HC Deb 17 April 1967 vol 745 cc7-25

Order for Second Reading read.

10.18 a.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

I have it in Command from the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place Her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a modest but useful Measure of constitutional reform. Its main effect will be to end the often unhappy interruption of business caused by Black Rod's entry into the Chamber to summon the House to Royal Commissions for giving the Royal Assent in another place.

Sometimes these interruptions have occurred during a debate on highly contentious matters and there has been a good deal of resentment not only at the loss of Parliamentary time that has been involved but at the breaking of the thread of a possibly eloquent speech and the disruption of a debate that may be caused. Further, it has been less than courteous to Black Rod, as it has been damaging to the dignity of the House, from time to time to have made him less than welcome when the responsibility for the timing of his appearance here has not been his but has been arranged through the usual channels.

Accordingly, as part of the reform of Parliament, the Government decided last year to create a new and more streamlined procedure for signifying the Royal Assent. This intention was announced to the House in December by my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, and in another place by the Lord Privy Seal. The Bill as it stands has been promoted with the general agreement of Members on both sides of the House, and with the general approval of Her Majesty.

At present the Royal Assent can be given either by the Sovereign in person or by Royal Commission under an Act of 1541. The last occasion on which the Royal Assent was given in person was in 1854 when Queen Victoria assented to five Acts of Parliament. Perhaps I might be permitted to note on this the last day of the Budget debate that one of those Acts was a Customs Act which fixed the duty on rum imported into the United Kingdom at 8s. 2d. a gallon, but for some reason only 6s. if imported into Scotland. Perhaps that was in view of the competition from the native spirit there. Ireland came off even better. The duty on rum imported into Ireland was only 4s. 4d. I regret that there was no special provision for Wales. When one contrasts those figures with the present position whereby the full duty is £14 14s. 6d. per proof gallon, one sees how, for better or for worse, times have changed.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

Did Queen Victoria give or refuse her consent to the Act dealing with rum?

The Attorney-General

She most readily nodded her approval when Mr. Gladstone, I think it was, introduced the Measure, but perhaps I must not be tempted to pursue too far the history of this matter.

As I have said, the alternative Royal Assent procedure through Royal Commissions was introduced under an Act of 1541. It will tickle Mr. Speaker's historical expertise if I remind the House that that Bill arose because Henry VIII had found it necessary to promote a Bill entitled, "The Bill of Atteynder of Mestres Katherin Howarde late Queen of England and divers other psonnes her complices". As the Bill provided for the beheading of his wife for alleged adultery with Thomas Culpeper, even Henry VIII may have felt a certain indelicacy about giving his assent in person to the Bill, particularly as he had promised to spare Catharine Howard's life. Accordingly, but ostensibly only to save time, the Bill provided that Royal Assents could be validly given by the King signing letters patent under the Great Seal followed by a declaration before both Houses by a representative on his behalf. The Bill was passed, and was itself given Royal Assent by a Royal Commission set up for the purpose.

Once its attainder provision were spent in the extremist form by the beheading of Mistress Howard, the provisions relating to the Royal Assent remained for future use. However, Royal Assents by Commission under the Act of 1541 continued for some time to be rare. When they did occur, the procedure followed that started when the Act of 1541 itself received the Assent. The King signed letters patent under the Great Seal signifying his assent to the Bill in question, and at the same time appointed a Royal Commission, at first usually consisting of the Lord Chancellor alone, but later of three or five peers including the Lord Chancellor, to declare the fact to both Houses of Parliament assembled together. The procedure was followed by the Commissioners in another place. That procedure was mutatis mutandis the same as that followed when Royal Assent was given by the King in person.

But until the end of the 17th century the Royal Assents in person were the rule. Charles II gave the assent in person 30 times out of 33; James II 3 out of 3; William III 62 out of 64; and Queen Anne, rather less often, 39 out of 56. It was only in the time of the Hanoverians that Royal Assents by Commission definitely replaced Royal Assents in person. This may have been partly because tie early Georges had only a small command of the English language. But a more powerful reason was no doubt the great increase in legislation which occurred in the 18th century, especially of local and private Acts.

