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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you notice. It concerns a written question to the Home Secretary, tabled yesterday by the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope), which appears on today's Order Paper. The hon. Gentleman asked the Home Secretary to make a statement on the Government's policy on volunteering.

This afternoon I asked the Library whether it had--as would normally happen--received a copy of the Government's response to the hon. Gentleman's question. It had not. I asked it to make inquiries of the parliamentary clerk at the Home Office. I have since been informed by Library staff that they were told by the Home Office that the Home Secretary had decided not to release an answer to the question today and that, instead, an answer would be supplied to the Library tomorrow morning, as soon as possible after the Chancellor of the Exchequer had made a press statement about the policy in question.

I have subsequently discovered not only that the Chancellor plans to make a press announcement tomorrow, ahead of any announcement to Members, but that he has already given interviews to the broadcasting media, and has arranged to publish an article on the subject in at least one newspaper tomorrow.

My purpose, Mr. Speaker, is to request you to investigate and consider what steps you can take, not just to secure an apology from the Ministers responsible for what appears to be--even by this Government's standards--a disgraceful abuse of our normal procedures, but to ensure that in future Ministers do their duty not just to Members but, through us, to the people who elect us and send us here to represent them, by giving information to Parliament before it is supplied via spin doctors and the media.

Mr. Speaker: I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I will investigate the matter.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you also inquire into whether any other Ministers are involved in tomorrow's press launch, or whatever it is--in particular, Lord Falconer?

Mr. Speaker: I will investigate the hon. Gentleman's point of order.

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Health and Social Care Bill (Programme)

10.33 pm

Mr. Denham: I beg to move,

This is an important Bill, as was recognised by Members on both sides of the House who spoke on Second Reading. We had a good debate.

The motion proposes that the Committee stage concludes on 8 February. We think that that gives us enough time to debate a Bill of this size, especially as many of its provisions are discreet and manageable.

The Bill delivers the policy commitments of the NHS plan, which was published in July and which is familiar to all.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Will the Minister apologise to his right hon. and hon. Friends for the way in which they have been misled over the idea that, under these new procedures, everyone would go home at 10 pm? Does he understand that trying to gerrymander and to force measures through the House in such a despicable way will cause more trouble, more grief and more debate? Would it not be better to go back to doing things by agreement?

Mr. Denham: We are well aware that views on how to ensure logical, sensible and orderly handling of business in the House vary. Not all Members share my opinion that proper programming and timetabling legislation will enhance effective scrutiny. Many of us have, over the years, spent time in Committee experiencing filibusters and debates on timetable motions that last for weeks on end, involving seemingly endless late night debates. I would rather ensure that we can make good progress in Committee, and scrutinise the Bill properly. We will want to make sure that there is sufficient time to debate the key areas of interest properly.

Mr. Swayne: On those key areas of interest, will the Minister give way?

Mr. Denham: Yes, why not.

Mr. Swayne: When the Minister chose the end date in the motion, did he know that all but two speakers from the Labour Back Benches would express reservation or outright opposition to his proposals for community health councils? On that basis, is he absolutely sure that there will be sufficient time in Committee to accommodate the concerns of Labour Members?

Mr. Denham: Yes, indeed. I am confident that there will be time to give particular consideration to the issues that were raised tonight: the scrutiny arrangements for the NHS, including community health councils; the

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arrangements for dealing with poorly performing doctors; care trusts; the new arrangements for pharmacy; and free nursing care, which 44 Members voted against--their constituents will be interested in that. Those key issues were flagged up, and I am confident that they can be dealt with in some detail and that proper scrutiny will be given to all the other measures.

Mr. Bercow: In addition helpfully to providing the House with an end date for consideration, will the Minister tell us how many hours he envisages being allocated for debate in Committee to cover the 66 clauses and five schedules?

Mr. Denham: Well, that is of course a matter for the Committee. As I understand the proceedings, the Programming Sub-Committee will, subject to the motion being passed, begin consideration on Thursday next week. That will enable us--in Committee and, if it is desired, through the usual channels--to ensure that the proper time is allocated. In particular, and I accept the point entirely, the great bulk of time should be devoted to the more contentious proposals, especially those that Opposition and Labour Members want to scrutinise closely. Whether the Conservatives want to use the usual channels constructively is beyond my control--I understand that they are open for discussion--but, if not, those matters will have to be discussed in the Programming Sub-Committee.

We listened carefully to the opinions expressed tonight and we understand the importance of the views of both sides of the House. That is a key advantage of timetabling, and we want to ensure that the Opposition can use the time allocated by the House to concentrate on the priority areas for scrutiny. The suggested end date of 8 February will provide enough time in Committee, starting with consideration next week. The Programming Sub-Committee will consider the detailed timetable, the frequency of sittings and so on in the usual way.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon) rose--

Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. Denham: I was about to finish, but I give way to the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery).

Sir Peter Emery: I have listened with care to all that has been said. Does not the Minister agree that, before the Programming Sub-Committee meets, it would be right and proper for the Opposition to make it clear to the Government what time they believe would be necessary to consider the Bill and that all sections should be covered during that time scale?

Mr. Denham: Absolutely. That is the purpose of the discussions through the usual channels. We have invited that input, and I understand that meetings have taken place through the usual channels. However, we have received less information than we would have liked or that the Opposition might have found helpful. My point to the right hon. Gentleman--

Mr. Swayne rose--

Mr. Denham: I have not finished my answer yet.

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What the right hon. Gentleman says is perfectly sensible, but whether his Front Benchers want to take advantage of the arrangements in the new procedures is beyond our control.

Mr. Swayne: I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. Can he tell us, on the basis of his experience, how much time the Health Act 1999, which he steered through, took in Committee?

Mr. Denham: I remember that Committee--it is seared on my memory. I remember in particular the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)--he is not present tonight, so I assume that he will not be a member of the forthcoming Committee--and the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who told us tonight that he would not be a member of that Committee, as well as a number of others, speaking to the timetable motion for sitting after sitting after sitting, totally pointlessly and aimlessly. That was my experience. [Interruption.] Well, the behaviour must have been in order because the Chairman allowed it to continue. However, in my opinion, it was aimless, if not out of order.

Committee time under different Administrations has often not been used for scrutinising Bills efficiently and effectively. The Health and Social Care Bill covers many issues that are very important for patients. I hope that the Conservative party will use Committee time constructively to scrutinise the Bill effectively. However, we cannot control that; it is in the hands of the Conservative party.

I commend the motion to the House.

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