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The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for putting down an amendment, which I acknowledge is plainly intended to deal with a point that I made on Second Reading two weeks ago. What I believe the noble Lord has explained in substance to the Committee is the fact that the amendment is designed to ensure that a Lord Chancellor who is willing to exercise ecclesiastical functions, and who is not prevented by any legal bar from doing so, should be entitled to do so. As I understand the noble Lord, he has explained to Members of the Committee that the specific reference to adherents of the Roman Catholic faith is there in recognition of the fact that the situation would be different, in any event, if the office were held by a Roman Catholic, because there would be a pre-existing legal bar. I observe that the noble Lord is nodding his head in agreement. Therefore, I believe that I have accurately summarised his intention.
As I have something of a more encouraging nature to say at the end of my few remarks, I hope that the noble Lord will not be overly disappointed to hear that, while I fully appreciate that the amendment is well meaning, in my judgment the new words would not achieve what he intends. However, they demonstrate how difficult it can be to make apparently minor modifications to an area of law as complex as this one, without creating new anomalies and uncertainties. I was heartened to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich say that he regarded ecclesiastical law as a rather complex sea that he would not desire for himself to navigate. There is an enormous risk that, in tying up one loose end, other threads will be broken. That is why even a modest change demands great caution and careful examination of all the other inter-reacting legislation.
Perhaps I may expand on that. I believe that the effect of the amendment now proposed to Section 2 of the Lord Chancellor (Tenure of Office and Discharge of Ecclesiastical Functions) Act 1974 would lead to four possible situations. First, if the Lord Chancellor were a Roman Catholic, there would be no change to the present law. He would still be barred by law from exercising the patronage functions. Accordingly, if nothing were done, those functions would devolve on the Archbishop of Canterbury, but they could be transferred to another Minister without the Lord Chancellor being involved. Secondly, if the Lord Chancellor were Jewish, he, too, would continue to be barred by law from exercising the functions himself. They might be transferred to another Minister, but only if the Lord Chancellor agreed. Otherwise
Finally, if the Lord Chancellor did not fall into any of those three special categories, the functions could be exercised by him, or, with his agreement, an Order in Council transferring them to another Minister could be made. Thus, for example, an atheist need not be deterred from accepting the office because his conscience made him reluctant to exercise an ecclesiastical function. On the other hand, as the initiative would not be with him, the offer might, in theory, have been made conditional on his agreeing that those functions should be carried out by someone else.
If I am right in my interpretation of what would be the effect of this amendment, the result would be far from simple and not satisfactory. Instead of there being fewer or no religious distinctions, there would be more. At the time when each appointment to the office was made, and perhaps before and at various stages afterwards, it would be necessary to investigate which of the four categories applied to the Lord Chancellor of the day, or prospective Lord Chancellor, in order to see whether the power could be exercised--let alone whether it should be exercised.
If the Lord Chancellor was a Christian, there could be uncertainty as to which of the categories applied to him. Membership or non membership of the Church of England is not statutorily defined, and in any event I understand that the Church takes the view that membership does not preclude the individual from being a member of some other religious group at the same time.
As I have explained to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, in correspondence--I have sent him a letter dated 26th March, which I hope he has received and considered--I have made it plain that I have considerable sympathy, as indeed has the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, with what he is trying to achieve. Perhaps I should say that I have even more sympathy with him in the difficulty and intricacy of the task that he has courageously undertaken, in the attempt to weave a practical and simple solution into an exceptionally complex body of law with many and various sources.
I recognise that this amendment is well intentioned but for the reasons I have given I cannot commend it to the Committee. I am sure the noble Lord will permit me to say in the Chamber that I have expressed my personal sympathy for any Bill which relieved those who might be offered appointment to the office of Lord Chancellor from having to consider declining on religious grounds because of the ecclesiastical functions of that office. That is perhaps the other side of the coin from the motivation behind the 1974 Act. While it was clearly unsatisfactory that a Prime Minister should have been deterred from recommending the appointment of a
I believe, however, that this problem could be more effectively met by a Bill confined to that particular purpose. I should make it clear that I am not saying that the Government would support such a Bill because traditionally these are matters for a free vote. However, I respectfully suggest to the noble Lord that, rather than seeking, as it were, to go it alone in truly deep and muddy legal waters, it would be better if he entered into discussions with my officials who have a deal of expertise in this recondite area. Lawyers of the Church of England to whom the right reverend Prelate referred could also join in the discussions. In the light of those discussions the noble Lord might be in a better position to consider how to proceed.
Lord Alderdice: I am deeply grateful to the right reverend Prelate and to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for their remarks and for their encouragement in principle for the small efforts upon which I have embarked. I am also grateful for their words of advice so graciously tendered. Unfortunately due to the vagaries of the postal system I am not yet in possession of the letter that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has sent to me. I look forward to having an opportunity to study it and the comments that have been made in this debate.
As I said earlier, my purpose is to try to remove these anomalies, not merely for the benefit of those who might find themselves in this position but to signify how our community has developed at the highest levels in a constructive, positive and non-discriminatory fashion. Given the opportunities that have been proffered by the right reverend Prelate and particularly by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to discuss these matters with those who have vastly greater technical expertise than I have, but who have the same commitment to achieving what is right and good, I shall withdraw the amendment as I wish to do useful business with the expert advisers. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this order is to increase the monetary limits that determine which consumer credit and consumer hire agreements are regulated by the Consumer Credit Act 1974, as well as the limit at which certain credit advertisements are exempt from the provisions of the Act. These limits are currently £15,000. From 1st May 1998 the limits will be £25,000 and so will bring more loans within the scope of the Act. As a result more consumers should benefit from the advantages of the Act. This is because most consumers who take out unsecured consumer loans will have the protections the Act gives to regulated agreements such as cancellation rights and cooling-off periods.
Many consumers who take out loans for house purchase and other loans secured on property from lenders other than banks and building societies will also gain protection. Your Lordships will note that the limits covered by the order are some of the most important monetary limits in the Act. But the Act also contains various other monetary limits and amounts which the Government propose to increase by separate legislation which is not subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I beg to move.