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Mr. Hogg: Is not the inevitable consequence of the timetable motion that many of those amendments will not be debated in the House? If they are debated at all, it will be in the other place. If amendments are made there, they will return to the House, probably on a timetable and so will never be debated in the House.
Dr. Fox: It is the ultimate irony that the Government, who came to office with open contempt for the other place, have now created arrangements whereby the electorate rely even more on the other place to scrutinise legislation, because we in this House are given so little time to do so by a Government who ruthlessly use their large parliamentary majority to restrict the time available. People outside want many issues to be debated today and there are many groups of amendments--for example, on medical, dental and pharmaceutical lists; on local authority overview; on patient information; on representation of patients and the community health councils; on nursing care; and on intervention orders.
A huge amount needs to be debated, but that will not happen not only because of the number of Members who want to take part, but because the Minister will have to do a great deal of explaining on the 120-odd amendments and new clauses that the Government have tabled to try to clarify their own Bill. What are we to conclude from the fact that they have tabled so many amendments and new clauses?
Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend will be only too aware that so many amendments were tabled to the Utilities Bill that, in the end, it was such a mess that half the Bill had to be discarded after a considerable waste of time. Is he aware that we have just five hours in which to discuss all nine groups of amendments that Mr. Speaker has selected? Perhaps the most important group, which concerns our constituents most of all, is that on the representation of patients and community health councils, which contains 22 amendments. My hon. Friend has correctly said that many amendments and new clauses will not even be discussed, but, by my simple calculation, we shall have less than a minute to discuss each amendment or new clause that is debated. Does he agree that that amount of time is inadequate?
Dr. Fox: My hon. Friend makes several important points, the first of which is that the problem is not confined to the Bill; it has occurred on numerous occasions. Secondly, good legislation requires a lot of scrutiny. No matter how recently hon. Members were elected, they will all know of legislation that would have been better if we had spent more time scrutinising it in greater detail. It is distressing that those of us who are elected to represent our constituents increasingly have to rely on an unelected Chamber to scrutinise legislation appropriately. That cannot be the correct constitutional balance. Major issues have been raised by the fact that the Government have sought to gag the elected House in a
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): The Committee is one of the most important stages in the scrutiny of a Bill. Unlike me, the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Committee that considered this Bill, but how many Committee sittings did he actually attend?
Dr. Fox: I am afraid that, in addition to selling out on community health councils, the hon. Gentleman appears increasingly to be selling out to his Whips. The issue is how well the Bill was scrutinised in Committee and how much time was given to that. I have every confidence that my Front-Bench colleagues scrutinised the Bill in Committee better than I would have done. They did a magnificent job. The hon. Gentleman knows that there are major issues to be debated, so I am sorry that he has tried to sidetrack the House in a manner that is frivolous and unworthy of him.
The Government have clearly not thought through the issues. What are we to make of the fact that they have tabled so many new clauses and amendments? Does that mean that they had not thought about possible problems before they introduced the Bill? That is probably part of the answer because we all know that, for all their talk of consultation, very little consultation took place with the groups that will be affected by the Bill. The Government probably did not think about the problems in advance.
Have so many new clauses and amendments been tabled because the Bill has been so poorly drafted? Where does the blame for that lie? Do Ministers and the Government take responsibility for any of their actions? Did Ministers miss things when they first read the Bill and did they fail to understand their own legislation? Does the number of consequential amendments that have been tabled suggest that Ministers did not understand the Bill's proposals, speedily drafted as it was? I suspect that all those issues contributed to the mess that we have to put right in a short time today.
Mr. Bercow: The point made by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) was pitiful. It was unworthy of his status as Chairman of the Select Committee on Health. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Secretary of State for Health did not sit and did not seek to sit either on the Standing Committee for this Bill or on that for the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill? We do not particularly criticise him for that: he is very important, very senior, very respected and very busy and has a very full diary. However, my hon. Friend contributed intelligently to the Committee, and he was aided and abetted by my hon. Friends the Members for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). It ill behoves the hon. Member for Wakefield to make such a cheap, invalid and thoroughly bogus criticism.
Dr. Fox: Yes, and I have no intention of continuing the debate on this point. We all understand that the Secretary of State is far too important to take part in the scrutiny of his or any other legislation. He is above the normal tasks that the House carries out, and it is far more important these days for Secretaries of State simply to make sure
I wonder whether the Bill has been made up as it went along. The strong impression that was given to us in Committee was that Ministers made up their answers as they went along. In the debate on what was clause 59 and is now clause 62, the Government presented information to the Committee as they went along and no notice of it was given in advance. It related to whole new structures for which no explanatory notes were given to members of the Committee. We were working entirely in the dark during our consideration of some of the Government's most major reforms. Ministers simply seemed to change tack according to the questions that were asked and as notes were passed from civil servants. That is an extraordinarily unsatisfactory way to consider legislation. However, I am afraid that it is not unusual.
This is a hugely centralising and authoritarian Bill. It will give the Secretary of State enormous powers to hire and fire NHS staff. He can fire certain staff at will and replace them with any staff that he wants, but he had the nerve to say on Second Reading that this was a devolving Bill. It could not be more different from a devolving Bill; it is the diametric opposite.
When we considered the community health councils, the Government came up with all the nonsense about how they had consulted. However, there was no consultation before the Bill's publication, and the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State had to eat if not humble pie--I am sure that would have been too indigestible for them--at least their words.
A centralising measure on patient information was also introduced. It will allow the Secretary of State to control information in a hitherto unprecedented way. Almost every group with an interest in health care which wrote to Committee members and wanted to have their voices heard opposed that measure, but debate on it was curtailed, as it will be today.
Ministers never consider the effect of restricting the length of time between Committee and Report, and between the tabling of amendments and new clauses and their consideration on the Floor of the House. It is not only Members of Parliament who do not have time to research their implications and to get proper legal advice on their impact; outside bodies that have a great interest in the Bill also do not have the time to work out what they entail. They are unable to determine what effect amendments and new clauses might have or to pass information and advice on to Members of the House and Committee members, so that we know how they want us to proceed.
The Government have no time for us, the House, the process of Parliament, the due process of scrutiny or the outside bodies that want to make representations. All those are cavalierly swept away so that the Government can stick to their timetable and complete their legislation, irrespective of its quality. We are being driven entirely by the Government's desire to clear the decks for a general election. The quality of legislation is not the main consideration.
In all probability, we will have an hour on Third Reading, which is ridiculous. Any hon. Member who scans Hansard will see that it is traditional for Third Reading to be a shorter part of the scrutiny process.