Civil Contingencies Bill

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Mr. Alexander: In response to the hon. Member for Newark, I respectfully suggest that it is not the origin of the amendment that matters, but its merit. In that regard, I the Government may hope that the Committee will support later amendments—in a matter of minutes, in fact. Unfortunately, this amendment does not fall into that category, and the Government cannot support it. We resist its inclusion for several reasons.

The Government are sympathetic to the principle of wider consultation with representatives of key parties when emergency powers are to be used, but they do not believe that the amendment sets out the best way to go about that. The Committee will be aware of the long-standing convention that the Government should seek in times of serious emergency to build consensus across the political spectrum. The Prime Minister regularly briefs senior figures from all the major political parties on a Privy Council basis—most recently for the Iraq conflict. Those tried and tested procedures allow the Government to obtain the views of senior parliamentary figures in a flexible and efficient way, and that means can be tailored to the needs of the situation at hand. The amendment would not guarantee parliamentary oversight. Any Government seeking to use emergency powers for

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anti-democratic reasons could simply cite the urgency caveat and dispense with the requirement in the amendment. The urgency caveat could be removed, but that would make the process inflexible, particularly for situations in which action is urgently needed, or in which it is impossible to consult the relevant Privy Councillors.

Ultimately, it seems most appropriate to rely on the clear requirements for parliamentary scrutiny in clauses 26 and 27, which provide for sensible, timely and well tested scrutiny. I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Patrick Mercer: I suppose that optimism must always be tinged with the well-tried phrase, ''This it is an amendment that the Government cannot support''. I have no doubt that the Minister is right and that amendments stand or fall on their merits. I am not referring only to this amendment, but to the fact that he knows my strong feelings and those of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam.

The Minister should be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and I made it quite clear on Second Reading, that we wished to support the Government—help, aid and abet them—on the broad thrust of the Bill. We are acting in their support. The way in which the Minister and his colleagues have conducted themselves, especially on such an eminently sensible and practical amendment, leaves me a little nonplussed about the support that the Government can hope to receive in future. If they continue to prove themselves completely closed to reason, which is extraordinary frustrating to Opposition Members, they give no hope that if an emergency overcomes this country in the style that we have been discussing, the Government will hope to form the quick, effective consensus that the Minister described.

Despite those words, I recognise the complete futility of trying to beat my head against the Government's intransigence, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 33, in

    clause 26, page 17, line 39, at end insert—

    '(3A) Paragraph (1) of House of Commons Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union Documents) shall not apply to proceedings in the House of Commons under this section.'.

The amendment was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and arises out of his observations on Second Reading. He pointed out that measures of the type we are discussing should not be dealt with in the 90 minutes of debate that are traditionally allowed. He said:

    ''we have good reason to remember just what the affirmative resolution procedure entitles us to—90 minutes of debate on what is listed''.

He went on to make a moving speech in which he said that he felt that liberty was worth more than that, and that it was necessary to have more 90 minutes for such a debate. He referred to some remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and said:

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    ''If I were a pretty nifty Government, I would get my amendment in first and Mr. Speaker would select it. In any event, how can amended regulations be subject to proper debate on the nature of the amendments if we have only 90 minutes?—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1147.]

My hon. Friend then made some comments, which were generally thought quite amusing, about Whips presenting the regulations. He said that it beggars belief that they can introduce emergency regulations, but that we have only 90 minutes in which to discuss them. Amendment No. 33 is all about not applying Standing Order 16 to such proceedings.

Mr. Allan: I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that it is important for us to consider this matter, which was sensibly and correctly raised by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. We could be dealing with legislation as significant as such pieces of primary legislation as the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which had to be put in place on an emergency basis.

To be fair, the Government have conceded the point about amendment of the regulations, which I understand was included in the 1920 Act. They have carried forward to this Bill the principle of amendment of regulations, although it is not normal in other legislation, which does not permit amendment of secondary legislation. That raises the issue of the procedures under which such amendments will be debated. I suspect that the answer is that the will of Parliament will prevail. If Parliament wishes to debate the regulations at greater length or to set different procedures for selecting amendments, it has the power to do so. However, the reality is that unless we give a more explicit steer about our expectations at this stage, we will effectively be presented with the normal procedure of an hour and a half and an opaque system for selection of amendments; it is certainly opaque from the point of view of people who try to steer the process and want certain issues debated rather than others.

