HC Deb 31 October 1995 vol 265 cc185-96

Order for Second Reading read.

8.39 pm
The Solicitor-General (Sir Derek Spencer)

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

The Bill promotes the reform of statute law by the repeal, in accordance with the recommendations of the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission, of enactments that are no longer of practical utility. The Bill, which proposes the repeal of 223 whole Acts or orders and the removal of redundant provisions from 259 others, represents the culmination of much careful and detailed research and consultation by the two Law Commissions.

I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing appreciation to the commissions and to the draftsmen for this Bill and for all the important work that they undertake in preparing consolidation Bills.

8.40 pm
Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

The Opposition are only too happy to join the Solicitor-General in thanking the Law Commission for its activities. This is a good time to consider the Law Commission and the importance of its role.

It is the House's responsibility to ensure that the logjam that has developed recently in relation to the Law Commission is cleared as quickly as possible. I had thought that the House would have an opportunity tonight to give effect to the important work that the Law Commission has sent to both Houses this Session. That was the hope of the Opposition and, I suspect, of many Conservative Members. Although we shall consider this Bill—one of several that we are to consider tonight—there is one other provision that we shall not consider today, although we had expected to.

When he introduced the Bill in the other place, the Lord Chancellor said that the Law Commission's functions consisted of the repeal of obsolete and unnecessary enactments, the reduction of the number of separate enactments and generally the simplification and modernisation of the law".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 April 1995; Vol. 563, c. 581.] Measures brought to us by the Law Commission have traditionally been given by this House the careful consideration which they merit, having undergone detailed and specific consideration and extensive consultation in the other place. We are then normally able to give them as detailed a consideration as they merit, but not as detailed a consideration as they would normally receive. That is the understood mechanism for dealing with Law Commission reports. I had thought that that was understood and appreciated on both sides of the House.

I have no doubt that those sitting on the Treasury Bench tonight and, indeed, those sitting immediately behind the Treasury Bench, appreciate only too well the importance of the Law Commission's work. Because of the value of the commission's work, its significance, and the care and detail that it applies to the consideration of measures before they reach the other place or this House, we are tonight happy to join Conservative Members in welcoming the Bill. I suspect that we shall also welcome other measures during the evening. It is to be hoped that we shall welcome at least one other piece of legislation before the House rises for the recess.

8.45 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I follow the Solicitor-General in saying that tonight is one of the rare opportunities that the House has to pay tribute to the work of the Law Commission. I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) in saying that there is still a logjam of consolidation measures and of the work that the Law Commission seeks to put through this House for the benefit of ordinary citizens. We are not talking merely about arcane legal work—many of the Law Commission's recommendations have a direct impact on ordinary citizens. That factor is all too often overlooked.

I should like to pay a well deserved tribute to the Law Commission for the diligence and quality of the work that it produces on our behalf. As the Solicitor-General has already said, the Bill will repeal 223 whole Acts or orders and remove individual redundant provisions from 259 others. It adds to the 1,600 whole Acts that have already been repealed in response to Law Commission reports. There is clearly a vast undergrowth of law that puzzles the ordinary citizen, which gives gainful employment to many lawyers, and which should be cut for the benefit of all our citizens.

Like earlier reports, the Law Commission's 15th report on statute law revision provides a fascinating glimpse of the old days. I shall not trawl through all the repeals, but I was intrigued by an Act of 1694, in the sixth and seventh year of the reign of William and Mary. It is described as An Act for rebuilding the town of Warwick and for determining differences touching houses burnt or demolished by reason of the late dreadful fire there. Many other examples give little vignettes on the history of the time.

The Law Commission clearly deserves our sincere tributes in respect of the work that it has done. Paragraph 1.9 of its sixth programme of law reforms states: the Commission exists to make the law simpler, fairer, more modern and cheaper to use. Who could be against that laudable aim?

Between September 1989 and April 1995, Parliament received 30 consolidation Bills prepared by the draughtsmen at the commission. The commission has also been involved in the preparation of many other Bills, including two Statute Law (Revision) Bills. We are told that the next such Bill is unlikely to be ready before 1998. Given the quality of the Law Commission's work and its relevance and importance, will the Solicitor-General confirm whether financial constraints are preventing it from continuing its work? It is important to pay tribute to the quality of the Law Commission's work generally.

