HC Deb 17 February 1966 vol 724 cc1662-7

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and question proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.—[The Solicitor-General.]

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I had hoped that perhaps the Solicitor-General might have explained the Bill a little and might have mentioned that this is the last product of the Statute Law Committee. That Committee has been in existence for nearly a century and its work is now to be taken over by the Law Commission. This being the last Bill which comes from that Committee, we should pay tribute to the work of the Committee over the years.

As was said in the Joint Committee on this Bill, statute law revision is not something like knitting that one can take up, knit a few rows and then put down; it is a heavy job. For the past 10 years it has been a one-man job by one Parliamentary counsel who has done very great service to the House. I see no reason why his name should not be mentioned from this Box—Mr. C.H. Chorley, who has done great service in statute law revision. I trust that the Law Commission will be able to do it as well.

Since 1961, there have been six Statute Law Revision Acts. Although this House has the benefit of the admirable work done by the Joint Committee, it should study the Bill when it comes before the House even though it cannot question the Committee's Report that the Statutes included in the Bill are all obsolete, spent, unnecessary or superseded enactments". The House should look at the Bill because the Statute Law Revision Act, 1950, the last Act of the previous Labour Government, had to be corrected by the first Statute Law Revision Committee of the Conservative Government of 1953.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Dingle Foot)

It will not happen again.

Mr. Graham Page

The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that it will not happen again. This is the first Statute Law Revision Bill of this Labour Government'—the first major one; there was a minor one correcting one or two particular Statutes. In view of the rumours, we may have to correct it quite soon. So I want to see whether it is in order. Perhaps the Solicitor-General could explain the very first item in the Schedule. This is the repeal of the Billeting Act, 1679, which, I understand, forbade the billeting of soldiers on private residents. I understand that this Act is now considered to be unnecessary because these provisions were included in the Petition of Right. This puzzled me a little to start with, because I was not certain whether the Petition of Right was really a Statute, but I find that it is. It is Statute No. 3, Charles I, Chapter 1.

What puzzled me even more is that the Billeting Act which is now to be repealed is 1679 and apparently was made obsolete by the Petition of Right, which was 1627. How could the Billeting Act, 1679, have been made obsolete by the Petition of Right in 1627? Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman would explain the reasons for this and the effect of this.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. He knows—indeed, he has already said—that the Bill has come from a Joint Committee He has paid tribute to that Committee's work. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to go through all the Acts in this way on this Second Reading.

Mr. Page

I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that I was endeavouring not to question whether the Measures listed in the Schedule are obsolete, spent, unnecessary or superseded because the Joint Committee has told us that that is so. I could not see the effect of repealing the very first Act in the list. It is the effect of these repeals which we are entitled to question when a Statute, Law Revision Bill comes before the House.

As I understand it, the effect of the whole of the first portion of the Schedule, which deals with the Armed Forces, is to repeal the Volunteer Acts which were superseded when the Territorial Army was created in 1907, but for some reason the Volunteer Acts have been left in operation. I wonder whether we are now asked to repeal these Acts in case the Government's abolition of the Territorial Army might result in the volunteers coming into operation again if we did not repeal these Acts.

There are a number of points in the Schedule which are a little puzzling. Although the way the Schedule is set out, with the several headings, is a great convenience—"Armed Forces Repeals", "Constabulary Repeals", "Transport Repeals", and so on; I would not dream of going through every single Statute—there are one or two which are a little puzzling. For instance, is the point of the land tax repeals merely to remove the phrase "land tax" from a number of Statutes where it now occurs? Land tax has been repealed for a very long time. It is puzzling that we should have to repeal a number of Acts now which deal with land tax. One would have thought that they had gone already.

We must take the Joint Committee's statements that the Acts are all within the Long Title, but the statement in the Long Title that they are "unnecessary" needs some explanation in connection with some of the Acts. For example, there is the one which was commented upon in the Joint Committee, in which, I am sure, the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner), whom I see in his place, will be interested, which dealt with hackney carriages plying for hire outside the Post Office. Apparently, it is now either obsolete or unnecessary. The question was raised in the Joint Committee as to what was meant by the word "unnecessary".

