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Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the noble Lord raises an interesting proposal. I had not intended to mention selective education in a debate on South America, but if the noble Lord feels that I could usefully spend my time dealing with that matter in the next debate, I am happy to do so because there are some interesting points to be made.

I return to the fact that we believe that the Post Office is now doing well. It now enjoys greater freedom than previously. It has been successful and has made profits. I believe that it is developing well to the benefit of the consumer. Something like 92 per cent. of all first-class mail is delivered the next day and 98 per cent. of second-class mail is delivered within three days. That is a real success.


Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, after the debate on the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and before the debate on the United Kingdom motor sport industry, my noble friend the Leader of the House will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on the Mitchell Report.

Business of the House: Reserve Forces Bill [H.L.]

3.8 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. It is unusual for a Bill to be recommitted to a Committee of the Whole House and it may therefore be for the convenience of the House if I give a few words of explanation of this Motion.

As your Lordships will know, the Reserve Forces Bill was published and consulted upon in advance of its introduction into your Lordships' House. However, during the process of consultation and the informal discussion of the Bill's provisions, it became apparent that the drafting could be improved. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, made several suggestions to that effect. Therefore, my noble friend Lord Howe tabled a substantial number of amendments in tail of those discussions. Those amendments were considered in Committee yesterday and the Bill has been reprinted as amended.

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Perhaps I should add that the Bill has been prepared and considered in a constructive spirit. During the course of that consideration, it has become plain that the Bill enjoys all-party support. I think that it is important, particularly for the future of the Reserve Forces, that we should continue to consider the Bill in that spirit. It is above all for that reason that I was extremely happy to consider the suggestion made through the usual channels to which this Motion gives effect. That will permit the Opposition and Back-Bench amendments to be considered in relation to the text of the Bill as it now stands.

Moved, That the Reserve Forces Bill [H.L.] be recommitted to a Committee of the Whole House.--(Viscount Cranborne.)

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal for what he has said. It is true that on Second Reading the Reserve Forces Bill obtained the general fair wind which I expect the Government would wish, and which we will continue despite certain hiccups. Nevertheless, I have to say to the noble Viscount that the Bill was published in draft in March 1995. There was wide consultation on the Bill. We gave it a Second Reading in this House on 28th November. It was given a fair wind by all sides of the House.

In response to a request to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the Minister in charge of the Bill, there were meetings on 15th December and 21st December--the day after the House was in Recess, if I may say so--between myself and my noble friends Lord Judd and Lady Turner with the Minister to go through various points which we thought might be cleared up. The Opposition then tabled the large majority of their amendments on Friday 12th January and Monday 15th January for the Committee stage in the Moses Room under the new procedure on 23rd January.

Your Lordships will imagine my surprise when, on 16th January and 19th January, I received from the Minister a letter together with no fewer than 211 government amendments. Under those circumstances, I found it impossible to go into Committee on a proper basis, because the point of Committee, as I understand it and have always understood it--if I may say so I have some experience of handling Bills from the Opposition Front Bench--is for the Opposition and noble Lords in all parts of the House to question the Government and, if necessary, to move amendments, and to ask the Government to consider, or reconsider, what their Bill is about. It is not a process of a sausage machine simply to put in drafting amendments which clarify this and clarify that.

Yesterday's rather farcical procedure in the Moses Room took two hours and 10 minutes--all bar one minute spent on government amendments to which the Opposition took Trappist vows and did not speak. It took us two hours to get through those amendments. The Minister, and I do not mean this as an attack ad personem on the Minister, who has behaved, if I may say so, with dignity and courtesy throughout, felt that

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he had to oppose clause stand part of the Government's own Bill on the first day of Committee no fewer than four times.

I assume that we now have a Bill which can be put to a Committee of the Whole House in the normal way, but it is a sad and sorry tale. I have to say to the Leader of the House that I hope that we can now proceed in the way in which we should have proceeded before; that is to say, we have a Government Bill in front of us, and the Opposition and other noble Lords from all parts of the House will be able to make their contributions in Committee and on Report. No more of the time of the House will be wasted by government amendments. We assume that all the drafting has been cleaned up, although I understand from the Minister that we are now threatened with another schedule.

