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5.1 p.m.

Lord Richard: My Lords, it is usual in such debates to begin by thanking the initiator and those who produced the report on which the debate has been based. I do not regard this afternoon's debate as a matter of form in any way. Having listened to the whole debate, I should say that I have found it extraordinarily good. This is perhaps one of the things that this House does rather better than the other place. We should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, for initiating the debate. We should certainly be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, and the Hansard Society for producing the report. I am sorry that the noble Lord has not been with us this afternoon.

This has been an interesting and fascinating debate. Contributions have ranged widely. Half of the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, was an apologia pro vita sua and the other half was a major contribution on what should be done. I believe that it is right to say that the report on legislative drafting which was produced by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has been more quoted in Parliament than any single report in the last half century—or 40 years—

Lord Renton: My Lords, 20 years.

Lord Richard: My Lords, in the past 20 years. It is a very good report, which I enjoyed.

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I suppose that we should ask ourselves first: is there a problem? I looked first at the figures in the report and found them revealing. In 1901, 40 public Acts were passed, taking up 247 pages of legislation and 400 sections. In 1981, 72 Acts were passed, occupying 2,276 pages. In 1991, 69 Acts were passed, taking up 2,222 pages. I thought that the amount of legislation had decreased by 50 pages in 10 years, but then I read the footnote which stated that the paper size was increased to A4 in 1987, so fewer pages are required. Therefore, the fact that the number of pages has decreased does not affect the volume of legislation, which is immense. Turning to delegated legislation, in 1901 there were 156 statutory instruments. By 1991, there were 2,945.

Not only does Parliament now have to deal with an immense amount of legislation; the general public has to assimilate it. If there is one general plea to have come out of the report and our debate, it is that, when producing legislation, governments should consult more wisely before starting. They should draft their legislation more clearly and simply before presenting it to Parliament. They should pass legislation more efficiently and effectively through Parliament and they should disseminate the results of that legislation more widely once it has been passed. Those are the four general points upon which the debate has hung and I should like to say a brief word about each.

On consultation, it is interesting to note from the figures in the report—the raw material of the report—that, in effect, a process of creeping consultation is now taking place. In 1986, eight Green Papers and 11 consultative documents were issued by the Government. By 1991, those 11 consultative documents had increased to 232, on subjects ranging from scallop dredging in the 12-mile inshore zone to the local government review. There is now a wide variety of issues upon which the Government think it right to have some form of consultation before they produce their plans for legislation, let alone the legislation in draft. What seems to be wrong is that there is no pattern, no mechanism and no obligation on the Government to enter into any kind of consultation process.

From reading the report and listening to the debate, it has become clear to me that it is incumbent on governments to try to produce a firm and definite mechanism for consultation. In other words, some kind of consultation will be expected to form part of the normal legislative process. I should not dream of trying to spell out at the end of such a debate the precise way in which that consultation should take place or the bodies and people with whom the Government should consult. However, the lack of such a mechanism seems a major omission which governments could put right without too much pain.

One answer to the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for a two-year legislative cycle is that there is no reason why there cannot be consultation in one Session even if the Bill is not introduced until the next Session. Indeed, there is no reason why a Bill cannot be drafted in one Session even if it is not introduced until the next. Therefore, to some extent, the issue of whether there should be a one-year or two-year parliamentary

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cycle is somewhat irrelevant to the process of producing Bills. Everybody seems to agree on the principle of consultation; the difficulty is agreeing the mechanism. I hope that the Government will now begin to take that seriously.

Perhaps I may say one or two words about drafting, about which several points have been made. I turn first to the office of the parliamentary draftsmen. The argument for putting them under the Attorney General seems to grow stronger as the years pass. It is not a new argument and I am sure that they would resist it with all the skill and determination that they are known to possess. However, perhaps it is now time that the parliamentary draftsmen were put under the overall direction of somebody who is legally qualified and who can spend some time looking at the way in which they work. That does not seem to be happening at the moment. That part of the report is persuasive, and I accept it.

As is stated on page 47 of the report:


    "There was now no body charged with scrutinising the form, arrangement and language of proposed legislation before it was presented to Parliament, the Legislation Committee of the Cabinet having largely abdicated this function".

I am not quite sure why the committee has abdicated that function, because taking a general oversight of the legislative process at that stage and an overview of what the drafted Bill would mean seems a sensible proposition.

I also take the point about Notes on Clauses being converted into Notes on Sections when the Bill has been passed. That could usefully be considered. Frankly, if Notes on Clauses were more widely available during the legislative process, we should probably have more sensible Committee stages and a more detailed examination of the terms of Bills. They would, in effect, be converted into Notes on Sections once the Bill was passed, as I understand the proposal. Frankly, it is much easier to read a note on a section than to read the section—and I say that as a lawyer. If a layman knew at least the general intent of what the legalise was meant to express and enshrine, it would be helpful in terms of informing the public.

I do not take the same purist view on drafting as does the noble Lord, Lord Renton. It is not an either/or thing. One cannot say, "If only the drafting were right, you would not need"—as he called them on a number of occasions—"these fallbacks". It would be difficult to get the drafting right. If it happens, it will take place over a period of time and not because suddenly there is one morning a blinding light in the eyes of the parliamentary draftsmen on the road to wherever their office is in Whitehall. It will happen gradually over a period of time, but what the noble Lord calls "fallbacks" will nevertheless be terribly useful.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I agree with the noble Lord to this extent, it will take years for drafting to become perfect, if it ever does, but the better we make it the less fallback we need.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I accept that entirely. It may well be that, once the drafting is perfect, we shall

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not need the fallbacks. They would no doubt fall into disuse, but until we reach that stage of perfection—I said that the noble Lord was somewhat purist in his attitude—and can look at legislation and say, "My goodness! It is clear, understandable, precise and pure", the fallback proposed in the Hansard Society report is worth having.

I shall say two brief words about the parliamentary process itself. One lesson is that too much haste in the preparation of legislation and the rushing of it through both Houses of Parliament results in bad Acts of Parliament. There have been some notable examples. Some have been quoted this afternoon. I think particularly of the Dangerous Dogs Act. If ever there were a Bill upon which the Government should have consulted more widely, should have ensured was properly drafted before introducing and should have taken more time getting through Parliament, it was the Dangerous Dogs Act. I see that my noble friend Lord Houghton is in his place. I suspect that he would agree with every syllable that I have just uttered in relation to that Bill. It is a good example of how, if legislation is rushed, there is a bad result.

Perhaps I may say a word about the techniques that now seem to be thought of in relation to this House in particular. I do not want to repeat the discussion we had about five or six weeks ago in relation to the procedures of the House, but some of the proposals for an intermediate stage—an inquiry stage, if I may put it that way—before we reach a formal Committee stage, may help, and are worth looking at. I do not believe that in the end they would take up much more time. One of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, was that were such measures to be introduced, more time would be needed. That may be so, but I should have thought that in the long run we would have better legislation and the formal Committee stages would probably take less time.

If we can produce proposals which provide for wiser consultation, clearer drafting, legislation going through both Houses more efficiently, and better dissemination of the results, and if the Government can give us assurances on at least some of those matters, then the debate will have been worth while, and the House will owe its thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan.


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