HC Deb 08 August 1972 vol 842 cc1656-61

Insert new Standing Order (Privilege (Bills brought from the Lords))

The House may proceed with any public bill brought from the Lords except a bill of aids and supplies provided that—

  1. (a) it is so framed that no charge upon the people or upon public funds, unless it be such a charge as is defined in Standing Order No. 58 (Pecuniary penalties), is imposed or altered; and
  2. (b) in the case of a bill which, if it were not so framed, would have as its main object the imposition or alteration of such a charge, a Minister of the Crown has informed the Clerk at the Table of his intention to take charge of it.

Standing Order No. 91 (Procedure upon bills whose main object is to create a charge upon the public revenue).

Line 14, at end add—

(2) The provisions of paragraph (1) of this Order shall apply to any bill brought from the Lords, of which a Minister of the Crown has informed the Clerks at the Table of his intention to take charge.

The Motion and draft Standing Order relate to an outstanding recommendation; namely, recommendation No. 6, of the Select Committee on Procedure in its Second Report last Session. It was debated shortly for the first time by the House last November. As will be obvious to the House without my saying so, it is somewhat technical, but, despite this, its main aim is fairly simple; namely, to provide an opportunity for the better balancing of the parliamentary programme between the two Houses with regard to the introduction of legislation.

Hitherto it has not been possible to proceed in this House with Bills brought from the other place if their main purpose was to impose a charge. This has prevented Governments from starting Bills in the other place in circumstances where I believe it would have been generally agreed that to do so would have been quite appropriate and, particularly in the light of the sort of pressures of business we have seen this Session, would have been to the benefit of both Houses.

Under the proposal before us tonight this restriction would be removed, except in the case of Bills of aids and supplies, provided that in the case of a Bill coming from the other place of which the main object is to impose a charge the Clerks at the Table are informed that it is a Government Measure.

I do not propose to detain the House on this matter for more than a moment or two. I want merely to make two points. The first is to reiterate my predecessor's assurance that, although I consider that it would be advantageous to introduce legislation more evenly between the two Houses, the Government have no intention of making any major change in the distribution of legislation between the two Houses.

I recognise, as all my predecessors have done, that there are obvious categories of legislation which, by their political or financial nature, ought to be introduced in this House. There are, however, sometimes Bills which, although their main object may be to impose a charge of some kind, are of a type which would be regarded on both sides as suitable for introduction in the other place. It is with this category that the proposal is in practice concerned.

The second point is that when this matter was referred to briefly in the House on the previous occasion last November doubts were expressed about whether we were perhaps eroding the essential financial privileges of this House. I believe that the Standing Order as now drafted—there is a considerable difference from the way it was drafted when we first debated the matter last November—makes it quite clear that this will not be so. Bills coming from the other place under these provisions will be subject to the same procedure as are at present similar Bills of which the imposition of a charge is only a subsidiary purpose. The House will therefore have its attention drawn to them in the same clear ways.

I believe—I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), who with others raised this matter last November, is now satisfied—that this Standing Order as drafted has removed the risk of the financial privileges of this House being surreptitiously eroded.

I am glad to say also that my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir Robin Turton), who unfortunately is in hospital—although, I am pleased to say, not with any serious complaint; he tells me it is for a very minor operation—and is therefore unable to be present tonight, has indicated as Chairman of the Procedure Committee that he is content with the proposed implementation of the substance of his Committee's recommendation.

I believe, therefore, that this enhanced opportunity for Bills to be started in the other place will be to the benefit of business in both Houses, in this House just as much as in the other place. I accordingly recommend the new Standing Order and the Amendment to Standing Order No. 91 to hon. Members and hope that they will meet with their approval.

11.36 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has indicated, the form of the Motion which he has placed before the House tonight is a considerable modification of that which was originally on the Order Paper seven or eight months ago. I should like to express my personal recognition to his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, for the very patient manner, involving lengthy and repeated reconsideration and correspondence, with which he dealt with the point which I and others raised during the previous debate.

