Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab): My hon. Friend strongly advocates modernisation of House of Commons procedures. Is there a correlation between how the Opposition handled the Bill in Standing Committee and a wider debate about programming? The Opposition filibustered in Committee, then erroneously claimed that there was not enough time for scrutiny in order to make a point about programming.

Mr. Allen: The Procedure Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), is already examining the programming and timetabling of business, and I am sure that that matter has been brought to its attention. A number of distinguished hon. Members have already given evidence to the Committee as witnesses.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1602

My criticism also extends to the Government, and the use of Government amendments.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend consider that he is talking in the only time available to discuss the devolved aspects of the Bill?

Mr. Allen: My hon. Friend makes my point. Inadequate time has been allowed for proper debate of all the clauses, but he should not criticise those who point out the problem; he should criticise the process, in which we are all complicit, that does not allow a proper programme motion both in the House and in Committee, where there was insufficient time to discuss key issues.

If we are to have proper pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills, which is a point that Opposition Members discussed in Committee, many issues that take up Government time would not require Government amendments on Report.

Mr. Willis: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, the Annunciator states that I have been speaking since 12.49 pm, and I would hate the record to show that I had been filibustering.

Mr. Speaker: Those of us in the Chamber know differently.

Mr. Allen: The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made many telling contributions in Committee, and I must exonerate him from the charge that I laid against certain Opposition Members of wasting valuable time when we were Upstairs.

The question of pre-legislative scrutiny, as it applies to the programme motion, is important.

Mr. Collins: The hon. Gentleman has now spoken for twice as long as anybody else on the subject of time-wasting. Since he has set out the reasons why the programme motion is not, in his phrase, "a proper programme motion", will he join Opposition Members in opposing it?

Mr. Allen: I will not waste the House's time by answering that question.

I have put on the record the annoyance of many Labour members of the Committee, who felt that there was not enough time Upstairs to debate many serious issues I could list them, because of the Opposition. For example, although Ofsted applies to every nursery, primary school and secondary school in all our constituencies, universities somehow avoid it. The issue is important because we are putting billions of pounds of public funds into universities, but there are no proper inspections such as those suffered by nurseries and other parts of our education system.

I hope that my hon. Friends who follow me in this debate will not have to make the same points, and I hope that Opposition Members, particularly those who serve in the Whips Office, realise that Her Majesty's Government have done a gracious and generous thing by ensuring that a Bill has a start date and a finish date Upstairs. [Interruption.] A number of the main

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1603

offenders are chirping from sedentary positions. Her Majesty's Government allowed the Opposition to use the time in Committee to best effect, and that they chose not to do so and continued to play ridiculous, time-wasting games reflects badly on Parliament as a whole, and particularly badly on Her Majesty's Opposition.

12.59 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): I wish to say only one thing. We used to have a Parliament in which the Opposition had of right the power to speak; now, we evidently have a Parliament in which the Government give us that right. That is what is wrong with this Government. This is contempt of Parliament, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) showed all too clearly.

1 pm

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): I, too, oppose the motion. I am glad that aspects of the Committee went well, but of course not all of us were able to serve on it. It is extremely important that a higher education Bill should be properly debated, not least because such Bills are fairly rare—they come round only once every 10 years or so—and, by their nature, have several other issues swept up in them, which in this case have not been properly debated.

Furthermore, Mr. Speaker, you have selected a very large number of amendments. It is inevitable not only that those amendments will not be divided on if the House wishes it, but that they will not be properly responded to by the Minister. How could he possibly deal with the catalogue of amendments in the third group? That is extremely regrettable.

Finally, I oppose the motion because, as the Father of the House reminded us when he talked about the standards of 20 or 30 years ago, this is exactly the kind of Bill that used to be given two days on Report. We would have had a full day followed by two thirds of a day, or even a second full day, to allow all hon. Members to explore all the issues, as we should be doing. I understand that the House is taking substantive business tomorrow, so it would be perfectly possible for the Government now to agree that as so many amendments have been selected they could not have known that that would happen—the debate should continue tomorrow.

1.1 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Having served on the Committee opposite the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), I cannot recognise his description of it. He said that only two serious debates took place, but I remember him putting the case for his constituency, in what I took to be a serious way, in many more than two debates. I listened to all his speeches, some of which were longer than others, and thought that they were all serious; I do not know which were the non-serious ones. As far as I am concerned, the Committee gave serious consideration to the Bill, but there was not enough time then, as there is not enough time now. The limited allocation of time—six hours to debate all the

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1604

issues—means that it is impossible for the whole House to have its say. Many of our constituents will think that a crying shame.

1.2 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): I acknowledge that the Government were flexible in Committee, and I think that we had enough time to go through the Bill. On occasion, some of that time could have been better used by all Members, but that is true of all Committees. My beef with the programme motion is that we do not have enough time for proper debate on the Floor of the House.

This is an important Bill that changes the face of higher education and affects the whole cohort of the young generation whom we are seeking to support in achieving the Government's targets, which I support in principle. It is therefore right and proper that we have enough time to debate it in detail. Specifically, the first group of amendments includes several that relate to Wales tabled in the name of the main Opposition party. If we do not debate them, we will not address on the Floor of the House—although I accept that we did in Committee—the Welsh aspects of the Bill, which are important in relation to what the National Assembly does, how that may differ from what is done in England, and the impact that that might have on English students or students from Wales going into England.

Such a Bill should not be timetabled at all when it is debated on the Floor of the House, but we should at least have two days to consider it properly. Even at this stage, it is worth saying those words to give the Government the opportunity to listen to them and perhaps even think about them.

1.3 pm

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson): I want briefly to respond to a couple of the points that hon. Members raised. I thank Opposition Members for their kind and generous remarks. Their comments reflect the spirit in which they approached the Committee, on which it was a pleasure to serve.

Let me say a few words about the Committee. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said, correctly, that we did not reach 25 of the clauses. However, the Bill is quite short, with only 50 clauses. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) harked back to a previous time—I am not sure how long ago—but in my experience, and from my experience of watching Parliament under the previous Government, it is not unusual to spend this amount of time on a 50-clause Bill. As regards the clauses that we did reach in Committee, the debates on fees provision, which lasted for seven sittings, or a total of 11 hours, principally concerned the big issue of fixed fees versus variable fees. The debate on the office for fair access, which is extremely important, particularly to Conservative Members, and very controversial, lasted for a further three sittings.

Of the clauses that were not debated, 10 covered technical, interpretive and commencement provisions. Amendments were not tabled to several other clauses, so it is not surprising that we did not debate them. The debates were wide-ranging, and those on a number of

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1605

clauses—notably fees, as I said—spanned a few sittings. If I remember rightly, the Opposition wanted 16 sittings, and we just about achieved that.

As for today's debate, I was surprised that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis)—who should now be renamed Phil O'Buster—remarked on the absence of amendments passed in Committee; indeed, the leader of his party raised the same point in Prime Minister's questions. I remind Liberal Democrat Members that one of their amendments was accepted in Committee, to great rejoicing throughout the land—it added to the gaiety of the nation—and that a Government amendment was also passed.

We have put the right emphasis on issues relating to fees and student support. Although there is a large number of amendments, many are consequential and relatively few deal with substantive proposals. That justifies the time that we have allocated in the programme motion, which I hope that the House will support.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 354, Noes 206.


Next Section

IndexHome Page