On 14 June this year, I was fortunate enough to attend the celebrations held at Inner Temple hall to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Law Commission for England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission. Mr. Justice Brooke, the commission chairman, reminded the gathering that, 15 months ago, he wrote in his introduction to the Law Commission's annual report: The position is now serious. It is not of course cataclysmic. But history shows that a nation which neglects the ordinary care of its laws is neglecting something which is very important in its national well-being. He went on to give six examples from unimplemented reports published between 1983 and 1985, which are a serious cause for concern. I shall not bore the House by setting out in extenso the six reports that Mr. Justice Brooke mentioned.

Mr. Boateng

There is no danger of my hon. Friend ever boring the House. I urge him to give us some examples from the reports. He need not set them out in extenso, but it would be helpful to have some examples of the sorts of report to which he correctly draws the House's attention.

Mr. Anderson

In response to those blandishments and invitations from my hon. Friend, I shall select three examples that I hope will prove to the House how the law impacts directly on the citizen and how the failure to implement law has an adverse effect on the rights of the citizen.

In 1987, a foreign bank obtained a judgment in London against an American bank for $300 million. The case bristled with difficult points of law, but the defendants simply could not afford to risk an appeal. Interest was running on the judgment at the English rate of 15 per cent. per year, whereas the United States rate was about 6 per cent. If the case had taken 18 months to reach the Court of Appeal, the difference in interest alone would have cost another $400,000. The Law Commission recommended reform in 1983, but the Bill only recently reached this place for the first time. One wonders how much more injustice occurred in the interval between the Law Commission's recommendation and the Bill's reaching the House.

My second example is perhaps more relevant to the ordinary citizen than to companies. Ronald and Hazel Rhone bought a cottage in Somerset in 1981. The roof of the house next door, from which it was divided, overhung their bedroom, but they had the benefit of a covenant from their neighbours stating that they and their successors in title would maintain the roof in wind and weather-tight condition. In the event, it was neglected and the cottage suffered as a result. The house had changed hands and, last year, the other place ruled that the couple could not enforce the covenant because such positive covenants do not run with the land.

In 1965, a committee chaired by Lord Wilberforce said that reform was needed urgently. In 1971, the Law Commission commented that the law in that area was illogical, uncertain, incomplete and inflexible". In 1984, the Law Commission formally recommended that positive covenants should be replaced by a system of land obligations, but nothing has been done. How many more citizens have suffered injustice since 1984 as a result of what my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South described as the logjam in terms of the House dealing with important Law Commission reports?

The House will be pleased to learn that I shall limit myself to only one more example to illustrate my point. Three years ago, the other place castigated landlords who exercised their archaic legal right to re-enter premises without a court order. They called it a dubious and dangerous method of determining a lease". In 1985, the Law Commission reported that the law of forfeiture of tenancies was unnecessarily complicated and no longer coherent. The commission said that its complication added to the costs incurred by people who were caught up in the working of the law. Since 1985 and that recommendation, the costs have grown even larger—to the detriment of the ordinary citizens involved. The law remains unchanged.

One could go on indefinitely giving examples of reports that remain unimplemented at great cost to the individual, but at great advantage to the lawyers who benefit. Parliament has chosen to ignore at least 30 other such reports. It is worse now because of the restrictions on legal aid that have resulted from the Government's cost-cutting measures. The funding for many law centres has been cut off or slashed, and legal costs have soared. That serves only to underline the case for making law as simple and as fair as possible.

In debates in 1965, when the Law Commission was established, a former Secretary of State for Scotland said that the amount of money spent by the ordinary citizen on lawyers to discover the nature of the present law was disgraceful. Those comments were made 30 years ago and the problem remains unsolved.

