Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. David Heath: I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman suggests that that lacuna might appear this evening on further consideration when it clearly appeared in Committee, when we laid bare the deficiencies of the audit process--[Interruption.]

Mr. Forth: Not bare enough, as I think one of my hon. Friends behind me said. I have looked at the Committee proceedings, and pretty flimsy and slender they are, because the Minister pulled the same trick on the Committee that he tried to pull on the House tonight--because he said over and over again that the Bill was a narrow and technical measure, he thought he could escape effective scrutiny. That has happened throughout. The Liberal Democrats have obviously fallen for that--if I may use the expression--hook, line and sinker! I have been waiting to say that for some time.

The Bill turns out to be not narrow and technical, but retrospective. It seeks to cover up a gap in the accounting practices that has existed for some time and was sufficient to worry the auditors, which in turn was sufficient for officials to want to put it in the Minister's speech this evening to try to pre-empt the sort of investigation that the House would normally want to conduct. We are now unable to conduct such an investigation because the Government have guillotined the Bill.

A very worrying pattern is beginning to emerge. I was unable to take part in the guillotine debate because so many of my colleagues were so angry about the motion that I was elbowed out of it. In that debate, my hon. Friends asked why on earth the Government saw fit to guillotine this innocent little Bill--as it was thought at the time--of all Bills. Belatedly, in this guillotined Third Reading debate, the truth is beginning to emerge. The Government are desperate that the matter should not be looked at properly. They skated through the Committee stage on the basis that the Bill was narrow and technical. The Liberal Democrats were easily satisfied--as ever they are, I suspect, by their friends in the Government--but we now find that there is a real danger that something very nasty and rather unpleasant is emerging. However, it is too late.

22 May 2000 : Column 750

Mr. Andrew George: The right hon. Gentleman is right; something unpleasant is emerging. It was all the fault of the Tories. We thought that we should allow them to get off lightly.

Mr. Forth: I am intrigued that the Liberal Democrats latest political stance seems to be letting the last Tory Government get away with something of which they disapproved. I for one am very much in favour of being critical of the last Conservative Government where that is appropriate, and I do that occasionally. However, that is not the point--which is that the Minister referred earlier to the relationship between the authority, the auditor and the Ministry. As I am not yet in possession of the legal advice, I am unable to take the matter further. The irony is that Committee members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), have the document, but no one else does. The House is unable to make a judgment on the crucial role of that legal advice.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire said:

My hon. Friend pressed the Minister, and only under that pressure did the he finally agree that the House could have a note giving a version of that advice.

Mr. Bercow: I am concerned at the attitude of the Minister and of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George). Did my right hon. Friend notice that the hon. Member for St. Ives, having made a truly risible speech, thought it was funny that my right hon. Friend had not received the note? Despite having ample time to do so, the Minister has still failed to tell the House when exactly the instruction was given for the deposit of the note in the Library and what steps, if any, he took to check that that instruction had been carried out.

Mr. Forth: If I were a suspicious type, I would think that the Minister and his officials were watching the clock, conscious that if they spin this out for another 20 minutes they will get off the hook because the Government guillotine will then fall on the debate. At that point, the House will no longer be able to hold the Government to account. That is a matter of great regret to me, and the Government cannot be allowed to get away with it. I suspect that those in another place will want to take a much more rigorous look at the issues than this House has done hitherto.

The Minister said earlier that there was a question of whether the Government should seek to legislate to remove the contingent liability. That brings another factor into play, and it may be one of the reasons for the Bill. In Committee, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, concerning the Minister,

The doubt arose on the narrow point whether a Minister of the Crown had the powers that were delegated to the Sea Fish Industry Authority at the time.

22 May 2000 : Column 751

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman believes that he has received a satisfactory answer to that. He added that the Minister should share his advice, in whatever form, with the Committee so that it could consider the Bill properly and

The hon. Gentleman--playing the part that he should play--raised an important point in anticipation of Report stage of the Bill. Not only has there been no Report, but Third Reading has been arrogantly reduced to almost nothing. As a result, neither the hon. Gentleman nor I have been able to get an explanation of the legal advice, which has still not appeared.

Mr. Morley: I appreciate that a lot of bogus points are being made. Nevertheless, there was no obligation on me as Minister to provide that advice, but I did so in an attempt to be open and transparent with the Committee. Also, the information from my officials is that they cannot trace the document in the Library of the House. In that respect, I apologise profoundly for the statements I have given. I will make sure that copies are placed in the Library tomorrow.

Mr. Leigh: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There are limits to how much the House of Commons will take. The Minister has said that the legal advice is there when it is not, but the Government intend to proceed with their timetable. We should suspend this debate until we can get the legal advice--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. That matter has been dealt with by the Chair.

Mr. Forth: I will contain my anger and say to the Minister that he is inviting--

Mr. Leigh: Judicial review.

Mr. Forth: Further down the track, perhaps, but, before then, the hon. Gentleman is inviting the other place to look at this matter seriously. The other place may be able to get hold of this advice, although the House of Commons has not. Hopefully, it will be in the public domain by the time the Bill passes to another place, where I hope it is given a thorough going-over. The Minister has been complacent and has not attempted to answer the questions of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who anticipated Report and Third Reading. He thought that we would have much more information than the Committee did when it gave its perfunctory examination of the Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman turned his mind to the contents of the Bill.

Mr. Forth: I thought that I had been doing just that.

Mr. Maclean: Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that this is retrospective legislation? It is seldom

22 May 2000 : Column 752

that this House passes such legislation in such a slap-happy manner, and without having before it the documents described by the Minister.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) responds, I would be grateful if he remembered that the House has dealt thoroughly with that topic as well.

Mr. Forth: Indeed, and I have been trying to pick up on points raised by the Minister. I am a traditionalist about Parliament, and I thought that these were called debates. In a debate, one listens to what the Minister or other hon. Members say, and then deals with those points. If the Minister has led me astray, I can only apologise. He referred to the auditor and to contingent liability. He mentioned the note, which he has admitted bare-facedly is not in the possession of the House, putting us all at a disadvantage.

This has been a shocking episode and the House should be ashamed of itself for allowing it to happen. However, as part of our great parliamentary process, if we in this House are unable to deal adequately with this matter due to the arrogance of the Government, there is a further parliamentary stage which I almost invite to deal with it. I shall send a copy of the Bill to my friends in another place and invite them to look more closely at it.

Next Section

IndexHome Page