Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you received any indication that the Government intend to make a business statement? The House will be aware that the other place has voted against the Government by a majority of seven on National Air Traffic Services. Earlier, I asked the Minister whether the

27 Nov 2000 : Column 749

Government intended to bring that matter back to the House tomorrow at 10 pm if the Government were defeated in the other place. Notwithstanding the fact that only 32 per cent. of Tory peers turned out, compared with 77 per cent. of Liberal Democrats, the Government have been defeated. The Minister was not able to answer my question earlier. Have you had any indication that the Government intend to make a statement?

Mr. Speaker: I think that the House will have got the gist of the message that the hon. Gentleman is trying to put across. That matter has nothing to do with me. No one has approached me about any statement.

Clause 3

Amendment of schedule 1

Lords amendment: No. 5, in page 2, line 35, leave out ("or by a government department") and insert
("by a government department or by the National Assembly for Wales")

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 6 to 10, 25, 28 to 34, 36 to 38, 68, 69, 74, 77, 78 and 82.

Mr. O'Brien: The amendments ensure that the Bill takes full account of devolved arrangements in Wales and Northern Ireland, and ensure appropriate consultation. I shall deal with any questions later.

Mr. Hawkins: Although the Minister has moved the amendments briefly, the House should spend some time on them. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and others may have some points to make. The swift dismissal on a matter as crucial as freedom of information of all the amendments tabled by the Government themselves on matters relating to the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly displays a worrying approach to the new, devolved institutions that the Government set up. We have repeatedly made clear our concern about the brief time left to us by the Government's guillotine, and it is surely incumbent on the Minister to justify the many changes that the Government want to make to their own Bill.

The Government created the new, devolved institutions. Surely when they were producing the Freedom of Information Bill, in the curious manner in which they have approached it throughout, they should have got all the parts relating to Wales and Northern Ireland right first time around rather than having to table a raft of consequential amendments now. We shall wait to hear the important points that my right hon. and hon. Friends will make, and, as the Minister spoke so briefly, I reserve my right to intervene on him when he responds to them. He has not given the House the courtesy of an opening statement in moving important amendments, and we must have an opportunity to intervene on him later.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) is correct.

27 Nov 2000 : Column 750

I want to dwell for a few moments on Lords amendments Nos. 5, 10, 29, 31, 68 and 74, on which several important questions arise. For example, amendment No. 5 proposes to amend clause 3 subsection (2)(b) to bracket together

and "a government department" and the National Assembly for Wales. As my hon. Friend pointed out, that immediately raises some important points which heighten our disappointment that the Minister felt it unnecessary to speak to the House on such an important group--dealing as they do with vital relationships between the National Assembly for Wales, in particular, and Departments. I hope that there will be no attempt to skip lightly over these matters, as they are of considerable importance.

Is the Minister satisfied that the amendment, in bringing together a Department and the National Assembly, is correct in its assumption that the powers exercisable by a Department on the one hand and the National Assembly on the other--two extremely different political entities--have validity? Can we be content with that provision simply on the basis on which it is offered?

When we consider amendment No. 10 to clause 6, matters become more difficult. It states:

For some time, I have been worried about the extent to which that word "consult" has slipped into statute or into Bills, because I am not sure whether any of us has a clear idea of what it means in practice, or to what it commits the Government or--in this case--the Secretary of State.

Let us suppose that the Secretary of State goes through that process of consultation--as yet undefined. What do we suppose will happen if the Secretary of State consults the National Assembly and there is disagreement during that process? Whose word will be final? We can take a pretty good guess. I would hazard a guess that it would be the Secretary of State--[Hon. Members: "Oh no".] If that were so--and I am only guessing--where does that leave the National Assembly? Is it a mere consultee? Are the views of the Assembly simply to be brushed aside by the Secretary of State of the day? Can the Minister offer us any reassurance that the Assembly will be taken seriously?

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) rose--

Mr. Forth: I give way to my right hon. Friend, who has considerable experience in these matters--on both sides.

Mr. Redwood: The original draft of the Bill states that

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that? However, we are being invited to insert that idea in several places before it is mentioned in the original text, and to include provisions on consultations.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have been rapped over the knuckles by the National Assembly for presuming that the Secretary of State can act on behalf of the Assembly without asking it? As a result, the Government are introducing a consultation process in a lukewarm way to try to cover up their deep embarrassment.

27 Nov 2000 : Column 751

It also looks as though the drafting was extremely sloppy, which is why this idea that a Department is the same as the National Assembly for these purposes has to be inserted in various parts of the Bill. Once again, the Government have placed incompetent legislation before the House.

Mr. Forth: I share my right hon. Friend's view, but when the Minister winds up the debate he will have an opportunity to answer those points. He declined to do so at the beginning, when he might have saved himself and us a lot of time if he had taken the trouble to explain these matters to us. However, I hope he will cover the points made by my right hon. Friend in due course.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): I am rather concerned about what would happen if the provision were not included. Was the intention not to consult the National Assembly? Is the provision being included to make sure that such consultation takes place? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is odd that the whole Bill should have been published as though the National Assembly did not exist? At the last moment, we have to draw up all these provisions in case someone complains. Should not the House demand that, in future, the Government get Bills right in the first place?

10.30 pm

Mr. Forth: Of course that would be ideal. My right hon. Friend is right; we are beginning to see the possibility of the Government being devoured by their own children. I can certainly believe what both my right hon. Friends have suggested.

We will hear from the Minister shortly, when he will exercise that freedom of information concept with which we are all so absorbed. He will share with us exactly what is the background of the matter and tell us whether or not there has been a row behind the scenes between the Government and the National Assembly for Wales because the Government ignored the Assembly when drafting the Bill and have been forced to include a specific undertaking.

Mr. Hawkins rose--

Mr. Forth: I shall first give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow); he has been waiting for some time, but I then want to make progress, as I am in danger of getting bogged down. I want to say a lot of other things, so my hon. Friend will not delay me, will he?

Mr. Bercow: I would not dream of delaying my right hon. Friend for longer than necessary, but does he not agree that his anxiety about tokens and fig leaves is further reinforced by the fact that the Labour party has in the past distinguished between consultative referendums on the one hand and binding referendums on the other?

Mr. Forth: That is true, but I fear that if I were to explore that matter too fully I might incur your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and it is bit early in my speech to do that--no doubt it will happen later.

Next Section

IndexHome Page