A great failing of the Law Commission is, perhaps, that it has lacked the skills of persuasion in respect of Parliament. It has failed to persuade Government and Parliament that something must be done, particularly in criminal law reform. As those who practise in criminal law know, it is crying out for consolidation and simplification. Mr. Justice Brooke told the celebratory gathering in July this year that he knows of 17 cases since he arrived at the commission in January 1993 in which the Court of Appeal has had to set aside convictions because the judge made a mistake when directing the jury on the law of self-defence. There have been 17 miscarriages of justice in this small area of criminal law alone, yet there is still no progress on it. I could go on giving examples, but I am sure that my point has been well understood.

There is a chink of light, however. At the same assembly in Inner Temple hall, Mr. Justice Brooke said that, had the event taken place two years before, it would have been not a celebration but a wake. That was because at last, in his judgment, Parliament appeared to have pushed the work of the Law Commission a little further up its agenda. Some of the frustrations at the logjam described by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South have gone. Mr. Justice Brooke rejoiced—and we with him—that his appeal in the annual report of two years before had been heard, and that, between his appeal and the end of the Session, 14 Law Commission reports will have reached the statute book.

The Law Commission, as we know, is independent, based on an all-party consensus. By contrast, two strong Law Commissions, in Canada and the Australian state of Victoria, have been abolished by incoming Governments. There is no danger of that happening here.

When the Law Commissions Bill reached the other place in 1965, Lord Gardiner said that he regarded it as one of the most exciting things that a Government had ever done. Most of us would think that the Labour Government of 1964–70 probably did more exciting things than introducing that Bill. I am reminded of the definition of an actuary as someone who finds accountancy too exciting. Perhaps Lord Gardiner's definition of "exciting" was rather different from the person in the street's.

As the sixth programme of law reform clearly shows, the work of simplification, modernisation and codification continues. That work certainly impacts positively on the ordinary citizen, but the constant refrain of the report is that everything will be done "resources permitting". I hope that the Government will respond positively to the Law Commission's case for staff continuity and will provide the resources to enable it to continue its most valuable work.

9.1 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I too congratulate the Law Commission and its staff on their skilful work to produce this report. It is one of considerable detail and, therefore, it is fallible. I believe that it contains some errors. I tried to point them out to the Joint Committee of which I am a member. Despite what has been said by some of the legal brethren in the House, I do not think the system is especially good. I was clearly not welcome at the Joint Committee—

Mr. Donald Anderson


Mr. Mackinlay

I did not mean to be—

Mr. Anderson

I would never describe my hon. Friend as a troublemaker. I was suggesting that some less enlightened souls might consider him one.

Mr. Mackinlay

Anyway, I went along to do my duty by this House, in the belief that there was an error in one aspect of the report; but I could not escape the feeling that it was considered a cheek that someone who was not a lawyer should question the judgment of the Law Commission and of some noble and learned peers. I queried the definition of the statutes or parts of statutes that should be the subject of repeal: where the legislation is spent, obsolete, unnecessary or otherwise not now of practical utility.

I checked with the Clerks of the House before I went to the Joint Committee to find out what my duties and rights were. I was told that I could move amendments to the Bill, so I did and put forward the fact that the Abdication Act 1936 should be repealed. Their Lordships immediately raised their eyebrows, but if one applies the test of whether an Act is spent, obsolete, unnecessary or otherwise not now a practical utility, the Abdication Act 1936 neatly falls into that category.

There are two reasons why their Lordships did not accept my suggestion: first, it was coming from an "oik" and, secondly, it had not gone through all their machinery. They could not accept that somebody other than them could make a sensible suggestion about deleting some clutter from the statute book. There is probably a third reason: that there are some things that the establishment—particularly here—just do not like tampering with. They think that sensitive issues such as the Abdication Act, although spent and obsolete, raise matters into which they do not want to trespass; my suggestion was therefore rejected.

I particularly drew their Lordships' attention—and I do so here this evening—to what is contained in part II of schedule 1 to the Bill, which will repeal some words from the Regency Act 1937. I detain the House on this matter because I think that there is an important point of principle here. It is my view that some Acts of Parliament are not the sole property of this Parliament. They are what I would call constitutional Acts—those that relate to the Head of State and the matter of succession. They are the property not only of this legislature but of some 15 or 16 legislatures in the world where Her Majesty the Queen is Head of State.

