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Mrs. Beckett: No, I shall give the hon. Gentleman no such undertaking. He is right that the Bill has been the subject of considerable debate and discussion. However, he should know that the Bill's provisions and passage on to the statute book are much sought by those whose interests are affected by it. They are anxious for it to be dealt with as expeditiously as is reasonably possible.

The hon. Gentleman should also know that there has been extensive discussion about how much time should be needed to deal with those matters. The proposals that I put before the House today were made by agreement. He talks about the number of amendments, but he did not draw to the House's attention the fact that, although two thirds of the amendments are Government amendments, many of them deal with matters that arose in Committee, where the Government made a commitment to table them on Report. He also did not mention the fact that one third of the amendments were tabled by the Opposition.

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Points of Order

1.15 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I apologise for the fact that I was unable to give you advance notice of this point of order, but you will appreciate that Hansard is extremely full after the debates of the past two days.

I draw your attention to column 557 of the edition for Tuesday 25 January, in which there appears to be a serious error in the report of the exchanges between the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and the Deputy Speaker. No withdrawal of the hon. Gentleman's allegation that Ministers were misleading the House is recorded.

Clearly, there must have been such a withdrawal as, however senior the hon. Gentleman involved, he would have been drawn to the attention of the Deputy Speaker, who presumably would have named him. Can you assure me, Madam Speaker, that the Hansard record will be re-examined and that you will receive a report from the Deputy Speaker?

Madam Speaker: I have looked at Hansard already, and have received a report from the Deputy Speaker. I thought that that exchange last night was extremely disappointing, but the Deputy Speaker accepted what the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) said. The matter must rest there.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I appreciate that hon. Members must use accurate terms when they speak in this House. Four times during business questions, I heard reference made to a Good Friday agreement. For the purposes of accuracy, I understand that that agreement should be referred to as the Belfast agreement. I for one consider the Good Friday agreement to be the occasion when Pilate and Herod joined together to crucify the carpenter of Nazareth, whom I and others recognise as the Lord Jesus Christ.

Madam Speaker: I am sure that the House has heard the hon. Gentleman, who is correct to say that the proper way to refer to the agreement in question is as the Belfast agreement. Sometimes we give it perhaps a rather more colourful description.


Postal Services

Mr. Secretary Byers, supported by Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Milburn, Mr. Secretary Darling, Mr. Secretary Reid, Mr. Secretary Murphy, Mr. Secretary Mandelson and Mr. Alan Johnson, presented a Bill to establish the Postal Services Commission and the Consumer Council for Postal Services; to provide for the licensing of certain postal services and for a universal postal service; to provide for the vesting of the property, rights and liabilities of the Post Office in a company nominated by the Secretary of State and for the subsequent dissolution of the Post Office; to make further provision in relation to postal services; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 54].

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Financial Services and Markets Bill

Motion made, and Question proposed,

1.17 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): I want to make a few remarks about the motion, which seeks to order the Report stage debate that we are about to have into a form that is more manageable for the House. I always approve of motions aimed at facilitating debate.

However, this motion does not rectify the basic problem, which is that we are about to embark on discussion of what can only be described as a new Bill. There are about 500 amendments and new clauses, covering about 100 pages. I do not know whether that is unprecedented, but this Bill has been a long time in preparation. The problem is that the importance of the Bill lies in its detail. In our proceedings on the Bill so far, we have discovered that Government assurances are not always reflected in the wording that follows, so we shall want to look carefully at the amendments and new clauses.

The Bill has had a very long gestation period. Its subject was announced for legislation soon after the general election, and the Government introduced a draft Bill for consultation in July 1998. That was considered by a Joint Committee of both Houses under the chairmanship of Lord Burns, which produced reports in April and May last year. After that, the Bill was modified extensively in a number of important respects. For example, as originally drafted, it was incompatible with the European convention on human rights. We believe that it is still vulnerable to challenge, but that is a matter for later debate.

After those reports, the Bill was given a Second Reading, and it went into Standing Committee last July. We sat pretty well continuously, when the House was sitting, until December. There was a carry-over provision so that the Bill did not have to start all over again when the House reconvened after the summer recess. Despite that long process, however, which has enabled draftsmen and the Treasury to examine and re-examine the Bill, we are now faced with some 500 new clauses and amendments.

We do not believe that that is a good way to legislate, nor that it is really the purpose of a Report stage--certainly as I have always understood that term. To give just one example, we shall shortly consider an entire new competition regime, which will affect the relationship between the Financial Services Authority, the Director- General of Fair Trading and the Treasury. This was announced as a subject for legislation when we were in

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Standing Committee, but the details were not given, and the details are very important. The clauses giving effect to the new competition regime were only recently drafted. Therefore, we have a problem, with which we shall seek to deal.

Another feature of the Bill is that it relies heavily on secondary legislation, again perhaps to an unprecedented extent. In many respects, it is still only a framework Bill, large areas of which will be enacted subsequently by regulations issued by the Treasury. Even now, those are largely unseen. The consultation documents--over 30 of them--have all gone out, but we have not had reports back on more than a few.

I remind the House that regulations, particularly those dealt with under negative resolution procedure, will be almost entirely unscrutinised by the House. The great majority of statutory instruments introduced to give effect to this secondary legislation will be dealt with under the negative resolution procedure, whereby the matters are almost certainly not debated at all, and whether they are debated is solely at the Government's discretion. Even if the statutory instrument or order is objected to by the Opposition, or by an interested hon. Member, the Government can refuse a debate of any sort.

Although statutory instruments that have to be introduced by affirmative resolution are debated in Committee, that debate is only on a formal and unamendable motion, which is then simply reported to the House and put forthwith. The Bill is therefore the last chance that the House has to build in the necessary checks and balances and to ensure that the powers are properly circumscribed and the details are right. It is therefore difficult that so many amendments have been produced at short notice on Report.

The order of consideration before us tries to make sense of that large volume of amendments. It brings to the front for debate today many of the issues of principle. We will certainly not oppose it, but I thought that I should explain our misgivings, not about the motion but about how the Report stage is being conducted--a lot of material has been brought forward late, despite the fact that the Government announced their intention to legislate more than two years ago.

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