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Mr. Bercow: I am sorry to trouble my hon. Friend, but it is important to be guided by precedent, even if only by recent precedent. When he talks about Government amendments and the scope for reconsideration of the timetable, will he bear in mind the fact that several hon. Members have today been told that, notwithstanding the number and content of future amendments that may be tabled to a Bill, the end date for consideration of the Bill is determined at the time of the programme motion? In this case that is tonight, and there can be no question of subsequent reconsideration of that end date. That is the dangerous and undemocratic game that the Government are playing.
Mr. Waterson: Well, I hope that my hon. Friend is wrong, but I have a nasty feeling that he is not and that all the new issues and problems that may be raised reasonably and naturally in Committee will simply eat into the time that the Government and their Whips have already allocated for the existing issues.
It is important to put the Bill in context. In terms of sheer numbers of pages and clauses, the Bill is not enormously long; it is not in the same league as the Local Government Act 2000, but it is desperately important. It will deal with between 1 million and 2 million transactions, affecting many people. Those transactions are fundamentally important to ordinary people, to families and to their well-being and wealth. It is desperately important, therefore, that we get it right.
In winding up the previous debate, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), turned the Government's position on gazumping entirely on its head. In their election manifesto and even before that in a document published by the then shadow Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), the Labour party promised that it would tackle the problem of gazumping. It clearly thought that the issue would appeal to owner-occupiers, who represent 69 per cent. of the country, yet the Minister had the gall to say that gazumping is not really that important because it affects no more than 2 per cent. of people; because it does not
Mr. Waterson: Absolutely, Madam Deputy Speaker. That is why it is important to establish whether the time allocated to the issues is sufficient. I shall try to ensure that my remarks stay within that context. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Bill has two halves. At the moment, I am dealing with the first half, under which seller's packs will be introduced. However, it is not up to the Government to say that gazumping should not be addressed in the Bill--which it is not--because it is an important issue. Gazumping is one of the issues that we intend to examine in detail in Committee.
The other issue in relation to the first half of the Bill is that these are highly complex legal matters. It is important not just to lawyers but to those who will carry out property transactions in future that we get it right. The Government are effectively standing on its head the long-established English legal principle of caveat emptor. They do not say so, but that theme runs throughout the first 15 or 16 clauses.
The second half of the Bill deals with homelessness. Again, we rehearsed the key issues in the previous debate, so it would not be right to do so now. However, the proposals will affect those who are vulnerable in our society--the categories of people who should be given priority, whether former offenders, those subject to domestic violence or whatever. The proposals will have a thoroughgoing effect on the responsibilities, burdens and duties of local authorities.
Local authorities, the Local Government Association, the Association of London Government and other such bodies all have their own concerns, which need to be addressed in Committee, about the burdens that will be put on local authorities in tackling not only priority homelessness, but other problems, such as longer-term homelessness, and in determining whether they will have the resources and powers to meet those new responsibilities. There is a similar aspect to the first half of the Bill--an enormous burden will be put on local trading standards officers in enforcing the new legislation on seller's packs, which involves fines of up to £5,000 for people who fall foul of the new regulations. These are all matters of enormous importance to local authorities, for all the reasons that I have mentioned. Local authorities, like anyone else who makes representations to us, have a legitimate right to have their concerns aired.
The programme motion is a thoroughly unsatisfactory way to conduct our business. It firmly puts the cart before the horse: the guillotine motion has been decided before we realise what the issues will be in Committee. It decides in advance how long the Committee stage will need; it does not wait to see the number of issues that are raised; and it does not allow for the possible reconsideration of a guillotine motion if the Committee stage appears to be taking too long. The programme motion is the wrong way to proceed. It is thoroughly anti-democratic and it is entirely typical of this Government. I invite the Minister to withdraw the motion.
I agreed with the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) on one or two points, but he made one point that was clearly total nonsense. He suggested that lawyers would want to get the Bill right, but that is untrue. Lawyers always want our legislation to be wrong, so that they can challenge it as often as possible in the courts.
The hon. Gentleman made some serious points and other serious issues were raised in the earlier debate. My anxiety about the programme motion formula that now seems to have been adopted by the Government is that it gives them or anyone else in the House no time to take account of what is said on Second Reading. I have taken this matter up on the Floor of the House and through the usual channels, but I have still not received an adequate explanation for this extraordinary procedure. There is no reason why 24 or 48 hours should not elapse between Second Reading and the debate on the programme motion. It was suggested earlier that such a procedure would hold up the appointment of members of the Committee, but that is untrue. The Committee of Selection could make appointments to the Committee; it does not have to wait for the programme motion.
It is an affront to those Government and Opposition Members who have taken part in Second Reading that no account is taken of issues that are raised in that debate in deciding how long the Committee stage will be. Important issues have been raised in the past few days outside the House and in the House today. The seller's pack will not be introduced for some time. It will be a matter for secondary legislation, but it raises important questions about legal liability and, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne pointed out, the difficult assessment of the categories that should be exempt. Such issues have been raised by people outside the House and by Members from both sides. However, the programme motion was drawn up long before those issues were in the public domain.
Human rights, privacy and denying access to those who may be thought by the seller to have no interest are also important issues. Points about the seller's pack that have been raised in the past few days by those outside the House and in the past few hours by hon. Members have not been attended to previously.
Mr. Maclean: I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. He might attempt to raise these issues in the Programming Sub-Committee if he is appointed to it, but it has emerged today that an attempt will be made to ensure that these Committees meet in private and that no record will be made of the discussions. Therefore, all the points that he has made would not be recorded in Hansard and could be denied by Ministers and Government Whips when the main Standing Committee meets.
Mr. Tyler: The right hon. Gentleman should know that such procedures were carried out in a much more clandestine fashion in the past. Indeed, Members who have been involved in Committees know that such matters were often discussed just by members of the two Front Benches. Those discussions did not involve any Back Benchers and they certainly did not involve the Liberal
This Bill may be more attuned to the procedure than other recent Bills for the simple reason that it sets out, in part I, the strategy for dealing with seller's packs; the detail will be dealt with in secondary legislation. That is a good argument for saying that the Bill will not require much time in Committee, but it does not answer my objection to the way in which the programme motion has been laid.
The same argument applies to part II, which deals with homelessness. The measures are generally welcomed on both sides of the House, and many Members would say that they are overdue, but the matters tackled in the Bill, such as categories of homelessness, are not of dramatic importance. Many of those categories could be extended under existing legislation and will not require a great deal of consideration in Committee. The Government are making a meal of this matter. They could have found a much easier way of dealing with it and, in particular, allowed Members on both sides of the House who took part in the Second Reading debate to feel that their comments and concerns were given adequate expression before the programme motion was laid.
I confess that I am somewhat confused because I do not know, from what the hon. Member for Eastbourne said, whether he intends to divide the House. We all know that the alternative leader of the Conservative party may well decide to divide the House, as he did a few minutes ago.