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Homes Bill (Programme)

Motion made, and Question proposed,

2. Proceedings in the Standing Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 1st February 2001.
3. The Standing Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it shall meet.--[Mr. Raynsford.]

10.29 pm

Mr. Waterson: I am slightly surprised that the Minister feels unable or unwilling to speak to the programme motion, which could better be described as a guillotine motion. Such motions are becoming a regular and sad fact of parliamentary life.

We are currently presented with a set of demands by the Government as to how long should be devoted to the Committee of a Bill and, under that duress, a timetable is hammered out. However, the Government and the usual channels should be in no doubt that there is nothing that could be construed as freely given consent or agreement in these situations. There is genuine anger, frustration and disappointment on the part of many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, some of whom may wish to vent that anger in this short debate.

The Government are in guillotine land; we have had at least 25 guillotine motions in the past three years. Here we have a particularly egregious example of the Government's attitude to the parliamentary process. On any view, this is an important Bill, for reasons that form common ground across the Chamber. We have had a useful, constructive and, at times, amusing debate on some of the broad themes, as befits a Second Reading debate.

The Bill is important for a variety of reasons. The first part of the Bill concerns the single most important transaction that any family will ever enter into; the purchase and possible subsequent sale of the family home. One of the bizarre things about the programme motion--a use of language that I hate: it is a guillotine--is that it was proposed and imposed long before the Second Reading debate. The Bill was published a little before Christmas and, because of the holidays, there has been relatively little time for all the groups who legitimately take a close interest in the Bill to tell elected Members of their concerns.

Mr. Gummer: Is my hon. Friend aware that most of the environmental groups are deeply disappointed by the proposals for the seller's pack and that none has so far had the opportunity of putting those points to Members? The arrangements that we are discussing will not give us time to discuss the essential issues and why an opportunity to change the situation is being missed.

Mr. Waterson: My right hon. Friend is right. A range of groups--not just environmental groups--have been taken by surprise. Following the ill-fated Bristol pilot scheme in November, the Government announced that they were to proceed on the current basis. The Bill must have been in preparation, and the Government must have

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expected the results of the pilot scheme--even though its results are, on any view, equivocal and, on one view, disappointing.

During the Second Reading debate--which was of a high standard--a range of issues were raised. Some, I concede, were eminently foreseeable--I am sure that the Minister will agree that there is always an element of predictability in some of the arguments on any piece of legislation--but new issues and problems have been raised.

Opposition Members certainly did not foresee the potential rebellion of Government Back Benchers over the imposition of seller's packs in low-value, low-demand areas. I taxed the Minister with making a very long speech, but in fairness one of the reasons for its length was the hon. Gentleman's generosity in giving way, and in most cases the interventions were from his own party colleagues, expressing their concerns about the effects in their constituencies.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Does my hon. Friend think that the Opposition will also need time to table an amendment to ensure that when the Government are selling housing land, as in the case of the dome site, for example, their seller's pack should include a clear indication of what they are selling and whether there is planning permission? Would it not be wise to say that the Government as vendor should find out what they are selling and get it properly valued before they rip off the taxpayer and the lottery player?

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful for that piece of lateral thinking. My right hon. Friend is in danger of undermining my general criticism of the seller's pack system. The problem is that the Government would probably prepare two different seller's packs depending on who the potential purchaser was and how much they had contributed to party funds.

We are not against guillotining in principle, especially on such an important measure, but there is no provision for the fact that new issues have been raised at a very late stage. There is nothing wrong with right hon. and hon. Members coming back from well-deserved Christmas breaks, seeing a Bill in a new light and coming up with a new query about it, but the details of the guillotine, which have apparently already been hammered out through the usual channels, mean that we have not only the fait accompli of a 1 February finish date but an allocation of time for each set of clauses--before we even know how many amendments will be tabled to them. I tabled an initial raft of amendments at the end of the earlier debate, and I am sure that others will table more.

Another serious question, to which I genuinely do not know the answer, concerns new clauses. The way in which the cake has been divided up is entirely based on the existing clauses and there is no provision, as far as I can tell, for debate on any new clauses. There are one or two issues on which I would wish, in the ordinary way, to table new clauses.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Can my hon. Friend confirm that, as is now to be the custom, the proposed order of consideration of the Bill will be subject to determination by a Programming Sub-Committee? Is he aware of the experience that some of us had in such a

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Sub-Committee earlier this evening, and does he expect the Byzantine consequences of that meeting to be visited on those who are to consider the Homes Bill in Committee?

Mr. Waterson: Can I phone a friend? Unlike my hon. Friend, who is, as always, ahead of many of us in such matters, I have yet to encounter that fabled mythological beast, the Programming Sub-Committee. I do not even know whether I shall be on it, although I have a nasty feeling that I shall. I do not know where it meets or when, quite what its purpose is, or whether it is a creation of statute, of Standing Order, or merely of parliamentary practice. I look forward with enormous relish and interest to seeing exactly how it conducts its business.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The evidence so far suggests that it is unclear whether such a Committee is a Select or a Standing Committee. It is also unclear whether any reasonable notice has to be given of the Government motion before the Committee; whether any proper opportunity for amendments to that motion has to be given; and, indeed, whether the Committee will meet in public or in private. So far, it would appear that none of that is known, and that the Government, as usual, are trying to fiddle every aspect of the procedure.

Mr. Waterson: I am now even more worried about the prospect of the Sub-Committee, but I look forward to it with steely determination. I assume that it will be open to members of the Standing Committee, as well as to other hon. Members--but I know not. I assume that its proceedings will not be time-limited in any way, and I also assume that it cannot be regarded as a Select Committee, because Whips will be there--

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): And Ministers.

Mr. Waterson: And Ministers. We shall have to wait and see.

Mr. Leigh: Will my hon. Friend accept from me that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) was doing a disservice to Byzantium in equating the Sub-Committee with Byzantine organisation, which was at least characterised by subtlety? This is mere brute force: the Government are imposing their will on traditional parliamentary democracy, and using their overwhelming majority to steamroller their legislation through without proper debate.

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend is right. The Government are using their large majority to show their contempt for the parliamentary process.

I have already touched on the subject of new clauses. I genuinely do not know the answer to my question, and it would be nice to know it at some point so that I can decide whether to table any new clauses.

There is another aspect that should be aired in this debate. In this Parliament we are getting used to sloppy drafting in Government Bills. A major consequence of that, apart from the wasting of debating time in Committee and elsewhere, is that large rafts of Government amendments are tabled at very late stages.

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On behalf of the Opposition, I had the conduct of the Local Government Bill last year, and although I lost count of the exact number, I believe that more than 1,000 Government amendments were tabled to it at different stages.

Where is the provision for that process in the timetable proposal? I suspect that there is none. When the Committee stage, which already has an end date, has started, will we find that a whole series of Government amendments are to be made? Of course, I immediately accept that there will always be a need for some minor tinkering in the form of consequential and minor drafting amendments, but will the Minister give the House an assurance this evening that if that happens on any significant scale, he will reconsider the programme motion?

As I have said, new issues, new problems and new amendments may need to be dealt with, and I do not know how that can happen within the timetable.

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