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Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I rise on a small point since I had not expected to intervene in the discussion. I thought that I had listened to the debate and I understood that the fault commenced 30 years ago. My arithmetic takes that back to 1966, when presumably the Opposition were responsible for initiating the procedures which we are now trying to rectify.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, perhaps I may deal with the points made one by one. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith made clear, there appears to have been an oversight by more than one government. The 1946 Act is the operative instrument, as I understand it, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, confirms that. I shall come to the timing later.
I say to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that previous governments of both main political complexions--although not the noble Earl's, for obvious reasons--seem to have failed to discover the illegality until a bit late in the day. However, at least we discovered it, and we intend to do something about it and to clear up our own mess. In order to do so, once we have drawn attention to the matter and it is in the public domain, it is wise for us not to leave an opportunity for others vexatiously to take advantage of the fact that the Government have been breaking the law.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that he did not agree with us that the problem had nothing to do with privatisation. By implication, therefore, he disagrees with the legal advice that the Government have received. With the greatest respect to him, as always in addressing him either in private or across the Floor of the House, I must say that he has not given the House one single reason why he disagrees with that assertion. My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale put it very well and I do not think that I can add anything.
The noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, drew attention to the timing. The briefing note to which the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and yesterday the noble Lord, Lord McNally, drew attention was billed as a quotation from an OPS briefing note. I have a photocopy of that note. When I investigated what was recorded in the Official Report as having been said by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, my clear advice was that
Lord McNally: What on earth does that mean, my Lords? It does not make the matter clearer. Is the noble Viscount saying that our timing of September discovery or earlier was wrong? It is the nit-picking and avoiding of the main issues that fuel suspicion on this side as to what is happening.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I shall come to the matter of timing, if the noble Lord will allow me. I am sure I shall fail to satisfy him, as I have failed too often in the past, but I shall do my best. The noble Lords, Lord McNally, Lord Wallace and Lord Richard, are quite right that on 15th April this year the Government finally received advice which revealed the nature and extent of the problem. Immediately Ministers sought further advice and consulted as to the best way of dealing with the problem. A number of noble Lords have had extremely lengthy and distinguished ministerial careers. Therefore, I do not need to explain to this audience that even emergency legislation takes time to agree and prepare, though in this instance the Bill is hardly lengthy. If noble Lords opposite dredge their memories, it will not surprise them that nevertheless it was not until 19th June that further advice and consultation led to a decision that primary legislation was the only fully satisfactory means of addressing the matter. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster announced on that date in another place, immediately the decision was taken, that a Bill would be introduced forthwith. The statement was repeated in your Lordships' House in a Written Answer (at col. WA. 32 of the Official Report for 19th June).
I now come to what I found the most distressing part of what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said. I do not wish to take up his accusations in too great detail. In no way do they undermine the regard that I have for him, certainly not from my point of view. I am sorry that he diagnosed the events of the past week in the way that he did. I hope he will take that remark in the spirit in which it is proffered.
When, last Thursday, I moved the Motion to suspend Standing Orders, I indicated that I hoped that the agreement of the usual channels might be forthcoming. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, remembered that. I hoped that there would be agreement to proceed with the remaining stages of the Bill before the Summer Recess. I undertook that in the event that such agreement could not be reached, we would not invite the House to proceed with the Bill without providing a further opportunity for the House to consider how it wished to proceed. I stand by that assurance. It is why I myself came forward to move the Third Reading of the Bill today.
The noble Lord implied that I had broken the terms of the undertaking I gave to the House. As your Lordships would expect me to do, I took careful advice as to the proper form for me to come back to the House in order to redeem the promise that I gave to the House and to the noble Lord, Lord Richard. The advice that I received was unequivocally clear. There is no Business Motion that can be moved, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, spotted, predictably and at once. There was no intent to mislead about that, which is why I gave the undertaking I did in the subsequent exchange. The Motion to suspend Standing Orders which I moved at that time theoretically included the suspension of Standing Orders as it affected the Bill. I have been advised that nothing is proposed that would require the suspension of any Standing Orders, no Motion is available to us.
In order to try to meet the assurance that I gave to the House, within the rules of the House, I come to the House to give your Lordships an opportunity to decide whether noble Lords wish to proceed further with the Bill. That is why I am extremely happy for the House to decide. If the noble Lord, Lord Richard, wishes to push the matter to a Division, I shall regret it, but it is entirely within his right.
If there is a breakdown between the usual channels, that is something I regret. But as my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls made clear, the normal channels are a matter of convenience which we try our best to make work. Indeed, this House could not function unless they were in good working order as a matter of practical possibility. On what I am glad to say are the very rare occasions when we are unable to come to an agreement, surely it is only right, as my noble friend pointed out, that the House itself as a whole should decide. That is what the House will do this afternoon. I know that all sides will abide by the decision of the House.
I should be superhuman if I did not try to respond to the implied challenge of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. I merely observe that it is significant that when, over the asylum Bill amendment or any other matter, members of the Opposition feel that the Government have ridden roughshod over their most deeply held convictions, they feel that this House should overturn the wishes of the elected Chamber; and when the Government accede to the wishes of the elected Chamber, they feel, clearly, that the only solution is to reform this House. I merely leave in your Lordships' minds the suggestion that there is perhaps a marginal inconsistency in that point of view. I commend the Bill to the House.
Resolved in the affirmative, and Motion agreed to accordingly.
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