I am entirely satisfied that the form of the new Standing Order fully preserves the privileges of this House, not merely in substance but also in form, in that anything which involves the privileges of this House will be brought to the attention of this House in the most formal and explicit way.

I venture to think that it was not a waste of time for my right hon. Friend the previous Leader of the House and those who assisted him to give their attention to this matter. The financial privileges of this House are not a bagatelle. They are not a matter of antiquarian curiosity. They are of live importance.

Although I think everyone would agree that we want the most efficient possible distribution of business between the two Houses, it would be wrong to suppose that this House should part in any way within our present Parliament with any of its financial privileges. We may in a different context be concerned with the surrender of those privileges which we have made to another authority outside the Realm, but at any rate in this Standing Order we are preserving those privileges within the ambit of Parliament, and I am grateful both to my right hon. Friend and to his predecessor.

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

I must apologise to the Leader of the House for not hearing the beginning of his introductory remarks but, to be frank, it is so unusual to find the Government's timetable running up to the minute that I was a moment or two late.

I do not think it would be right for the House to pass the Motion without at least some concern being expressed that even in the most miniscule way we are strengthening the powers of the House of Lords. I think that the whole of our constitutional history has been a gradual erosion of the powers of the House of Lords, and even if there is the slightest strengthening of its powers it should be placed on record.

With regard to the nature of the scrutiny—the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) made the point strongly and I should like to reiterate this—it seems to me that if one were to read a textbook of parliamentary procedure and turned to the section on, say, consolidation Bills, it would seem that there was an elaborate procedure for scrutiny of these Bills. Yet in the very small sector in which I have taken an interest it seems to me that the House has become virtually a rubber stamp, often with no recommendations coming from the consolidating committee. Therefore, although the procedure may appear very good in the theoretical form, I hope we shall be extremely vigilant that as it develops we shall make quite sure that our scrutiny is practical as well as theoretical.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

I am without instructions in this matter but on a question of this kind what satisfies the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) probably satisfies a great many people. What passes through his close and fastidious scrutiny and meets with his approval must surely have some virtue, and, therefore, I endorse what the Leader of the House has put to us.

I am old enough to remember among my earliest political recollections the great struggle between the Commons and the Lords and the Parliament Act, 1911. As a member of a radical Liberal family, I was swung very enthusiastically behind the battle against the Lords. We in the Commons have been jealous of our rights in the matter of expenditure and charges upon the citizen ever since. I suppose that one could allude in this connection to the fact that the House of Lords is somewhat more liberally based in its membership and composition than it was 60 years ago, although it is no more of an elected body now than it was then and probably some of its members who have been appointed in recent years have no more claim to be representative of the people than some of the hereditary peers of past generations. However, we take it as we find it.

I believe that the House of Lords is one of our insoluble constitutional problems, and it will probably be left alone for a very long time to come. The success of past attempts to reform it does not give any evidence that we should make a similar attempt in the near future, from whichever party it may come. Some things are best left alone, and the House of Lords may be one of them. So we have to look at that in relation to our business.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) has said, we must take care not to provide the thin end of the wedge, but the responsibility of the House of Commons seems here to be fully safeguarded. A Minister of the Crown must assume responsibility and, as a representative Minister, must take full charge of a Bill of this kind. I think that the system has its conveniences. We could always amend our Standing Orders if we found that experience pointed to the need for that.

There is some convenience in a better balance between the Lords and the Commons in the introduction of legislation. There is no point in having another House which can deal only with Bills sent up from here. We have seen some of the difficulties about that in recent months, and, indeed, they are with us now. So I can speak on behalf of the Opposition on this and say that the proposal is acceptable, fully understanding that it is not to be abused and that the safeguards are there and that they should be taken advantage of. I think, therefore, that there is no objection.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the new Standing Order and the Amendment to Standing Order No. 91 (Procedure upon bills whose main object is to create a charge upon the public revenue) hereinafter stated in the Schedule, be made.

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