In the 19th century familiarity seems to have bred contempt, and there were occasions on which Acts were included in the Commission even before the House of Commons had had the opportunity of considering the Lords Amendments. When this happened to an Act for better raising and securing the Fund for the Relief of Widows and Children of Burgh and Parochial schoolmasters in Scotland, a Select Committee was set up and those responsible were called to account. This does not seem to have had very much effect, as the same thing seems to have happened again in 1844. It does not happen today to the best of my knowledge and belief.

The Bill consists of two Clauses. Clause 1 creates a new procedure of Royal Assent by notification to each House by the Speaker of that House.

When the Bill becomes law, it is intended that unless there is any special reason to the contrary the new procedure of notification shall be used on all occasions. The only exception will be that Royal Assents by Commission will be held at Prorogation—if there are then any Bills awaiting Royal Assent—and on at least one other occasion in each Session—no doubt at the beginning of the Summer Recess. This is to meet the general demand that the traditional ceremony should not be allowed to die out of Parliamentary life altogether.

The Queen will continue to signify Her Royal Assent by signing Letters Patent issued under the Great Seal. The Letters Patent will not only signify assent to the Bills in question, but will also command the fact to be notified to each House of Parliament.

On the sealing of the Letters Patent the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery will issue a certificate to the Speaker informing him that Royal Assent has been signified to the specified Bills. This certificate will be Mr. Speaker's authority for notifying the fact of Royal Assent to the House of Commons. This procedure is analogous to the certification by the Clerk of the Crown to the Speaker of returns to by-election writs. The Lord Chancellor's authority to notify another place will stem from the Letters Patent themselves and no further document is required in the case of proceedings in another place.

Arrangements will then be made for the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker to notify the two Houses of the Royal Assent. This will be done on the same day and as nearly as possible at the same time, though it is not essential that notification should be simultaneous, and it can be made at any point in the proceedings.

When the Speaker and the Lord Chancellor—or their deputies—notify their respective Houses it is intended that they should do so in the following words: I have to notify the House in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967 that The Queen has signified Her Royal Assent to the following Acts: … Then will be read the Short Titles of the Acts assented to.

As the House will see, it will be a simple and expeditious procedure. The requirements of the Royal Assent will not be completed until both Houses have been notified, so that a Bill will not become law until the second House—whichever it may be in the particular case—has been notified. It will be the date when that happens which the Clerk of the Parliaments will endorse on the Bill. Under the Acts of Parliament Commencement Act, 1793, an Act comes into force on the first moment of the day of the date which has been endorsed on it by the Clerk of the Parliaments.

It is intended that notification should normally be on the same day in both Houses. In the case of an urgent and important Bill, if any practical difficulties about notifying the Houses separately should arise at any time a Royal Assent by Commission could be arranged at short notice.

This new procedure of Assent by notification is generally thought to be the best, because the simplest, of all the various new procedures which have been canvassed. Other proposals which have been considered are that Royal Assents by Commission should continue but should always be held at 12.30 p.m., or some other specified time in the morning or evening, or after Question Time, or should be held in the Queen's Robing Room or elsewhere and attended only by delegates from each House. After much examination it became clear that the notification procedure was not only the best but was the only proposal which stood any chance of the general acceptance necessary for a Constitutional Bill of this kind.

Clause 1(2) saves two features of the existing law. The first is the power of the Queen to give the Royal Assent in person if Her Majesty wishes. The second is the procedure under which the Clerk of the Parliaments endorses a Bill which has received the Royal Assent—by whatever method—with the appropriate and traditional Norman-French formula. Thus, the traditional Norman-French formula will continue to be endorsed on all Bills.

Clause 1 also preserves the traditional ceremony of Royal Assent by Commission and also creates the new procedure of Royal Assent by notification. Thus for an Act of Parliament to be "duly enacted" two conditions must be satisfied. First, the Royal Assent must be signified by Letters Patent under the Great Seal signed by the Queen. Secondly, the Royal Assent must either be pronounced in the form and manner customary before the passing of this Act —that is, there must be a Royal Assent by Commission—or it must be notified to each House of Parliament sitting separately by the Speaker of that House or the person acting as Speaker at the time.

