HC Deb 08 November 1971 vol 825 cc648-59
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

Mr. Speaker, with permission, I wish to make a statement giving the Government's answer to the unanimous Report of the Select Committee on Procedure, which was published in the Summer Recess.

I would like to express the thanks of the House to my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir R. Turton) and the other members of the Committee for a most valuable report. I hope they will feel that this prompt response from the Government is a proper reward for their efforts.

This report consists of 28 separate and detailed recommendations, listed at paragraph 70. I would refer first to the two recommendations which I see as most important in the longer term. These are the proposals for a joint Committee of both Houses to inquire into the control exercised by each House over delegated legislation—recommendation 24—and for a Government-appointed Committee to review the form, drafting, amendment and preparation of legislation that comes before us—recommendation 28.

The Government accept both these recommendations, but so far as recommendation 28 is concerned, it will be necessary to discuss with all those concerned the precise composition and terms of reference of the Committee.

The inquiry to be set up in consultation with another place into parliamentary control over delegated legislation will be a comprehensive one. It will, therefore, include the proposals for the scrutiny of Statutory Instruments made in recommendations 19 to 21, although recommendation 22, concerning an extension of the terms of reference of the Statutory Instruments Committee can, I suggest, be implemented separately.

As to recommendation 23, which also concerns delegated legislation, every effort will be made to ensure that Departments do, whenever possible, observe the suggested 21-day interval between the laying and coming into operation of Statutory Instruments. But the Government are unable to accept a commitment to the provision of a formal explanation in cases where it is not possible to observe the interval.

Turning to the other proposals made by the Committee, the Government accept in principle the recommendations —1 and 2—for the use of pre- and post- legislation Committees, but I think everyone in the House will appreciate that there is a limited scope for their use.

The Government also accept the group of recommendations—3 to 5—relating to time-tabling procedures. It is recognised that the Chairman's Panel, by its inclusion on the Business Committee, has hitherto been placed in an invidious position.

The proposal for giving slightly greater scope for starting Bills in the Lords— recommendation 6—is also welcome. The Committee's proposals for fuller explanatory memoranda—recommendation 7— are accepted, and will be implemented as far as practicable. The recommendation—8—that there should be provision for a strictly limited "carry-over" of certain Second Reading Committee Bills will be examined sympathetically, but without commitment.

Recommendation 9, which concerns the reference of two or more Bills to the same Second Reading Committee, is perhaps a minor point that can be looked at again when we have more experience of the working of Second Reading Committees generally. The Government accept the proposal—recommendation 10—to bring the Scottish Standing Committee into line with other Standing Committees.

On the two following recommendations —11 and 12—the Government accept in principle that "suitable" Bills or parts of Bills might in future be committed to Select Committees, but, in view of the additional time that would be required under such a procedure, such Bills would perhaps need to be exclusively of the less urgent kind.

I am afraid that, at least in the present Session, we cannot implement recommendation 13, which would permit the adjournment of the House to facilitate the work of Select Committees.

The Government are, however, willing to accept the proposal for two days' notice of, and for debates of three-quarters of an hour on, Motions splitting Bills between a Standing Committee and a Committee of the whole House or a Select Committee—recommendation 14. Recommendation 15 also seems acceptable as providing a modest help to hon. Members, although the rights of the Chair, in selecting amendments on Report, to have regard to the extent to which the subject matter had been considered in Committee must be preserved.

The Government also favour the proposals for the formalisation of Third Readings—recommendation 16—and for the appointment of a Second Deputy Chairman of ways and Means and the [MR. WHITELAW.]

other matters referred to in recommendation 17, which will I hope, Mr. Speaker, serve to lighten the heavy burden at present placed upon the Chair.

On recommendation 25, I think we should see how we get on with the arrangements this Session to take Second Readings of Private Members' Bills after the Christmas Recess.

I regret that with the present pressures on Parliamentary Counsel the Government cannot make their services available to the first 10 Members successful in the ballot for Private Members' Bills— recommendation 26—although we are prepared to make a grant of up to £200 to each such Member towards the cost of employing outside draftsmen. Finally, it is acceptable to the Government that the procedure of the "count" should be abolished—recommendation 27.

With regard to the one remaining recommendation made by the Committee, that for the compulsory limitation of speeches in certain debates—recommendation 18—I am sure the House would agree that this is not a matter for the Government but for the House itself.

The House will recognise that some of these proposals will require to be discussed through the usual channels, and one or two of them affect another place. Subject to this, however, the necessary Motions implementing the Government's proposals for action on this report will be put down as soon as possible, when naturally there will be an opportunity to debate them.

Mr. Peart:

I should like to add my thanks to those expressed by the Leader of the House to the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir R. Turton). I am sure that I speak for all my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Committee has produced a most valuable report. It has made 28 recommendations which are listed in paragraph 70. Without committing my hon. and right hon. Friends, I agree with the Lord President that the two recommendations which he sees as the most important in the longer term are the proposals for a joint Committee of both Houses to inquire into the control of delegated legislation and the need for a Government-appointed Committee to review the form of, drafting, amendment and preparation of legislation.

