Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Heald : I agree with the point on which the Minister ended. The Bill has been fully considered. It started with pre-legislative scrutiny and it was fully considered in Committee. The pity of it is that when it came to Report, which is an important stage of any Bill, such a draconian guillotine was imposed that hon. Members who had taken an interest in the Bill over some time were unable to discuss large parts of part 2. With that caveat, I thank the Minister and her predecessor for the consensual nature of the discussions that we have had on the Bill.

I made my remarks yesterday about sunsetting. It is a good thing to have sunset provisions for draconian powers. Having said that, today in the other place my noble Friend Baroness Buscombe tabled amendments to make the sunset provision take effect a year after any occasion on which the powers in part 2 were used. The purpose of that is to provide an opportunity to reflect on the power itself in the light of the way in which it had been used. None of us knows what circumstances will arise.

I accept that the Minister's commitment today to a report from a Privy Councillor every time that the part 2 provisions are used, followed by an opportunity to debate that report, is a substantial commitment and meets the case. I would like to press the Minister a little on one thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) intervened in the Minister's speech to make the point that the person who did the report should be a respected independent figure. Will she say a little more about the independence of the person chosen to produce such a report?

We feel that we have achieved something. I would like to think of it as perhaps not a full loaf but certainly a half.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I am pleased that we are able to finish the proceedings on the Bill on a consensual note. It has perhaps a more select audience than the previous Bill that we were debating, but in many senses it is a more significant measure.

The Minister has set out a procedure for reviewing the use of the emergency powers that fits in with what we argued for in the House of Lords and in this House yesterday. Lord Carlile is independent, but I would not say that he is non-political. He is still a political Member of the House of Lords. He reviews procedures used under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. That was precisely what we were looking for in the context of this legislation. We have set certain thresholds for Ministers to invoke the powers; as we discussed yesterday, those thresholds remain subjective. A review of the operation of those subjective tests is all-important. The Minister helpfully set out yesterday the way in which the thresholds worked—the difference between the Minister "thinking" and being "satisfied".

I now have that difference straight in my head with the illustration of the Prime Minister's argument that he did not think that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but he was satisfied that it had. There is something there that can be tested. Similarly, in the context of a flu outbreak, a Minister might be satisfied that an outbreak was deadly and justified all kinds of emergency
18 Nov 2004 : Column 1512
provisions being brought into place. That is a testable set of criteria; it is not the Minister simply thinking that a deadly flu outbreak is taking place and that things need to be done. Those are judgments that we believe Ministers are entitled to make, but Parliament is entitled to go over them again to see whether the facts justified the conclusion that was reached.

We think that the procedure that the Minister has set out today will meet our requirements. We are content not to oppose what the Minister suggests as a substitute for the set of arrangements sent to us by the House of Lords. I reiterate the comments that the Minister and the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) made about the conduct of proceedings on the Bill. This is the last opportunity that we will have to debate it in this place, but we have a different piece of legislation now from the one with which we started some time ago.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that the person should be an independent figure? Does he also agree that the one thing that scarred the progress of the Bill was the very stiff programme motion introduced on Report, which meant that we were not able to discuss a large portion of the Bill at that important stage?

3.45 pm

Mr. Allan: I am able to close on a consensual note by agreeing with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. The way in which the Report stage was handled was disgraceful. Part 2 of the Bill is far more significant than part 1 in terms of civil liberties and its constitutional implications, yet we ended up spending more time on part 1 than on part 2. We certainly did not have enough time to go through all the aspects of part 2 that we wanted to consider. That was reflected in the number of amendments from the Lords to part 2, which showed that there was still plenty of work to be done. I do not want the House of Lords to be used as a Committee stage for the more significant parts of the Bill, while the House of Commons gets to debate just the froth around the edges. The way in which part 2 and the Report stage were handled was disappointing.

I return to the hon. Gentleman's point about the independence of the person who carries out the review. Many of the concerns expressed yesterday from the Opposition Benches were about the fact that when there is an emergency, the requirement for the Government to get a majority in Parliament is not a sufficient safeguard. Under those circumstances, Governments can whip their Back Benchers—by definition, they have a majority of them—behind them, so that is not an adequate safeguard. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the key test is whether the person who conducts the review will stand outside the normal political melee and be able to reach an independent judgment.

For that to happen, two criteria must be fulfilled. One is that the person makes that judgment at a distance, as the Minister set out today, not in the debate about the emergency regulations themselves. That would be in the heat of the moment, and we want the judgment made at a cool reflective distance. The second criterion is that the person should be outside the normal political arena,
18 Nov 2004 : Column 1513
so I understand why a Privy Councillor would be appropriate, assuming they were acting as an independent Privy Councillor with the nation's interests at heart, rather than with a party political interest at heart. Having listened to the contributions from right hon. Members in all parts of the House, including the Conservative Benches, I have confidence in the majority of the Privy Councillors present putting the nation's interests ahead of party interests and being very interested in the constitutional implications of the emergency powers.

If that can be achieved, we will have reached a reasonable compromise. I am grateful to the Minister for acceding to our arguments, whereas yesterday she had to argue that the Government did not consider that necessary. I thought we were persuasive and I am glad that she was persuaded to move in this direction.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I rise to follow up briefly the point that I raised in an earlier intervention, which was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), the shadow Leader of the House, relating to the appointment of an independent Privy Councillor to review the powers contained in the Bill. As my hon. Friend said, those powers are draconian and if they are to be reviewed, the person reviewing them should be genuinely independent. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), speaking for the Liberal Democrats, highlighted that. He also expressed confidence that a majority of Privy Councillors can display proper and appropriate independence.

I shall press the Minister, however. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam emphasised that on Report inadequate time was provided for large sections of part 2, which is the most important part of the Bill, to be debated. I hope the Minister, for whom I have considerable affection and regard for her abilities, will take a message back to her party that it is inappropriate that on Report, which is the only stage at which Back Benchers can fully participate in the consideration of legislation, they did not have an opportunity to contribute because of the limitations imposed by the programme motion. Therefore, many of us choose Lords amendments as an opportunity to participate.

Will there be any discussion between the Opposition parties and the Government before a Privy Councillor is appointed, so that there is confidence across the House that the individual who is appointed to undertake this important task is genuinely independent? This legislation is critical. As several of my Opposition colleagues have highlighted during the debate, the powers that are granted to the Government under the legislation are draconian—probably the greatest powers in any legislation to have been vested in Government in the 34 years that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has been in the House. Therefore, I seek an assurance that the independence of the Privy Councillor is verifiable and that there is genuine consultation across the political parties prior to this person being appointed to undertake this important job.

I am slightly delaying sitting down to enable the Minister to receive the appropriate information from those who advise her. It is an important matter, I hope
18 Nov 2004 : Column 1514
that she considers it to be an important matter, and I hope that she will reply to my request and that of my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House.

Next Section IndexHome Page