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Points of Order

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At about 8.10 this morning, Portcullis house was evacuated because of another fire alarm. Within minutes, I was told that it was a false alarm. There was also a false alarm yesterday, and since the building has been occupied there have been fire alarms about twice a week, most of them false.

The helpful man at the company that put in the fire system, Surefire Systems, said that the system was fine and that it would be perfectly all right if only people would not go into the building. He said that the problem lay with the design, and that he was just the subcontractor following the design provided by Ove Arup. I was told by the Department of the Serjeant at Arms that the system had been forced on the designers by the Home Secretary.

Not only are hundreds of people disadvantaged by this problem every time it happens, including Members and the staff who run the place for us, but the entire system is put under strain. What can you do, Mr. Speaker, to try to ensure that those false alarms stop? It is embarrassing enough having press reports every week about the cost of the building that one works in, but when that building does not work, it is worse.

Mr. Speaker: I have every sympathy with Members and staff in that situation. There is nothing more annoying than being evacuated from one's workplace because of a false alarm. I understand that the alarm was due to a faulty detector head, and that a full investigation of the fire alarm system in Portcullis house is being undertaken. Meanwhile, the system is now being operated manually, and I trust that there will no further such incidents.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, after a flagrant abuse of Question Time by the Secretary of State for Health, you said, at column 783 of the Official Report,

You repeated that point today to the Secretary of State for International Development.

Today, the Prime Minister, in attempting to evade answering proper questions to him about his responsibilities, attacked the Opposition on 10 separate occasions--I counted. Is the Prime Minister bound by the same rules as other Ministers?

Mr. Speaker: The Prime Minister is bound by the same rules as everyone else, but he gets a bit more leeway, and so does the Leader of the Opposition.


Education (Funding)

Dr. Nick Palmer, supported by Liz Blackman, Mr. Ian Cawsey, Mr. Vernon Coaker, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mr. Michael Fabricant and Mr. David Kidney, presented a Bill to make provision about the distribution of funding between local education authorities: And the same was read the first time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 30 March, and to be printed [Bill 40].

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Homes Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

3.34 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move,

The motion proposes that the remaining stages of the Bill should be completed this evening. The programme is supplemental to the one that was approved for consideration in Committee, which finished as planned on 1 February. I pay tribute to the members of what was an eventful Committee, coinciding with the addition to the family of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) and the promotion to Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth). I feel sure that the resident of 74 Acacia avenue, who featured in many of the exchanges in Committee, celebrated both events in his local premises licensed for entertainment and the sale of intoxicating liquor.

In all seriousness, we had a constructive debate, with valuable contributions from both sides of the Committee. I am grateful for that. There was full discussion of all the relevant matters and the debates were completed within the time set by the previous programme motion.

In Committee, a limited number of minor drafting amendments were approved to simplify and clarify the Bill. The Government have proposed a few more amendments of a similar nature, and some that respond specifically to concerns raised by hon. Members in debate in Committee. We are not introducing by way of Government amendments any major new issue of principle. Therefore, one day should give us ample time to debate the remaining stages of the Bill. For these reasons, I commend the motion to the House.

3.36 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Here we are yet again. The Government want to drive through the Bill--

Mr. Raynsford: Of course.

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Mr. Waterson: In many ways, the Bill is a perfect example of the Government's approach. It is all hype and no delivery. Before the general election, Labour promised that it would tackle gazumping, but the Bill does nothing of the sort. It is a perfect illustration of the nanny state at work. It will over-complicate and add extra costs to the process of buying and selling a house. It will criminalise ordinary citizens in private contractual dealings, making them subject to the same level of penalties as apply to the carrying of a flick knife. The Government are seeking again to suppress debate in the House and to ignore informed criticism.

The Minister began with a string of in-jokes, which I think will be familiar only to members of the Committee, Acacia avenue being one of them. The hon. Gentleman had the gall to say that the Committee finished as planned on 1 February. I do not know what alternative he was suggesting. Was it that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) and I should have hired a Committee Room to continue the debate regardless?

Even after the date set for the close of proceedings in Committee, I applied the usual poetic licence to allow the Minister to make his kind remarks. As is normal and appropriate on such an occasion, he thanked the joint Chairmen for their chairmanship and for their skill in bringing the Committee to an end at 5 pm on 1 February. With all due respect to those two able Chairmen, that had nothing to do with them; we finished on 1 February because the Government said that we should do so.

The Government did not say at the beginning of consideration in Committee that we should finish on 1 February--they said within days, if not hours, of the Bill being published that that would be the length of the Bill's consideration in Committee. That started as a proposal, and I use that word with some care, that there would be 12 sittings, and we had 12 sittings. Had it not been that rather unexpectedly at the last minute the Liberal Democrats withdrew a group of new clauses, we would not have reached the debate on, or would have finished in the middle of debating, an important new clause that was tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry).

Mr. Raynsford: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that there was no request from the Opposition for the Committee to meet after dinner on any of the evening sittings? Indeed, quite the opposite: the Opposition Whip requested that we should finish early on one occasion.

Mr. Waterson: I do not recall that, but I do remember that, on one or two occasions, we sat until rather later than 5 o'clock.

The answer is clear. The Government said, as soon as the Bill was published, that there would be 12 Committee sittings. Then they produced a programme motion which did not change at all. They tried to make out--although I think that the Minister has abandoned this tack--that it was agreed by the usual channels. Nothing could be more wrong. Of course, there were discussions through the usual channels and we tried to be constructive--the Minister was good enough to use that word in Committee and just now--and ensure that most of the Bill was properly debated. If one is given a certain length of string, one is going to make the best use of that length. It is

7 Feb 2001 : Column 932

unfair and unreasonable of the Minister to say from the Dispatch Box that we had a full discussion of all aspects of the Bill. How does he know what other arguments Opposition Members might have deployed in Committee? By whose definition was there a full discussion of every aspect of the Bill? In some cases, the discussion by Opposition Members was downright perfunctory because we wanted to get on to meatier aspects of the Bill.

I am certainly not going to take criticism from Ministers if, in the final sitting, we tried to get on to the new clause tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon on the important issue of shorthold tenancies. The Minister said, rather grandly, that we would have ample time to debate the remaining stages of the Bill today. I suppose that we should be mildly grateful that we do not have a statement on a weighty matter, but are starting business with the programme motion, debate on which can last for 45 minutes. All of that period comes straight out of the time for Report stage. We will then have Third Reading at the end of the evening. The current proposal is that we limit that to an hour, minus time spent on any divisions that might result from debates before 9 o'clock.

It is therefore extraordinary that the Minister should claim that there is ample time for debate. How does he know? I see that there is relatively little interest in this issue on the Government Benches. Ministers think that they are running not a democracy, but a Swiss railway system. The Bill will come into the station at 10 pm; that is all that Ministers are interested in.

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