Clause (1,a) validates Royal Assents by Commission by simply referring to the form and manner … —of pronouncing Royal Assent— … customary before the passing of this Act". Clause 2(2) repeals the Royal Assent by Commission Act, 1541, which is the present authority for using that procedure. The Bill adopts this method for reasons of Statute law reform. The Law Commission is going through the Statutes chronologically from the beginning, with the aim of repealing—with savings wherever necessary—all ancient Acts which do not merit a place in the modem Statute Book.

When this Bill was first mooted the Law Commissioner's work on this project had already reached well into the 16th century, and the Act of 1541 was under consideration for repeal with saving. If the present Bill had simply referred to the Act of 1541 without repealing it that would have ended any hope of tidying up this part of the Statute Book for some time.

It is anticipated that notifications will take a matter of seconds except where there are a number of Bills, and even then it will still be a considerable improvement on the half hour or more occupied by a Royal Assent by Commission.

As is appropriate for a constitutional Measure, this Bill has been promoted with the general agreement of all parties in both Houses, and with the approval of Her Majesty. It is a useful Measure of reform, and I commend it to the House.

10.35 a.m.

Sir John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)

I am sure that the House will he grateful to the Attorney-General for his careful exposition of the Measure and his account of its historical background. The House will also be grateful to Her Majesty, and would wish to express its gratitude to her, for placing her prerogative and interest at the disposal of Parliament in a matter which largely concerns our own convenience. This Measure being a constitutional one, it is, as the Attorney-General has said, passed with the concurrence of all parties in both Houses of Parliament. I therefore want to express formally the support of the Opposition and their agreement to the Bill.

We also welcome what the Attorney-General has said about the present intentions of the leaders of all parties, that the present form and ceremony should be continued at least once during each Session, and on Prorogation if any Bills require the Royal Assent at that time. I strongly support that intention, because the present ceremony, while an inconvenience to the House in the course of its debates, embodies much of our Parliamentary history. It is a colourful and fascinating piece of pageantry and, on top of this, it is an open and visible symbol and reminder of the legislative powers of the Crown and Parliament, and a living sign of the necessary concurrence of the Crown and both Houses of Parliament in the passing of legislation which affects all our citizens.

We also welcome the preservation of the opportunity of the monarch to give the Royal Assent in person although, in view of the lapse of time since it last happened, the prospects of that occurring do not seem substantial.

I want to ask the Attorney-General a few questions. First, is the repeal of the 1541 Act only for the purpose of tidying up the Statute Book? If so, it seems a rather unnecessary reform, because the whole of the procedure, until this Bill is passed, depended on the giving of the Royal Assent by Commission in the Upper House, under Section 2 of the 1541 Act.

The circumstance in which this change came about was a very interesting piece of legislative history. We have all listened with the greatest interest to the account given by the Attorney-General of the development and use of that procedure. It seems not objectionable but slightly unnecessary simply to tidy up the Statute Book and abolish statutory provisions which were the foundation of the original procedure which we intend to preserve.

Am I right in assuming that Acts of Parliament will continue to begin with the present form of words— Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lord's spiritual and Temporal …"? I presume that that will continue to be the usual form of Acts of Parliament in future.

I am not quite clear about the position of the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery. Under the new procedure I believe that it will be for the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery to see to the notification of the passing and of the sealing of the Letters Patent under the Great Seal to the Speakers of both Houses. There is no statutory provision to that effect. It may be that it is unnecessary, but I should like to know whether the Clerk to the Crown in Chancery, as such, is acting as agent for the Crown or as an official of the Lord Chancellor's Department.

If the latter should be the case, is it usual for the passing of Acts or Deeds under the Great Seal to be notified to the two Houses of Parliament by the Clerk to the Crown in Chancery? I think it is, but I should like the right hon. and learned Gentleman's confirmation.

These matters may seem a little technical but they should be clear. We should remember that, through the disappearance of the Clerk of the Hanaper in Dublin, the rights of the Irish peerage were lost. One never knows, when setting up these new procedures, what may be the effect of the alteration in the status of one of the links in the procedural machine. I do not think that there is any risk of the disappearance of the office of Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, but no doubt the Attorney-General would inform us in what constitutional capacity the Clerk is acting in sending notification to the Speakers of both Houses.