Let us consider our ability to debate primary legislation and the way in which we can freely table amendments and have them selected. Let us debate such issues, and consider what might be a restricted debate on a subject of, dare I say it, great significance to the ordinary person because of the kinds of powers that will be taken. The Minister has a responsibility to explain the Government's expectation of how we will deal with the regulations once they come to Parliament.

Mr. Alexander: The Government accept that 90 minutes is unlikely to be sufficient to debate regulations as important as these will be. It is likely that there would be a call for a major debate on the crisis in a time of emergency, and the Government would respond by providing appropriate time. That said, the Government do not support and will resist the amendment. We are not convinced that it is appropriate to amend Standing Orders. We would have to be sure that it was necessary and appropriate to complicate them with varying procedures for different kinds of regulations.

The Government frequently table Business of the House motions to provide more time than the

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Standing Orders stipulate. I assure the Committee that the Government will be ready to discuss the appropriate length of debate through the usual channels when and if needs arise. The key point is that Standing Orders are ultimately a matter for the House authorities, and they can be duly amended if the Government feel it necessary.

Mr. Heald: The Minister does not give much away, does he? My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills feels particularly strongly about the amendment, and we will want to return to the matter on Report. To echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark, it is disappointing that we have not had a sausage from the Minister, despite the Opposition's consensual approach. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 27

Parliamentary scrutiny: prorogation and adjournment

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Allan: I am curious whether clause 27 will not be out of date before it comes into force. When I looked at the red Annunciator screen earlier, it told me that the Lords Chairman was on the Woolsack, yet subsection (4) refers to the Lord Chancellor. I assume that that refers to the person who is the Speaker of the House of Lords. Can clause 27 stand?

Patrick Mercer: I have a brief question. Clause 27(2) states:

    ''If when emergency regulations are made under section 19 the House of Commons stands adjourned to a day after the end of the period of five days''.

If there is an emergency, would not it be wiser to have a period of less than five days, as we will need to move extraordinarily quickly? Might not 48 hours be more suitable?

Mr. Carmichael: Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Newark, it strikes me that a substantial part of what will be section 27 should also be incorporated in the Standing Orders of the House in the interests of completeness and clarity. That is where the proposal properly belongs; however, it should at least be cross-referenced.

4.30 pm

Mr. Alexander: I feel drawn to try to answer the charge laid at my door by the hon. Members for Newark and for Orkney and Shetland before I respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam. Hon. Members could raise many concerns, but it is not reasonable to say that we failed to consult on this measure. We published a draft Bill in July; there was then a period of public consultation that lasted 10 weeks, until 11 September. After that, we moved on to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Joint Committee. With colleagues from Scotland, we are well versed in pre-legislative scrutiny, but it is not a process that has a long track record at Westminster. Those of us who were involved in it are, however, minded to view it as an exemplar of how effective it

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can be. If it leaves the Minister with fewer sausages for the Committee stage, given the degree to which one has been able to anticipate its appetite, so be it.

The idea that there was once merit in introducing vast numbers of amendments in Committee or in the other place, as distinct from getting the Bill right in the first place as a result of effective pre-legislative scrutiny or drafting, may simply reflect the need for us all to update our thinking on when is the appropriate stage for amendments, concessions or points of clarity.

Notwithstanding all that, we continue to be open to points made in Committee. As evidence of that, I will respond to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, who raised a reasonable point, not least given the appearance of one of my distinguished ministerial colleagues on ''Newsnight'' last night to discuss the role of the supreme court and the Lord Chancellor. If those reforms find full expression, it will be necessary for us to revisit the position in respect of the Lord Chancellor. The reference to the Lord Chancellor as Speaker of the House of Lords may need to be changed following future constitutional developments. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, which I accept.

The hon. Member for Newark mentioned the time scale. Five days reflects the time scale set in the 1920 Act, which was the precedent for the Government's proposal. In the spirit of open discussion and candour that we have established, at least on this clause, I will be happy to consider the hon. Gentleman's point.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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