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Session 2004 - 05
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Standing Committee Debates
Railways Bill

Railways Bill

Standing Committee A

Tuesday 14 December 2004


[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Railways Bill

9.25 am

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that the debate on the programme motion may continue for up to half an hour.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): I beg to move,

That— (1)   during proceedings on the Railways Bill the Standing Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 a.m. on Tuesday 14th December) meet—
(a)   at 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday 14th December; and
(b)   at 9.25 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. on Thursday 16th December, Tuesday 11th January, Thursday 13th January and Tuesday 18th January;
(2)   the proceedings shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table below and shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the second column of the Table.

Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings

Clause 1, Schedules 1 and 2, Clause 2, Schedule 3, Clauses 3 and 4, Schedule 4, Clause 5

11.25 a.m. on Thursday 16th December
Clauses 6 to 19, Schedule 5, Clauses 20 and 21, Schedule 6 5.30 p.m. on Tuesday 11th January
Clause 22, Schedule 7, Clauses 23 to 25, Schedule 8, Clauses 26 to 44 11.25 a.m. on Tuesday 18th January
Clauses 45, Schedule 9, Clauses 46 to 52, Schedule 10, Clause 53, Schedule 11, Clauses 54 to 58, Schedules 12 and 13, Clause 59, new Clauses, new Schedules and any remaining proceedings on the Bill 5.30 p.m. on Tuesday 18th January

I am sure, Mr. Griffiths, that it will be an enormous pleasure to work with you and Mr. Amess, your co-Chairman. We had the great delight of Mr. Amess chairing the Programming Sub-Committee last night. There was a good deal of good humour in what proved to be a lengthy meeting, but it was not without some dispute.

The Sub-Committee's draft resolution sets out the number of sittings that the House has allowed us, and with an element of organisation and marshalling—and some logic—it includes a timetable. I know that the Bill will be dispatched with good humour. I promised on Second Reading that I would provide commentary, including a rough schedule of the regulations and guidance—they are to be found on the Table—and a range of other elements, because, like most legislation, the Bill needs to be seen in the wider context and

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because we are also doing a range of things in the non-legislative dimension. The latter are as important as the Bill, and I am sure that we will come to them subsequently.

The motion is eminently logical and it has integrity. The timetable for the 10 sittings is set out in a way that should provide fun and entertainment, after which the Bill will be reported to the House and sent on its travels. I commend the motion to the Committee. Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I associate myself with at least some of the Minister's remarks. I certainly hope that the Committee remains good natured. We have a good chance of that with you in the Chair, Mr. Griffiths. Nevertheless, I notice that the Clock facing me is showing the same time now as it did when the Minister started speaking.

It will not have escaped the Committee's attention that the motion is in two parts. We all accept the need for the first part, as we need a framework so that we know the dates and times when we are to sit. However, the Opposition do not accept that the second part is either desirable or necessary. The danger is that what becomes commonplace will become acceptable. I therefore place on record our view that the timetable is not only unnecessary, but in many respects objectionable.

I recall what happened when I was discharging duties similar to those of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron). During my time as a Government Whip, I was given responsibility for the Home Office. The Opposition spokesman for one Bill that I dealt with was the right hon. Member for Sedgefield, who is now the Prime Minister. In those days, we did not have restrictive motions such as this. Our discussions through the usual channels were such that the right hon. Gentleman was content if certain debates took place at a time of day that suited him. He was not interested in keeping the Committee sitting late or filibustering, or in frustrating the Government's will. I thought that he took a responsible view.

In other words, if the provisions under discussion were debated in a manner and at a time that the Opposition found acceptable, the right hon. Gentleman was quite content to follow the process, and at the end of the day, the Government got their business through the House. Neither side ever had a problem with the legislation, because we both got what we wanted from the Committee process. Now, however, the Government have automatically put the Committee in a straitjacket.

9.30 am

Under the old process, which was in operation when John Major was Prime Minister, the Government had a problem with the Committee stage and subsequently had to consider a programme motion on only a handful of occasions. When they decided to change the Standing Orders towards the end of their time in office, as part of what were widely known as the Jopling reforms, I was in the more elevated position of Government deputy Chief Whip. My instructions from the Prime Minister were that we were to do nothing that was unacceptable to the Opposition, who
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were at that time, of course, the Labour party. So the only reforms that we carried through towards the end of that Parliament were those that were acceptable to the Labour Opposition. What is depressing about the present state of affairs is that the Government have introduced their changes without the consent of the official Opposition.

