HL Deb 18 March 1958 vol 208 cc247-55

3.22 p.m.

LORD SILKIN rose to ask the Leader of the House what matters are in order for discussion on the Motion "That the House resolve itself into a Committee on the said Bill". The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. It arises out of a discussion that took place on February 25 last on the Overseas Service Bill. The House had before it a Motion That the House do now resolve itself into Committee on the said Bill, and a noble Lord stood up on that Motion and delivered himself of a speech, which lasted a quarter of an hour or more, on the merits of the Bill itself which had nothing whatever to do with the Motion, or whether the House should go into Committee or not. That speech was replied to by a noble Lord from the Government Front Bench in a speech which lasted about a quarter of an hour. Between them, the two noble Lords took twenty-six minutes.

In my opinion, the reply was equally irrelevant to the Motion itself, and I rose to a point of order. I asked whether this kind of debate was relevant to the Motion that the House resolve itself into a Committee, and I was informed that the noble Lord who had first spoken had done so at the invitation of a junior Minister. I thought that that was a hopeless reply, because a junior Minister has no more authority to break Standing Orders than anybody else. I was also told that there were precedents for this. Of course, I was in some difficulty about precedents. There was nothing that I could say and the discussion duly went on.

Later, I went into the precedents, and I found that I was referred to two. The first arose on the London Naval Treaty Bill, 1937, when, on a similar Motion, a noble Lord who had not spoken on Second Reading made the speech which he could have made, and would have made if he had been available, on Second Reading; and that started a longish debate. That was, of course, a relevant precedent, but, I submit, a very bad one. The second precedent occurred on the Public Utilities Bill, which was submitted to your Lordships' House in 1950. On a similar Motion, a noble Lord who is fortunately still with us, though he is not in the Chamber this afternoon, raised the point that the Bill was so difficult to follow that he and his friends had not been able to put down any Amendments. He asked whether the Government of the day would either take the Bill back and reintroduce one in simpler language or discuss the matter with his friends on the local authorities and then come back and have the Committee stage. I would say that that was a borderline case—probably on the wrong side of the border. But your Lordships' House is always tolerant. We do not get many points of Order, raised here, and I think that I should not have quarrelled violently with a decision that that kind of discussion was in order. So we are left with one precedent, which I submit, is a bad one.

Your Lordships may ask: what is wrong with having a discussion on a Motion of this kind, on the points which were overlooked on Second Reading? I would ask your Lordships to consider for a moment what are the potentialities of such a proceeding. One could carry on a debate on this Motion—and in another place one probably would—for a couple of days. That would be quite possible, if it were open to any noble Lord to stand up and discuss once more the merits of a Bill, to go on and refer to all the speeches made on Second Reading, and so on for a couple of days. What a wonderful opportunity for obstruction! This practice introduces an additional stage of a Bill. It may be a good thing that we should be able to pick up points made on Second Reading and deal with them at a later stage before coming to the Committee. It might be a very desirable thing to be able to do that; but if that is what is wanted, I would submit to your Lordships that a new Standing Order to enable that to be done should be tabled. Let us discuss it, and come to a decision on it. I would respectfully submit that if such a Motion did come before your Lordships, the House would unanimously reject it.

So I come back to the question: what kind of discussion can take place on the Motion, That the House resolve itself into a Committee on a Bill? If I may suggest the answer, we may discuss anything which relates to the business of the House. This is a purely business or procedural Motion, and is moved in order to allow us to discuss anything which relates to this particular process in the stages of the Bill; but nothing more. I hope that the noble Earl the Leader of the House will be able to give us an answer in definite terms on those lines. Finally, may I assure the noble Lord who is the main culprit that this is in no sense a personal matter? He was almost incited to make his speech and was allowed to go on; and I have nothing against him. I feel, however, that this is a matter affecting the good procedure of the House: it ought to be cleared up, and it is for that reason that I have put down this Question.

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, referred at the beginning of his speech, to Standing Orders, but I think that he found at the end that there is no Standing Order covering the matter to which he refers; and I do not think that he will find one. There are a great many things which your Lordships may do but which we do not do, and I submit that they are much better left alone. For example, any noble Lord may get up and speak when your Lordships sit as a Court of Appeal, but I do not know what would happen if any noble Lord did so. Nobody has ever been able to tell me what would happen. But it is something which your Lordships never do, and I think it is much better left like that.

