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Lord Renton: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Marlesford raises a very important point. Hansard is distributed throughout the English-speaking world, whereas documents deposited in the Library do not go very far. If a problem is created by long Written Answers, the solution is that Ministers should instruct their departments not to produce long Answers. Many Answers are too long. Nevertheless, their contents are important and they should be published in Hansard so that they can have the widest possible publicity, which they will not get in the Library.
Lord Stewartby: My Lords, I add a word of support to my noble friend Lord Marlesford and others who have spoken. In your Lordships' House there are former Ministers who will have encountered this issue from the other end. I recall many occasions when there was discussion in the Treasury and other departments about how best to put a substantial piece of information on the public record. To place a copy of the document in the Library is not the best way to do it. I accept that there may be a tendency to abuse the Written Answer procedure; it is perhaps that which has led the Procedure Committee to make this recommendation. As another place has implemented this arrangement--like the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I was unaware of that fact until I heard the Chairman of Committees say so this afternoon--it is all the more important that we should not take the final step of removing it from our Official Report without further thought.
The noble Lord, Lord Peston, made the valid point that if a limit is imposed on the space that a Written Answer can occupy before it is sidelined into the Library, all one needs to do is to fragment it. One asks several Questions which may not necessarily be printed together and therefore will be much less useful for purposes of references. They will be scattered throughout a number of editions of the Official Report. Hansard is very much easier to consult than is the Library, not simply because it has a wide geographical spread. Even if one wants to consult the Library, it is far easier to refer to a particular issue of the
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I also support my noble friend. In particular, in the field of defence it is important that facts should be placed on the record where they can be clearly seen. In many ways that dispels misunderstanding. It is vital that those truths should be available. The more transparent the Government seek to become under freedom of information legislation, the more they need to ensure that something as matter-of-fact, well known and respected by everybody as Hansard, continues to be available to provide the kind of information that people want, which very often cannot be compressed into two columns.
Lord Rowallan: My Lords, I too am extremely concerned by the recommendation. We may face the ludicrous situation where, if there is a limit of two columns and the matter is slightly controversial, a Minister makes the Answer so long that it does not come into the public domain. That should be viewed with great concern. Cost has been cited as a reason. Surely, democracy should not be decided on cost but on public service and accountability. I do not see how it costs any more to print something in Hansard than to print the same information and place it in the Library. I understand that on average 1,850 copies of Hansard are sent out on a daily basis. Therefore, there are extra bits of paper involved. Apart from the cost of the paper, I should not have thought that the cost is much greater.
We must ensure that the workings of your Lordships' House are totally visible on a daily basis rather than hidden away in the Library to which the general public has little or no access. I believe that the proposal would be a retrograde step.
The Commons Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee are, in my opinion, to be congratulated on the admirable new format proposed for Bills. That said, with your Lordships' leave, perhaps I may take the opportunity to invite noble Lords' attention to a curious anomaly which exists in this field. I refer to the absence of any Minister with whom one can discuss the general policy applicable to the drafting and formulation of Bills.
Bills are mostly drafted by the Office of Parliamentary Counsel. The Minister to whom that office is responsible is no less than the Prime Minister. To be certain of that crucial fact, I checked it by two Questions for Written Answer in Hansard of 16th November 1998, col. WA 127, and 8th December 1998, col. WA 81. It would of course be the height of absurdity to suppose that one could seek to discuss the drafting
There is much which needs to be examined. For example, no guidelines exist in the Office of Parliamentary Counsel applicable to the drafting of Bills, such as apply to the drafting of Community legislation--or at least that was the situation when I inquired last October. The Community has admirable rules which I am sure some of your Lordships will envy. For example, Rule 1 states:
Clause 1(6) of the National Health Service (Private Finance) Bill, as it reached this House, was described by one highly experienced Peer as "incomprehensible". I refer to Hansard of 26th June 1997 at col. 1648. Fortunately, at Third Reading, the Minister accepted an amendment which had precisely the same intended effect and was as clear as daylight. The reference is Hansard of 3rd July 1997 at col. 306.
