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4.21 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I very much support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), and by my relatively close neighbour, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). What we are doing is profoundly unsatisfactory. This House faces a very large number of amendments, new clauses and new schedules, many of which were tabled very recently within the past few days. There is no point in the Minister’s shaking her head in a despairing way; we are despairing of the conduct of Government Front Benchers. The fact that these amendments—hundreds of them—were tabled but two or three days ago means that right hon. and hon. Members cannot form a view as to their merits. Worse than that, neither can the outside interest groups that would wish to make representations to this House. That is wholly wrong.

The other point to keep in mind is that this Report stage is the first occasion on which the House as a
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whole, as distinct from the Committee, can consider the detail of the Bill. The effect of a timetabling motion of this kind is to preclude the House from doing so. Because of the way in which the knives will fall, a whole range of important issues will not be addressed or examined, far less voted upon.

We are doing this far too often, and there are examples of the chaos that results. I often have to handle the Criminal Justice Act 2003 in the courts, as does my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). We know full well that the timetabling motions with regard to that Act produced one of the worst criminal justice Acts that the courts have ever had to deal with. We are now doing the same thing, but in this case it is worse because we have not only a new Bill but the new companies legislation incorporated into it.

Mr. Garnier: The point that my hon. and learned Friend is making in expressing the criticism that the Government should face is underlined and made all the worse by virtue of the fact that the Bill is largely politically uncontroversial in seeking to bring up to date, consolidate and modernise the law governing corporations, yet the Government say that they are in a tremendous hurry and must allow it go through at an accelerated pace, probably because of their own incompetence.

Mr. Hogg: I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend. His comments lead to another point: we could use the carry-over procedure. The Bill is important, so let us use the carry-over procedure. We were willing to use it for the Corporate Manslaughter Bill last week. The measure that we are considering is as difficult, if not more so. Let us take time over it.

I introduced many Bills when I was a Minister. I suppose that I handled six, seven, eight or nine Bills on the Floor of the House or in Committee. I am therefore well versed in their conduct. As hon. Members know, I am not an especially modest man, but they will accept that it was my considered view that a Minister had to master the detail of a Bill as well as any official; otherwise, the Minister cannot overrule the officials or set policy. Ministers cannot handle Bills that are much more than 30 clauses to that standard of excellence. Bills that are much longer need teams of Ministers to deal with them.

It is inevitable that Ministers will not understand what they are doing when measures are the size of the Companies Bill. They are thus wholly in the hands of their officials. That is not a proper exercise. Moreover, it makes timetabling even more inappropriate. Any honest and sensible Member knows full well that it is a disgrace and that we are not doing our duty, and will vote against this timetable motion, as against many others.

I am now looking at the Conservative Whip. When we get into office, he and the Front-Bench team will find people such as me unwilling to support timetable motions. The Conservative party, when in office, had better not ask people like me to vote for such motions because, in general, we will vote against them.

4.26 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): In principle I support the Bill, which is well
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conceived, and I disagree with the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) about consolidation. It is a good thing that we have turned the measure into a proper, new Companies Bill—potentially an Act. Producing a long Company Law Reform Bill alongside the Companies Act 1985 would constitute a bad day’s work by Parliament.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): The Bill’s gestation period was long. We said that there should be consolidation four years before the Committee proceedings started. The Opposition have therefore long held their view on consolidation.

Mr. Davies: Indeed. The matter is bipartisan, not tripartisan, because the Liberal Democrats do not appear to agree with consolidation.

David Howarth: I did not mean to say that I was against consolidation. I intended to convey that the difficulties that we are experiencing with the timetable are a consequence of the decision made by all parties to go for consolidation. Although consolidation is a long-standing idea, the decision to go for it was made only this summer.

Mr. Davies: I may have drawn the wrong conclusion from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, in which case I am happy to apologise and acknowledge that perhaps—although he has not said so explicitly—he is in favour of consolidation. I repeat that consolidation is sensible.

However, this afternoon’s proceedings are a sad and worrying example of what is wrong with Parliament and the way in which the legislative process has been eroded. The Executive branch has achieved a dominance in our constitution that has unbalanced what used to be a fine constitution. That is deeply worrying. I greatly object to the Minister for Industry and the Regions telling hon. Members that if we objected to timetabling we would lose time for discussion of the Bill. That is arrogant because it shows the Government automatically assuming that they have a majority. It also means that the notion of timetabling includes an element of blackmail. The House is constantly told, “You mustn’t object, speak your mind or ask for more time because if you do, you’ll get even less time for debating the Bill.” That is wrong.

