Enterprise Bill

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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I echo the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) in welcoming you, Mr. Conway, other hon. Members and the Minister to the Committee. She cut her ministerial teeth on the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, which was even longer and more complicated than this Bill, so she is well prepared for what may come.

My approach, and that of my colleagues, will, I hope, be constructive and businesslike as well as critical. There is quite a lot to criticise, not in a doctrinaire or party-political way, but simply in order to get the legislation right. I am struck by the fact that this is a big Bill. The financial services legislation went through a great deal of pre-legislative scrutiny. Indeed, a Standing Committee of both Houses looked at it in detail, providing a platform for the legislation. This Bill is coming into the House in a much less digested state, despite being very big and complicated. It is likely that it will contain all kinds of flaws that will

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need to be corrected through the scrutiny process. I hope that the Government will approach the Bill in a humble spirit, recognising that there is probably quite a lot of scope for legislative improvement.

I echo what the hon. Member for Eastbourne said about the programming meeting yesterday. All parties have agreed to the process, and we shall not try to claw that back. However, considerable unhappiness was expressed. The basic problem is that by inverting the order of the Bill, the Government have left themselves, their Members and us relatively unprepared to deal with some quite tricky pieces of legislative work.

I shall give two examples, although I do not want to prejudge the discussion on them. One item that now comes quite early in the proceedings is the criminalisation of cartels. We recognise that that is not necessarily a very intricate piece of legislation, but it is important. Business lobbies, whose members may go to jail as a result of the Bill, will understandably want to ensure that it is right. They need time to reflect on it and to talk to their lawyers. They will now be bounced into the debate rather early. We share their concern that that is not the right way to proceed.

Equally, the consumer part of the Bill, which was to have come at the end, now comes much earlier in the proceedings. That worries me particularly. I have been in this post on the Liberal Democrat side for over two years, so I probably have a rather greater institutional memory than the Under-Secretary. A couple of years ago, when the Bill was first mooted, it was seen as a consumer Bill. That was its genesis. The Government view at that time was that if re-elected, they would ''do'' consumer protection, as they had ''done'' competition policy and insolvency. There were ambitious ideas for consumer protection, which I fully shared. In practice, the consumer protection aspects have been put in the lower part of the Bill, but they are none the less very important and raise important issues of principle and implementation, such as how the stop now laws will be applied.

It was clear on Second Reading that we have got into a new situation. Many of the consumer groups, such as the National Consumer Council, the Consumers Association, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and others, expected that that part of the Bill would offer wide-ranging powers to enable them to tackle abuses that are not currently illegal, yet present serious problems. It became clear from the Ministerial response that this would not now happen.

Within a week—probably less under the new timetable—those groups will have to consult with each other, with us and with their lawyers to provide a completely new approach to the problem. That is very unsatisfactory. The Committee may not get it right because of the pace with which the matter is being dealt. That particular inversion of order is very unhelpful to proper legislative scrutiny.

Mr. Waterson: On that point, we have tabled several amendments on clause 202, which have been prepared at quite short notice for us by consumer organisations. I hope that when we come to debate them, the Under-Secretary will not read from a brief to

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say that they are poorly drafted or do not have the required effect, because there simply has not been the time to sit down and consider them.

Dr. Cable: The hon. Gentleman is right. Indeed, a set of clauses deals with that point. Over the last few days it has occurred to me that if the Government cannot create an all-purpose clause to deal with the consumer protection problem, it may be necessary to introduce into the Bill separate clauses—probably separate chapters—for some of the worst abuses, which continue. That will be a tricky exercise. I am not sure how we or the Government will handle it. Our key point—and that of the hon. Member for Eastbourne—is that we all, including the Government, need time to talk to the groups concerned with the issues to get the legislation right.

That is the essence of what I wish to say. I do not wish to prolong the debate on the resolution; we are keen to get on with the substance of the Bill. Our discussion has been amicable but has sown worries in our minds that the Government are not being as sensitive as they should be to some of the concerns about the Bill.

Mr. Djanogly: Although I do not have a direct interest to declare, I am a partner in a firm of solicitors and therefore have an indirect interest.

I add my concerns to those expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne. The Government spent some time in consultation on the Bill; the two years of consultation is highly disproportionate to the four or five weeks, and 17 sittings, that we have been given. I have been a member of the Committee—which has just finished—discussing the Adoption and Children Bill. It was much shorter and less complex than the Enterprise Bill, but at the end of our allocated 24 sittings, and after bipartisan and non-contentious discussions, we had not covered a third. I do not know what will remain of the Enterprise Bill at the end of the allocated sittings. The programming has serious implications.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): Like my hon. Friend the member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), I shall speak briefly as the more time we spend discussing the programming motion, the less time we have to look at the substantive issues. I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne said. My main concern is that the Bill is a mish-mash—perhaps to be in keeping with the Government's proposed joined-up thinking—that introduces important but separate issues. As I know from my limited experience, the Bill is unlike many other Bills, which have a theme running through them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne said, the insolvency provisions themselves will lead to many representations from professional and other bodies in the City of London, which is part of my constituency. There is great concern that the issues will be rushed through. The risk is that by the end of the 17th sitting in mid-May, very many clauses will not have been touched and others will have been looked at only discursively. The die is cast for the Committee stage but the Opposition will want increased scrutiny on

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Report if we have not had the opportunity of expressing our concerns.

As several hon. Members have said, the Bill has much to commend it. The concerns about it will contribute to ensuring that it works, which is a vitally important part of any Standing Committee. There will also be issues of principle, perhaps with a party-political element; I hope not in a knockabout spirit, but a constructive one.

As we are approaching the 11 am guillotine, I will give the Under-Secretary the last word on the subject and then battle can commence.

Miss Johnson: I will have a brief last word, in the spirit of the contribution of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). First, I am glad that he and other hon. Members said that there is much to commend in the Bill. We all agree about that, although there is a little disagreement among the Opposition about whether the Bill hangs together well; the hon. Member for Eastbourne said that it did and other Opposition Members said that it did not. I obviously agree with the hon. Member for Eastbourne that the Bill comprises a coherent package of measures that belong naturally together.

On the matter of the longer Committee stage, there was extensive consultation on the White Paper last summer and earlier consultations on the mergers element, which, as I said, is an extensive part of the Bill. As the hon. Member for Twickenham remarked, we had previously published papers on the consumer side of things and on some insolvency matters. Much of the Bill has been discussed before. In relation to the remarks of the hon. Member for Huntingdon, there is a balance to be struck, but, as he acknowledged, there were two years of consultation on the Bill and that is why we do not need to spend so much time on it in Committee. We have had extensive consultations recently with many of the interested parties; as the hon. Member for Twickenham said, it is worth remembering that the Government and, I am sure, all members of the Committee, want to get the Bill right—

It being half an hour after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, The Chairman put the Question, pursuant to paragraph (9) of the Order of the House of 28 June 2001 relating to Programming Sub-Committees.

Question put and agreed to.

11 am

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that copies of the financial resolutions connected with the Bill are on the Table. I remind hon. Members, too, that adequate notice should be given of amendments; as a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during an afternoon sitting of the Committee.

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