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3.10 p.m.

Lord Irvine of Lairg: My Lords, we welcome all three aspects of the Bill. When the noble and learned Lord invited me to say whether or not I considered the Bill suitable for the Jellicoe procedure, I confirmed that I did. I even suggested that its then title, "Private International Law Bill", might give the wrong impression in foreign places. It might be thought that it was a comprehensive measure dealing with the whole of our private international law and therefore intended, for our country, to serve the purpose which Switzerland's Private International Law Act 1987 serves there--an Act running to a mere 200 articles and 154 pages. I suggested the title, the Private International Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. In the spirit of co-operativeness which will accompany the passage of the Bill, the noble and learned Lord was good enough to agree. From time to time I have persuaded him to accept amendments that I have moved but never before to alter the title of a Bill. This is plainly the summit of my legislative achievements thus far.

As the noble and learned Lord said, Part I will give the courts welcome flexibility in the case of foreign currency judgments to order, at their discretion, a rate of interest other than the one prescribed under the 1838 Judgments Act. As I understand it, that rate can be fixed or variable in the court's discretion and I agree with the noble and learned Lord that present rates may not reflect commercially appropriate rates in the relevant currency.

Part II ensures the validity of marriages, in fact monogamous though contracted under a law permitting polygamy. Part III abolishes the double actionability rule which provided that where a civil wrong was allegedly committed in a foreign country, it could be sued on here only if it was a civil wrong under our law and also a civil wrong under the law of the country where it was done. The new general rule that the applicable law should be the law of the country where the wrong is committed--subject to sensible qualifications where significant elements of the events constituting the wrong occur in different countries --is welcome. The Bill will bring our law into line with the laws of most other countries.

The Bill is a tribute to the work of the law commissions--of "both" commissions, as the noble and learned Lord said. At the end of September the sad fact was that of 27 Bills published by the law commissions since March 1989 only three had by then reached the statute book. I do not underestimate the difficulties in

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finding parliamentary time. For far too long non-controversial reports by the law commissions have been gathering dust in Whitehall. I cannot do better than quote my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell who, in your Lordships' House on 2nd November, said:


    "Between 1967 (when the Law Commission was established) and 1981, 40 Law Commission reports have been wholly or partly implemented--about half on the initiative of the government of the day and about half on the initiative of private Members in one or other of the Houses. Since 1981 only 33 have been wholly or partly implemented. Moreover, since 1989 there has been what Sir Henry Brooke"--

the present chairman of the English Law Commission--


    "has described as a grade one disaster area: only one Bill has been implemented on government initiative since that time. In 1981, 13 reports were awaiting implementation. That figure had doubled to 26 by 1985. The figure now stands at 36 reports and represents the hard work of some of our most talented people--hard work which has borne no fruit of any kind".--[Official Report, 2/11/94; col. 874.]

I desire to take the opportunity of this Second Reading debate to state as clearly as I can the position of my party on law reform. It was the Labour Government of 1964, under its distinguished Lord Chancellor, Lord Gardiner, which set up the two law commissions. It is only possible to keep increasingly complicated and far-reaching law efficient, fair and up to date by making full and effective use of the law commissions. As Sir Henry Brooke recently observed,


    "a nation which neglects the ordinary care of its laws is neglecting something which is very important to its national well-being".

The commissions have an impressive record in achieving clarification and reform of the law, but in recent years both have expressed increasing concern at government failure to implement their recommendations. Many much-needed reforms that have been fully reviewed and considered by the commissions remain unimplemented. In many cases the Government have not even troubled to give a public indication of whether they accept or reject the commissions' proposals.

The importance and momentum of law reform must be restored by enhancing the status of the commissions and putting in place arrangements for the implementation of their proposals. What is required is not merely talk about law reform, but the action that has been lacking in recent years. No government, of course, can be bound by the proposals of the commissions or undertake always to implement them. But where government disagree with those independent bodies, democracy demands that the reasons for that disagreement be stated openly and be subject to public and parliamentary scrutiny. To put law reform back with a high place on the political agenda, basic changes, as a matter of urgency, are essential.

The reports of the two commissions are usually impressive documents with proposals formulated after full consultation with all interested and informed parties. A Labour Government would regard the commissions' reports as the agenda for government response and action and not as an excuse for delay through the government themselves undertaking more consultation. The important public status of the commissions should

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be reinforced by government accepting an obligation to respond publicly within six months of publication of any commission report, giving full reasons for non-implementation or delay in the implementation of the commissions' proposals.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls: My Lords, is not the action being called for by the noble Lord still capable of being applied through the normal parliamentary procedures? There is nothing to stop the noble Lord, for example, under the many opportunities that our procedures give, from commenting that something is being neglected or not answered.

Lord Irvine of Lairg: My Lords, as the noble Lord says, that is an opportunity which can be, and frequently is, availed of. The important point is that government should not leave the reports to gather dust unnoticed in Whitehall, without any statement as to whether they have simply failed to read them or to consider them or whether, on considered grounds, they are opposed to them for whatever reason. I am proposing a more rational approach with an obligation upon government to respond in the interests of democracy. Of course, I support, in the current state of our procedures, the suitability of the Jellicoe procedures for carrying out much needed law reform. The noble and learned Lord is well aware that that is so.

A new obligation of government to respond publicly to Law Commission reports would be important. It could be reinforced by the creation of a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament, perhaps along the lines of the Ecclesiastical Committee, with a remit to oversee government action on law reform. The committee would draw on the combined legal expertise in the other place and in this House. The Government's response to law reform reports would be monitored by the committee, and Ministers would give evidence to the committee about that response. That would be an important obligation of government.

Many law reform proposals will be controversial and will need full parliamentary debate. Many others, however, should not require that time-consuming and delaying process. One of the tasks of such a joint committee would be to indicate which recommendations, and which parts of them, are in effect technical, and which raise issues of policy and substance. Active steps should be taken to expedite the implementation of proposals that the joint committee regards as non-controversial and, fortified by the opinion of that committee, all parties in Parliament would be expected to co-operate in the rapid enactment of such proposals. That would leave more time for the full debate of law reform proposals involving issues of greater sensitivity.

There is one further consideration. Although the law commissions would be the main engine of law reform, it is not practicable, or suitable, for the law commissions to undertake all of the work themselves. In recent years too much use has been made of ad hoc committees, or of interdepartmental studies, without reference to the expertise of the law commissions. The position originally envisaged by Lord Gardiner should be restored: the law commissions should once again advise

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government of the most suitable body to undertake any particular piece of law reform; and where law reform is contemplated by other government agencies the law commissions should give advice on procedures and approach. That should avoid duplication. It should lead to a coherent programme throughout government and ensure that all law reform work, wherever performed, is conducted to a high standard.

I have taken the opportunity to emphasise the major importance my party attaches to law reform and its conviction that it must be pushed significantly higher on the political agenda and that both law commissions must be supported and encouraged by putting the fruits of their labours, so far as possible, on the statute book. Meanwhile, we support the expeditious passage of the Bill.


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