HC Deb 21 October 1985 vol 84 cc116-9

Order for Second Reading read.

10.20 pm
The Solicitor-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

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

I hope that it will be for the convenience of the House if I deal with the Housing Bill and the other three associated Bills on housing — that is, the Housing Associations Bill [Lords], the Housing (Consequential Provisions) Bill [Lords] and the Landlord and Tenant Bill [Lords]—together.

I am sure that the House would wish me to express its thanks, its appreciation and its admiration to those primarily responsible for the completion of this enormous task. These four Bills will consolidate an area of law last consolidated some 28 years ago, since when there have been 17 further Housing Acts and unnumbered other amendments. The Table of Derivations in the Housing Bill alone occupies 47 pages. The four Bills together comprise 778 clauses and 36 schedules.

The subject matter is diverse. The draftsman identified 16 distinct topics within the scope of the existing legislation. Sixteen separate Bills would not have been a practical proposition and the present format was, therefore, chosen. The Housing Bill contains the majority of the provisions within the scope of the consolidation, but within that the draftsman has arranged the parts in such a way that the seeker after enlightenment can approach each part as if it were a self-contained unit.

Two topics were, however, sufficiently distinct to merit separate Bills. The first is the Housing Associations Bill dealing with a clearly identifiable sub-division of the law on housing. It also has a different territorial application. The Housing Bill extends to England and Wales only whereas the Housing Associations Bill extends to Scotland as well.

Secondly, there is the Landlord and Tenant Bill. The last of the four Bills is the Housing (Consequential Provisions) Bill, which deals with technical matters arising from the three substantive Bills, such as repeals, consequential amendments and transitional matters. It is more convenient, in a consolidation exercise of this size, to gather them together in this way.

There are two other matters relating to the exercise that I should mention. First, there was no pre-consolidation tidying-up Bill, so these Bills merely re-enact the law as it stands. However, the Law Commission, for the purpose of a satisfactory consolidation, made a number of recommendations for amendments that would remove technical anomalies and inconsistencies, and for the repeal of a number of provisions of doubtful use. Those amendments have been incorporated. Secondly, the number of Acts to be consolidated and the diverse nature of the subject matter have led the draftsmen to recast the provisions in a more modern and consistent style. In particular, the provisions have been divided up as far as possible into short sections and short subsections, and subparagraphs have been almost entirely dispensed with. I believe that that style is welcome and admirable.

As the House knows, consolidation exercises involve a great amount of detailed and painstaking work. We are particularly fortunate that the Joint Committee on Consolidation, &c., Bills undertakes a careful and detailed scrutiny of the proposals to ensure that, subject to any amendments that it may suggest, the consolidation Bills meet the necessary' requirements. In the light of its report, we were able to consider them with much greater confidence.

Therefore, I should like to thank the committee on behalf of the House for its endeavours on this and other consolidation Bills that the House has considered during the Session. I should also like to thank the Law Commission and Parliamentary Counsel for their efforts and congratulate them on their epic achievement in the preparation of the Bills. It is a superlative piece of consolidation, to use the words of a distinguished Law Lord in another place. It is essential that the law should be accessible and intelligible. This consolidation represents a significant contribution to both these objectives. I commend the Bills to the House.

10.27 pm
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

As I have done on previous occasions, I should like to state on behalf of the Opposition our thanks to the Joint Committee for the painstaking work that it does, and our support for that work. It is right that the laws of our country should be set out in as clear and comprehensive a form as possible. It is the task of the Joint Committee to draw together existing legislation in the same area and present the fruits of its labour to Parliament for approval.

Approval is usually forthcoming without a great deal of further debate. There are two obvious reasons for that. The first is that the Joint Committee is dealing with the existing law of the land and not considering controversial new legislation. The second reason why Parliament does not normally subject consolidated legislation to further vigorous scrutiny is that both Houses are represented on the Committee, the Opposition as well as the Government. Indeed, the major advantage of such a Committee is that it scrutinises, on behalf of Parliament, proposals for consolidation and the form that it should take. That relieves Parliament of the necessity of considering consolidation measures in some other way. In short, we rely upon the work of the Committee.

