HL Deb 17 May 1916 vol 21 cc1059-61

My Lords, I desire to ask a question of the Government with regard to the Military Service Bill, and perhaps it will be convenient that I should do so before the ordinary business of the House. The Military Service Bill was circulated this morning, and I believe it is going to be read a first time to-day and a second time to-morrow. The system of legislation by reference has been carried in this Bill to a most extraordinary extent. If your Lordships will look at the measure you will see that almost every clause in it refers to a section in some other Act, and repeals or alters it or substitutes new words. On receiving the Bill I tried to read it, but I could not understand in the least what it was about. If one had the advantage of the Government draftsman's assistance, then one would be able to understand it; but as placed before the House the Bill is, to me at any rate, absolutely unintelligible. The Government draftsmen have adopted this system of legislation by reference and I suppose they will continue the practice, but where they do so a Memorandum ought certainly to be circulated with the Bill explaining the effect of each individual clause which proposes to alter the existing law. It is only in that way that we can arrive at the real meaning of the changes proposed to be made. Your Lordships may go to the Library and hunt about in the Acts of Parliament referred to, and it is even then very doubtful whether you will be able directly to appreciate the changes which are proposed. I hope, not with regard to the Military Service Bill alone but with regard to every Government Bill in which the legislation is by reference, that a Memorandum will be circulated to inform the House what the contents of the Bill mean. The present practice is becoming a serious nuisance.


My Lords, my noble friend, who is a great stickler for regularity in our proceedings, has, I am afraid, been guilty of a great irregularity in the speech which he has just made; for he has been commenting upon a Bill which is not yet before the House, though hope it will be read a first time before we are much older. But I have no doubt your Lordships will overlook the offence, if it be one, and permit me to say two or three words in reply to my noble friend. He complains that the Military Service Bill is a glaring example of the practice of legislation by reference, which we all of us dislike, and which I have heard again and again condemned in this House. I admit that. On the other hand, I think I am right in saving that most of the Statutes to which reference is made in this Bill are of quite recent date, and they are therefore Statutes with which those of your Lordships who have paid attention to this subject are fairly familiar. At any rate, so far as the practical proposal is concerned I am afraid it would be quite out of the question now to redraft this Bill and to require it to recommence its Parliamentary career. I am also told that if all references had been dispensed with in the Bill, the measure would have assumed the most unwieldy proportions. My noble friend made a suggestion, which I certainly should not wish to brush on one side—namely, that in the case of a complicated measure it would be for the convenience of your Lordships' House if the Government were to circulate with the Bill a Memorandum explanatory of its contents. I rather think that has been done on some occasions; but there would have been a difficulty in this case, for the Memorandum obviously could not have been at all complete until the Bill had passed through the House of Commons, and that, as my noble friend knows, only took place a few hours ago. I admit that the Bill as we have it is complicated and requires a certain amount of attention before it can be understood, but I feel quite sure that my noble friend's capacity for tackling intricate questions will enable him without difficulty to master the contents of the measure.