HL Deb 30 July 1896 vol 43 cc1014-9

asked Her Majesty's Government whether it was the fact that the Dost, Office Consolidation Bill, which had passed through a Joint Committee of both Houses, had been withdrawn, and what was the reason for throwing away the labours of that Committee on a wholly uncontentious Bill?


said he had been asked by the Postmaster General (the Duke of Norfolk), to express his regret at his unavoidable absence that day. There were several Amendments on the Paper to this Bill in the House of Commons which would have led to considerable discussion, and at this period of the Session it would have been impossible to pass a Bill of 93 clauses if any Members intended, as some did, to contest its passage at every stage.


said this was a matter of much greater importance than it seemed at first sight to be. Their Lordships were probably aware that for a considerable time there had been an effort to consolidate a great variety of the Statutes. Statutes had sometimes been passed on the same subject at an interval of a century, and those who wished to know what the law on a particular subject was had to search through the Statute Book. A very learned body of persons had been engaged in putting the Statutes together and harmonising them so that it might be possible for people to know what was the whole of the Statute law with reference to the subject with which they were dealing. He regretted very much the case of the Bill which the noble Lord had referred to; there were thousands of postmasters in this country, and it was most unfortunate that they should not have at hand the Statutes applicable to their particular functions. But a matter of far greater importance was raised than the case of a particular Bill, because it appeared to him that this was the commencement of a practice which would render anything like consolidation of the Statutes absolutely impossible. The learned persons to whom he had referred were Government draftsmen, who, as they were aware, did their work admirably, and some years ago it was the practice to take these Consolidation Bills from them and to pass them through the House with the simple statement that they were Consolidation Bills. The question, however, was raised whether by inadvertence any part of the law might thus be altered without the assent of Parliament, and as a remedy against that possible contingency an arrangement was made by the First Lord of the Treasury—his late lamented Friend Mr. W. H. Smith—and by himself that there should be a Joint Committee of both Houses on which there should be an equal number of Peers and Members of the House of Commons, and that they should have the supervision of the work done by the Treasury draftsmen. That system had gone on for a considerable time, and perhaps their Lordships would allow him to tell them what had happened. It was the duty of the draftsman—which was attended to with admirable efficiency—not to attempt to alter the law, but to photograph it as it was and bring it as far as possible into the language of the present day. The necessity for that was apparent when they considered they were putting together statutes which might have been passed at an interval of a century. The business was most carefully done in the first instance. Then came the work of the Committee. The draftsman attended with the Bills that had been consolidated, and the Committee examined, word by word and line by line, everything that had been done in the way of alteration. The alteration was chiefly of phraseology. In the particular case now under discussion he had had considerable difficulty in altering the language with reference to postal packets, because a statute that was appropriate in the days of the mail coach was not so in the time of the postal packet. He gave that as an example. When an alteration of the law seemed to be involved, a Committee, composed of an equal number of Peers and Members of the House of Commons, considered whether an alteration of the law was desirable. He did not believe a system could be devised which was more careful in theory or practice. An enormous amount of trouble had been taken by the draftsman in the first instance, and the Joint Committee of both Houses in going through this statute of 93 clauses. It was not a very lively or exciting occupation to go through ancient statutes and boil them down into a modern statute, and it would not be possible to get Members of the House of Commons or of their Lordships' House to go through this laborious and careful work if it was afterwards to be cast aside at the instance of any one Member who thought he would take an opportunity to amend the law where he thought it defective. If that system were pursued it would be absolutely impossible be pursue this must useful work. It was not respectful to the Members of either House who had taken part in this laborious work. Lord Thring, who was familiar with the whole system of Parliamentary drafting, rendered invaluable service in seeing that the law was not altered; also the Chairman of Committees, and his noble and learned Friend Lord Herschell. Whether any other system of doing this work could be contrived, or whether the gentleman (who was not one of the six Members who gave their assistance) could do it better or not, the whole system must break down if Amendments were to be made on Bills of this kind, and it was hopeless to attempt anything like consolidation. This Bill of 93 clauses was not to become law because of this objection. It only showed what mischief might be done. If the practice was not suppressed by the action of the House and in another place, he for one would hesitate to ask his noble Friends to waste their time in work which might be rendered perfectly useless. He regretted that Mr. George Howell, who was formerly a Member of the House of Commons, was not a Member now, for he was most earnest and useful in this work. He ought also to say that the Irish Members who had attended had rendered useful assistance. So it was not a question of any political Party or any side of the House, but whether it should be in the power of some one person to set at nought all the efforts made in the useful work of legal consolidation. The House of Commons should take means to prevent so gross an abuse.