As I understand, Statutes brought before the House in this Bill which are said to be unnecessary are unnecessary not by reason of having been repealed in some other Statute but merely because there are other powers elsewhere which are just as efficient. If I am right in this, the Report of the Joint Committee takes substantial steps in amending the law. This is not quite like a consolidation Bill. It is an amendment of the law, and to that extent it calls for some explanation by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

10.11 p.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Dingle Foot)

First, I join in the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) to the Joint Committee and, in particular, to the contribution which has been made by Mr. Chorley.

All the points which the hon. Gentleman raised were fully considered by the Joint Committee, which has certified that the Bill does not represent any change whatever in the law. It is purely a consolidation Measure. We are not asked to engage in any fresh adventure in legislation. We are asked simply to clear away a certain amount of legislation which has now become entirely unnecessary and which clutters up the Statute Book.

Mr. Graham Page

The Solicitor-General says that we are told that there is no change in the law. But there is this distinction between a consolidation Bill and a Statute Law Revision Bill, that the latter does alter the law; it removes law which is unnecessary or obsolete, quite different from consolidation.

The Solicitor-General

Yes, but the hon. Gentleman will see in the evidence given to the Joint Committee that the Joint Committee accepted what was said by Mr. Chorley, that this involves no change whatever in the substantive law. It clears away a certain number of Statutes which have now become meaningless or which are duplicated by other Acts of Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman raised the subject of billeting and asked, as was asked before the Joint Committee—though no one quite knew the answer—why there had to be a Billeting Act in 1679 prohibiting compulsory billeting upon the people of this country when billeting had already been prohibited by the Petition of Right in 1627, which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, is part of the law and, I hope, will always remain part of our law.

Hon. Members are familiar with it, but may I remind them of the terms of the Petition of Right, 1627? It was said in the Title: And whereas of late great companies of souldiers and mariners have been dispersed into divers counties of the realme and the inhabitants against their will have been compelled to receive them into their houses, and there to suffer them to sojourne against the laws and customs of this Realme, and to the great grievance and vexation of the people…. In the substantive part of the Petition, it was prayed: And that your Majestie would be pleased to remove the said souldiers and mariners that your people may not be so burdened in tyme to come. The King was pleased to accede to the Petition, and it has remained part of the substantive law of this country ever since.

Then, of course, there was the problem of why it was necessary in 1679 to re-enact this matter. The only explanation that I can suggest is one put to me just now by one of my hon. Friends—that in 1679 there was a Conservative Government and, as on other occasions, they thought it necessary to pass wholly unnecessary legislation. That was the major point raised by the hon. Member for Crosby.

The hon. Gentleman also referred in particular to the question of land tax repeals. It will not have escaped him that, on this occasion, there is a long Explanatory Memorandum. I do not propose to burden the House by reading it but he will find a complete explanation in page 3 of the Memorandum in a paragraph dealing with land tax repeals.

I assure the House that, although a number of Statutes which no longer have any application to anything at all are removed from the Statute Book, the Bill does not involve any substantive change in the law. It is, therefore, purely a Consolidation Measure which I commend to the House.

10.16 p.m.

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

While, after a period in this House, I suffer more and more disillusionment, I have always believed, whichever party was in power, that the Law Officers of the Crown were gentlemen very learned in the law who ensured that ordinary Members of this House passed only such legislation as was necessary for the good government of the country.

Now, however, the learned Solicitor-General, holding a distinguished office held by predecessors of all political parties before 1627 and ever since, says that we are removing from the Statute Book laws which duplicate other laws. I suggest to the House, therefore, that perhaps we had better be a little more cautious in accepting the views of learned Law Officers of the Crown in the future. Apparently, in the past, they have recommended to the House legislation duplicating other legislation already on the Statute Book.

The Solicitor-General

indicated dissent.

Sir D. Glover

The hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head, but otherwise it would not be necessary to repeal legislation duplicating other legislation. Some Law Officer of the Crown at some stage must have allowed this to be passed into law by Parliament when in fact another law dealing with the same subject was already on the Statute Book.

What emerges from this debate is that ordinary Members of this House had better view with a little more suspicion pleas put forward by the Law Officers when explaining legislation to the House, its implications and how it affects previous legislation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Charles R. Morris.]

Committee Tomorrow.