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23 Jan 2003 : Column 462—continued

Mr. Djanogly: That is not acceptable.

John Healey: The hon. Member for Eddisbury asked me about revenue loss and I gave him the figures. I remind hon. Members that the problems that we are tackling and the cases that flow from them stem from the mid-1990s and the previous Government.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): When I asked the chairman of Customs and Excise last year how many members of his organisation were subject to criminal prosecutions, before the Public Accounts Committee, he answered, "Seven", although he subsequently corrected that to 17 when I tabled a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Economic Secretary referred to several reports, including the Butterfield inquiry, the Butler report and Roques report, which I am holding. I have read it carefully. He knows that they contain nothing about heroin sting operations in Pakistan. Is not it suggestive that so many inquiries are taking place? Does the Economic Secretary agree that the time may have come for a thorough inquiry into all aspects of the management and operation of Customs and Excise, excluding nothing? It should include the quality of the legal advice available to Customs and Excise—that appears at least suspect—the use and management of sting operations, of bonded warehouses and the Queen's warehouses, of debt management and of heroin trafficking and the criminal involvement of Customs officers.

John Healey: The Roques report contains nothing about heroin in Afghanistan because it was designed to review and deal principally with the problems in the Excise regime and the operation of bonded warehouses. The hon. Gentleman points out the wide range of Customs' responsibilities.

Mr. Bacon: Have a review.

John Healey: I reject the idea that it would be useful to conduct a broad review that encompasses the full range of responsibilities.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): The Economic Secretary made it clear that Ministers did not authorise the means whereby Customs and Excise conducted the investigations. However, were Ministers kept informed?

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If so, who was informed? He did not clearly answer the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) asked, when he highlighted the discrepancy between the loss to the Revenue of £1.25 billion in the London City Bond case and the amount of £575 million to which NIS referred. That is a massive difference. What is the reason for it? Are police currently investigating any individual Customs officers in relation to fraud?

John Healey: It simply is not for Ministers to authorise the use of specific techniques or methods of investigation. That is an operational matter. The settlement of responsibilities between Customs and the Minister responsible for Customs means that there is no reason for the relevant Minister to be briefed continuously about the detail of operational cases.

On the figures that the hon. Gentleman cites, I reported to hon. Members that, in the LCB case, £340 million was lost to the Revenue in Excise duty when the frauds were run.

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Points of Order

1.58 pm

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you are willing to consider an abuse of hon. Members' rights. Under the experimental modernisation arrangements for the House, hon. Members were assured that our rights of access to the parliamentary estate and those of the public would be protected. On Tuesday, an enormous anti-war lobby took place outside Parliament, in Central Lobby and in meetings in the House.

Two events caused me great concern. First, members of the public who sought access to Central Lobby had any anti-war literature removed from them, including copies of that day's Daily Mirror, which happened to carry a "No War" slogan on the front page.

Secondly, after getting members of the public into the Grand Committee Room for the meeting that we had booked in the evening, Members of Parliament were told at 9 pm that we had to stop because the staff had to go home. Can we consider the precise arrangements so that opportunities for public and democratic debate are not removed entirely even when formal sittings have been completed?

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to make a separate but related point about the effect of the new arrangements. I voted against them because I was especially worried that many hon. Members would be required to be in two places at once. Will you discuss with Mr. Speaker and, if necessary, the Chairmen's Panel, the great difficulty for Front Benchers, like me, and Back Benchers of all parties when they have to be in a Standing Committee Upstairs, conducting the line by line, word by word, clause by clause scrutiny of measures, and in the Chamber? Those Committees clash more than ever before with the business in the Chamber. Under the new arrangements, we are also finding that it is difficult for organisations lobbying us on any issue to meet us for a working lunch—these were particularly helpful before—because now, particularly on a Wednesday, we have important matters such as Prime Minister's questions taking place over lunchtime. It is important, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you pass on to Mr. Speaker and to the Chairmen's Panel how very much more difficult these new hours are making it for us to do the job that our constituents expect us to do.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I shall deal first with the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson). I shall certainly draw his comments to the attention of the Speaker, the relevant Committees and Officers of the House. I understand his concern about this matter. On the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), his comments will have been heard, but I shall certainly draw them to the attention of the Speaker.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are about to start the debate on the Regional Assemblies

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(Preparations) Bill. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House pointed out during business questions, we shall be considering seven new clauses and a number of Government amendments. Mr. Speaker has selected seven groups of amendments to be discussed. We are about to enter into a debate that will be timetabled to three hours. That gives us three hours for the consideration of what anybody would regard as a major Bill. Mr. Speaker has powers under the affirmative resolution procedure not to put the question if he feels that there has been insufficient debate. I realise that that power does not fall to the Chair under the procedures that we are using today. It is most unsatisfactory that so little time should be available for the debate on a very important Government Bill.

Madam Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that the power applies only to the negative resolution procedure. The House is currently operating under the programme motion that has already been agreed to, and the motion which we are about to debate.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Further to the point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), Madam Deputy Speaker. Will you draw to the attention of the authorities responsible for such matters the difficulties that our constituents are having in coming to this place and taking advantage of the line of route arrangements, particularly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays—the days on which the great change has happened since last year? Our constituents have to be at the Victoria Tower entrance by 9.30 am—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that this matter has been agreed by the House? He may find it inconvenient, as may some of his and other Members' constituents, but it was agreed by the House. No doubt, his comments will none the less be noted.

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Orders of the Day

Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

2.3 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move,

As hon. Members know, the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill has recently received detailed scrutiny in Committee, following its Second Reading in the House in November last year. There were nine sittings of the Standing Committee, as well as one day on the Floor of the House when we considered clauses 1 to 4. I am grateful to all those hon. Members who participated in the consideration of the Bill for their constructive contributions.

The Opposition have made a great deal of fuss about the timetabling of the Bill, and a lot of synthetic indignation has been expressed. Such was the provision of time in Committee that it was possible for the Opposition to spend an inordinate amount of the debates arguing about whether sentences should begin with the word "but". Members should be aware of that when they hear the Opposition making further protests about there being insufficient time to consider the substance of the Bill.

The programme motion in the name of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the House provides that the debate on the amendments and new clauses should be concluded one hour before the moment of interruption, and that Third Reading should be concluded at the moment of interruption at 6 o'clock. This has been agreed through the usual channels and should provide sufficient time to debate the 20 amendments and seven new clauses that have been selected. More than one third of the amendments to be debated have been tabled by the Government, mostly in response to concerns raised in Committee, and I hope that these will generally be welcomed. The Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) and I look forward to an interesting debate.

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