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Financial Services And Markets Bill

Volume 611: debated on Monday 27 March 2000

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.14 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee. — (Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

My Lords, the Minister proposes that we should now go into Committee. The House should be aware that we have some difficulty with this.

There is deep concern on these Benches in relation to the conduct of this Bill through this House. This Bill changes the face of regulation of Britain's most successful industry. The Government take the view that this Bill is the best of all possible Bills in this best of all possible worlds. So it should be; it is the single biggest piece of legislation that this Government have introduced.

The Bill is 215 pages and 408 clauses long. In its epic 18-month passage through another place it attracted 1,450 amendments. The standing committee sat for 17 hours in 35 sessions and a fine Joint Committee of both Houses, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, prepared a set of 37 recommendations. Yet after all that, the Government have now tabled 254 more amendments and say that they have hundreds more to come. Few of those amendments are in response to the Opposition's substantive amendments in another place.

I stress that this is not a complaint about the Minister, who graciously apologised to the Committee for the scale of government amendments we are being asked to consider. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Government are almost redrafting the Bill as it goes along. First, the Government seem to be trying to correct bad drafting; secondly, they are introducing new concepts, some of which they say we shall not see in their final form until Report stage.

This is a complex and technical Bill whose 30 parts are highly interconnected, but under the avalanche of government amendments the Committee of your Lordships' House is unable to see the Bill in the round. I therefore ask for the Government's co-operation in this because we support the primary effect of this Bill; that is, the creation of an overarching financial services authority. But what explanation can the Minister give for the large number of government amendments, given the level of pre-legislative scrutiny this Bill received?

If the Bill is as perfect as the Government claim, one is entitled to ask why they are having so many second thoughts about it. To express our concern, I give notice of our intention to vote against the first government amendment in Committee this afternoon as a form of gentle protest.

My Lords, I give modified support to the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi. As someone else who is attempting to deal with the government amendments as they are brought forward, I find it extremely difficult to deal with such a huge volume of highly technical amendments on which one sometimes needs outside advice at short notice. The Minister made it clear at the beginning of proceedings that there were likely to be a large number of amendments, and he has certainly been right.

As a general principle, we support the idea that government amendments should come forward in due time. But the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, about the long process through which this Bill has gone, is absolutely valid. There was a pre-legislative committee on the Bill; it went through the Commons some time ago. Although the Bill is complicated, it is unfortunate that the Government should be tabling so many amendments to it.

However, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, will not mind if I disagree with him on two points. First, I notice from my supplementary list of amendments tabled on Friday that all bar one came from the Conservative Front Bench and we are facing the same difficulty in relation to late amendments from that front as we are from the Government. Secondly, I am not convinced that the best way to express our displeasure is to vote against an amendment with which we may agree, and therefore we do not propose to do so from these Benches.

My Lords, I give warm support to my noble friend and to the points he made. Nobody can possibly say that my noble friends on the Front Bench have been other than extremely temperate so far in their opposition to the Bill.

I also echo one point made by my noble friend; that is, I exempt the Minister, who handles a difficult, long and complicated Bill in a civil and courteous fashion, from any criticism. Having said that, I extend to him my strong personal sympathy that he should now find himself in loco parentis to such a monstrous child. It is an unfortunate and embarrassing position in which to find oneself. In saying what I now say, I am not in any way underrating the parliamentary skills of the noble Lord, but they will be fully exercised in defending the Government's rather sloppy conduct with this specific measure.

The Minister finds himself in charge of a baby which has put on an enormous amount of weight in a record space of time. Indeed, even now, it shows further signs of extremely undesirable growth. I hope that the Minister will realise how very sorry we all are for him in the terribly unfortunate role that he finds himself having to play.

My Lords, if the noble Lord accepts the role of parenthood perhaps we may invite him to sign a certificate such as the one mentioned by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, which she offered to my noble friend Lord Denham a while ago? However, if the noble Lord was not present during Question Time, he may not see the point of that request.

On a more substantive matter, could the noble Lord put this Bill into context? I agree with other noble Lords that the Minister finds himself in a position with which one can sympathise, but is not the real problem the fact that this Committee stage has been scheduled too soon, before all the government amendments have been thought through? We receive government amendments almost daily through the post, accompanied by very helpful notes. Can the Minister say whether this haste arises from the pressure of other legislation that the Government propose to bring forward? Further, can the noble Lord remind the House of the total number of main programme Bills that the Government propose to bring to this House and tell us how many Second Readings are still ahead of us?