The Bill will be largely for the convenience of this House. It will, on most occasions, alter the ancient, symbolic public ceremony, whereby the Crown in Parliament has hitherto made the laws of the Kingdom. Although we have expressed the Opposition's agreement to the Bill, I know that I speak for every hon. Member on this side when I say that we are delighted that this ancient ceremony is to be preserved and will from time to time continue to be used.

10.42 a.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I agree completely with the Bill's main purpose, even if it means that I have to write a footnote to the book to which the Leader of the House referred, "Parliament and Mumbo-Jumbo", to explain that part is out of date. I only wish that I could write that other pages were out of date as well.

The ceremony of Black Rod knocking at the door, with all the time spent going to and fro and interruption of speeches, has led us to regard Black Rod as a public nuisance, which is not fair to the gentleman concerned, who is merely carrying out his traditional duties. When my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas), a very conservative Labour member, continued the debate on such an occasion when the rest of the House was absent, he was setting a precedent which might have been followed.

I therefore believe that the Government have taken this step in the interests of this House and the other place. On the last occasion, when my hon. Friend carried on speaking, we were discussing the B.B.C. and the Postmaster-General was making an eloquent defence of the B.B.C. Then came that knock at the door. I never object to closing the door, but only to reopening it. When we went to the House of Lords—it was one of the few occasions that I went to see the procedure—I found that we had interrupted a very important debate on Rhodesia. There was thus a great deal of time wasted. I believe that the general opinion of the House that time was that this ceremony should be discontinued.

This is the first Royal Assent Bill since 1541, in the time of Henry VIII. In another place the Lord Chancellor referred to that Act as an "Act of delicacy". I have never heard any reference to the delicacy of Henry VIII before. I am a charitable man, and I do not want to deal with the background of his matrimonial troubles and their consequences, but he did some strange things—beheaded his wives, established the Church of England and debased the currency—and, in retrospect, we all have to admit that Henry VIII was a bit of a monster.

Of course, his delicacy arose because he did not want to be regarded as personally responsible for having assented to his wife's execution, which was a strange act of delicacy, probably thinking that when he went to the other place—not the House of Lords, but the other "other place"—it might be held against him.

This has gone on through the centuries. My right hon. and learned Friend explained that the Hanoverians did not come because they did not understand the language. There was another reason. After all, the Hanoverians were not very popular. That distinguished writer Thackeray wrote: George the First was wicked and vile, Viler still was George the Second, None ever heard good of George the Third; When George the Fourth to hell descended, God be praised—the Georges ended! But he was rather premature!

I want to make certain suggestions to my right hon. and learned Friend. I do not understand why, since the last occasion was the arrival of Queen Victoria, who seems to have been strangely interested in the question of rum—

The Attorney-General

In the memory of the great Queen, I must point out that four other Acts were passed on that occasion and that one was the Common Law Procedure Act, one of the most important pieces of law reform ever. I say that in honour of her late Majesty.

Mr. Speaker

This is a digression. I hope that he will not digress too far.

Mr. Hughes

I regarded it as a digression, Mr. Speaker, and was not aware of the other Acts, which my right hon. and learned Friend did not mention in his speech.

Why was it necessary to introduce in Clause 1 words to the effect that Her Majesty could revive this ancient custom and come in person? If this custom has passed into limbo, what is it doing in the Bill? The right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) said that he did not think that Her Majesty would come. If Her Majesty is not likely to come, why on earth is this in the Bill? If a Royal Assent Bill had to be introduced, the Government could have made a job of it.

We are living in the modern age, and the Royal Assent and its constitutional implications should have been carefully considered. It is not, as the right hon. and learned Member said, part of our legislation. It is taken for granted in our constitutional law that Her Majesty must give the Royal Assent, whether she approves of the legislation or not. Nobody now believes that the Crown has the slightest power to say "No" when Parliament has said "Yes". This has therefore become automatic; the Queen has put in front of her a considerable amount of legislation which everyone assumes she does not read.

