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27 Mar 2001 : Column 918

Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords] (Programme)

9.59 pm

Mr. Rooker: I beg to move,

I have not moved a programme motion before, so I was briefed to the gunwales; we have a brilliant civil service--it is excellent. I was sent several speeches made on previous motions and I wrote back with a little billet-doux pointing out that, by the way, I am a Member of Parliament and I attend the House even when it is not DSS time. I have listened to at least five programme motion debates--the full 45 minutes--although, looking around the Chamber, it seems that the usual suspects are not present. However, I know almost all the points that they would make.

I take the matter seriously. I shall not tell the House that we shall consider no amendments--I shall not say that. I shall not tell the House that we want to rush the measure through. Although the Bill has been debated in the other place, I thought that the original dates proposed for its proceedings here were a bit unreasonable, so--considering the dates on which Easter falls--I took the view that Maundy Thursday--[Interruption.] Maundy Thursday is on 12 April, so presumably the House is sitting; if it is not we shall make arrangements for it to do so. Maundy Thursday counts as a non-qualifying day in the election timetable--as we all know. It is one of those non-days, but it could still be a sitting day in this place.

So, on the reasonable assumption that we shall begin the Committee stage next Tuesday at 10.30 am--I am looking forward to that--we can probably knock the Bill off in eight sittings. We shall be able to deal with many

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of the detailed points made today; I am not denigrating them by suggesting that they were Committee points. We can hold useful debates during the period allocated.

Given the scale of the Bill, the number of sittings is justified. Many hon. Members say that it is a small Bill; some have said that we are taking draconian powers. We certainly accept that the Bill has been given a fair wind. On behalf of my colleagues and those people who have worked on the measure, I am extremely grateful for the general good will in response to it. We have to make it work. That is true. It is an extra weapon in the armoury for the fight against social security fraud. It certainly deserves full scrutiny by the House--this is where I dig myself in--if, of course, the House allows that. I ask the House to support the motion.

10.2 pm

Mrs. Lait: Like the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), I, too, have listened to many programme motion debates. It is unfortunate for him that this will be his first and last--or perhaps penultimate--such appearance.

The Opposition are thoroughly against the whole system of programme motions. In many cases, the inability of the House to consider legislation thoroughly because of this new system will create a constitutional problem that will be extremely difficult to deal with; that will come home to roost and the country will be the poorer for it.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Bill is broadly welcomed on both sides of the House, but it might not go far enough; we want to consider many issues, as was clear from many of the Second Reading speeches. However, the motion highlights the absurdity inherent in the new system.

Like me, the Minister sat through the proceedings on the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000; the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), sat through the proceedings on the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999 as well as the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act; the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) sat through the proceedings on both of those Acts; and although the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) will, unfortunately, not be joining us this time, he was also in attendance during the proceedings on those Acts and played a useful role. The cast of characters for the Bill's Standing Committee will, I suspect, be similar to that for all those Acts--

Mr. Willetts: The old lags.

Mrs. Lait: Indeed. I should have thought that the old lags would realise that we have always worked well together in deciding the end dates for Committees and in ensuring that we stick to our agreements. The Minister will remember the help that we gave when there was a bit of an upset during the passage of the Bill that became the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, so I find it sad and absurd that we have to have a programme motion on this Bill.

The motion provides for four days in Committee--eight sittings. We shall either fill those sittings without difficulty or not sit at all. The apparent generosity of the

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motion leads me to three different conclusions about what the Government have decided. They may be planning to table a lot of Government amendments, which will take a long time to debate. They may intend to encourage their Back Benchers to contribute in a way that we have not seen in the past. Or, may I suggest a cynical calculation on the election date and that we shall not even go into Committee? That, I am afraid, is the only conclusion that I can draw from the mere fact that a programme motion has to be tabled on a Bill of this nature, which is largely uncontroversial, when we have in the past always agreed happily to end dates and other issues regarding the management of a Bill.

We will, as we promised, table amendments to satisfy ourselves that these issues have been thought through. The Minister says that the Information Commissioner has no concerns. I accept that the commissioner has no concerns, but I should like to know why she now has none, when originally she had many.

The Opposition find it absurd and sad that a Bill like this, which was amended satisfactorily in the House of Lords, should be subjected to a programme motion, as is the usual draconian behaviour of the Government. It is completely unacceptable.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Does my hon. Friend think that there is now a grave danger that it would take longer to see the Bill through because there is a guillotine; and has she noticed that, ever since the Government tried to modernise, we have gone home later in the evening than we used to before modernisation? Does not that show that the Government are totally incompetent even at reforming the House of Commons?

Mrs. Lait: What else could I do but agree with my right hon. Friend? I do not think that any Bill in whose scrutiny I take part lasts any longer then it needs to, because I do not believe in extending debate any longer than necessary, but I think it is very sad that when we have established a good working relationship, this draconian measure should be imposed on us. In the long run, that Government will come to recognise as much as we do the damage that they have done to the constitution.

10.7 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) seems to be assuming that the House will be dissolved shortly. Of course, I do not make any such assumption. It could be not 12 days but 12 months before there is a Dissolution, so I shall not make the assumption apparently made by the hon. Lady and other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), that we have heard the swan song of the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). I hope that we have not. If we have, though, perhaps I may take the opportunity to pay tribute to the contribution that he has made to the House in many capacities.

I had the pleasure of shadowing the right hon. Gentleman when he was with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and I have the greatest respect for his parliamentary talents. I thought that he introduced the programme motion with consummate modesty and characteristic glee because it looked as though it would

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not be necessary, so there may be something in the timetable to which the hon. Member for Beckenham referred.

I will not make the assumption that this programme motion is purely academic. Its detail does not present a great problem for us, whether or not the timetable is as supposed. However, on the principle of the way in which these programme motions are still coming before the House, I share the views of many other Members present that these motions are total nonsense, even when they are acceptable in their detail.

I shall let the House into a secret. Tomorrow afternoon I shall attend the meeting of the Committee of Selection, at which we shall decide which Members of the House are to sit on this Committee. Some would think that other people should take that decision, but it will be taken by that Committee.

I can tell the House that more hon. Members will be appointed to the Standing Committee than have attended most of the debate on Second Reading, because I was here and saw it. In the middle of that debate, nine Members were present, and because I was one of them and I will certainly not appoint myself to the Committee, only eight could be eligible to serve on it. It goes without saying that the hon. Members who spoke this afternoon were not necessarily those who will take part in the Committee.

It also goes without saying that the hon. Members who must surely take ownership of the way in which the Committee undertakes its business and those who will decide how best to consider the detail, to which many references were made in the debate on Second Reading, are the members of that Committee. Therefore, for the programme motion to be tabled even before those Members have been appointed to the Committee is obviously absurd.

I can also tell the House, without revealing any great secret between the usual channels or breaking Select Committee confidences, that the Modernisation Committee will consider programme motions tomorrow. I think that that is probably widely known. Given the speech made by the hon. Member for Beckenham from the Conservative Front Bench, I hope that her colleagues on that Committee will support sensible moves to get the proposal back on track.

I hope that the hon. Lady, who said that the motion was draconian, will recall that the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), who I regret is not in his usual place, made the original suggestion that such programme motions should be introduced. He is the godfather of programme motions. The fact that the godchild has gone somewhat astray in recent months should not blind those on the Conservative Front Bench to the fact that, in the original idea, there was a very good principle at stake. It was simply that the Government of the day, assuming that they could command a majority in the House, had a right to expect Committees to deal with legislation in good time and to set the end date.

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