The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has brought up the question of what can or cannot be discussed upon the Motion that the House go into Committee on a certain Bill, and he has referred, by implication, to the speech of my noble friend Lord Milverton. Although the practice is seldom adopted I believe it to be strictly in order. It is difficult to define what can or cannot be discussed on such a Motion. It may be that a noble Lord thinks it important that, when the House goes into Committee, the Committee should have in their minds, in dealing with the Amendments to be proposed, certain considerations which he could not properly bring forward by some amendment on Clause 1; and he may think it necessary for that reason to bring those considerations to the notice of your Lordships.

The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has referred to two precedents, but yesterday I suddenly remembered another one—it was, I think, in 1948. The Government of the day, to which the noble Lord belonged, then brought in a Bill, and as the points are relevant to this discussion, I will remind your Lordships of what they are. In 1948 the Government brought in the Public Registers and Records (Scotland) Bill. It was so quietly brought in that people in Scotland were unaware of what was going on until the Bill was actually on foot and in your Lordships' House. I remember that I got the brief on the Bill only when I was entering the House to listen to the Second Reading speech of the late Lord Morrison. Contrary to what the Government genuinely thought, it was a very controversial measure, and noble Lords opposed it strongly. However, the Government were quite adamant. They took a great deal of trouble, and brought the experts concerned with the working of the Bill to persuade the objectors in your Lordships' House; and if my noble friend Lord Selkirk were here, he could testify to the loyalty and earnestness with which they did their persuading. The Motion that the House should go into Committee on the Bill was strongly opposed, and the Opposition suggested that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee. That suggestion was supported by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Thankerton, Lord Simon and Lord Normand: the House did not actually get into Committee, and the debate was adjourned.

The point that I am making arises out of this fact: the Government wisely appointed a special Committee outside Parliament, under Lord Macmillan, who heard evidence on oath. And it will amuse your Lordships to know that the evidence of the very experts whom we had heard so persuasively before was against the Bill; and when the Bill came back into Committee it contained Government Amendments which entirely altered it. The public registers of Scotland were thus saved from a confusion which I am sure the Government never intended for them. Here I should like to pay tribute to the scrupulous fairness and the candour of the late Lord Morrison in dealing with the matter.

In that case there was determined opposition to the principle of the Bill, which was actually a Second Reading matter; the opposition was raised on the Motion that the House should go into Committee, yet it redounded greatly to the services of the country; and the Government, were, I think, grateful for what was done, because they were saved from a mistake. I think this shows how valuable the Constitution of your Lordships' House is to the institutions of the country, and that we should not disturb them, even though it may sometimes cause a little irritation and inconvenience. I feel that it would be unwise to diminish powers which are called upon only at long and rare intervals, but which can, as I have shown, be useful. I hope that the noble Earl who is to reply to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, agrees with that; but if he does not, I should like to point out to him that there is a Committee on Procedure of the House (at least I think there is) where the matter can be threshed out at greater length.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I speak from a totally different point of view from that of my noble friend Lord Silkin. He has occupied office with distinction, and will do so again. I am a private Member, and shall always remain a private Member; and it is from that angle that I approach the subject. I think the noble Earl, Lord Home, would admit that the wording of the Question itself implies that he has an authority in these matters which he would be the last to claim. He can advise the House, but the House decides these matters for itself. Seeing, further, that there is no such thing as obstruction in this House, only on the most rare occasions (I think only once have I known it, when Lord Arnold tried to obstruct a Coal Bill, and Lord Cave, quite improperly, as I believe, put the Question without the consent of the House) I would plead, as a private Member, that we should not interfere with the flexibility of debate in this House.

In point of fact, it is unnecessary to look up precedents, although that which the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, has cited is an excellent one, because in the Companion to the Standing Orders the words used are "is not ordinarily debated"; and in my copy, which is an old one, there is a further sentence, which now appears to have disappeared, saying that there have been occasions on which it has been done. Therefore, with great respect to my noble friend, but speaking as a private Member, and valuing the privileges and opportunities—which have never been abused—for people to express their mind, I hope the reply of the noble Earl. Lord Home, will be that he will not advise an alteration in the sense asked for by my noble friend Lord Silkin.

