us to the underlying point: the Government’s programme is in a bit of mess. We have to consider this point, because it is important for the constitutional arrangements of the House. Although there are strong differences of opinion within the Chamber, things really fall down when we have a Government who cannot handle their own business, do not know what they are doing and—equally important, although for some this is a more trivial issue—do not understand the dynamic of Parliament, not just in this House but in the relationship between the two Houses. We are seeing many examples of that.

It might be that the Minister can give us some clues as to where the problem lies. Who is in charge of Government business? Who should be steering the Bill through Parliament, and why have they failed so singularly to do so inside a year—a very long time? Normally, when there is good will in the House—as the Minister rightly said, the Bill has broad approval and is important—Bills can progress at a reasonable pace. Have there been unreasonable obstacles from the Opposition or within the coalition? Or is it that the Government are asleep on the job?

Many Members, including Back-Bench Government Members, have raised concerns about that issue. It is clear that the Prime Minister and the crew at No. 10 are not in charge of Government business. We have seen in the newspapers and heard personally many complaints from Members about his “chillaxed” approach, and we remember the comments about the fish rotting from the head down. He makes a virtue of his “chillaxed” approach to policy and, in particular, to administration and organisation—those dull details that actually ensure that government and Parliament run properly.

The right hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech. It seems to me that he is arguing for a business of the House committee, which I would of course support him in.

Most certainly not. I am arguing for an effective Government, but the hon. Gentleman makes an interesting observation, because he is really saying that the driver behind his business of the House committee is the failure of his own Government. He has to consider whether that is a failure arising from the particular circumstances and structure of this unholy coalition, or whether it is down to the deficiencies of the individuals concerned. I think it is probably both, but even within this alliance, which I know he is deeply unhappy with and would like to see ended—it was Government Members who voted for the five-year fixed-term parliaments, which has ossified this Parliament—if there were people there who had some grip on the situation, matters would be improved. Either way, it is clear that the Prime Minister and his fairly undistinguished staff at No. 10 have not got a grip on the situation. Within the House, of course, under all Governments, including much better run Governments, the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip have played key roles, so let us deal with them in turn, starting with the Leader of the House.

I say without any sense of irony that the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) was a very good Foreign Secretary. I did not always agree with all his policy, but he was an effective Foreign Secretary who advanced a number of important and noble causes. I pay tribute to him for the redirection and reorientation of the Foreign Office towards using our embassies more to ensure that they sold British goods and services and represented British interests. I am pleased to say, too—I pay tribute again—that he made sure that embassy staff drove British-made cars.

The Leader of the House is also an entertaining speaker. On a day when he is not bored, he is an extremely effective speaker and very fine writer, too. I suspect he will use those talents in the future, and I think it will be a loss both to this House and to the Conservative party when he stands down voluntarily—unlike the Minister, who will be standing down involuntarily—at the next general election.

However, notwithstanding all those qualities, I do not believe that organisation and boring detail are top of the right hon. Gentleman’s agenda, so I do not think that the Leader of the House—in this as in a number of other facets of this zombie Parliament—has got a grip on the pace of the programme of the Government’s legislation.

The Chief Whip is in a slightly different position, along with the deputy Chief Whip, although I see a lack of organisation in what they do. We have seen many examples of them rushing around during votes when they clearly do not have a clue what is going on. They have not been speaking truth unto power, either, when it comes to what can or cannot be done within this House, so they bear some degree of responsibility for what has happened.

We are having to spend some time this evening examining these issues not just because of one Bill. Rather, it is because of a systemic problem in the Government that is, frankly, not helping Parliament, not helping proper debate, not helping the progress of legislation and not helping the bringing forward of measures to deal with the problems facing this country. Thus, I am pleased to say, we now have a useful opportunity to examine all that, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham will be able to deal with it in more detail in his contribution.

It is a privilege to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar). I agree with him that this is an important Bill, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) stated, much should have been in it that is not in it, so it has been a missed opportunity. I give credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and others who have argued for greater transparency over ticket touts. I cannot for the life of me think why the Government think there are votes to be gained from ticket touts rather than from the mass of the public who buy tickets. My hon. Friend helpfully highlighted cases where people had clearly been ripped off or misled under the present situation.

The motion before us relates to paragraph (13) of Standing Order 80A, which states:

“Proceedings on a bill ordered to be carried over to the next Session of Parliament shall lapse on the expiry of the period of twelve months from the date of its first reading in this House and the bill shall be laid aside unless the House shall order, in pursuance of a motion under paragraph (14), that proceedings on the bill be extended for a specified period.”

This Bill had its First Reading on 21 January 2004, as the Minister mentioned—[Interruption.] I meant 2014.

Very little legislation has gone through Parliament over the past year. Another habit of this Government is trying to push things through the House very quickly, with limited days allotted for the scrutiny of legislation, which means that the other place has more time to examine a Bill at leisure. I have a fundamental objection to that, because this House is the supreme body for framing and scrutinising legislation and for tabling amendments. The rush to get everything through this House as quickly as possible has left us with what has been described in many newspapers as a “zombie Session”. The programme for next week and subsequent weeks shows that very few votes on legislation are going to be provided for. We are waiting on their lordships’ House to return legislation that has speedily been channelled through this House.

