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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the list of those attending the conference has still to be fixed. I consulted the advisers in the department today about the level of representation that will be available. It will be very senior representation. I thank my noble friend for his wise suggestion about other sources of wisdom which may be available to the Government on this occasion.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel): My Lords, as a member state, the United Kingdom has obligations to implement this directive. In Scotland, the Scottish Office, the water authorities and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency co-operated to end the dumping of sewage sludge at sea and to provide tertiary treatment for discharges into sensitive areas by the end of 1998. Considerable progress has been made towards installing secondary treatment at appropriate locations.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, first perhaps I may express the hope that this is not the Minister's last appearance at the Dispatch Box. Is he aware of the considerable problems caused by the directive to the fish processing industry, particularly in Aberdeen? Is he further aware of the report currently being worked on to find a solution which would enable the industry to meet its obligations without incurring the huge costs currently proposed by the North of Scotland Water Authority?
If the Scottish Executive comes forward and asks the Government to speak to Brussels and suggests that perhaps they should stay their hand to allow the Cordah project to come to fruition, can I, together with the fish processors, have an assurance that Her Majesty's Government, who are responsible for these matters in Europe, will intercede or intervene with the European Commission, if necessary?
Lord Sewel: My Lords, I am aware of the difficulties faced by the fish processing industry in implementing this directive, particularly in the north east of Scotland. It is non-negotiable in that there is a strict requirement to put secondary treatment in place by the end of the
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware that the fish processing industry is a vital industry in the north east of Scotland. It also serves the fishing industry largely based at ports in that area. It is now confronted with a massive increase in charges for disposal of effluent. Will the Government take action as suggested by my noble friend vis-a-vis the European Union, if necessary to obtain more time to consider more alternatives, especially on a day when consumers in England and Wales are learning from their regulator that prices south of the Border will be reduced?
Lord Sewel: My Lords, perhaps I may again point out the dates I gave previously. The urban waste water treatment directive was adopted in 1991 and became transposed into British law in 1994. Since 1989 the various water authorities have been in dialogue with the industry to warn them of the problem they face. I regret that it is only relatively recently that the industry has responded positively. It would be difficult to argue for delay. It is clear that at present the Commission is taking a long, hard look at Italy and Belgium as two member states who have not proceeded to implement the directive timeously. Clearly, there is the problem of infraction proceedings being taken against the United Kingdom Government. As the noble Lord knows, such proceedings could result in fines measuring hundreds of thousands of pounds per week or even per day. The Scottish Executive will be aware that if that should happen, the responsibility for paying the fine would fall upon the Scottish Executive.
Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, is it not the case that it is not only the fish merchants in the north east of Scotland who are bearing these heavy charges? I understand that the fish merchants of Grimsby and Hull are equally outraged at the high levies being introduced. Does the Minister not find it strange that some "Johnny-come-lately" should now be complaining
Lord Sewel: My Lords, my noble friend is right. This does not just affect the north east of Scotland; it affects Grimsby and other fish processing centres throughout the United Kingdom. I accept that this is a very real issue. The increases in charges will be very real. I shall not use the words which I was invited to use by my noble friend. However, this is a settled policy of successive United Kingdom Governments dating back to 1991. It does no good to try to pretend that if we put our heads in the sand it will somehow go away; it will not.
Lord Elton: My Lords, in an earlier Answer, the Minister led us to understand that the Commission is invigilating the way that this directive is enforced by other governments. Is there any more precise and transparent means by which industries loaded with heavy costs by European legislation can satisfy themselves that the equivalent costs are being borne by their competitors in other European countries?
Lord Sewel: My Lords, during my period as a Minister in an area responsible for implementing European directives, I have learnt that just about every country I go to complains that their government requires them to implement it down to the last detail, and that every other government is somehow "dodging". We have to take such accusations with a pinch of salt. However, I am aware that the Commission gives a high priority to ensuring that this directive is implemented. I have already mentioned two member states where the Commission is looking closely at what is being done.
Baroness Ludford: My Lords, I do not wish to minimise the difficulties of implementing this directive. However, does the Minister agree that it is a good thing in general that the European Union is legislating to safeguard the environment and the quality of drinking water, and that that is a measure that the citizens and consumers of Europe welcome?
