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The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I was tempted to say that we now move to calmer waters, but one can never make that kind of rash judgment about matters before your Lordships' House.
The main item in the Procedure Committee's Fourth Report concerns the format of the statute law. A working group of officials, chaired by the Clerk Assistant of the House, has made recommendations for a new look for Bills and Acts of Parliament. I am pleased to say that your Lordships' Procedure Committee and the Modernisation Committee in another place have now put forward agreed recommendations on the basis of the working group's report.
The proposals from the working group are set out in two reports from the Select Committee, the Second and Fourth Reports. The most conspicuous changes are a new format for clauses, with bold clause titles instead of side notes and an increase in the type size of schedules to make them the same as clauses. It is also proposed that the typeface should be larger than the traditional typeface used in the past.
The case for change arises out of two separate factors. First, there is the development of electronic publishing and the Internet on which all Bills and Acts are now published. This new technology made a re-think of the format desirable. Secondly, the Inland Revenue tax law re-write project, to which the House has already agreed in principle, has set about making tax law easier to understand. The steering committee--to which we are all grateful for its hard work--chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, has been at the forefront of proposals to improve not only the language of the tax law but also its appearance and readability.
If your Lordships agree to this report, it is intended that Bills and Acts should take on their new appearance from the beginning of the Session 2000 to 2001. A two-page spread of this year's Finance Bill in the new format is annexed to the Procedure Committee's report by way of an example.
I should also mention the second item in the Procedure Committee's report which concerns long Answers to Written Questions. It is proposed that practice in this House should be the same as that in another place and that a limit of two columns of print should be placed on Answers to Written Questions. Lengthy Answers would be placed in the Library of the House. I beg to move.
I am not happy about it because Written Questions are a most important part of the parliamentary process for eliciting information, often new information, often in a numerical form. It is information which not only becomes available to the Member of Parliament who has asked for it but also to the press and, through the press, a much wider audience.
I have been looking at Hansard and it is rare that the proposal which is in the Select Committee's report would have to be enforced. But on many of the occasions when it would be enforced, if the Procedure Committee's report is accepted, it would be most undesirable. Often it is possible to obtain useful statistical information as an authoritative ex cathedra source that has not previously been published or put together in that way. Having looked through Hansard on a random basis in recent months, I have found a number of such Written Answers. I shall not weary your Lordships with them. Suffice it to say, those Answers cover economic, social, educational and health matters, law and order, aid, relations with foreign powers and so on.
Many Answers are extremely useful pieces of information that should be in the public domain. The Library is not open to the public. Although a Written Answer may be available somewhere on a piece of paper, it is not the same as printing it in Hansard. I believe that the value of Written Answers would be considerably reduced if we agreed to censor them in this arbitrary way. I ask the Chairman of Committees to rethink this particular recommendation.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. I am a little surprised to hear the Chairman of Committees say that this is now the practice in another place. I did not know that. If so, the practice has changed a great deal since those of us who are now Members of this House were Members of the other place. The noble Lord is absolutely right in his description of the use of Hansard. It is a method of disseminating important information with the imprimatur of the government machine behind it. Therefore, it deserves the kind of publicity that Hansard gives it rather than merely being placed in the Library.
I also see the other side of the argument. It is costly to enumerate matters at great length in Hansard. I would not object to an indicative limit that in normal circumstances Written Answers should not exceed two columns, but to have a blanket prohibition, as the report recommends, that no Written Answer should exceed two columns in Hansard goes a little too far. I hope that the Procedure Committee will look at it again and consider a persuasive rather than mandatory approach.
Lord Peston: My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and my noble friend Lord Richard. I have great difficulty in understanding how, on general grounds, such a proposal could have emerged. The matter that I find terribly unconvincing--whether or not it is true--is the practice in the other place. I have never regarded that as guidance in deciding anything in your Lordships' House.
I believe that this proposal will lead to inefficiency. If I discovered that I could not have a Written Answer in the form of economic data in Hansard, I would put a different Question. Instead of asking for data for 1979 to the present, I would ask for data from 1979 to 1989. I would follow it with a second Question asking for data from 1989 to 1999. I am most unimpressed with the proposal.
I tend to ask Questions precisely to put the data in the public domain. I cannot recall whether that part of Hansard is on the Internet. If it is, a fortiori this information should be published in Hansard. It follows that the Chairman of Committees should take this away, not press this particular part of the recommendations and ask one or two of us who are interested parties--this is what we do on occasions, some more and some less--what we think. No one has asked me about it. I do not
Lord Henley: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene briefly also in support of my noble friend and the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Peston. I start with the confession that I am a member of the Procedure Committee and was at the meeting which discussed this matter. It slipped through at the end of the meeting without my noticing it. Together with other noble Lords, I have concerns similar to those already expressed. I suspect that the best that the Chairman of Committees can offer is a promise that at the next meeting of the Procedure Committee the matter should be discussed again. It is obvious that there are considerable concerns which we overlooked at the time; and I suspect that further concerns will be voiced behind me. Perhaps the Chairman of Committees can respond in that way.
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