Even worse, the Minister said that the Bill had already been the subject of considerable scrutiny in another place. It is true that the other place spent six months or so on the measure and did a fine job. The other place contains people of great distinction and often technical expertise, whose deliberations are extremely useful to us when we take a Bill from the Lords. The fact remains, however, that the other place consists almost entirely, apart from some hereditaries, of nominated Members—people who have no democratic mandate whatever. The role of the House of Lords as an additional stage in the process is one thing, but the idea that it can replace the House of Commons and that, if a Bill has received a certain amount of consideration in the other place, it requires no more than perfunctory consideration from ourselves, is deeply offensive. It is against the democratic idea that legislation should be undertaken by elected representatives who are directly responsible to those who sent them to the legislature.

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The Minister seems to have forgotten some of what were always essential foundations of our political system. The Bill is a sad example of a malaise, which, I am afraid, has been getting worse for many years. Often, there is no one dramatic moment when everyone focuses on what has happened—but, suddenly, after a few years, we turn around and realise that the fundamental balance of the constitution has been eroded and lost.

The Minister today gave a particularly bad example of the Government taking its large majority for granted. She has added insult to injury by producing all these amendments at the last moment. What she is telling the House and the country is that the bureaucracy is instructed that even if the Committee stage ends in July, it has two or three months to do any necessary work deriving from the Committee stage and to produce further consequential amendments. It does not need to bother to introduce those until 24 hours before the parliamentary process begins, because the stupid politicians will have no time to spend on them anyway, and they will be rolled over by a large majority. The parliamentary process has therefore become just a decorative aspect of the constitution—a time-consuming and rather trying formality that is really just a rubber stamp for what has been agreed in Whitehall.

By behaving in that fashion, the Minister has dramatically demonstrated the extent of the contempt for Parliament in Whitehall and in sections of the Government. That is deeply upsetting. We may be defeated in a few minutes, and we may be able to do nothing about it for the moment. Certainly, however, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said, the next Government must change that. I can think of few other examples of serious problems in our country that so urgently need to be addressed by a change of Government.

4.33 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said, a Bill as big as this—it is bigger than the Leicestershire telephone book— [Interruption] It is also bigger than the Rutland telephone book. I shall not go into the other variations. My right hon. and learned Friend was entirely right that a Bill of this size needs a team of Ministers to achieve mastery of it. Perhaps what upset me most was the attitude that the Minister displayed to the House when she moved this short motion, as she did not have mastery of that, let alone of the content of the Bill. She did not even know how many schedules and amendments we would have to discuss in little eight-minute sections. Of course, there are many of these topics for which we will even have an eight-minute section.

The Government do not care. After nine years of this appalling Administration, we are all used to their incompetence, intellectual dishonesty and political shenanigans. What we cannot tolerate, however, and what I find so offensive, is the smugness with which they overlay their incompetence, stupidity and political and intellectual dishonesty. If the Minister thinks that
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it is appropriate for her, as a Minister of the Crown, to defend her Government’s policy and to explain the detail of the Bill in the way that she just has, she ought to be ashamed of herself and of her Government.

This Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation to come before this or possibly any other Parliament, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), the shadow Secretary of State, said. The Government’s treatment of it is offensive—to me as an individual, although my personal feelings do not matter, but also to Parliament and, more importantly, to the people who sent us here. Their approach speaks volumes about their attitude to the electorate and to good governance. The sooner we get rid of this lot, the better— [Interruption.] My words appear witty and amusing to the hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher), the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, who clearly likes to poke fun at people like me. I must seem an easy joke as I stand here in my pinstriped suit and make remarks about the Government’s conduct. However, I am concerned about the calibre of the Government and of this Bill, and about the attitude displayed by the Minister and her hon. Friends to the people of this country. I warn them that they ignore our people at their peril, as the electorate will grab the Government firmly by the throat and remove them from office.

Mr. Hogg: Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that we who practise in the law know that people will say subsequently that it was a disgrace that a Bill such as this was not discussed properly by this House?

Mr. Garnier: I do not want to embarrass the Minister, but I understand that she is quite close to people who know a little about the law. I hope that she is sometimes advised at breakfast in a way that she finds more acceptable than is the case this afternoon. Frankly, this is not a motion that this House should ever entertain.

