Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he should be speaking to the amendment.

Mr. Forth: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall try not to provoke hon. Members into making interventions to which I shall have to reply. I realise that that would be most unfortunate.

My amendment seeks to change clause 1(2), which ensures that regulations introduced under section 13(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999

Such regulation-making provisions are not unusual, but it is becoming all too routine for there to be a lack of provision for proper parliamentary consideration or scrutiny with regard to them. In this case, that is especially concerning, as the regulations can

Such phrases are starting to emerge ever more frequently. The term "deeming" is another of those phrases with which it seems we will have to become ever more familiar in badly drafted provisions. There are many such provisions, whether they contain the words "treated as having" or whatever else.

5.15 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I, too, have considered that matter, although probably not as closely as my right hon. Friend. Do I take it from his comments that the Government intend the proposed regulations to be subject to the negative rather than the affirmative resolution procedure, so that there will be no opportunity for parliamentary debate? Would he care to reflect on the irony--nay, I understate the case, the sheer absurdity--of inviting us to presume a given in relation to regulations which have not been debated and a draft of which we have not seen?

Mr. Forth: Indeed. The Bill is silent on parliamentary scrutiny; I suspect that that is deliberate because it reflects

2 Apr 2001 : Column 52

the Government's routine approach. If my hon. Friend is suggesting that, in the absence of explicit guidance to the contrary, I would assume that the negative resolution procedure would be used, he would be correct. In his relatively brief time here, he has achieved a mastery of such matters that few of us would attempt to emulate, so he is probably right. However, the amendment would put the matter beyond doubt. I am happy that a similar amendment has been selected for debate on another Bill, which, of course, I shall not mention. I shall try to table such an amendment every time the opportunity arises, not least to the Bill that we are now to consider on Wednesday.

One of the few ways in which we can try to hold the Government to account and properly scrutinise primary and secondary legislation is to provide for positive resolution procedure on regulations, hence my amendment, which would ensure that a draft was laid before each House and approved by resolution of both.

The word "draft" is important. I hope that it contains the procedural possibility of laying the matter before each House, and thus providing time for perusal and consideration before each House is obliged to deliberate on it. It is happenstance, but we have little opportunity to consider the Bill that is under discussion and the measure on the election imprint cock-up, which was tabled for debate later this evening. Some of it will be rushed through on Wednesday after the Prime Minister's peremptory decision to delay elections. If we had the opportunity for which the amendment provides, and drafts were available and we had time to consider them properly before both Houses of Parliament pronounced on them, we would at least have some protection. That is increasingly absent from our parliamentary process.

Mr. Bercow: I am sorry to trouble my right hon. Friend, but this dog does not wish to abandon the bone yet. My right hon. Friend's demands are always timid and moderate, and I wonder whether I can stiffen his backbone on the amendment by urging him to demand a minimum of three months for consultation on the proposed regulations and a minimum of three months' notice of their required implementation.

Mr. Forth: I do not want to teach my hon. Friend to suck eggs or anything else, but one of the difficult judgments that has to be made is whether to push one's luck. One has to ascertain the likelihood of an amendment being selected for debate. Pushing too far may diminish the possibility of selection and therefore debate. If my amendment appears weak, weedy, pathetic and inadequate, I can only apologise to him and stress that it was the best that I could do while trying to ensure that it was selected. I have, happily, been successful and we have the opportunity at least to discuss the matter. However, I accept his comments. Perhaps I shall try harder next time to get a stronger, more effective amendment selected.

At least we have the opportunity of trying to persuade the Government--I accept that it may be impossible--to contemplate some parliamentary scrutiny, which they want positively to avoid in most other circumstances. I should have thought that even the Government might have realised by now that they only cause themselves more trouble if they avoid such scrutiny. It is becoming obvious that every time they seek to cut off by guillotine

2 Apr 2001 : Column 53

proper consideration of a measure, they subsequently have to return to the matter and take up parliamentary time correcting their earlier error.