When, say, the Iron and Steel Bill went for Royal Assent, the Queen might have said, "Another Steel Bill? What is this about?" Her advisers would say, "If you want to find out all about the Iron and Steel Bill, there is a full report of the Committee extending to 500 or 600 pages." I can hardly imagine that Her Majesty really wants to be bothered with the details of legislation. I can imagine Her Majesty saying, "If Parliament says that Royal Assent has become automatic, why on earth do I need to be putting my name to Acts of Parliament when my consent is automatic?" If that is so, we should apply the principle of automation.

I do not believe that Her Majesty should be troubled with going through these motions. Certifying that a Bill had gone through its procedure could be done by Mr. Speaker. I do not suggest that it be done by a computer, as a suggestion was made to do away with the Law Courts by a computer, but I suggest that a very small machine, which Mr. Speaker could press in his office, would do everything completely satisfactorily.

If there is no significance in Royal Assent, why should it continue? The argument is that we have to go through all these traditions simply because they were done in the time of Henry VIII, the Georges and all the rest. We have to do it at this time of day, apparently, because our traditions continue. I believe that Oliver Cromwell did a very good job in his time, but, unfortunately, his successors went back on what he did. Nevertheless, I think that the time has come, if we are having a Royal Assent Bill, to rationalise the situation. Let us do away with hocus-pocus. Let us do away with the ancient traditions which have no relevance to modern history or to a modern setting.

I have been in the House of Lords when Royal Assent was signified by a Commission. Sometimes there were peers present who wore cocked hats and coloured robes. Taking off the hats was done in the traditional way. That is one of the scenes which made the late Sir Winston Churchill once refer to the House of Lords as mumbo-jumbo.

If the Attorney-General is in favour of the Queen coming down in person, ought we not to consider the position and say that if the Queen is to come to Parliament at all to signify her Assent to Bills, she should come to the seat of power, the House of Commons, and not the other place? A good many thoughts come to my mind for discussion on the Bill. We can improve it, and I hope that I shall be able to contribute something to its improvement in Committee.

10.53 a.m.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

The final suggestion of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) is not a bad one. After all this time, we ought to let bygones be bygones and allow Her Majesty to come into the House of Commons again. That may seem a revolutionary suggestion, like many of the other suggestions that the hon. Member has made, but why not let us consider it? I do not know whether it would be appropriate for the Committee stage of the Bill. No doubt the hon. Member, with his customary ingenuity, will think about drafting an Amendment before the Bill goes into Committee.

As regards the total abolition of Royal Assent, which was another of the hon. Member's themes, I am not at all sure that I agree with him, because the import of that is ultimately that one does not need the monarchy at all. As the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) said over the weekend, in view of the work of some of the presidents in the rest of the world, and one of them in particular, I think that we should be extremely thankful that we have a constitutional monarchy.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I hope that the hon. Member is not casting a reflection on President Johnson.

Mr. Lubbock

The right hon. Member for Easington did not say to which president he was referring, but I am sure that the hon. Member can guess, as I did when I read the remark of his right hon. Friend.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Whichever president the right hon. Member was referring to, he has nothing to do with the Royal Assent.

Mr. Lubbock

No, Mr. Speaker. I hope that he never will have anything to do with it and that we shall not have a president giving presidential assent at some time in the future.

Everyone has agreed that the periodical visits of Black Rod to this House are infuriating. The example mentioned by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire, when several speeches were made in the absence of some hon. Members in another place, was a particularly striking one. The right hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) continued the debate, and so did a number of others of us. I remember being on my feet when you returned, Mr. Speaker, and having my remarks abruptly cut short. That was a demonstration of the resentment of hon. Members against having debates interrupted when they reach an important stage. It is this factor rather than the small amount of time that may be lost which is the important justification for the Bill.

I rather think that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire, in his book and in his reflections on Parliamentary reform, tends to exaggerate the loss of time caused by our traditions and ceremonies. It is not so much that; it is the interruption of the thread of our discussions which is a far more important reason for not having the summons to another place which occurs under the present arrangements. It will be interesting if, when he replies, the Attorney-General can say how much time is lost in an average Session by our summonses to another place.