Let us hope that we can get on with the Bill. I join with the Leader of the House in insisting that there is still good will towards the Bill; but the good will has been severely strained.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, the noble Viscount the Leader of the House indicated that the Motion he has put before us today is unusual; and that is undoubtedly true. But we deserve a rather fuller explanation from him as to how the situation arose. As he rightly said, there has been all-party support for the Bill. That was true on Second Reading and it remains true today. But to be greeted with an avalanche of government amendments in the way that has been described by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is not a happy commentary upon the efficiency of the Ministry of Defence.

The Ministry of Defence puts forward a relatively small amount of legislation to Parliament. It seems that the level of competence that it has demonstrated on this occasion has been sadly lacking. We would all be reassured if the Leader of the House were able to indicate that he will make it clear to other departments that we will not accept a repetition of incidents of this sort.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, in no way am I trying to criticise the noble Earl the Minister for the way in which he handled yesterday's proceedings in the Moses Room, but I found it an extraordinary and most unsatisfactory way of tackling what I believe to be an important Bill, and one upon which there has already been a great deal of consultation and agreement. When it comes back, I hope that we will not find ourselves having to deal with it in anything like the way we had to deal with it yesterday.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff: My Lords, I should think that the Leader of the House must be very embarrassed by what my noble friend Lord Williams has said about the Government's treatment of the Bill. The only excuse that can be made is, as he has rightly said, that the Bill has general support in the House and among the reserve forces.

I have just one request to make. There are particular issues which some people may wish to raise at certain points in the Bill. The original Bill itself is a very

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formidable document. I cannot remember, but I believe that it has about 120 or 130 pages. Is it possible to show on the Annunciator when particular stages of the Bill will be reached so that those of us who may have an issue to raise--I have one that I may wish to raise later--can know where we are, and whether we can be here, there, or somewhere else?

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, before my noble friend replies, would it be appropriate to widen the debate somewhat by remembering the difficulties faced over the drafting of--I think it was--the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill, and to consider these problems against the question as to whether we have too much legislation generally or not enough draftsmen to deal with it?

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for the spirit in which they have addressed these exchanges. My noble friend Lord Pearson will recall, I am sure, what I thought was a most constructive debate during the previous Session in which we considered not merely the Hansard Society report on legislation but the report of the group of my noble friend Lord Rippon to the Leader of the House which was commissioned by my predecessor, during which I think everyone, including myself, expressed a keen attachment to considering how best we can improve the preparation and the planning of legislation. I remember in one of those debates announcing the recruitment of four more parliamentary draftsmen, something which I hope will, in part, address the point which my noble friend raised.

It seems to me, if I may say so, that the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, made an extremely helpful suggestion. I undertake to raise it with the administration of the House to see whether anything can be done to address the point that he has raised, which I sure the whole House will have heard with some sympathy. I undertake to report back to him to see what is practicable.

I wholly agree with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, who said that this is an important Bill. During my time in the Ministry of Defence I had something to do with the early stages of the preparation of this piece of legislation. I can underline how important it is, not just to the reserve forces but, of course, in view of the increased integration taking place between the reserve forces and the regular forces, to the regular forces as well.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, would admit--if that is not too strong a word--that the bulk of the proposed amendments is fairly detailed and technical in nature. They are substantially drafting points. There were a large number of amendments but the noble Lord himself suggested quite a high proportion of them. I believe that my noble friend has done his best to address the suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. I had hoped that the noble Lord would take that effort in the spirit in which it was intended.

The noble Lord and others suggested that we should give an undertaking that no more amendments should be proposed or accepted. I am sure that that is a misunderstanding because, after all, one of the purposes

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of this House, in particular in Committee, is to consider amendments to the Bill. If under the impact and the power of debate it becomes clear--

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