I therefore invite my hon. Friends to vote against the programme motion. It is a sad day when the Government seek to put a Committee in a straitjacket, particularly when there has been no indication of any rebellion by Opposition Members, who merely want to scrutinise the Bill in a way that they deem fit, without being placed in such a straitjacket.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I, too, hope that our proceedings will be marked by the good humour that we have come to expect from the Minister and which I enjoyed during proceedings on another Bill.

Liberal Democrat Members are broadly content with the programme motion, and we shall vote in favour of it if a vote is called. This is an important Bill, and we broadly support its principles, but some points need to be scrutinised. In my experience, any scrutiny that does not happen in this place will merely happen in another place. That generally takes longer, so it would be helpful to ensure that we give the Bill proper scrutiny here. I hope that the Government will allow for a degree of flexibility to ensure that everything is covered. That aside, however, we are content with the motion.

Finally, let me make a personal apology. I shall not be here on Thursday, because my daughter is getting married, and there is one authority higher even than Parliament, which I must obey.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): May I start with a point of order, Mr. Griffiths? I have been told off many times for taking my jacket off before the Chairman has given us permission to do so. Could you perhaps clarify the position?

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman may take off his jacket.

Mr. Wilshire: Thank you, Mr. Griffiths.

It is important to put it on record at the outset that the usual channels have, as always, been as kind as they can be. They have tried to encourage me to co-operate and to become an enthusiast for guillotine motions. The Minister has also set out to be helpful, but I am always suspicious of Ministers who do that, because they are usually disguising some awful truth that they hope we will not notice. Nevertheless, however hard the Government try to persuade me that programming is a good idea, I am afraid that they will fail.

I have an example that makes my point better than would any lengthy speech about my concerns. [Interruption.] The Clock is still at 20 minutes past nine, so the half hour that we were given has not started. As far as I can see, we are always invited to ask not how much time a Bill needs, but how much we are prepared to give it. Flexibility is suggested, but it is not real. At the outset of discussions on this Bill, I was
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asked how many sittings I thought it would need, and there was some good-humoured debate about the matter. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has more important duties, and I would be the last to criticise his priorities. What his constituents might make of knowing that he is shirking his duties here is for them to decide, but if I were in his position, I would make the same decision. However, yesterday I gathered that the other Liberal Democrat member of the Committee, the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), also has difficulties on Thursday. I do not want to make personal criticisms, but the point was made to me—

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I am on the School Transport Bill Committee; Parliament has double booked me.

Mr. Wilshire: In my party at least, there is always discussion about who would like to serve on which Committee, but that is a different issue.

The situation that we discovered yesterday was, for reasons about which people can draw their own conclusions, that both members of the Liberal Democrat party will not be able to be here. I understand that they suggested—they have not approached me—that it would be a good idea if the Committee did not sit on Thursday afternoon. I have some sympathy with that idea, which I would be more than willing to discuss in principle. However, I was then told that, irrespective of what decision was taken about whether we would sit on Thursday afternoon, the end date is not negotiable.

It was never going to be a discussion about how long the Bill would take to consider. We were told that the Bill will be dealt with by a particular date and that we can meet as often or rarely as we like, as that is a matter for flexible discussion, but that the length of consideration of the Bill is not open to debate. That says it all about the programme motion. The Government are saying, ''Meet when you like and at what times you like, but you must finish irrespective of how much substance there is in the Bill.''

As my party supports some parts of the Bill, it is possible that it might not need as much time as has been allocated. On the other hand, it might need more, but I am being told that there is no more time on offer, irrespective of what transpires. That is wrong, and it says everything that is bad about such an approach to legislation. It does not matter what the detail is, what the concerns are or whether we get it right, as long as we get the measure on to the statute book according to a timetable pre-ordained by a Government who are not prepared to listen and do not want to know whether they have got it right, as they just want to get on with it. On that basis, I object in principle to the motion.

One cannot be a realistic politician unless one becomes pragmatic about some things. The Opposition are prepared to see whether we can make the best of a bad job. We are prepared to be as flexible as we can, provided that our attempt to be helpful in the circumstances is not taken as acquiescence in the principle to which we object. We will work within it,
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while protesting about it, provided that we are never told during the proceedings that that means that we acquiesce. If we get to that stage, we will be back to the Clock needing to be repaired, and we might well run out of time. For the time being, however, we will do our best to make this Committee a success, and I promise that we will do our level best to make it a good-humoured, enjoyable experience.

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Prepared 14 December 2004