On this occasion, my objective is somewhat different. I want to bring into play the full panoply of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability, even in a matter such as this. I said earlier that the Bill and the amendment were matters of moment and substance. Although the Bill is short and modest, it covers important territory and can affect individuals in the most dramatic way.

My amendment seeks to provide for both Houses of Parliament to consider any regulations that might arise from the Bill, to satisfy themselves that they are as they should be. Here, the role of the two Houses of Parliament can often be quite different. Those of us who spend most of our lives in this building, and in this Chamber, understand that, because of the Government's enormous majority, proper scrutiny and accountability have been a struggle in this Parliament to put it mildly. Although my hon. Friends have worked manfully, and, in some cases, womanfully, to hold the Government to account, it is very difficult, particularly in a Standing Committee in which the Government may have 14 members and the official Opposition--

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I once again ask the right hon. Gentleman to confine his remarks to his amendment?

Mr. Forth: I certainly will, Madam Deputy Speaker. My amendment refers to a draft of the regulations

You do not want me to give my modest analysis of the inadequacies of the scrutiny process in Standing Committee, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I shall have to deny that to myself and to the House. However, I want to emphasise the importance of proper scrutiny at the stage of introducing regulations--rather than in Standing Committee or in the introduction of primary legislation--to try to provide a safety net so that if, by some chance, proper scrutiny has not been possible in Standing Committee, we have the opportunity to pick up the pieces and provide the necessary degree of scrutiny.

That process would, nevertheless, be inadequate because--as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) would be the first to point out if I did not--no amendments would be allowed to be made at that stage, and I regret that. That is something we have to live with. The Procedure Committee has considered from time to time whether it should be possible to table amendments when introducing regulations, but has not yet seen fit to take the matter further. We must therefore accept that, in this case, scrutiny and accountability are available only on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

If my amendment were accepted, it would still be possible for the Government to lay the draft regulations before this House--and, I believe, another place--and then say, "We, the Government, want you to approve this, and if you do not, it will fall." That is often used as a kind of blackmail, in which the Government say, "If you do not accept this, nothing will happen." I would often prefer nothing to happen. I often feel happier with nothing than with something flawed, bad or undesirable. Perhaps I have not yet been able to persuade my hon. Friends of that in

2 Apr 2001 : Column 54

a sufficient number of cases. However, in this case, I shall have to be satisfied with this degree of scrutiny and accountability, because, that is all that is procedurally available.

It is important to understand why I want both Houses to be involved in this process. I am very keen that we should always acknowledge the role of a bicameral Parliament, such as we have here. For those who argue for the so-called primacy or supremacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords, my answer these days is that Members of the House of Commons show it increasingly less respect. They are prepared to turn up less and less often, so why we constantly talk about the supremacy of this place is increasingly beyond me.

For that and other reasons, I am more and more enthusiastic about ensuring that we involve the House of Lords in such processes as often as possible. If we undertook an analysis, which you would not want me to do at this stage, Madam Deputy Speaker, we would probably find that the attendance record of Members of the other place is better than that of Members of this place. Looking round the Chamber perhaps provides a good example of that.

More importantly, I want the regulations to be approved by both Houses because we have in the other place expertise and experience that is often not available in the House. That is an important factor. Notwithstanding the fact that there are distinguished legal experts sitting on all Front Benches, even they would perhaps admit in their different ways that scrutiny by another place might provide that extra bit of added value and quality in the parliamentary process which we, even on a good day, may not be able to provide.

Parliamentary scrutiny by both Houses provides that extra dimension, which is very valuable, and I leave it to my colleagues to make their own judgment about the value of scrutiny by the House of Commons when we have a Government with such a large majority. It is for another time for us to digress and debate the relative merits of majorities of various sizes, but size does matter in this example. I hope that all Members present agree that scrutiny by the House of Lords of a Bill covering territory and issues such as these would be extremely valuable and would greatly reassure people, particularly in relation to the Legal Services Commission and access to justice.

Next Section

IndexHome Page