said he desired to say a few words in hearty concurrence of what the Lord Chancellor had said. He himself did not think, whoever had stopped this Bill or been the means of its being abandoned from a desire to bring about certain alterations in the law, could have realised how much valuable work he had been the means of throwing away, or how much injury was done without any compensating advantage. The consolidation of the statute law had been of the highest value. The public had learned to appreciate it and feel its value. All consolidation was absolutely and utterly impossible if they attempted to amend the law when a Consolidation Bill was passing through Parliament. Consolidation was only possible on the understanding and condition that when anyone wanted to amend the law it should be first consolidated that they might, know what it was. That seemed not only desirable, but the common-sense and reasonable course, because they were, in a much better position to make an Amendment of the law when it had been clearly and accurately defined by being brought together in a single statute. Consolidation Bills could never be passed unless that understanding was carried out, and when a Joint Committee of the two Houses had expended a great deal of time and labour over what was not particularly exhilarating, that of consolidating the statute law, it was hard that they should find their time and labour thrown away because some individual (or more than one) thought there was something in the law that needed alteration. To his mind, if such a practice was to continue, it suggested the serious question whether there ought not to be some provision against it, and whether it ought not to be put out of the power of individual Members—while it was open to them to suggest that the law was not properly represented in the Consolidation Bill in the form in which it was—to attempt on the Consolidation Bill to procure an Amendment of the law. Unless there was either a kind of honourable understanding that Consolidation Bills should be allowed to pass without any attempt to make a substantive Amendment of the law, or means were taken to prevent the labours of the Committee such as sat on this Bill—being thrown away, it was perfectly certain that Members of this and the other House, whose time was often of great value, would not be induced, and could not be expected, to allow their time to be wasted and their efforts frustrated when they exerted themselves to bring the law on a particular subject into a satisfactory state.


said he had been so long interested in the statute law that he might be allowed to add a few words to those of his noble and learned Friends. If this Bill was to be abandoned in the way it had been it would put an end, absolutely, to all improvement in the statute law. It was a point of the greatest possible importance. The only mode of bringing English statute, law, good as it was in substance, bad as it was in form, into available form in some degree resembling the Codes of the Continent, was the system of consolidating Bills without Amendment. The effect of this consolidation was to bring together numerous statutes, sometimes the contents of 50 or 60, in an intelligible form. That form was, as far as it could be, a mere photograph, as the Lord Chancellor had said, of the existing law, and it would be fair and reasonable for any Member in either House to object to the Bill on the ground that it was not a proper photograph. But if the fad of some Member who wished to alter the law as to the parcels post or something else was to be permitted, no Bill could be passed at all. When he first served on the Committee, it, was agreed by the Lord Chancellor and everyone connected with it that, by passive agreement between the two Houses, no Amendment should be moved in a Bill except Amendments showing the Bill had not been fairly and honestly done. If the Government did not put their foot down in the House of Commons and say they would bring their majority to bear, and declare that no Amendments should be moved on a Bill except Amendments impugning the accuracy of the consolidation, the whole system would fall to the ground. With regard to the labour bestowed on the Bill, it would not become him to plead any vexation at his labour being thrown aside. It was not that. He had for 25 years been engaged in preparing Acts of Parliament, and, in his opinion, it was a miserable thing that the fad of one or two Members should nut be crushed by the Government, but that, they should be allowed to put an end to the only system of codification that, could improve the law of England.