I could perhaps give my blessing to many of the items which the Leader of the House has mentioned, but I know that many of my colleagues may take a different view from me. The right hon. Gentleman referred to use of the usual channels, but in the end this is a matter for the House of Commons. However, I am glad that it is proposed to take action concerning the Chairman's Panel and that it is proposed to exclude it entirely from membership of the Business Committee. I agree with the proposal to lighten the load of the Chair, and the last recommendation concerning draftsmen. I know from experience that there is a great shortage of skilled draftsmen. Their training is one of the problems which we need to think about. In the circumstances, I believe that it is right and proper that a grant should be made in this connection. I regard it as a very pleasant innovation and I am grateful to the Leader of the House for what he said about it.

There are many other matters which will arouse controversy, such as the recommendation about limitation of speeches which has been rejected by the Government. I agree that this is something which we shall have to discuss through the usual channels but, above all, it is a House of Commons matter and there will be a great variation in opinions on this very important report. We await the debate, but no doubt some of my colleagues would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman some questions.

Mr. Whitelaw:

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his qualified acceptance. He mentioned the question of a debate. I suggest that the best way for us to proceed would be that I should put down the various Motions to implement the recommendations and then they could be debated as they came up.

Mr. Peart:

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman appreciates that the Motions are not the only matters which should be debated. There are other matters in the report on which there may be varying opinions which should be discussed.

Mr. Whitelaw:

I accept that, but I did not want to commit myself now to a debate on the full report in addition to a debate on the Motions.

The Government have not rejected the proposal on the compulsory limitation of speeches. They, like myself, simply regard it as not being something on which they should pronounce. If it were the wish of the House that this proposal should be put down for debate and decision by the House, the Government would be prepared at some stage to find the facility—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If hon. Members do not want that, no one will be more pleased than me not to have to find time for it.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's other comments. I emphasise again that this is a unanimous report and therefore I was most anxious to give the Government's response to it at the earliest possible opportunity.

Sir R. Turton:

On behalf of the Committee, may I thank the Lord President for his very prompt and receptive reaction to our report? I should like to put a point to him on the most important decision that he has reached to appoint a Committee on the form and drafting of legislation. I appreciate that he cannot be precise about composition, but can he assure me that he does not rule out our recommendation that the Committee should include Members and Officers of both Houses and people with drafting experience, both official and unofficial, outside the House?

Mr. Whitelaw:

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I would not rule out any of the proposals. It was precisely because I did not wish to rule out any question as to who should be on the Committee that I thought it right to reserve the matter of its composition and terms of reference for discussion through the usual channels with the right hon. Gentleman and other Members and, naturally, with another place.

Mr. Lawson:

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the proposal concerning the Scottish Standing Committee is decided by Scottish Members as Scottish Members have long shown a desire to participate in numbers greater than 16 in Standing Committees considering Bills? Will he ensure that if Scottish Members, taking them together, do not wish this change to be made it will not he made?

Mr. Whitelaw:

This was a unanimous recommendation by a Select Committee of this House as a whole. It must there- fore be for the House as a whole to decide on a unanimous recommendation of its own Select Committee.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter:

As these are essentially matters for this House, can my right hon. Friend say whether it is the Government's intention to arrange for a free vote in the event of a Division on any of them?

Mr. Whitelaw:

I should make it clear that matters of voting are for my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip and not for me.

Mr. William Hamilton:

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us a little more about the procedure which he intends to pursue for debating the Motions in the House? Will they all be tabled together, or will they be taken separately on different days? Further, can he give an assurance that he will not try again the sharp practice in which he engaged a few months ago when he sought to put on the Order Paper on a Friday a proposal on the Scottish Standing Committee, hoping that he would get it through on the nod at a minute to four o'clock?

Mr. Whitelaw:

I shall discuss through the usual channels the procedure for debating the Motion. I have no desire to proceed in any way which would be difficult for the House. I have it in mind to table at one time those matters on which there would apparently be unanimous and universal agreement, and to table at a time to themselves those on which apparently there might be controversy so that we shall be able to have debates.

I have no desire to indulge in any form of sharp practice—

Mr. William Hamilton:

Even on a Friday?

Mr. Whitelaw:

I do not think it reasonable for Scottish Members to regard the tabling of Motions on a perfectly proper sitting day of the House, which Friday is, as sharp practice.

Mr. Jennings:

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am happy to congratulate the Government on accepting the recommendation of the Select Committee and the advice of a number of members of your Chairmen's Panel, Sir, to get rid of the invidious position of your Chairmen being on the Business Committee, [MR. JENNINGS.]

where they are obliged to cast aside their traditional impartiality and to vote, if they so wish, on party lines? I am glad that we are to have an early debate on this matter, because there is an oblique reference to Standing Order No. 40 about which some of us may require some assurance.

Mr. Whitelaw:

I think that the whole House will agree with the recommendation about the Chairman's Panel, which was placed in an invidious position, and I am glad that it has been possible to recommend a change.

On the question of Standing Order No. 40, this point arose last summer when it was a question of whether it was possible to debate the splitting of the Finance Bill and there was a strong request that there should be time for debating splitting it. I was committed to this at that time irrespective of what the Select Committee said. That is as far as this proposal goes.

