National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill

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Dr. Harris: I beg to move, as an amendment to the resolution, after paragraph 5 to add

    `(6) provided that Clauses 7 and 8 shall be taken at the morning sitting on Thursday 29th November at half-past Nine o'clock and be concluded by twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock.'.

I welcome you to the chair, Mr. Hurst, and both Ministers to the Committee. As the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) said, the Bill is important.

Mr. Heald: On a point of order, Mr. Hurst. Is the amendment in order? A meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee certainly took place last night, and it was a most unsatisfactory affair, but is it in order for an hon. Member to propose an amendment today?

The Chairman: It is in order. I have the amazing power to select or not select amendments when tabled. I have decided to select the amendment, so it is in order.

10.45 am

Dr. Harris: I am grateful to you, Mr. Hurst. I take the opportunity to apologise, if an apology is in order, to the Front-Bench spokesmen for not giving them notice of the amendment. I raised the matter on Thursday afternoon at the Programming Sub-Committee, as I think the hon. Member for West Chelmsford recognises, but it was never adequately resolved. It was raised, however, and the Minister is either mistaken or forgetful in suggesting that it was not.

The Bill requires adequate scrutiny because it makes quite a few changes, not least in clauses 7 and 8, which are two of the many that require scrutiny. However, matters in the House also require adequate scrutiny and when the selection was made for Committee, there was no thought that important primary legislation would come before the House on the afternoon of Thursday 29 November.

There was also a proposal for a debate in the House on the Bristol royal infirmary inquiry and the Kennedy report, which pertain to this Bill. On Second Reading, Ministers said that what they sought to introduce under the Bill dealt with some of those concerns. I had a conversation with the Government Whip and, through what could be considered unusual channels, I was given an indication that whether it was feasible to discuss issues connected to the Kennedy report in Committee at a time when the House would also be substantively debating it for the first time would be seriously considered. I was given a reassurance, which one can only assume was given in good faith, and I accepted it in the same manner.

Then followed a change in business, well after negotiations on the draft timetable were concluded. It was announced only last Thursday that the House would discuss emergency primary legislation, in which many hon. Members including me will have an interest, on the afternoon of Thursday 29 November, when this Committee is also sitting. In private meetings and the Programming Sub-Committee, I have sought flexibility for this Thursday's sitting to enable hon. Members with an interest in the emergency primary legislation to perform their duty of scrutiny in the House as well as in Committee. My amendment should not find disfavour with Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen. I apologise for not having given them a manuscript version of the amendment.

I seek to include in the timetable, while there is still time to table amendments to clauses 7 and 8, a provision allowing us to discuss those clauses during the morning sitting on Thursday 29 November, rather than be forced to miss such an opportunity due to a Second Reading, Report stage and Third Reading in the Chamber on that day. I hope that that finds favour with the Minister, with Government business managers and with the official Opposition. There is a huge amount to debate by 5 o'clock on Thursday and we still have the scope to do that. In the spirit of co-operation, I hope that that might find favour. Clearly, I cannot vote it through by myself without support.

I have some sympathy with Conservative Members' view of the position in which we find ourselves, with large amounts of legislation being rushed through using programme motions. I should put it on the record that I accepted 18 December as a fair end date; I do not want to run with the hounds and the foxes. Nevertheless, given that we were assured that it would be possible to arrange extra sittings before 18 December, the Government should exercise flexibility in relation to the clash of scrutiny that some members of the Committee may face.

Mr. Heald: The trouble with packing in extra sittings on Monday and Wednesday is that it does not solve the problem that outside bodies that are watching our proceedings and want to help us as the debate matures are unable to do so if we have insufficient time in which to table amendments and new clauses that deal with certain issues in a slightly different way. It is a bastardisation of the system.

Dr. Harris: I am prepared to agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is far better to have an agreed programme than to have to squeeze in extra sittings.

I have no problem with five, six or seven Conservative Members serving on the Committee, and I made no representations against that. However, there is only one of me on my party's Front Bench; my colleague on the health team is serving on the Committee that is considering the Adoption and Children Bill.

