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Earl Russell: My Lords, the rights of the House include the rights of Back-Benchers, and for the purposes of this Bill I speak as a Back-Bencher. I appreciate that the Minister has taken great trouble to make the code of practice available to those principally interested. When I arrived here today I understood that no code of practice had been made available. At lunch-time I discovered that it had been made available but that there were no copies in the Printed Paper Office. There was no copy in the Library. A copy was found for me but I have not discovered from where. It was made available to me after the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, had begun to speak. That is not sufficient time to judge the questions which that code of practice raises. Those questions are all the wider because of the very general and permissive way in which Clauses 6 to 19 are drafted.
Over and over again, those clauses repeat that the code of practice "may". In the time since the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, rose, I have been quite unable to establish whether the code of practice in fact "does". But those questions are of considerable importance as regards which amendments need to be tabled to the Bill. Those clauses savour of what I have christened the Cambyses clause, which says that the Secretary of State may, like King Cambyses of Persia, do whatever he likes. In those circumstances, the House deserves a proper opportunity to consider what was in the code of practice. I appreciate that the noble Baroness has done what she can about this, but for my part I am sorry to say that it is not enough.
Viscount Runciman of Doxford: My Lords, having heard what I have just heard, I feel bound to echo the concerns voiced by other noble Lords about the position with which we are confronted. I do so on the basis of having been extremely grateful to Ministers for the extent to which the recommendations of the Royal Commission bear directly on what we shall discuss this afternoon. Those matters should be given ample time for consideration and debate. It seems to me a great shame that this situation has arisen. At this stage, time is still necessary in order for this House to do what it does best; namely, to propose and discuss amendments which, in some important cases, I hope the Minister will consider seriously. Those amendments seek to achieve not only
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, as my name has been mentioned, perhaps I may say that but for the good offices of the Government Chief Whip and the Minister we should not be in the position in which we are today even to be able to debate these issues.
Lord Shepherd: My Lords, I believe that the House would wish to have a reply from the Leader of the House. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that this is not a matter only for those on the Front Benches or those who are directly involved with the Bill. Sooner or later, as it is a Committee stage, the ordinary Back-Benchers may be called upon to participate in a Division.
I have listened extremely carefully to what is being said. I believe that this is a unique occasion because there is major unease in nearly every quarter of the House as to whether, in the interests both of the House and the legislation with which we are involved, we should proceed today.
I know that it is very difficult for the Leader of the House to say, "We will lose a day in Committee". It may well be that a whole day would not be lost if he were to meet the anxieties expressed by my noble friend on the Front Bench. This Bill is particular to this House. I do not believe that the other place, with all our respect for it, will be able to look at all the detail of the legislation which is now proposed. I am not talking in terms of the policy and what is behind it, but I listened to the Second Reading debate and anxiety was expressed as to the way in which the policy was to be implemented and the way in which it would affect those who had to implement it.
This is not party politics at all, but there is a sense of unease. Perhaps the Leader of the House would think it right to allow 10 minutes for consultation to see whether it would be possible to resolve and overcome the problems that have been mentioned. If that cannot be done, I should be one of the first to support my noble friend in the Division Lobby on the Motion before the House.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, first, without reservation, I apologise to the House for what has been a difficult timetable. I should say also that on Second Reading I made absolutely no secret of the outstanding issues which would need to be addressed by amendment in Committee. There are no subjects which were not trailed on the Second Reading which arise for consideration now. Much has been made of the number of amendments but many of the amendments deal with one single point but are relevant to many different parts of the Bill. Therefore, many of the amendments are repetitious and deal with a single issue. That accounts for the number of amendments.
At every opportunity since Second Reading until today, I have written to noble Lords with an update of the situation reached. I have copied the information to all interested Peers on all sides of the House. On every occasion I have made sure that a copy of what I have written has been placed in the Library to be available to all Members of the House. Therefore, I am perplexed by the matter raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, because my understanding is that a copy of the code of practice and the covering letter that was sent with it were placed in the Library of the House.
Having said that, and having admitted the difficulties that they impose on noble Lords, I have noticed no reticence on the part of noble Lords in coming forward with amendments. I did not see the amendments until Sunday evening when they were sent to me for consideration. Therefore, I too have burnt a good deal of midnight oil in considering the amendments, and there are a great number of them. We are about to begin the detailed Committee stage, when all the detail will be considered, as will both government and opposition amendments. There will then be a Report stage which will allow further opportunity for discussion.
It is not unprecedented that a code of practice does not accompany a Bill when it is first published. The code of practice will continue to change. It is not at all a definitive code of practice. It continues to be subject to consultation and to change as a result of debates in this House and what is said at all stages of the Bill. Even after that, the Bill is still a draft as it goes out in its definitive stage before it is approved by the House. I hope that the House will feel that we can now proceed with this Bill in Committee.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, and if the House will allow me, she will know that I did not accuse her of any personal discourtesy and I thanked the Minister and the Chief Whip for their efforts to retrieve the situation. But that does not improve matters. It is still the case that it is the Government and the department who were responsible for the unsatisfactory situation in which we find ourselves.
I am sure that the noble Baroness will acknowledge also that we have made every effort to give her as much advance notice as possible of our amendments. The amendments which the Minister received only on Sunday afternoon were faxed to her office well before four o'clock on Friday afternoon. It is not our fault that it took 48 hours for the amendments to reach her.
If the Minister, the officials concerned, other Members of the House and I have to work over the weekend in that rushed way, that confirms and reinforces my view that the procedures and preparation are inadequate. It cannot be good for the House to have to work in that way. How much worse is it for the Minister to have to work in that way?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, perhaps I may make two further points. First, the Bill has been in print. As I said, I trailed all the issues that would arise by amendment on Second Reading. Secondly, since I have appeared as a Front Bench spokesman on this side of the House, I have seldom seen amendments coming
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, perhaps I may briefly join the debate. The House will have heard my noble friend Lady Blatch apologise unreservedly for the way that the matter has been brought to the attention of the House. I entirely agree with her; it is regrettable when occasionally such issues arise. However, as regards the rest of the debate on the Bill as it goes through the House, I hope that noble Lords will feel that they can put the matter behind them and carry on dealing with the amendments in a constructive manner.
It may also be helpful to your Lordships if I announce that, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m., 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 outcome of the Madrid Summit.