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4 p.m.

Lord Aberdare: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, for giving us the opportunity to debate the subject, although I greatly regret that my noble friend Lord Rippon is indisposed as his contribution would, I am sure, have been extremely valuable.

I have always had a great admiration for the Hansard Society and for the admirable papers that it produces from time to time. This is no exception. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Rippon and his colleagues on the report, which is full of good sense and easy to read. The value of the Hansard Society reports seems to me to be that a particular topic is studied in depth and proposals put forward that aim at ideal remedies. They may not be easily attainable but they set a target to which our efforts can be directed.

There can be no doubt that our legislative system at present is far from adequate. Bills are often not well drafted, the legislative process in both Houses is too long and increasingly dependent on statutory instruments, and often even the judges themselves have doubts about the interpretation of the Acts that we pass. That has resulted on all sides in a demand for less legislation. But, unfortunately, I think that that is very unlikely given the pace of modern life and the need for governments to act swiftly to meet the tide of events. In fact, I think that we are more likely to have to deal with more rather than less legislation in the future.

The report tackles the problem professionally and pragmatically. It contains recommendations on the preparation of legislation and the need for wider consultation with those people affected, the drafting of

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legislation, especially the need for clarity, simplicity, brevity and certainty, and the legislative process in Parliament.

Like all those who have spoken before me, I welcome the recommendations. However, there is no doubt that if they were all to be implemented, more time would be required for consultation, drafting and consideration in Parliament. I was particularly pleased that at the beginning of his admirable speech my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon mentioned the word "time". I am sure that that factor is a major difficulty. The commission recognised that and faced the issue squarely with a recommendation for a two-year legislative programme. I believe that that really is the only solution. It may be a pipedream. It certainly will not be acceptable to Parliament at present. The government business managers, and I am sure any party's managers, would not welcome that change. However, I believe that it is an objective which we should keep within our sights even if it be on the far horizon. We should continually keep the recommendation in our minds and seek at least to work towards it. Perhaps it would be possible at some time to apply that recommendation to certain Bills somewhat on the pattern that occurs in private legislations.

However that may be, if we continue to work within the present one-year cycle, at least we can seek to achieve some of the other recommendations in the report. On 2nd November we debated the report of the group on the sittings of the House. I know that the Procedure Committee is likely to recommend that some of the proposals should be examined in an experiment.

I was flattered to note that the group referred to an idea of mine to which the noble Baroness, Lady David, was kind enough to give her support: that an unofficial group called together by the Minister should arrange an informal meeting with Opposition Front Bench speakers, interested Back-Bench Peers and representatives of outside interest groups to clarify the Government's intentions and to dispose of minor amendments, especially probing amendments, before the full Committee stage on the Floor of the House. We have to remember that we spend more of our time proportionately in Committee than on any other procedures of the House. Any time that we can save in Committee must be valuable.

On Monday I did a little personal research on the Committee stage of the Agricultural Tenancies Bill. To my surprise I found that there were quite a number of occasions when a preliminary meeting might have helped to save time on the Floor of the House. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, on moving the first amendment said:

    "The purpose of the first group of amendments is to discover what the Government intend by the phrase 'farm business tenancy'".

That, I believe, could well have been explained at an unofficial meeting before the matter ever came to Committee stage. The Minister, my noble friend Lord Howe, said:

    "I am grateful to the noble Lord. Perhaps I may clarify one or two further points".

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Referring to Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 standing in his name, the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, said:

    "Their intention is to clarify the position".

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, said:

    "The discussion has been helpful; we now understand that the Government are anxious to promote diversification".—[Official Report, 12/12/94; cols. 1089-94.]

There are a number of other examples which I do not have time to cite. The same was true of the Committee stage yesterday. I believe that quite a lot of time could have been saved if there had been discussions before Committee stage.

If, as I hope, this proposal is to be tried out, I wish to make three points. First, I would hope that notes on clauses would be available to the meeting. The Government have been very helpful in providing notes on clauses in the past. They are valuable; and I am sure that they would be valuable to such a meeting.

Secondly, I think it important that, quite apart from the Minister having his own officials present, there should also be present those experts who are advising the Opposition and other interested Peers, so that all those people can bring to the notice of the Government the basic facts of life as they view them with regard to the way in which the legislation is drafted at the time.

Thirdly, I hope that the Minister in the Chair would intervene strongly to prevent discussions going over into matters of policy, on which the final decision has obviously to be made in Committee.

I have mentioned the importance of notes on clauses. That leads me to refer to another recommendation of the commission at paragraphs 36 to 38. The report recommends that after the enactment of a statute, the relevant government department, with assistance from parliamentary counsel, should issue notes on sections based on the original notes on clauses but taking account of the further proceedings in Parliament. Those notes should be approved by Ministers and should be allowed to be used by the courts as an aid to their understanding of the intentions of the Act. I believe that that suggestion is well worth consideration.

In general I am fully in sympathy with the proposals in the report; and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rippon and his colleagues.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton: My Lords, I am very glad to be able to follow the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, because I particularly wish to refer to his proposal which has been adopted by the Hansard Society Commission. I thank my noble friend Lord Nathan for introducing the debate. Like other noble Lords, I regret that the noble Lord the chairman of the commission, is not present today to take part in our proceedings; I am sorry for the reason for that.