4.36 pm

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I am the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on corporate governance, which has taken a considerable interest in the Bill, for obvious reasons. Some of the largest corporate entities in the country are represented on the group. Many have made representations about the Bill during its passage through the House, and they are horrified by the proposals in the programme motion. The Minister’s predecessor handled this brief for four years, but she has not had the same benefit and I fear that she will have difficulty in coping with the Bill’s ramifications. Before she puts the motion to a vote, she should consider whether she wants to embarrass herself and her Government in front of corporate Britain plc.

4.37 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I served on the Standing Committee considering this Bill, and wish to put on the record my concern that it has not been properly managed or discussed, even though it has been before Parliament for some eight years. It is certainly true that not enough time was spent on it in Committee, and it is regrettable that the
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Government chose to end those proceedings in July rather than carry them over from the summer, which is what the Bill deserved.

As has been stated, this is the largest Bill ever to go through Parliament. Its consequences are far reaching, affecting the very lifeblood of our economy. It is therefore especially regrettable that the Government should introduce almost 1,000 new amendments and a huge number of new clauses when, once again, the time available for debate is very limited.

The Government’s abuse of power has also been referred to, and that is the right term in this context. The Minister is abusing her power, and she demeans herself and her office by treating the Bill in this cavalier fashion. More importantly, she also treats with contempt the people who will be affected by the Bill—the mainstream public and the businesses that run the economy. The Government amendments and new clauses are detailed and specific. If we do not consider them properly, we risk producing shoddy legislation that will have a negative impact on the business community and on the public at large.

This Bill is a consolidation measure and comes some 20 years after the Companies Act 1985. However, it does not take into adequate consideration the fact that the global business environment has changed considerably. Business is now compelled to take into account environmental issues and the protection of data, as well as a huge number of other issues that simply did not exist in 1985. Again, we fail in our duty by failing to consider all those issues properly, in the context not only of Britain and the European Union, but of worldwide business.

Sadly, the Government’s not allowing enough time today, tomorrow and on Friday—or, indeed, in previous years—to debate these issues will result in the sad consequence that we shall do a disservice to the business community. In failing properly to scrutinise the Bill, we also fail in our duty to the House and to the country.

4.40 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I can well understand why the Government have tabled this motion: it has become a habit for them to assume that Parliament need no longer scrutinise legislation. The second reason why I understand this was also given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg)—that Ministers are not masters of their briefs on such an extensive Bill as this.

The House recognises the importance of this legislation, as we have heard from hon. Members on both sides. We recognise that it is a landmark. It is a consolidation measure, but it also covers new ground. The Government have tabled almost 1,000 amendments, and no doubt the Minister will have taken advice from her civil servants on what will actually be constituted by the proposed changes. However, the Government will not allow the House to find a rhythm for the consideration of a landmark piece of legislation that will guide company law. It will directly affect those who run companies, as well as
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those who are employed by them. It is a major ethical statement of what we regard as appropriate law. That the Minister has come forward with a timetable motion such as this shows a contempt for the House and a failure to understand the central importance of the authority of Parliament.

I am terrified that a misjudged clause in the Bill could have ramifications right across the business community. That is why Ministers should listen carefully to the people who represent businesses and to those who work in them. They should give consideration to sensible proposals such as that to allow carry-over in these circumstances, so as to permit proper consideration of these matters and to give the Opposition and other Members with opinions the opportunity to comment. As is my tradition, I shall oppose all guillotine motions whenever I am able to do so. This motion traduces the proper purpose of the House.

4.43 pm

Margaret Hodge: I have to say to Opposition Members that, by starting the proceedings on Report and Third Reading of this historic Bill by opposing the programme motion, they are playing a very poor political game. They are effectively trying to score a questionable political point at the expense of spending time allotted by the House to the serious and considered scrutiny of the Bill. Indeed, I put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is the knockabout politics that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is trying to prevent. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) has shown himself to be an old Tory by the way in which he has approached this debate.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Will the Minister give way?

Margaret Hodge: No.

The Bill has been developed in a unique way. We have ensured the full involvement of all the interested parties throughout the process.

Mr. Vara: Will the Minister give way?

Margaret Hodge: No.

We have sought and achieved a high degree of consensus on the overwhelming majority of the clauses in the Bill. We have—for those who bothered to turn up—approached the parliamentary scrutiny of the Bill in a very co-operative spirit, and been more than ready to listen to suggestions—

Mr. Quentin Davies rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not think that the right hon. Lady is going to give way. I felt that it was right, in view of the criticisms that have been made in several quarters, that she should be given ample time to reply to the debate.

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