I do not believe it right that an amendment such as the one debated today to deal with ticket touts should have been agreed in the other place. It should have been agreed here. The Government should have taken more time to consider it in detail and to ensure that hon. Members understood the implications of what they had done. We have seen legislation—badly drafted legislation—rushed through this House time and again during this Parliament; it has then gone to the other place and been filleted like a fish.

My hon. Friend draws attention to a further aspect that causes difficulty. In the initial enthusiasm of the coalition, a number of ill thought through constitutional changes were brought through—changing the date of the Queen’s Speech and the five-year Parliament, for example. However, no consideration was given to the natural rhythm of legislation in this Parliament, either on a sessional or a whole-Parliament basis. In both cases, the coalition has run into considerable difficulties in respect of running through legislation in this place and of the inter-relationship between this place and the other place.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. After passing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 for five-year Parliaments, it should have been easier for the Government to programme their business motions through this House. At the time of the last general election, the Prime Minister talked freely about reducing the cost of politics, but since then he has absolutely stuffed the other place with new peers and peeresses. He is obviously trying to ensure that the Conservatives maintain their in-built advantage in the other place.

It is clear that the whipping system in the other place is not working very well, which is laughable. Either Members who have just been ennobled are not turning up or other Members are rebellious, because they are clearly not voting along Government lines on every issue. The amendment on ticket-touting, for example, was tabled by a Conservative peer.

A five-year Parliament ought to ensure that programmes are completed, but motions such as this mean that Bills are stuck in the other place and we must wait for them to come back. That applies to some important Bills, such as the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill, which would create an armed forces ombudsman and must be keenly awaited by members of our armed forces. It has been argued that there has not been enough time during the current legislative Session, but we should bear in mind the number of Opposition days and Thursdays devoted to business tabled by the Backbench Business Committee. I mean no disrespect to any of those debates, but space could have been made for debates on important Bills.

Moreover, during the current Parliament an unprecedented number of Committee stages have been dealt with on the Floor of the House rather than in Committee Rooms upstairs. That has used up days that could have been devoted to more lengthy consideration of Bills.

The hon. Gentleman is making one of his interesting speeches, but surely he is not suggesting that Committee stages of constitutional measures that have been dealt with on the Floor of the House should have been dealt with upstairs.

No, I am not. I cannot think of an example at the moment, but a number of Committee stages that would previously have been dealt with upstairs have been dealt with on the Floor of the House. That leads us to ask whether the Government are simply trying to fill up time on the Floor of the House—and I think that that is exactly what they have been doing.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, this is an important Bill, and it will clearly be given a great deal more scrutiny and attention in the other place than it will be given here. Given the current logjam in the other place, we shall have a very thin February and March as we wait for Bills to return to us. There is also the broader issue of the reputation of the House of Commons. I do not think that headlines about, for instance, zombie Parliaments or MPs coming to the House on only two days a week do our reputation any good. We cannot expect the public to understand the minutiae of parliamentary timetabling, especially given the incompetent way in which the Government are handling it.

My hon. Friend may recall press reports about a memorandum sent by the Government Chief Whip to his Members of Parliament, indicating that they were unlikely to be needed on Thursdays and, possibly, Mondays, and therefore, effectively, they had to be here on only two days a week. In fact, this level of inactivity was being “programmed in” by the Chief Whip, partly because of failure to run the business, but also for party political purposes.

That is an interesting point. I do remember seeing press reports about the letter sent to Conservative Back Benchers. If I thought that the Chief Whip and the Leader of the House were well organised enough, I would say that there was obviously a plot, but I do not think that there was. I think that they have found themselves with time on their hands, and Conservative Back Benchers have been told not to come here on Mondays or Thursdays.

That does not surprise me, given the hon. Gentleman’s record. I should not have thought that he was one of those whom the Chief Whip would hold close to his bosom in terms of communication. I imagine that if there was room for only one more person in a lifeboat, the Chief Whip would not get into it if the hon. Gentleman was there.

The point is that we have ended up with a slack programme, and the progress of Bills, including this Bill, depends on how sedately or otherwise the other place deals with them. Certain important Bills, such as this and the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill, could be delayed until the wash-up, and could then fall. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, provisions in this Bill that are actually welcome could end up being dealt with in the usual meat-grinder sessions at the end when it is decided what can and cannot be agreed. I do not think that that would be satisfactory from the point of view of those who have worked hard to ensure that the Bill is passed, or when it comes to ensuring that it is scrutinised in a proper and just fashion. I note that there are other carry-over motions on the Order Paper, and I suspect there will be others, because it is within the Government’s remit to introduce them. As I said, under paragraph (13) of the Standing Order that has been invoked, paragraph (14) comes into effect, which states:

“A motion may be made by a Minister of the Crown to extend for a specified period proceedings on a Bill which would otherwise lapse under paragraph (13), and any such motion

(a) may contain provisions amending or supplementing a programme order in respect of the Bill;

(b) may be proceeded with, though opposed, after the moment of interruption”.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) that this is not about the Government having a procedural or a timetabling Committee of the House for Bills. A competent Government should be able to put forward a legislative programme for a Session that ensures not only that they get their Bills through, but that it is done in a timely fashion and the Bills get proper scrutiny in this place. Clearly, now that they have discovered paragraph (13), it is going to be used far more to extend consideration of Bills.