We must pause and think whether it is a matter of constitutional propriety that we should make that amendment, because the Regency Act was passed in accordance with the provisions of the Statute of Westminster 1931, so it can be repealed or amended only in accordance with the provisions of that statute.

What was the Statute of Westminster? It said that the dominions, which in 1931 were Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish free state, are totally free and independent and that Westminster can pass legislation for them only at their request. It went on to say: any alteration in the law touching the Succession to the Throne or the Royal Style and Titles shall hereafter require the assent as well of the Parliaments of all the Dominions as of the Parliament of the United Kingdom". It seems to me that any amendment to the Regency Act, no matter how small, is subject to that part of the Statute of Westminster that says that it cannot be altered—there is an impediment to its alteration or repeal—unless it is done with the assent of the Parliaments of the dominions. [Interruption.]

I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), as he is muttering.

Mr. Boateng

I am not sure that "muttering" is fair. I was thinking to myself in a sedentary position and articulating the thoughts as they came into my head. I would not describe that as a mutter.

My hon. Friend was making an interesting point, and I wonder whether he would share with the House whether he has raised the matter with the Clerks? It is something on which they may well have a view.

Mr. Mackinlay

I meant no discourtesy to my hon. Friend, but I must also come back to him with a retort and say, "Of course I did." Of course I raised it with the Clerks. I raised it with them extensively. Indeed, I would not have been able to persuade the Chairman of Ways and Means to contemplate calling some of my amendments in Committee later tonight if there was no credibility in what I have to say. So I passed the hurdle—if it was one—of discussing it with the Clerks.

Anybody who looks at the matter dispassionately will find that, although the hon. Member for Thurrock has no legal qualifications, he has a point—and, if he has a point, people should tread with caution. Given the ramifications, if this place ignores what I consider to be matters of constitutional propriety in relation to the dominions—of which there are some 16—there could be profound consequences.

Let us consider two hypotheses. First, let us suppose that Her Majesty the Queen wished at some stage to abdicate, retire or relinquish her main duties, and to hand over to a regent. Secondly, let us suppose that the Prince of Wales divorced and wished to marry again. Legislation would be needed in the House of Commons, and in every other legislature where the Queen is Head of State. That is why we cannot trespass regardless into the Regency Act: the matter must be dealt with simultaneously in the other legislatures.

On 27 April, I asked the Under-Secretary whether, if we were contemplating repealing or amending the Regency Act, other dominions would be consulted in accordance with the Statute of Westminster. He replied that they would. Subsequently—I rather regret this—I asked a further question relating directly to the Statute Law (Repeals) Bill, drawing attention to the fact that the regency legislation was to be amended. The Under-Secretary then replied, "I am advised that it is not necessary."

Mr. Donald Anderson

Was that a distinction between something that was necessary as a result of a statutory obligation, and something that was courteous and proper as a result of a convention?

Mr. Mackinlay

My own view is that there is an obligation on us to consult the dominions. Under the Statute of Westminster, they have a right to say, "We would like Westminster to enact the legislation on our behalf'; but things have moved on since 1931. Canada, for example, has had its constitution repatriated. Canada would now encounter an impediment in asking Westminster to legislate for it, even if it wished to do so, but it should nevertheless be advised of the need to amend the Regency Act and make it part of its own constitutional legislation in Ottawa.

From what I can make out from parliamentary answers, Her Majesty's Government did not extend that courtesy, but they should have. I consider this a dangerous precedent. While the repeal amendment may be pretty obscure and, in an overall context, unimportant, it is not unimportant in terms of constitutional principles and proprieties. It illustrates the fact that we need a present-day equivalent of the imperial or dominion conferences of 1926 and 1930, which were precursors of the introduction of the Statute of Westminster, to clarify how we should deal with amendments to regency legislation and legislation relating to succession, and so forth.