Lord Sewel: My Lords, indeed it is a very good thing that we legislate to protect the environment, both at European and member state level. It is also a good thing that we do all we can to protect jobs and industries.
Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is it not also necessary that all United Kingdom governments, of whatever political complexion, should examine proposed European legislation far more thoroughly than they have done in the past or, as far as I can see, are likely to do in the future?
Lord Sewel: My Lords, I would not accuse the previous administration of not examining the proposal in detail. It was subject to a great deal of negotiation and scrutiny as it evolved and developed. We reached a stage at which there was agreement in this country and
Lord Carter: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 4.30 p.m., my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is being made in another place on the funding of political parties.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden rose to move, That the Question whether the House of Lords Bill (as amended on Report) would, if enacted, affect the right of those hereditary Peers who have answered to their Writ of Summons before the Bill receives Royal Assent to continue to sit and vote throughout the Parliament in which the Bill is enacted be referred to the Committee for Privileges.
The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the Motion arises from a dispute with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. It has nothing to do with the merits or demerits of the Government's policies for the reform of the House of Lords, as far as they are known. The dispute is about the meaning of the language in the House of Lords Bill to deliver those policies and what effects the Bill will have.
From the earliest opportunities in Committee and subsequently on Report, some of us have criticised the language of Clauses 1 and 7 on the grounds that it is uncertain in its effects and would leave the position of most hereditary Peers uncertain if the Bill was enacted. Not all of us who have voiced such doubts sit on the Conservative Benches. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has been supplied with a copy of an opinion by experienced counsel supporting our doubts. Although he has been good enough to consider the provisions and comment on them, he has stuck to the language of the Bill, asserting that its meaning is perfectly clear and saying that anyway everybody, including the judges, knows what the Government's policy is--what the language is intended to mean--and the wording will be construed accordingly.
This is a serious dispute. I doubt that many of your Lordships remember a Bill reaching the end of its Report stage with such a serious disagreement about its meaning and its effects still unresolved. We all agree that it is in nobody's interests for that disagreement to continue unresolved. It is certainly not in the interests of those hereditary Peers who may well feel obliged to test in proceedings of their own whether their ejection from this House under the purported authority of the Act is lawful. It would be shameful consciously to expose them to such expense, stress and risk simply because the
I shall try to take your Lordships briefly to the areas of dispute and to outline the arguments. It is perhaps worth interposing here the thought that legislation leaving this House ought to be as clear and certain in its effects as we can reasonably make it. Perhaps that principle carries double weight when the composition of Parliament is involved. The interpretation of the language of such legislation should not rely to any extent on the Government's intentions being deduced or picked up from Hansard or any other extraneous source.
As we are confronted with this unhappy and unnecessary situation, it is fortunate that we have a remedy. We do not simply have to watch events unfold. We are able to seek an authoritative view from the Committee for Privileges, which can settle beyond question what the Bill will do to hereditary Peers who have answered their Writ of Summons before the Bill receives Royal Assent.
There is nothing hypothetical in that task and it would be helpful for all concerned to have the committee's opinion. That opinion will be authoritative because it is the practice in cases relating to privileges of Parliament for three or four Law Lords--serving or retired--to serve on the committee. It is unsurprisingly the practice of the lay members of the committee to concur with the opinion of the Law Lords.
Your Lordships will be glad to hear that I shall not make anything like the speech that could appropriately be made to the committee, where, if the Motion carries, it will be made by leading counsel. However, I need to satisfy your Lordships in a few minutes that there is a serious argument to be made and a real doubt which it would be sensible to take this unusual step to allay.
Clause 1 is short and punchy and none the worse for that, but what does it mean, particularly in the light of Clause 7? What do either of those clauses mean? How do they affect the hereditary Peer who has duly answered his or her Writ of Summons? The clearest language is required if the purpose is to eject them from the House when Clause 1 takes effect, as Clause 7 says that it will at the end of the Session in which the Bill passes.