The time period goes up to 30 March and it will be interesting to see what timetable there will be and whether or not, and when, we will get this Bill back from the other place. On the transparency issue around ticket touting, for example, Lord Moynihan was clear on the radio this morning that he would listen to what this House said, but there is a good chance that the Bill will be voted on again in the other place and come back to us.

The issue is whether the Conservative Whips Office in the House of Lords can get all these new peers whom the Prime Minister has added out of their sleepy slumber and ensure that they attend and vote in support of the Government. Their record so far is not very good. There is even a question as to whether they can be relied on to vote the right way, because there are Cross Benchers and Conservative peers who support the cause of greater transparency for the consumer which my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) has championed for many years. If the Bill comes back, we will get into a ping-pong session, and given that we are now getting a logjam of Bills, what real in-depth discussion will we have of any amendments that are brought back?

That brings us back to my central point about the role of this House as opposed to that of the other place. I could be unfair on the Government and think that all along, with the coalition in place, their plan and the Prime Minister’s plan was to rush everything through this House as quickly as possible, so that it gets to the other place where, because he has appointed so many new Conservative peers, he now has an in-built majority to steamroller through whatever he wants.

We have seen some examples of that. The coalition love-days of the rose garden at No. 10 in 2010 have now clearly gone sour. The coalition was described then as a shotgun marriage, and it has clearly not lasted the course. I know of occasions when internal tensions in the coalition have led to legislation being dropped—the latest example being the issues around surveillance on the internet, where there appears to be a clear divide between the position of the Liberal Democrats and that of the Conservative part of the coalition. It is important that we get legislation through in time, and we cannot second-guess the internal politics of the coalition. Let us remember the rights of this House. There has been a lot of talk about broken politics, and the—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now drifting a long way from the subject before us. We are not discussing the internal politics of the coalition; we are concentrating on the proposal for the carry-over extension of the Bill, and the hon. Gentleman needs to return to that.

As always, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall heed your advice. The important point, however, is that a very strange dynamic has been created during this Parliament. Bills have been announced and put forward, and the first was the Bill relating to the Boundary Commission, which subsequently fell apart. That also happened to a House of Lords Bill. I use those as an example—

Order. Mr Jones, it is fascinating to hear your explanation of why you should continue to make the points that I have asked you not to make, but I am now directing you to return to the subject before us. Members might be entertained by your contribution, but it is my job to keep you in order. You are currently out of order, so please return to the subject.

I am quite aware of that, and I apologise for digressing into areas that are beyond the scope of the Bill.

The central point is that this Government have not been able to programme their Bills properly during this Parliament. Depending on where this Bill gets to in the stack of Bills in the other place, it could end up in the wash-up. If Lord Moynihan presses these matters to a vote again, as he said on the radio this morning that he would, we shall have ping-pong and this Bill and others could end up either being filleted or in a ping-pong session. That could result in important legislation not being put forward. The use of this Standing Order shows that the Government have failed in one of their basic tasks—that of timetabling their legislation in this House. It is an indictment of the incompetent and arrogant way in which they have acted.

Does not this show precisely the reverse? Does not it show the ambition and forthrightness of the Government in having such a busy programme, even at the end of five years, that they need an extra 67 days? That dynamism is something of which the Government should be proud.

I am glad I have woken the hon. Gentleman from his slumbers. In fact, the opposite is the case. The Government have had a year in which to get the Bill through, yet they have had to argue for an extension to finish the process for this and other legislation. They cannot hide behind the argument that there has not been enough time to consider the Bill; there has been plenty of time. This Government have an inbuilt practice of trying to get Bills through the House as quickly as possible, which is why they have ended up with a logjam in the other place. That is not good for this House, because the Bills do not receive proper scrutiny. This House should be the place in which amendments are tabled and discussed.

During this Parliament, we have seen some very badly drafted Bills. They have not only needed amendment in the other place but come back to this House, at which point the Government themselves have had to table reams and reams of amendments. That is about bad drafting of legislation. It says exactly the opposite to what the hon. Gentleman suggests, in that if the Government cannot get it through in a year, that shows either incompetence or, as I said, a strategy whereby they were trying to push everything to the other place so that when they have their in-built majority there they can bang it through as quickly as possible.

That does this House, or how the public see it, no favours. They do not understand the effectiveness of the other place and how it changes Bills. This House should be where amendments are introduced and things are changed. Without that, all we are doing is rubber-stamping the Government’s legislation—that should not be the position. Members should propose amendments and argue against badly drafted legislation and against things they feel strongly about, as on occasion have the hon. Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg).

I think that we will be seeing more of these carry-over motions, which is an indictment of how this Government have been managing legislation. The Procedure Committee needs to look at this practice in order to ensure in future that this House is the body that not only drafts legislation, but ensures that it receives proper scrutiny.

Question put and agreed to.