My Lords, I should like to support what my noble friend Lord Saatchi said. Like him, I have particular sympathy for the Minister. Indeed, I spent many hours in Committee in another place on regulatory Bills. They are always very complicated and difficult to handle, especially when they are dealt with single-handedly by a Minister. But the problem with this Bill is not simply its length and the number of amendments that have already been tabled—and, indeed, the number of further amendments that are due to be tabled—but the fact that not only are some details of the Bill still unclear at this stage but also certain issues of policy still need to be resolved. That is the great difference between the present position and what I thought was the tradition in Parliament; namely, that one does not debate Bills in Committee unless the policy has been established, even if the amendments to implement that policy have not been brought forward.

During the passage of the Building Societies Bill in the 1980s—for which, for my sins, I was responsible—a large number of amendments were tabled in this House. That was a great pity. However, we took the greatest care to ensure that the import of all government amendments of any consequence that were due to be tabled was already known and published. I am afraid that that is not a position that we enjoy in relation to the present Bill.

My Lords, I should very much like to endorse what my noble friend from the Front Bench said and to make one or two suggestions. I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for the care that he has taken to ensure that those of us who are taking part in the proceedings on the Bill have at least one or two days' notice of the amendments that the Government are tabling. I very much welcome and thank the noble Lord for the accompanying notes. However, with the greatest respect, I do not think that the noble Lord has taken on board the difficulty that faces those of us on this side of the House who are seeking to understand the Bill and to deal with it. These really are shifting sands. One thinks that one has understood a clause to which amendments may well have been tabled, but then one finds that the whole clause is to be left out and replaced with an entirely new one. Therefore, as my noble friend said, the context in which one is trying to debate the Bill seems to shift almost day by day.

Perhaps I may indicate to noble Lords exactly what we have been confronted with. On 22nd March, 81 new amendments were tabled and nine new clauses; on 23rd March, 23 amendments were tabled, together with three new clauses and one new schedule. All this actually runs into many, many pages on the Marshalled List. Therefore, having tried to understand the Bill, one then has to grapple with the detail—in this case, over the weekend—in an effort to try to understand the changes. I frankly concede that many of the amendments are properly described as "minor drafting amendments". I have no doubt that the Minister will use those words to justify such amendments. If there are a dozen or even half a dozen minor drafting amendments, one can cope; but it is extremely difficult to cope if there are hundreds because one has to satisfy oneself that a whole string of amendments really are just minor drafting amendments and that they will not change the policy significantly.

However, it goes further than that point. In an effort to be helpful, the noble Lord has already given some of us notice regarding amendments that will be tabled on Report to parts of the Bill that have already been dealt with. I have with me a copy of the notification that we were sent, which is headed, "Draft Decision-Making Amendments to Parts III to IX". As noble Lord may be aware, we shall begin to consider Part X later this afternoon. The problem with those amendments is that their references are to the Bill in the form that it appears before the Committee; but, when they are tabled, they will refer to the Bill as amended in Committee. I am sorry, but I just do not have the resources to begin to go back and look through the Hansard reports and the Marshalled Lists to find what amendments have already been made to the clauses that the Government now propose to amend still further on Report. I am certain that the noble Lord was trying to be helpful, but I have to tell him that it is almost useless for one to try to understand what is intended to happen. Indeed, it emphasises my point that it is very difficult to find firm ground on which to stand.

Perhaps I may take up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. I am not trying to keep in touch with a number of experts in the field—namely, legal advisers and others—because, if I may say so, my noble friends on the Front Bench are doing that wholly admirably. But life is made extremely difficult for some of us as regards trying to understand what is happening when things change day by day. I totally support the protest made by my noble friend Lord Saatchi.

My Lords, I should like to add my support to the concerns that have been expressed regarding the amendments that have been tabled. Indeed, the amendments that arrived at the end of last week were such that, quite clearly, they should have required me to stay up late all weekend in an effort to understand them. One receives much comment from commercial interests with which one was previously connected. Those concerned have very strong views on the amendments that are being made. It would be helpful if one were to have the opportunity to discuss such amendments with them and to take note of their points, but one never seems to have the time to do so.

Like other noble Lords on this side of the House, I have no complaint to make about the personal approach of the Minister. Indeed, he has been most helpful. Although I understand the problem with which he is faced, he must, nevertheless, understand ours. We are experiencing much difficulty in the proceedings on this most important Bill. I hope that something can be done to ease the situation.