I am delighted to welcome the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), who sits as an independent and to whom the business managers who look after the minor parties have been more than willing to give a place. Conservative Members on the Select Committee on Health have done the same. The hon. Gentleman will be torn between Select Committee meetings and sittings of the Committee on Thursday mornings, and I hope that members of the Committee will understand if he sometimes has to be absent from the proceedings in order to do the job of scrutiny in the Select Committee system. As the Minister said, there are great demands on our time, and we will have to exercise judgment, but I hope that the Government majority will show flexibility.

Mr. Heald: The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) makes a good point. Some members of the Committee will want to attend the debate on the Human Reproductive Cloning Bill on Thursday afternoon, and it would be convenient to deal with clauses 7 and 8, which are very important, during the morning sitting. We therefore support his amendment.

In terms of the way in which the debate in Committee matures, Oppositions parties are disadvantaged if extra sittings are packed in. Any self-respecting Member can speak at great length on any subject and make an interesting contribution to any part of the debate. However, such contributions are best when they are informed by the views of outside bodies that are concerned about the issues and have practical experience of them. Shortening the Committee's deliberations puts them at a disadvantage, and if extra sittings are packed in there is even less time for them to meet us to talk about the concerns that it is our duty to put forward. It is wrong for the only option always to be, ``Let's pack in some more sittings and keep to our timetable.'' The Government should be more flexible on that.

The Bill is a skeleton, without flesh, a Christmas tree without baubles. [Interruption.] I notice that the Whip enjoyed that one. There are numerous order-making powers in the Bill, as usual, which is the modern trend. To know what is really proposed, we need to see the details of the draft orders, which will be being prepared. No one is nodding, but I am sure that they are. Why should we, as parliamentarians debating the material, not know what is really proposed? We would like to see those details.

The Minister has not jumped at the suggestion that I made at the outset that he should give us all those documents now, saying, ``Oh yes, of course, let's do that.'' That is disappointing because we cannot really tell how long we need until we know the detail. I venture to suggest that if the Minister produced all the draft orders and regulations that are up his sleeve, it might shorten the proceedings. As it is, we will be asking a vast number of questions about exactly what is proposed.

Those are the difficulties that I see, in addition to those that my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford raised. It is sad if a Government cannot meet an Opposition halfway, or at least agree to the approach to Committee business that an Opposition want.

Mr. Burns: Does my hon. Friend recall that, during the Committee stage of the Health and Social Care Bill earlier this year, the Minister's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), was faced with exactly the same problem that my hon. Friend outlines? He listened to the Committee's arguments and in the end became extremely helpful. He made available, where possible, the draft orders so that we were better informed to discuss the contents of the Bill.

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend makes a good point. If the Minister and his officials have not prepared the draft orders, when they are thinking of implementing the legislation on 1 April 2002, what a desperate mess they are in.

Mr. Hutton: It might be of benefit to the Committee if I try to respond to some of those points now. That might save some Opposition Members from detaining the Committee any further.

When I moved the programme resolution, I had not seen the amendment of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. I am happy to accept it; I think that it is a sensible way to proceed. In future, I am sure that Committees will benefit if some of the phoney rhetoric that we have just heard from the Opposition could be suspended. We hear such talk, claiming that the Government are trying to ramrod their business through and keep Committee members uninformed, every time. That is not our intention, and that is not how I intend to run this Committee.

As a signal of our intention to keep Committee members properly informed, I have produced for them a further explanatory note on the transfer of functions to primary care trusts. I wanted to mention that when debating the clause. It is now on the table for hon. Members to study. We intend throughout to try to keep Committee members fully informed. If we are in a position to share with them any draft regulations ready to be circulated and discussed, we will do so. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford rightly referred to the practices of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen, and I am pleased to say that, when I am in a position to do the same during the Committee stage, I will.

I have considered the amendment and am happy to accept it as a sensible way of proceeding. I am grateful to him for drawing the issue to the Committee's attention.

11 am

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