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may say a word or two as the innocent but, I am afraid, still unrepentant transgressor in the case to which reference has been made. This was an occasion when I thought, rightly or wrongly, that I possessed a peculiar knowledge of the subject, and it seemed to me from the speeches made on the Second Reading of the Bill that the House did not fully understand, not so much what the Bill was going to do but what it was not going to do, and what it certainly ought to have been doing, in order to do the justice to a Service which I think was desired. I did speak on the Second Reading, and I was challenged as to what I should have done, apart from critical comments on the Bill, if I had had the power, and to put up a constructive solution, which I endeavoured to do. But my idea was that it would be wrong for this House to go into Committee on the Bill, and pass Clause 1 of the Bill, which in my opinion was quite inadequate for the purpose which it was designed to serve. My only other course, which I did not want to adopt, would have been to propose in Committee that Clause 1 be deleted from the Bill, thereby wrecking the entire Bill and some—but only some—of the good which it was designed to do.


My Lords, I should like to put one question to the noble Earl who is to reply: it is really out of curiosity, but I think it has some relevance to our debate. What would be the effect of negativing this Resolution, that the House resolve itself into a Committee on the Bill? Does it mean merely that we do not go into Committee then and there, or that we never go into Committee?

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, for raising this question, which is of some importance to our procedure. I should not quarrel with the noble Lord's account of the earlier proceedings which gave rise to his Question. No blame attaches to my noble friend Lord Milverton, who, as Lord Silkin said, was acting under a mild stimulant administered by one of my colleagues. But I did think, when I came into the House on that occasion, that the speech he was making would have been more appropriate on the question that Clause 1 stand part than on the Motion that the House go into Committee. I cannot tell my noble friend Lord Saltoun what would be the result if he exercised his right to intervene in the Judicial Business of this House. But if it is becoming fashionable for Ministers to incite noble Lords to test cases here and there, I must say that I am sorely tempted to incite him to try.

We do not hind ourselves in this House by strict and rigid Rules, and therefore I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, will expect me to lay down any hard-and-fast rules as to what matters may and what may not be discussed on the Motion, "That the House do resolve itself into Committee on the said Bill." But, as the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, has indicated, I think I might go so far as to try to give some guidance for your Lordships to consider. Therefore, I am grateful that we have had a little time between the day when the noble Lord first raised this and to-day, in order that I may take advice. For greater accuracy, therefore, I propose to read to your Lordships what I think would probably meet the wishes of the House and be the convenient procedure on a Motion of this kind.

There may always be exceptional circumstances which justify exceptional courses, and the precedents show that speeches which are not strictly relevant to the Motion we are discussing have on occasion been permitted. This, while I certainly think it is not generally desirable, may sometimes be for the convenience of the House. In general, however, it is not desirable that the Motion to go into Committee should be regarded as an opportunity for further discussion of the general principles of a Bill. According to the recognised practice of Parliament, a decision is reached on these, including alternatives to the Bill, on the Second Reading. It would not conform with our normal practice if general principles were to be discussed again on the Motion for going into Committee. On the Third Reading we discuss whether the Bill, as it has passed through the Committee stage, with or without Amendments, should be accepted by the House.

There are, however, matters which are certainly relevant to the Motion, "That the House do resolve itself into Committee." It would not be possible to compile an exhaustive list, nor would the House wish to be unduly restricted. Such matters are, for example, requests for postponement of the Committee stage to give further time for the framing of Amendments; an explanation of the general purpose of groups of Amendments; suggestions that there should be a discussion on certain Amendments considered together; a statement such as was made on the Life Peerages Bill as to the admissibility of women; and a situation such as that which was raised by my noble friend Lord Saltoun just now, where the House might wish to send a Bill to a Committee outside, rather than take it in Committee on the Floor of the House. These would be relevant to the Motion, and there may be wide issues raised by means of instructions to the Committee which may be proposed reasonably on a Motion of this kind.

There is a Standing Order of the House, No. 26, which perhaps provides the shortest and the best answer to the noble Lord's Question; and that is, that the debate must be relevant to the question before the House. Therefore, without being unduly restrictive, and yet trying to give some guidance to the House, I have taken advice; and at the present moment this, I think, is the best advice that I can give for your Lordships' consideration. If it does not meet with the approval of any of your Lordships, then on a future occasion we can return to the matter. So far as the question asked by my noble friend Lord Conesford is concerned, I think the answer is, "I do not know."


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I can only say that I am perfectly satisfied with the reply which the noble Earl has given. Speaking for myself, I would not wish to trouble the House on this matter again unless something else arises.