In my opinion it would be of immense benefit to this House as a revising Chamber, and to the public to whom Parliament is responsible, if the Office of Parliamentary Counsel could be made accountable to, for example, the Lord Chancellor. There would then be a Minister with whom drafting policy could be discussed when his workload permitted that course to be taken.
In paragraph 1 of the report, the Procedure Committee has taken on board consideration of the format of Bills. I should like to ask the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees whether the Procedure Committee could perhaps go one short step further and consider whether it is completely satisfied with the manner in which Bills are drafted. It is, after all, only a short step from format to formulation. If the answer is that the committee is
Lord Renton: My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, perhaps I may remind him that there is an exception to what he says about responsibility for the parliamentary draftsman. For many years in Scotland the draftsman has been responsible not to the Prime Minister but to the Lord Advocate; and that is a valuable precedent.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I do not wish to follow the issue raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, because he knows far more on that subject than I do. However, I wish to support my noble friend Lord Marlesford. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, wondered whether Hansard is on the Net. I believe that it is.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I believe that as Hansard is on the Net, Written Answers will also be on the Net. The noble Lord is right. Anything placed in your Lordships' Library will not be for public consumption. We are not allowed to take guests into the Library, even when the House is not sitting.
The Government pride themselves on open government. It is essential that everything should be published in Hansard no matter how long the answer may be. Some speeches are remarkably long--my speech is getting too long--and they are faithfully reported in Hansard. So should Questions.
The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, perhaps I may deal first with the point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. I am grateful to him for letting me know well in advance that he proposed to raise the matter. On behalf of the Procedure Committee, I thank him for his kind words.
The noble and learned Lord asked whether the Procedure Committee might be invited to consider drafting policy for Bills. I believe that his main concern was to seek to transfer responsibility for the Office of Parliamentary Counsel from the Prime Minister to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. It is a matter of ministerial responsibility and the machinery of government. I cannot be of any further help on the matter today other than to say that I am sure that Ministers will have heard what my noble and learned friend has said and taken note of it. They will see that his comments are considered by the proper quarter.
The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, about long Written Answers was supported by all the other noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate apart from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. I am grateful to the noble Lord for having told me this morning that he proposed to raise the subject. In case it should be thought that I am not fulfilling one of the duties that your Lordships impose upon me--to be one of the guardians of your Lordships' procedures--I ought to point out that the correct course for dealing with the issue would have been to give notice and table an amendment not later than last night to achieve the aim that the noble Lord sought.
I hope that I may be able to bring a little comfort to your Lordships, but in view of the fact that a number of noble Lords seemed to think that there was no thought-out policy behind the proposal, I ought to spend a moment explaining the arguments. I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard. It is true that another place follows the same practice, arising as a result of a ruling by Madam Speaker. That ruling came long after I served in another place and it might have come after the noble Lord, Lord Richard, was there, so it is understandable if he was unaware of it. The practice has been followed by the Editor of Debates in your Lordships' House, although without any guidelines hitherto. The Procedure Committee has suggested some guidelines.
I ought to mention the arguments lying behind the proposal to limit the length of material incorporated into Written Answers, particularly in the form of tables. It arose from a recent experience in which a question that received an Answer covering 31 A4 pages of typescript was answered on the basis that the information requested had been placed in the Library. I understand that today an answer covering 28 pages has been given.
I appreciate what has been said about costs but, with great respect, it would not be right for your Lordships' House to go on record as believing that matters of economy and public expenditure ought to be ignored. Considerations of accountability are important, but we should not ignore the need for economy and issues relating to costs.
Lord Renton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way in the middle of his very interesting reply. He gave an example of a very long Answer. Would it not be feasible for every Answer to be no longer than two columns and for any amplification that was needed to go into the Library or to be sent to the noble Lord who had tabled the Question?
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