I asked the then Foreign Office Minister, the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), which of the dominions to which we had granted independence had in their constitutions provision for the application of section 4 of the Statute of Westminster. He replied: This information cannot be obtained at a reasonable cost"— [Official Report, 28 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 873.] I find that astonishing and dangerous; but it probably also explains why the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department changed his mind in the time between two parliamentary questions. One parliamentary answer said, "Yes, of course we will consult about the changes to the Regency Act legislation." A few days later, when I pointed out that an amendment was being proposed in the form of the Bill that we are discussing, he changed his mind and said, "I am advised that it is not necessary."

Mr. Boateng

My hon. Friend should not be surprised when the Minister changes his mind on a matter because of amendments. The Minister seems increasingly prone to do that and I doubt whether my hon. Friend was surprised by the Minister's response to his amendment, was he?

Mr. Mackinlay

That Minister is one of the nice people in the House and has always treated me very courteously. However, I was disappointed because I had hoped that he would see that there was a matter on which he should caution the Lord Chancellor and other Ministers—that this part of the Bill ought to be amended because it trespasses on the sensitive area of interfering with the law of the dominions, because the Regency Act 1937 is part of their law.

Mr. Donald Anderson

I am puzzled, but not surprised, by the response that it would require a disproportionate charge to public funds to find what is, after all, a relatively simple answer to a simple question. One knows how many dominions there are and any reasonable Commonwealth constitutional lawyer could speedily ascertain from the relevant textbooks the answer to my hon. Friend's question.

Mr. Mackinlay

I cannot help feeling that somebody advised the Under-Secretary not to take too much trouble on the matter because, "The hon. Member for Thurrock will not be taken seriously." If people do not take this matter seriously, sooner or later there will be acute embarrassment. That will arise either because of circumstances relating to Her Majesty the Queen or the Prince of Wales, or when there is a need for new regency legislation, and this place stumbles across the fact that there is no real mechanism for consulting the Governments of the dominions of which the Queen is Head of State and those Parliaments simultaneously enacting the necessary legislation.

I can live with the arrogance that has been demonstrated against me by the Government and by some very distinguished Law Lords, but sooner or later the crunch will come. When it does, I shall not hesitate to remind the House that I told it so. First, there is a need for this matter to be taken out of the Bill. Secondly, during the Commonwealth Prime Ministers conference this week, the Prime Minister should at least initiate some side discussions with the Prime Ministers of those countries of which the Queen is Head of State and talk about the need for a conference to find a mechanism to deal with Acts that transcend national boundaries and are not peculiar to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but relate to other countries too.

Mr. Anderson


Mr. Mackinlay

I shall give way for the last time, because I am trying to concentrate and it takes great skill to do that on these issues.

Mr. Anderson

As I recall it, the Bill came before the House in July and was suddenly removed without explanation by the Government. Was my hon. Friend told whether that was in response to the interesting point that he had raised to which it appears the Government had no answer at that time?

Mr. Mackinlay

That matter was on my original notes, but I deleted it. Earlier today, Madam Speaker spoke about the courtesies of the House. In July, I came prepared to make the speech that I am now delivering and tabled amendments. Without any explanation from the Minister or his parliamentary private secretary, the matter was "pulled"—I think that is the term. In any event, it did not proceed. I thought that that was rather bad form by gentlemen, but I have to live with that.

It should not have happened, particularly when I was asked today through certain channels whether I intended to press my amendments to a vote. That seems one-sided. People want me to extend some courtesies, but courtesy was not extended to me in July. That, however, is a matter of history. I just want to reiterate that, sooner or later, unless the Government take this matter up with some vigour with the other Governments, it will return to haunt the House.

The proposal in the Bill's schedule is that the words "the Government of India" should be deleted. The argument is that that is clearly inappropriate as India is a republic. I accept that, but the subject of the dominions must be considered. In essence, one could argue that the Regency Act is obsolete because it would be difficult to implement. If and when it needed to be implemented, because the monarch either had died or could no longer fulfil the duties of his or her office, there would be enormous problems in securing clearance of the dominions. The matter needs to be reconsidered. It is not therefore merely a question of words relating to India, which is now a republic; we must recognise that the Act is obsolete in relation to the dominions as well.

On that note, I hope that the Solicitor-General will reflect that the Government need to reconsider the matter and support the withdrawal of this part of the Bill.