In as far as the Bills now before us represent the recommendations of the Joint Committee, the Opposition are willing to see those recommendations pass into legislation, satisfied that in form and substance they have been subjected to proper scrutiny. However, that is not all that we are being asked to do. The Government have now said that they wish to table a substantial number of amendments to these complex Acts, which are supposed to represent the final views of the Joint Committee on Consolidation, &c., Bills before being presented to the House. It is reasonable to ask what scrutiny the new amendments will receive before being enacted as legislation.

I received a pile of papers 4½ in thick from the Solicitor-General's office for my consideration today before tonight's debate. Until this afternoon there had been no agreement through the usual channels about the proposed amendments to the legislation. The failure properly to consult the Opposition over what should be non-controversial legislation is completely out of keeping with the spirit in which those matters are usually dealt with. It pushes the rights not just of the parliamentary Opposition but of Parliament itself to one side. That is all the more irksome to me in that I telephoned the Solicitor-General in mid-September to clarify the position and received a very pleasant letter dated 24 September stating in relation to the Bills now under discussion: The draftsman is endeavouring to prepare the amendments and the accompanying notes by the beginning of October and I hope, therefore, that I will be able to send them on to you in the near future. Yet the information was dumped on me today, accompanied by a letter dated 15 October saying: Insofar as the proposed amendments to the various Housing Consolidation Bills are concerned, these have not yet been finally settled. It will be some time before they are finalised but, in view of their number, I thought you would appreciate having those already prepared at this stage, albeit subject to possible change. As well as providing the information only hours before the debate, therefore, the Solicitor-General is saying that there is more to come and that what we now have may change. How much confidence can the House be expected to have in a rolling programme of amendments which we are to be asked to pass en masse after a few brief but no doubt reassuring remarks from the Solicitor-General? We shall be discussing more than 100 amendments to four complex Bills. The full list of enclosures that I received today reads as follows: Housing Bill, Housing Associations Bill, Landlord and Tenant Bill, Housing (Consequential Provisions) Bill, Law Commission Report on the Consolidation of the Housing Acts, Report and evidence on the Housing Consolidation Bills before the Joint Committee, Notes or. Amendments and proposed amendments to the Housing Consolidation Bills, Weights and Measures Bill, Table of Destinations for Weights and Measures Bill, Draftsman's Notes on clauses for the Weights and Measures Bill for the Joint Committee, Report and evidence on the Weights and Measures Bill before the Joint Committee. I understand that some of the Government's amendments will relate to matters now outstanding following the abolition of the Greater London council. Parliament will need to satisfy itself that what is proposed represents consolidated legislation and that we are not being invited to legislate anew by the back door. The vehicle for scrutinising these matters is the Joint Committee and I am most unhappy that the procedure is being bypassed in this way.

To conclude, inasmuch as the legislation represents real consolidated legislation agreed in the normal way it has our support on Second Reading, but anything that the Government propose to do which goes beyond that must be submitted to parliamentary scrutiny. I should have thought that discussion through the usal channels might be the best way to facilitate that.

10.33 pm
The Solicitor-General

With the leave of the House, I should like just a minute or two to comment on what the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) said.

I am, of course, grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said by way of tribute to those who have been responsible for this massive work of consolidation. The hon.. Gentleman was also kind enough to refer to the fact that on 24 September I wrote to him to say that something in. the order of 100 amendments would probably need to be made.

The amendments are of two kinds—amendments to take account of the provisions of the Local Government Act 1985, and minor drafting corrections and improvements. It is not uncommon in consolidation legislation for a consolidation measure to be amended after it has passed the Joint Committee to take account of the most recent state of the law represented by new legislation. That is what is proposed here and the relevant amendments take account of the provisions of the Local Government Act 1985 in a manner wholly appropriate to a consolidation Bill, that is to say, to reflect the state of the law.

The amendments came forward from the parliamentary draftsman and as soon as they were available we took steps to see that they were placed before the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East. Unfortunately, for the reasons that he has explained to me, and which I wholly understand, they came into his possession only today. In the letter of 24 September, I say: On Second Reading I would merely propose to give a brief outline of the ground that the consolidation covers, look ahead to the amendments at the Committee Stage, and leave it at that. That seems to be the sensible way to approach this consolidation measure.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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

Committee tomorrow.

  2. c119
  4. c119