When the right hon. and learned Gentleman went through his historical summary of the legislation on Royal Assent, the interesting thought occurred to me that if the procedure which has been customary for centuries was used in giving assent to the Act of 1541, every piece of legislation since then must be invalid, because one could hardly use this new procedure until the Act which set it up had been passed and Royal Assent had been given to it. It is, I suppose, too late to remedy that by applying some other procedure to all the legislation which we have passed in the four centuries since the time of Henry VIII.

As to the question of the rum, the Scottish Members of the House at that time could not have been doing their duty, because it appears from what the Attorney-General has said that rum must have been cheaper in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Where was the defence of the whisky interests which one would expect to hear when it was proposed that lower rates of duty should be applied to rum in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom?

I agree with the hon. Member for South Ayrshire that, if the visits of Black Rod are to be abolished for most of the time, one must consider carefully whether they are needed at all. I understand from the Attorney-General that the single visit in each Session will take place toward the beginning of the Summer Recess. Obviously, it will have to take place while the House of Commons is sitting. The right hon. and learned Gentleman did not say whether arrangements have been made for the single visit of Black Road in a Session to be timed to suit the greatest convenience of the House. If that is the case, I have no objection to the maintenance of the ceremony. I cannot see any very important arguments either for or against it, but it might be worth while considering arranging it so that Black Road comes in the mornings, because every time I have been here and taken part in debates in the mornings, I have seen very few hon. Members in the Chamber. There are four of us at present on this side and three on the Government side.

Mr. David Winnick (Croydon, South)


Mr. Lubbock

I must apologise to the hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Howie), whom I did not see. The minimum inconvenience would be caused to the House if only eight hon. Members had to have their discussions interrupted by a visit to another place. Here an important advantage may be gained from the initiation of morning sittings.

If the Royal Assent has to be given at the same time in both Houses, I do not believe that those in another place have yet advanced to the stage where they have sittings in the morning so, if my suggestion were accepted, it would not be possible for exact simultaneity of Royal Assent to be given in both Houses. I understood from the Attorney-General, however, that this was not strictly necessary, and that there was provision for the Royal Assent to be given at slightly different times in the two Houses. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman can assure us that in this House the Royal Assent will always be given in the morning, and that it will be towards the beginning of the Summer Recess, I would say that this Bill might prove to be a useful if minor reform of our Parliamentary procedure.

11.1 a.m.

Mr. David Winnick (Croydon, South)

I regard this Bill as a minor but important piece of modernisation and one for which I have, with other hon. Members, been pressing ever since I became a Member of Parliament. When I first came to the House 12 months ago and after I had been here for two weeks, I left one day the desk I had opposite the House of Lords and came into this Chamber. It was more or less empty. Since it was only 5 o'clock in the afternoon, I found it very difficult to believe that the House had either adjourned or had been counted out. It was then kindly explained to me that Black Rod had interrupted the proceedings.

I then decided, for the first, and I believe, for the last time, to go to the other place to watch the Royal Assent being given to legislation. I found it virtually impossible to believe, in this day and age, the sort of ceremony I saw taking place there. It seemed rather strange that such very feudal procedures should have continued into the 'sixties.

Since then, I have been present in the Chamber when a number of very impor- tant debates have been interrupted by the arrival of Black Rod. I always have a certain amount of sympathy for Black Rod. As my right hon. and learned Friend has pointed out, Black Rod has then been carrying out his traditional duties, but his welcome here has not always been very kind. On the last occasion but one he interrupted a debate on the Common Market, so that it was understandable that very many hon. Members on both sides were not able to give him a very enthusiastic welcome.

If we are keen to lecture the nation on modernisation and the ending of restrictive practices, we ourselves, in our place of work, must always be willing to discontinue some of our own restrictive practices. I find it impossible to believe that if those who work in industry and commerce and who receive lectures from hon. Members on both sides about ending restrictive practices and the need for modernisation, were to come here and see some of our procedures, they would not consider that we were being humbugs and hypocrites.