9.20 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

First, I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Am I allowed to speak on a subject other than the amendments?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

We are on Second Reading, so the answer is yes, but hon. Members must speak on the Bill before us.

Dr. Godman

With you in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would not do anything other than that.

I am concerned about certain parts of the Bill. My concerns are so serious that, unless I receive certain assurances from the Solicitor-General, I am prepared to divide the House. The introduction to the Bill claims that it is an Act to promote the reform of the statute law by the repeal, in accordance with recommendations of the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission, of certain enactments which … are no longer of practical utility". I am not here to talk about the English Law Commission; I wish to question certain recommendations of the Scottish Law Commission.

May I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to schedule 1, page 32? It mentions the repeal of the Herring Fisheries (Scotland) Acts 1821 to 1890. I am concerned about their repeal. Hon. Members may think that they are ancient and have no relevance today, but that is not the case. My argument—I am seeking guidance from the Government's Law Officers—is that those Acts strengthen the provisions of the Fisheries Act 1705, popularly known to Scottish fishermen as the Queen Anne Act.

The Queen Anne Act, which was passed in Edinburgh in May 1705, is still in being. I think that I am right in saying that, in relation to the interests of our inshore fishermen, it was strengthened by the Herring Fisheries (Scotland) Acts. That is my concern. Do not some of those Acts strengthen the Queen Anne Act in certain regards?

The Queen Anne Act allows our fishermen to use our harbours for the landing of fish, the mooring of fishing vessels, the laying out of nets and other gear on the quayside and the mending of gear and pots. It might be thought that that is a trivial matter, but I speak as an honorary president of the Clyde Fishermen's Association, and I can assure the House that every one of our members knows about the Queen Anne Act. I used it recently against the Scottish Development Agency and Renfrewshire Enterprise, which sought to drive some of our fishermen members out of the East India harbour in Greenock.

I am not sure whether the Solicitor-General knows that the 1705 Act was incorporated in the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984. I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that it was felt at the time that the Herring Fisheries (Scotland) Acts passed so long ago in the 19th century could stand on their own in relation to the Queen Anne Act.

With my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), I played a small part in that initiative, and the Scottish Fisheries Minister who so graciously accepted our amendment so that the Queen Anne Act continued in being was the then Mr. John Mackay, who these days is a Minister in another place. He recognised the importance not only of the Queen Anne Act but of the Herring Fisheries (Scotland) Acts of 1821 to 1890.

I ask the Solicitor-General whether I am right in my assumption that the Herring Fisheries (Scotland) Acts strengthen the protection that was given to fishermen 120 years earlier, just before the Union took place in 1707. Are those Acts being repealed because he and his colleagues believe that they are in contravention of European Union fisheries laws? Do Ministers believe that the Acts—despite what the Scottish Law Commission may have recommended, they give our fishermen some protection—conflict with regulations brought into being by the EU common fisheries policy? Are the Government heading off a possible dispute with the European Court of Justice?

Can the hon. and learned Gentleman give me his word that the repeal of the herring fisheries Acts will not harm in any way the interests of our inshore fishermen? I remind him about the six-mile limit to our territorial waters. Indeed, the Government Whip, the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), is quite an expert on such matters, and if he had not taken a vow of silence, he could probably come to the Dispatch Box and give me the assurance I seek—that, by and large, within that six miles we are still in control of our fisheries and fishing grounds, and that it is in general those inshore waters to which the herring fisheries Acts applied and, I believe, still apply as we approach the end of the 20th century.

I make no apology for detaining the House, because such matters are of concern to our fishermen in Scotland. As I said earlier, somewhat immodestly, the Queen Anne Act was used against the Scottish Development Agency, and then Renfrewshire Enterprise, when an attempt was made to drive our fishermen out of the East India harbour.

When I told the Scottish Development Agency's lawyers that it could not throw fishermen out of our harbours, they confessed that they knew nothing of the Queen Anne Act. I seek an assurance from the Minister that in throwing out the Acts we shall not harm our fishermen in any way. That is particularly the case in respect of the development of our harbours in the interests of those who would promote the tourist industry over and above the interests of our fishermen and their families.