I congratulate the Hansard Society Commission on its report, even though I shall be critical of some of the report in major respects. For example, I regret that it did not seem to have taken evidence from the business managers. We heard today from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon. As a former Leader of the House of Commons, he must be counted as a

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business manager and he has greatly added to our knowledge. However, if the business managers had been heard, there would have been much talk about goal posts and playing fields but not much acceptance. It is an important omission in the report that the business managers were not heard. We want to know what are the objections to all the fine proposals which have been made; and no doubt we shall hear from the business managers in the next month or two what the proposals are. However, I should like to have heard the views of the Hansard Society Commission on them.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, will the noble Lord forgive me for intervening? Perhaps I may refer him to paragraph 18 of the introduction to the report where it is made clear that both the Lord President of the Council and the then Lord Privy Seal were consulted. Both of them qualify as business managers.

Lord Henderson of Brompton: My Lords, I stand corrected by the noble Viscount; but I do not think that they were accompanied by their Whips, and that seems to me a rather important omission.

In Chapter 5, on the parliamentary process, the Hansard Society Commission Report states in paragraph 316:

    "In debates on bills, particularly in committee, there has been too much emphasis on policy issues and inadequate attention to the practicality of what is proposed".

Quite frankly, I would address that criticism to the Hansard Society Commission itself. I found myself wondering just how practicable the proposals are.

That brings me to the significant proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. I very much hope that the House will adopt it, at least as an experiment; I have long been in favour of such a procedure. I ask that the practicalities should be examined in great detail by the Procedure Committee because that proposal suggests that Bills of some length and complexity should be examined in that kind of committee. If that is so, and if Bills really are of some length and complexity, I should have thought that the procedures in the Aberdare committee would themselves be lengthy and complex. If a Bill is lengthy and complex, I very much doubt whether it could be properly considered by the Aberdare procedure in, let us say, one day. If it takes more than one day—for example, two or three days—then it will considerably affect the timetable of the Bill. Matters of that kind have clearly not been gone into by the commission, as they will need to be if the proposals are to be adopted in the House, as suggested.

The report states in paragraph 316:

    "legislative business is often too rushed".

But how is it to be less rushed if we introduce a new stage in the parliamentary timetable? It seems to me that a great many of the recommendations are desirable in themselves—and I agree that they are—but all require more time in days, weeks or months, if we add them all together.

The commission is to be much congratulated on the successful implementation of Recommendation 75, which concerns the Delegated Powers Scrutiny

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Committee in this House. That is a notable success. In Recommendations 100 and 101, the commission also recommends that the committee should take on further powers. I fully agree; but that new committee is already expensive and if it is to be given those extra powers, it will require additional resources, as the commission acknowledges. I believe that that expenditure is well worth while; but I doubt whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer would take the same view. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, said that when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer he proposed amendments to procedures which he thought were desirable on the grounds of cost. I doubt whether that will be followed.

It is important that the recommendations should be subject to a strict audit on both time and cost. Like so many other desirable things, priorities will have to be decided, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, said, by politicians who will not wish to accept all the recommendations because of the total cost in both time and money.

I wish to say a brief word about the delightfully written Memorandum 18 entitled "Clarity". I wish to know who or where is Clarity? What is she—or is that an official secret? The memorandum was so well written that I think it should be published as a separate paper. The excellent memorandum discusses the use of purpose clauses, and recommends them. I was disappointed not to see that endorsed in the recommendations of the Hansard Society Commission. Purpose clauses could reduce exceptional resort to Hansard by the courts. In that connection, I am sorry to have to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, but I cannot wish on the courts the use of Notes on Clauses made into Notes on Statutes. Where will we end if we adopt that, as well as looking at Hansard? I doubt whether it is profitable.

I have been critical of the report, and I have one positive solution. It is to accept all the recommendations on pre-legislative consultation. There lies the way in which the legislative log jam in time can be remedied. Time spent before the introduction of legislation is time which will be important, and it will save time on the Floor of both Houses of Parliament.

The very important innovations which are taking place for Law Commission Bills should in future be followed for non-contentious public Bills. Why should we spend hours of our time, for example, on weights and measures or such Bills, departmental Bills, which are totally accepted in a non-party political manner by both Houses of Parliament? We should not debate those Bills, because every detail should have been subject to consultation and political agreement before their introduction. If we remove the mainly non-controversial substantial Bills which emanate from departments, we would then leave Parliament to discuss the crucial controversial legislation to which it should devote the greatest attention. If that should happen, if there were real, proper consultation before the introduction of legislation into Parliament, then I believe that such Bills could go to special committees, in the same way as Law Commission Bills do. Then the subsequent proceedings in Parliament after the Bill has gone to such a special committee would be brief. Therein lies salvation, so far as I am concerned, rather than—and here I differ from

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the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare—the extension of one Session into another, so that we have two-year Sessions. I believe that the saving by pre-parliamentary processes should be the answer and not tampering with the terminal arrangements which we know so well, the arrangements for single Sessions where business falls if it is not completed at the end.

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