The problem is that a Writ of Summons probably ceases to have any effect when a Peer answers it. No one can sit, speak or vote here until they have answered the Writ of Summons. Once they have done so, the Writ of Summons is spent. Its effect is achieved and it has no continuing effect, so Clause 7 cannot apply to it. Clause 7 seems likely to have no effect on Peers who have answered their writ before Royal Assent. If the Bill is going to eject them from Parliament, which is the purpose, that can be done only by dint of Clause 1.
Can one ever be a Member of the House of Lords merely by virtue of holding a hereditary peerage? A Peer who has answered his or her Writ and come here, as we have all done, is undoubtedly a Member of the House of Lords, because he or she can perform the duties and enjoy the privileges of this place. However, that is by virtue of the Writ of Summons. Can someone who holds a peerage but has not answered a Writ claim to be a Member simply by virtue of holding a hereditary peerage? It is surely an odd form of membership that extends to a person who is prohibited from performing the duties and enjoying the privileges of this place--and prohibited even from getting through the door. That is what the Government have to argue by reason--I nearly said "by virtue"--of using the language of Clause 1.
Does not that give a strong indication that, for a hereditary Peer, membership of the House of Lords is gained by virtue of answering a Writ of Summons, not by virtue of a hereditary peerage? Those who have not yet answered a Writ in this Parliament apparently number 70. Clause 7 will bite on them by depriving their Writs as yet unspent of effect.
If my argument is right, then hereditary Peers who have returned their Writs of Summons before Royal Assent may not be prevented from sitting until the end of this Parliament by the language of Clause 1 any more than by the language of Clause 7. This language and the resulting uncertainty could so easily have been avoided. The manifesto pledge, which we have heard a lot about, was just as short and punchy as the language of Clause 1; the difference is that it was clear. It said that
Your Lordships have been extremely patient. I conclude by saying that the right thing to do now is to allay the apparent uncertainty which has uniquely resulted, including uncertainty as to the lawful composition of Parliament. Such matters should surely not be left to the haphazard chance of being sorted out later in private proceedings and at private expense. We should refer this question. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Question whether the House of Lords Bill (as amended on Report) would, if enacted, affect the right of those hereditary Peers who have answered to their Writ of Summons before the Bill receives Royal Assent to continue to sit and vote throughout the Parliament in which the Bill is enacted be referred to the Committee for Privileges.--(Lord Mayhew of Twysden.)
Lord Bethell: My Lords, as I understand it, the Government propose to deprive hereditary Peers of all representation in the legislature at least until the next general election. In asking whether or not that is legal, I want to draw attention to a slightly different point from that raised by my noble friend; that is, whether or not it is legal on the basis of the laws of human rights by which we are all bound.
A year ago, in the context of the elections to the European Parliament I was drawn to Article 3 of the first protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights which states that all members undertake to ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature. A year ago the Minister, speaking in this House, said that it was within the convention for Britain to disenfranchise the Gibraltarians, even though they are part of the European Union. Early this year it turned out that he was wrong and the Strasbourg Court found against the British Government.
I support the Motion before your Lordships' House today because I believe that the Government are about to make a similar mistake. I put it to your Lordships that under the Convention on Human Rights "the people" means "all the people". Just as it did in the case of the Gibraltarians, it means the people not minus a few thousand Gibraltarians or minus a few hundred hereditary Peers. Nor should those hereditary Peers be deprived of their right to choose the legislature simply on the basis that they are to be disenfranchised only for two or three years until the next general election.
One vote of course is not very much. But that is not the point and that is something noble and learned Lords may wish to take into account. It is a small part of the opinion of the people. It may have been enough in the past as a quid pro quo over a period of time to give Peers the right to vote directly in this House instead of indirectly for another place, even though we are
This year the Government lost one case in the European Court of Human Rights on a question of universal suffrage. I hope that they will not be forced to fight another one. To lose one case in the Strasbourg Court may be counted as misfortune, but to lose two in one year begins to seem like carelessness. I hope too that noble Lords on the Lib Dem Benches, who voted rather illiberally a year ago to disenfranchise the Gibraltarians, will not make the same mistake again today. On that basis I support my noble friend and his Motion.
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