I am looking for an assurance that the Scottish Law Commission consulted widely, and by that I mean with the fishing communities. I also want to know whether the Solicitor-General—as there is no Scottish Office Minister here—is of the considered opinion that our fishermen will not be harmed in any way by the repeal of the Acts. If he cannot give me that assurance or promise he that he will investigate my concerns, I am prepared to divide this House.

9.30 pm
The Solicitor-General

I shall deal first with the point exercising the mind of the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). I think that I can reassure him about the workings of the Bill in relation to the Herring Fisheries (Scotland) Acts 1821 to 1890: only the collective short title of the Acts is repealed by the Bill. The contents of the Acts were repealed between 1934 and 1984. The one exception is the White Herring Fisheries Act 1771, which the Bill does not touch.

Accordingly, the Joint Committee in another place reported that the enactments proposed to be repealed under the Bill were no longer of practical utility, and approved their repeal. I hope that, with those words, I have set the hon. Gentleman's mind fair with regard to the White Herring Fisheries Act.

Dr. Godman

Will the Solicitor-General assure me that the Government have no intention of repealing the Fisheries Act 1705?

The Solicitor-General

The hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware that we are in the Hallowe'en season, and that we are fast approaching Christmas, but I have not just fallen off a Christmas tree. I have no intention of giving any such undertaking, which will not surprise him.

I wish to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), who asserted that there was a "logjam" in law reform and in the enactment of statute law repeal Bills. I am pleased that we will be able to rely in future on the full-hearted support of the Opposition both in this House and in another place in regard to law reform and the related matter of statute law repeal. But we must distinguish between them, as they are not the same. Every Act proposed for repeal—this Bill proposes to repea; many—needs detailed research, and those undertaking that work constitute only a few of the Law Commission's staff.

There is no financial constraint. It is quite simply that research takes time, even with modern methods, computers and extensive databases. The commission must give equal priority to law reform measures, and these take up the greater part of manpower resources. Mr. Justice Brooke is to be congratulated on the energy with which he performs his duties as chairman of the Law Commission.

I have carefully considered what the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) said and have carefully read the exchanges in the Joint Committee between him and the parliamentary draftsman about this and related issues. Having given the matter my best consideration, it is my concluded view that he has, albeit inadvertently, fallen into error in his interpretation of the Statute of Westminster 1931.

If the hon. Member for Thurrock would care to elaborate the arguments contained in his amendments, I will attempt to do them full justice. In summary, for the present I limit myself to saying that the Statute of Westminster requires the assent of the Parliaments of the dominions to any alteration in the law touching the succession to the throne—I emphasise, the succession to the throne.

The Regency Act 1937 does not have that effect. It merely erects a mechanism in case the sovereign is incapacitated. That is why, in substance, the Statute of Westminster requirements do not bite on the provisions of the 1937 Act.

Mr. Mackinlay

The Regency Act 1937 was enacted in accordance with the provisions of the Statute of Westminster. From what I can ascertain, the dominions were consulted on that occasion, which buttresses my argument that its amendment or repeal would have to be conducted in accordance with the same procedure or procedures that have come into being subsequently—for example, Canada now has a repatriated constitution.

In any event, there is also the question of common courtesy. The Government should have shown courtesy to the other 15 or 16 dominions by saying that we were contemplating making this marginal amendment and asking whether they had any objections or whether there was any impediment. That was not done, which was discourteous, but I think that it was also necessary because the 1937 Act was enacted in accordance with the Statute of Westminster.

The Solicitor-General

I fear that the hon. Gentleman is incorrect. When the then Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, moved the Regency Bill in this House, he made its function clear. He was explicit in explaining how it affected only the sovereign in the circumstances that I outlined. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no constitutional impediment and no discourtesy in regard to the proposed repeal. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office have been consulted. No one else ought to have been consulted, either in law or in courtesy. I must repeat that, in suggesting otherwise, the hon. Gentleman is in error.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills), That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]

Question agreed to.

Clauses 1 to 3 agreed to.

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