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend is not taken in by all the flattering remarks that the Opposition are making about him. I certainly have no intention of associating myself with all those kind remarks. It seems to me that the Opposition are now learning that it is a tough job being in opposition. When they have spent as many years on the Opposition Benches as I did, they will realise how difficult it is to scrutinise technical Bills.

This is a difficult Bill. But, in a way, the Government cannot win. They are trying to improve it. We made the terrible error of having this Committee stage in the Chamber of the House rather than proceeding with it in the Moses Room, which is much more suitable for such technical matters. But, as I understand it, the Opposition did not want us to deal with it in a much more professional way in the Moses Room.

I have seen the difficult amendments to which reference has been made. They are technical; indeed, I have yet to see anything from the Government'side that suggests a fundamental change in policy. It was not clear from the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, whether he feels that there has been a change of policy at some point. I have seen no evidence to support that view. I have seen adjustments because, quite rightly, the Government are thinking matters through. The alternative—this shows that they can never win—would be for the Government to decide not to think it all through in order to get it right. However, they would then be told off for that reason.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the debate of the past quarter of an hour—indeed, it is rather more interesting that the Bill itself—I feel that we ought to get down to business and actually look at some of the incredibly boring material that is set out on the Marshalled List for today.

3.30 p.m.

My Lords, I hope that I may say a few words on this matter. I can recall, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Peston, can, precisely the same kind of complaint being made when the Labour Party was in opposition as is now being made by the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, and his noble friends. That is to some extent inevitable although I think that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, should take the complaints seriously, as I hope that he will. However, the thing which worries me—which was referred to by my noble friend Lord Newby—is the number of starred amendments. This really is highly objectionable; it means that they were tabled on Friday. Many Members of the House looked at both Government and Opposition amendments for the first time this morning. That is most unsatisfactory.

Quite apart from this Bill, we have had two other examples in recent weeks where major issues of principle appeared on the Order Paper with a star beside them. I do not say that we should object in principle to all starred amendments but there should be some discussion through the usual channels, with the Government Chief Whip and others, to see whether we can avoid repetition of incidents of this kind which are not in the interests of this House.

My Lords, I shall try to be as civil and courteous as the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, and my noble friend always are. I read in the press this morning—I do not know whether this is true—that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the Opposition, now has it in mind to make matters extremely difficult for the Government in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord is shaking his head; I am delighted that the report is untrue. However, I am not sure whether he nodded or shook his head; he did both!

However, as has been said, the Bill is complex. It is non-party political in any sense. Indeed, the Official Opposition have made it clear that they support the Bill. However, when a Bill is as complex as the one before us it is not too surprising that the Government should table amendments to it. Indeed, if they had not tabled amendments, I should have thought that the Opposition would be rather annoyed about that. But to take to a vote an amendment with which they broadly agree as a form of protest is rather silly. I would not have expected the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, to associate himself with that kind of nonsense.

My noble friend Lord Peston was absolutely right to say that a Bill as complex as the one before us should be discussed in Committee off the Floor of the House, as in another place, and then returned to the Floor of the House on Report. To discuss these kind of technical matters at Committee stage on the Floor of the House seems to me to be quite wrong.

My Lords, will the noble Lord who is to reply on behalf of the Government cast his mind back 23 years? He need look only at the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, who is seated one row behind him. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, may also remember that in 1977 I had the honour of attempting to work out, with the valuable help of the government Front Bench of that time and of my noble friend Lord Belstead, the then Patents Bill. There were 650 government amendments for amateurs such as myself and my noble friend Lord Belstead to consider between Second Reading and Committee stages. I tactfully remind the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that the then government successfully got their business through. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, will remember those days well. Those were technical and professional amendments. The House discussed them until late at night but the then government got their business through. If the noble Lord, Lord Peston, wants to go over the ball, he will find someone here who can do it too.

My Lords, I was the Minister in charge of the then Patents Bill. There were so many amendments because representations were specifically made by people who were technically expert in the patents profession. That is the reason for the number of amendments that were tabled. I cannot remember whether there were 550 or 650, but certainly there was a large number. They were tabled because technical experts made representations to the then government which received a positive response.

My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I have not had the experience of 17 years in opposition. Therefore I perhaps have more sympathy with the Opposition than he does. I would have much more sympathy if they had not decided on the stunt of pressing the amendment to a vote. The Government's dilemma is absolute. Every day that we do not have this Bill, the present, rather ramshackle system—I speak as a board member of one of the SROs—has to trundle on. The sooner we get the Bill, the better. We could have the amendments in better shape in two or three months' time, but the ramshackle system would have to continue for another two to three months. It is sad but inevitable that we have ended up as we have.

