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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Lord has a very unworthy thought. The position came about because three years ago the north Cornwall judgment pulled in one direction, defining these issues rather tightly, while last year Commissioner Mesher defined them in a rather more relaxed fashion. That has led to considerable doubt about the propriety of some of the payments of housing benefit which the DSS is making. We have an obligation to the public purse, the National Audit Office and everyone else to ensure that the payments we make have proper legal backing. We
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, completion of the sale has already been postponed from July to September, which will allow the Select Committee an opportunity to report to the House, and the Government to respond, before the sale is completed.
Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, will the Minister recall the debate which took place in this House on 8th March, instigated by the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, from the Cross-Benches and supported by Members in all parts of the House, resulting in a vote of 124 to 64 on a Friday afternoon rejecting the Government's proposals to privatise the RAS? A committee was appointed to look at the principle of the proposal and to report back to this House. Since then the Government have proceeded with the privatisation of the RAS. Does that not represent a contempt of this House, since we shall be in no position to report on the matter and to influence the Government's decisions? Will the Minister explain what is the urgency on this matter, which has not been demanded or supported in this House or in the Civil Service?
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, of course, I remember as though it were yesterday not only the debate in your Lordships' House but the resulting vote to which the noble Lord referred. I also remember the suggestion from all parts of your Lordships' House in the wake of the vote in this House that the matter would be a suitable first subject for discussion by the Select Committee, of which the noble Lord is such an ornament. That suggestion was very much subscribed to not only by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, but also by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, among other distinguished Members of your Lordships' House. It was thought sensible that that committee should be enabled to report to your Lordships' House in the form of an interim report, should it so desire, before the Summer Recess, which would enable the Government to take careful note of what was in that report, and if therefore there appeared to be by implication any suggestion which would make--if I may put it in the vernacular--a show-stopper to the project for privatisation, the Government could take note and act.
Therefore it is sensible for the Government to have delayed their original programme of privatisation from July to September, and for the Government to be able to give careful consideration to the Select Committee's interim report, assuming that it reports on time. In view of the uncertainty, particularly for the employees of the RAS, it is perfectly sensible in that respect to continue with the mechanics of privatisation up to the point when the final decision can be taken, but the private and final decision need not and will not be taken until the Select Committee concerned reports, assuming that it maintains its projected timetable.
Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that when, following that overwhelming and decisive vote and an almost unanimous debate in your Lordships' House, he had to deal with the matter subsequently many of us thought that he did so with great courtesy relating to the setting up and composition of the Select Committee? However, if we are now in effect to be told that the decision is pre-empted, I am afraid to say that our sense of courtesy will evaporate quickly.
Is the noble Viscount saying that the decision has been taken independently of what your Lordships' Select Committee says to privatise in September? If so, it makes a mockery of the work of that Select Committee, and I believe that it is a contempt of your Lordships' House. If, on the other hand, the Government are willing to consider the position, following the report of the Select Committee, it seems to me that September is too short a timetable. It should be when this House returns--which we hope will not be the case in September--and it ought to be done in the autumn, if it is to be done at all, after due consideration of what the Select Committee says.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord knows me well enough by now at least to assume that it would take something which is quite out of my own nature to presume to treat your Lordships' House with contempt. I have to say to the noble Lord that, in view of, admittedly, the minority but nevertheless a substantial number of votes in favour of the Government's proposals, his view of what constitutes "almost unanimous" and mine seem to differ in almost every material respect. I have to say to the noble Lord that there were a considerable number of votes in favour of what the Government proposed.
The decision is not pre-empted. I gave an undertaking, as the noble Lord perfectly clearly says, that the Government would consider carefully what was said in the debate and the views expressed. It seemed perhaps, if I may presume to say so, doubly courteous on the part of the Government to undertake to delay any reaction--a reaction that I undertook to give--until the Select Committee had given its interim report--
Is it yet too late for the noble Viscount, whose integrity we utterly respect, to persuade the more feverish of his colleagues that, "quiet, calm deliberation disentangles every knot"--a quotation much favoured by a former Conservative Prime Minister?
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I defer to no one in my admiration for the guile that has been displayed by the noble Lord himself in this matter. I would merely emphasise, in view of the remarks that I have already made, that the Government have bent over backwards to accommodate the requests of your Lordships' House in acceding with enthusiasm to the request that the matter should be considered by the Select Committee and, indeed, acceding with enthusiasm to the requests by the Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy in another place--I quote his letter of 12th March 1996--that my right honourable friend Mr. Roger Freeman should:
Moved, That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to whom the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order--
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to acquaint the House that they, having been informed of the purport of the Party Wall etc. Bill, have consented to place their prerogatives and interests, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.