Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Burstow: It does.

Mr. Forth: In typical Liberal Democrat fashion, the hon. Gentleman says, "it does" when I have asked three different questions. Perhaps he would like to pick one of the three and help me.

Dr. Brand: Wait and see.

Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman is reluctant to help, but his hon. Friend tells us to wait. I am really excited now. We have had a hidden Liberal promise of clarification to come. I shall contain myself for now, exercising patience in the expectation that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) will regale us later with a much fuller explanation of what the amendment is all about. I shall restrict myself merely to posing my

12 Jul 2000 : Column 896

questions now, but if the hon. Gentleman does not keep his promise, I shall find some way to punish him. He can only guess right now at what my means may be, but they may become obvious as the night wears on.

That brings us neatly and satisfactorily to amendment No. 96, which is much more interesting and with which my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) dealt very ably. More and more as we consider Bills, we debate the necessity and wisdom of giving powers of entry and investigation to authorities and bodies, and the extent to which we wish to make those powers general or to restrict them.

I can see what my hon. Friend's amendment is driving at: he wants to restrict to genuine local authority premises powers that could be extremely wide and intrusive, and he wants to ensure that private dwelling houses are not covered. I confess that I wonder whether that would inhibit the legitimate purposes of the Bill and the bureaucracy. I am caught in a dilemma on this point: I have explained my reservations about bureaucracies, regulatory powers and powers of entry, but I must, reluctantly, accept that once the House has accepted the general purpose of a Bill, we can only ask whether it will be effective.

There is a slight risk--I put it no higher--that amendment No. 96 could, in some circumstances, inhibit or restrict the proposed powers. I can imagine circumstances in which something happens in the private house of a foster parent about which we may have legitimate concern. Given the relationship between foster parents, local authorities and the proposed bureaucracy, we can query how far the Bill's powers should be restricted or left broad.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset) rose--

Mr. Hammond rose--

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge can help me because he proposed the amendment.

Mr. Hammond: I recognise my right hon. Friend's concern, but there are two points at issue. First, powers exist, particularly under the Children Act 1989, to allow entry in order to protect a child at risk. Secondly, we must make sure that our sanctions and intrusions are proportional to what we seek to do. I believe that my amendment has the balance right.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful. If my hon. Friend cannot envisage circumstances in which his amendment would prevent the proper discharge of the duties in clause 44, I must be satisfied.

Mr. Hammond: I should make it clear that the Minister has already told the Standing Committee that in the Government's view, there is no power of entry to a private dwelling house under this part of the Bill. The amendment would simply make the Bill clear, which, in my submission, supported by my right hon. Friend's interpretation, it is not at present.

12 Jul 2000 : Column 897

5.30 pm

Mr. Forth: That is helpful. Of course my hon. Friend has just shown the disadvantage that those of us who did not serve on the Standing Committee have in such matters. I will not be tempted to dilate on Pepper v. Hart; he is not trying to do so. If the Minister has put that on the record in Committee, that may be good enough. Of course I accept what my hon. Friend says; he wants only to put such matters beyond doubt--even beyond the Minister's words, which are on record. The Minister has already said that that is an appropriate matter and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification.

Mr. Bruce: I, too, did not serve on the Standing Committee. Indeed, I had not read clause 44 until warming up for the debate, but I have read the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, which will restrict law enforcement officers and all sorts of other people from entering a private dwelling or whatever. It strikes me that, without amendment, the Bill could directly contradict another Government measure that is being considered in the House of Lords. Will my right hon. Friend comment on that extraordinary situation?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend may think it extraordinary, but I am not sure that I do. He characteristically gives the Government the benefit of the doubt in assuming that they are consistent. I have never believed that and, in his perspicacious way, he shows that the Government are all over the place.

Mr. Bruce: That is putting it mildly.

Mr. Forth: Yes, it is. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to develop that point in his own way; I do not want to encroach on his territory.

I shall move on swiftly to amendments Nos. 3, tabled by my hon. Friends, and 32, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, by which they seek to pre-empt or prescribe the way in which the commission will discharge its responsibilities. That is an important issue. We should carefully consider whether it is beneficial for the House to prescribe how the commission will work, even in the way in which my hon. Friends suggest.

Amendment No. 3 states:

That seems to go a bit far, even for enthusiasts of bureaucracy. Either we have reasonable confidence about how the commission will discharge its duties, or we do not. Even at this late stage, my hon. Friends want to state in detail how the commission will be structured and how it will carry out its responsibilities. I make no apology for taking them to task, but they even want to state that there should be

I yield to none in my admiration of my hon. Friends' perspicacity and foresight, but for them to suggest that they can envisage, with such clarity, how the commission should function and discharge its duties seems to go a tad far, and I therefore remain to be convinced.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): I want to press my right hon. Friend on that matter. I fully appreciate the

12 Jul 2000 : Column 898

point that he makes, but we shall have only one stab at the Bill. Can he foresee how the law could be changed if such a provision were not included and the experience of the system working in practice suggested that what my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) proposes in amendment No. 3 was needed?

Mr. Forth: In an attempt to justify the wording of amendment No. 3, my hon. Friend gives the game away completely. He has reminded the House, as I was about to, that it is difficult, though not impossible, to alter or remove a proposal once it has been included in a Bill. That is my worry.

By my reading, if we do not use either the wording suggested by my hon. Friends or that suggested by the Liberal Democrats, the commission will be free--within the broad terms of its remit and, if necessary, under guidance from the Secretary of State, which is also in the Bill as a longstop or failsafe--to structure itself as it sees fit and to set up such sub-committees as it sees fit. That will provide the flexibility to enable it better to react to changes in circumstances. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) points out, if a well-meaning form of words is included, it will be there for ever, or at least until a future Government get round to trying to change it. Were the Government to be re-elected, we know that their legislative programme would be so full that the chance of changing the wording would be zero.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I have huge sympathy with what my right hon. Friend says, but will he bear in mind that the Bill already provides for a children's rights director who, although not a commissioner, is specifically referred to? That is frightfully politically correct, and I accept his reaction to that, but does he accept that independent health care and social and nursing care, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) refers in amendment No. 3, are the two areas in which the Government find the greatest anathema in respect of providing care across the spectrum? Therefore, specifying that a commissioner is responsible for those areas will make it palpably clear that the person appointed will be put under the spotlight to ensure that the commission's powers are exercised truly impartially.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour, who has given as elegant an explanation of amendment No. 3 as one could expect. I can of course see the force of what she says, but again my reservation is that circumstances can change rapidly, as we know, and sometimes to our cost. My worry is that committing ourselves to such a degree of detail at this stage would also commit the commission and create the danger of rendering it relatively inflexible when flexibility is of the essence. I still have my reservations, in spite of the valiant effort to persuade me.

Next Section

IndexHome Page