How can we lecture the nation on modernisation when we have what I frankly confess is to me this farcical procedure in which Black Rod marches down through the Central Lobby and the Members' Lobby. The door is closed in his face, and he has to knock three times for entry. What possible justification can there now be for this ceremony? We know that in centuries past there was a great historical justification for it, when the Commons wished to show supremacy over the Executive, but there can be no such justification for it now.

Frankly, I am a little disappointed with this Bill. I should have liked to have seen it go the whole way by abolishing the entire procedure. However, I am always willing to compromise, and this Measure goes some way to what I should eventually like to see done. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. As we now have a Leader of the House who, for once, is willing to put into practice such reforms as morning sittings and the changing of the Black Rod procedure, I can even forgive him for not calling me at the 1961 Labour Party conference when we debated the Common Market.

Reforms such as this are welcome. This Bill represents a minor form of modernisation. I do not wish to exaggerate its importance, but it is part of the process of bringing our House up to date and doing away with much of the out-of-date procedure which no longer has any justification. I am a great believer in Parliamentary democracy, and believe that the only alternative to it is some form of dictatorship, but it strengthens, not weakens, our democracy when we bring our practices up to date. This Bill goes some way towards achieving that objective.

11.5 a.m.

The Attorney-General

I am glad that the House has felt able—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

Order. The right hon. and learned Attorney-General can speak for a second time only with leave of the House.

The Attorney-General

Then, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps I may have the leave of the House to deal with one or two matters that have been raised in this debate.

I express the Government's attitude that this Bill has received general approval from both sides—more enthusiastic, perhaps, in some quarters than in others. It is a modest but significant Measure of modernisation of Parliamentary procedure and, perhaps, a precursor of other changes to come.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Learning-ton (Sir J. Hobson) raised three specific matters. He queried the decision to repeal the 1541 Act. The reason for doing that was purely for the purpose of assisting in the tidying-up procedure in which the Law Commission is now actively engaged in the process of modernising our Statute Book. The Bill contains all the information that the 1541 Act itself contained, so nothing is lost by replacing that Act. The curious thing is that the 1541 Act is silent as to the procedure it authorised; it simply requires that both Houses of Parliament be assembled in another place.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) had the courage to put in question the whole of the legislation that has flowed since that date and which has been approved by the process of Royal Commission because of what he perhaps rightly suggests may be the doubtful validity of the validating procedure, or the purportedly validating procedure of the 1541 Act. Happily, it is now too late to question the validity of the 1541 Act. It is clear that it has been validated by the law and practice of Parliament. So we can rest happy about the legislation that has been passed since that time.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington asked whether the enacting words in Bills would remain the same. The answer is in the affirmative. He asked about the constitutional rôle of the Clerk of the Crown. The Clerk of the Crown is at once an officer of the Crown and an officer of both Houses of Parliament. In communicating the Royal Assent, he will be acting as Clerk of the Crown and not as Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor, so that his constitutional position in this exercise will be as Clerk of the Crown. But, as I have said, he is at once not only an officer of the Crown but an officer of both Houses of Parliament, so that there is no derogation in any way of the authority of this House by the proposed machinery.

I was asked whether the timing of the proposed visits of Black Rod—which, as I said, in practice we contemplate—will be made to meet the convenience of this House. I am sure that, in the light of experience in the past, appropriate arrangements will be made to ensure that, on occasions which will then be somewhat ceremonial, there will be no clash with the business of this House and no disturbance of debate.

I was asked how much time was being and had been lost by the procedure of going to another place for the Royal Assent by way of Royal Commission. It is estimated that there had been 9 to 10 Royal Assents per Session in the last three years. Each lasts about half an hour or slightly less, so that about four hours has been lost each Session by this procedure. But I cannot help thinking that it is not so much the time that has been taken but the disturbance of the debate which has most disturbed the House and has been the main motive for this change.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), ever watchful, has questioned the necessity of retaining Clause 1(2). The House may feel it right that we should retain, should Her Majesty desire it, her power herself to declare her Royal Assent in Parliament. As I have said, she has given the Bill her approval and for that the House is grateful. It is a modest Measure of constitutional reform and I am happy that it meets the general approval of both sides of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Howie.]

Committee Tomorrow.