My Lords, in agreeing with my noble friend Lord Saatchi, I respond to a number of points that have been made by the noble Lords, Lord Barnett and Lord Peston. First, it is not the fact that the Government seek to improve the Bill that is at fault, but that they should try to do that while at the same time debating parts of the Bill that they already admit need further amendment. The answer surely therefore is to allow more time for the Committee stage. That is, of course, an option very much up to the Government.

Secondly, I say to the noble Lord who spoke from the Liberal Democrat Benches that the first amendment concerns Clause 129. It is apposite to oppose any amendment to Clause 129. Here I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. When I raised the need for further amendment to Clause 129, the noble Lord conceded that there might be a case for doing so and invited me to a meeting to discuss it. This morning staff from his office contacted me and sought to arrange that meeting. I believe that Clause 129 needs further amendment. It is a good moment to reflect on whether we should seek to amend it further before it is in its final form.

Rather than seek to point up the historical significance of opposition and government performance in the past, will the Minister continue with his positive and constructive attitude of inviting noble Lords to discuss parts of the Bill, take his foot off the accelerator and give us time to ensure that we get the Bill right, as the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, said? It affects the competitiveness of one of our most important areas of the economy; namely, the City, the insurance market, banking and financial services. It is vital that we get it right; that is why I so strongly support my noble friend Lord Saatchi.

My Lords, I do not know how clear it will be to those who are relatively new to this House how familiar I am with the arguments that have been put forward from the Opposition Benches. I put them forward from the Opposition Benches over a period of 14 years before the previous general election. However, I must confess that before doing so I usually thought that it was proper to give the then government notice of that, which did not occur in this case. However, I say that with all the mildness at my command.

Of course the Bill is immensely complicated. It is inevitably immensely complicated because it deals with immensely complicated markets which change from day to day. It is for that reason that the Bill tries not to be unduly prescriptive about the coverage of the regulation system of financial markets. It seeks to provide the flexibility which protects not only the financial markets themselves but—this is equally, if not more, important—also the people who use those financial markets; the consumers of financial products and investments. That results, inevitably, in this being a complicated Bill. The procedure which was adopted in the months and years preceding the arrival of the Bill in your Lordships' House is unprecedented in being the subject of a report by the Treasury Select Committee in another place and in being scrutinised by a Joint Committee of both Houses. It is unprecedented in the sense that a draft Bill was produced following the Joint Committee and the Government's response to the Joint Committee—and yet the natural and inherent complexity of the subject has still mad, it necessary to have further amendments. That is inevitable.

If anything has changed during the past week or so, it has not been that the Government have tabled more amendments. On the contrary, the Government have managed to concentrate their amending obligations so that the number of amendments to be tabled is substantially fewer than the 500 or 600 of which I gave notice at Second Reading.

What has given rise to some of the indignation —which I do not deny is understandablev—is that, in describing what the amendments would be about, I have given as much notice as I conceivably can in advance of the amendments, at the time of the amendments and subsequently. In other words, I have been flooding noble Lords opposite and my noble friends with explanatory material about the amendments. I hope that those who have received that material will recognise that we are improving the Bill but not fundamentally or significantly changing its policies; we are reflecting the inevitable complexity of the subject matter.

Of course I apologise to noble Lords for their difficulties in understanding the Bill and the changes being made. As my noble friends have pointed out, those difficulties are paralleled by the very late stage at which opposition amendments have been tabled. That has meant that some of us have had considerable difficulty in dealing with them over the past weekends. We are not used to dealing with manuscript amendments on major Bills of this kind, but we have had to—and they have not been government amendments.

We have to do what we have to do in order to obtain the best Bill. Many of the government amendments are entirely positive in the sense that they reflect our reconsideration of points made by the Opposition and others during the passage of the Bill; they may be entirely neutral in the sense that they are purely drafting amendments which need not detain the House or the Committee; and some of them involve not a change of policy but a rethink of the way in which that policy may best be achieved.

We appreciate the difficulties involved. We do not believe this is unprecedented—and we certainly do not believe that it justifies the price to be exacted in the form of a vote in Committee today against the first amendment, which the Opposition may well support on its merits.

As my noble friend the Leader of the House is ready to repeat the Statement made in another place, it may be as well if I seek leave to withdraw the Motion that the House resolve itself into Committee on the basis that I shall reintroduce it after the debate on the Statement. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion standing in my name.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.