HC Deb 19 May 1965 vol 712 cc1457-60
The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

I must ask the indulgence of the House to permit me to make a short statement about the Poor Prisoners (Counsel and Solicitor) Rules, 1965, which I have just laid before the House.

These Rules, made by me with the concurrence of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, replaces and revoke an earlier set of Rules made by our predecessors in 1963; these, by inadvertence, were not laid before the House by them as required by law. The relevant provision in Section 4 of the Poor Prisoners' Defence Act, 1930, requires Rules made under that section to be laid before each House of Parliament "as soon as may be after they are made". Since the Rules were made as long ago as the 4th March, 1963, I have come to the conclusion that the right course is to revoke them and make a new set of Rules in proper form.

In 1951, on the last occasion on which it was reported to the House that certain delegated legislation had not been duly laid before it, the view was taken by the Government of the day that the failure to lay a Statutory Instrument to which Section 4 of the Statutory Instruments Act, 1946, applies did not prevent the Rules from having come into operation and having full legal effect from the date when they purported to do so. The matter was agreed, however, not to he beyond doubt.

Fortunately, the Rules were in the nature of minor and consequential amendments and no private rights are affected. Rule 1 merely alters the form of legal aid certificate so as to incorporate in it the name of the solicitor assigned to the assisted person; the old rule required the name to be sent separately, along with the certificate. Rule 2 makes a further small amendment in the form of legal aid certificate, consequential on the coming into force of Section 18(2) of the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949, by omitting words that by reason of that provision have ceased to be applicable. Nobody, therefore, will have suffered loss or inconvenience, even if the 1963 Rules are shown, contrary to my present view, to have had no validity since they were made.

I ask the House to accept the apologies of all concerned for the failure to lay the set of Rules which it is proposed to revoke and replace.

Mr. Shinwell

Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain why he is apologising for the previous Tory Administration? Will he amplify this matter of incompetence on the part of the previous Administration? Has he taken note of the passion which exuded from the right hon. Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath) on the subject of the alleged incompetence of my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General? Why does not he slosh the other side?

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is no billiards table here.

The Attorney-General

This does not seem to me to be a matter of passion, attractive as the subject matter of the Poor Prisoners (Counsel and Solicitor) Rules may be, and I hope that the House is not unduly misled by the title of the Rules.

Sir J. Hobson

Since I was Ministerially responsible for this inadvertence, I would like to give my apologies to the House and to agree with the right hon. and learned Attorney-General that it is a reasonable hope and expectation that nobody will have suffered the slightest loss or inconvenience as a result of that inadvertence. In saying that, I do not wish to resile in any way from my Ministerial responsibility, or to dodge or diminish the full apologies that I make for the omission for which I was Ministerially responsible. I want to make that plain to the House.

Perhaps I could mention that the last occasion on which this happened was in 1951, when the Labour Government had failed properly to lay 171 Orders. Then they had to have an Act of Indemnity. The previous occasion was when Mr. Herbert Morrison had failed to lay some Orders in 1944, and had to have an Act of Indemnity. On this occasion, no Act of Indemnity is required. I might add that on the two former occasions a General Election followed almost immediately.

The Attorney-General

Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) now knows why I thought that this was not an occasion for passion. May I be permitted to add this piece of history—that on the last unfortunate occasion when this arose the Orders affected went back to 1942, so that party political responsibility seems to be fairly shared.

Mr. Hamling

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this is surely an example of the incompetence of the closed shop of lawyers on both sides?

Mr. Graham Page

Does not this raise a serious point of the jurisdiction of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments? Is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that it is the Department's responsibility to bring before the Select Committee such Instruments as should come before it? It is the Department which decides whether an Instrument is by Statute required to undergo a certain Parliamentary procedure? Is he aware that since the Select Committee was set up it has by its vigilance reduced its own work, and that Ministers to a great extent have remained within their delegated powers?

Will he consider asking the House to extend the powers of the Select Committee to consider all Statutory Instruments and not only those which are subject to Parliamentary procedure? In that case—and I think that the Select Committee could undertake that work—Instruments would not slip through the net, as they have on this occasion.

The Attorney-General

I am sure that consideration will be given to that serious suggestion. In view of the mistake that has inadvertently arisen on this occasion, further checks are being introduced in the Departments concerned to eliminate the risk of a repetition of error.