Mr. Booth:

Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the evidence on which the recommendation about the control of delegated legislation was based indicates that there is a most serious problem in this respect? In view of this and the time which will inevitably be taken before a decision on a new procedure can be made, will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an undertaking that a temporary arrangement will be made or that he will ensure that adequate time is provided to debate those important matters of merit which arise from delegated legislation?

Mr. Whitelaw:

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important consideration. I have met this problem in my experience bath in opposition and in Government. An inquiry such as has been suggested by the Select Committee on Procedure is, frankly, overdue and very important. I hope that we shall be able to get an answer to this problem in a reasonably short time, but one must recognise that there will be a period before the Comcittee can possibly report. In the interim, I will certainly consider what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Dame Irene Ward:

As the Government have accepted that there is a need to establish a Committee on statute law revision, is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a very important body of people who have been concerned with statute law and who have great experience and who have given great service in this connection over many years? Is he aware that one or two of them would welcome being made members of this Committee? Will the Government consider that possibility sympathetically, so that those who have borne the heat and burden of the day and who have great knowledge and skill will be able to help the Committee in its deliberations on this very important matter?

Mr. Whitelaw:

I ought not to commit myself at this stage about the membership of the Committee. People can sometimes help a committee like this as much by giving evidence to it as by being members of it, and one has to take the right balance between the two. I am anxious not to get too large a committee, for it is my own feeling that the smaller a committee, the more likely one is to get a prompt and good response from it.

Mr. Heffer:

When speaking about the time when Motions would come before the House, the right hon. Gentleman said that those that were non-controversial might be taken at a time convenient to both Front Benches. But they might not be non-controversial to back-bench Members. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore see that we do not have Motions sneaked through the House after midnight, when hon. Members are tired and when they want to retire home? Will he ensure that we have proper discussion at an early hour?

Mr. Whitelaw:

I have no desire to sneak through any of these Motions. In making a judgment about which might be unanimously acceptable, I shall discuss the matter through the usual channels and from time to time I shall exercise my own judgment. Certainly if I am in any doubt I shall ensure that a Motion is put down for discussion at a proper time when it may be thoroughly debated.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke:

I warmly endorse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings) to my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir R. Turton) and the Leader of the House about the Government's acceptance of recommendations 3, 4 and 5, which deal with the Business Committee, for this is an alteration for which I have been pressing for a long time.

However, I should like to make a suggestion about recommendation 26, which deals with Government draftsmen. I recognise that Government draftsmen are under considerable pressure, but some of the pressure could be eased if the Chairmen of Standing Committees were to exercise their dispensation and not insist that the draftsman concerned with a Bill had to sit alongside the Chairman of the Committee considering the Bill throughout the whole of its proceedings. Provided that he was within ready call, he could often get on with other work outside the Committee.

Mr. Whitelaw:

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. He has been active on this matter and I am sure that he is right.

His suggestion certainly can be considered, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) that to give a grant of up to £200 to the first 10 private Members in the Ballot to meet the cost of drafting is a reasonable proposition, and I hope that it will be helpful to the private Members concerned.

Mr. English:

Would the right hon. Gentleman ensure that any Motions are put down well in advance, so that any technical matters may be cleared up before the Motions are debated? While we all thank him for his speed of decision on this report, some of us would like him to make a similar speedy decision on other connected matters, such as those discussed by the Joint Select Committee on Privilege concerning what are called unopposed returns.

Mr. Whitelaw:

I will do everything I can to make sure that Motions are put down so that everyone concerned has an opportunity to consider them in advance, and I will do my best to see that they are not put down on what hon. Members would regard as a difficult day. I want to proceed sensibly and

to see that the House has the opportunity to express its views on the unanimous report of one of its own Select Committees. I will consider the hon. Gentleman's request.

Dr. Glyn:

Is my right hon. Friend aware that last Session there was a Motion about the length of speeches and that it attracted 104 signatures from hon. Members on both sides of the House? As this is a House of Commons matter, will he consider putting down a separate Motion on this subject, so that the House may judge whether this is the right way in which to conduct its business in a manner which would be of help to Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Whitelaw:

If such a Motion were to be put down, I should think it right to put it down separately. I would not express an opinion one way or the other, knowing perfectly well that, whichever opinion I expressed, the House would be likely to take the opposite view.

Mr. Buchan:

As it is Scottish Members who will be manning the Scottish Standing Committee, why cannot Scottish Members decide the size of the Committee? Whatever the reason the Select Committee had for making this suggestion, is not the Government's real reason for accepting it the fact that the Scottish electorate has not returned enough Scottish Tories? Is it not wrong that the House should go against the wishes of the Scottish electorate and should alter its decision by procedural means? Finally, how many Scottish Members were on the Select Committee which made the recommendation?

Mr. Whitelaw:

I find it strange to be blamed for the Government having accepted the unanimous recommendation of a Select Committee. The Government thought that it was perfectly proper to accept a unanimous recommendation of a Select Committee. This, after all, is a matter for the House of Commons as a whole. This was a House of Commons Committee and it is for the House as a whole to decide on proposals made by one of its own Committees.