HL Deb 14 December 1966 vol 278 cc1667-72

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I should like to make a Statement concerning a suggested alternative procedure for giving Her Majesty's assent to Bills. For some time we have been in consultation with another place and with Party Leaders in each House to see whether we could agree on some alternative and additional procedure for notifying the Royal Assent. I am glad to be able to report to your Lordships that Her Majesty the Queen has graciously indicated that she would agree to a procedure agreeable to both Houses.

The purpose of this change is to remove inconveniences in the despatch of Business in both Houses which the present procedure sometimes causes. We have in mind that the present ceremonies should be retained for the Royal Assent at Prorogation, and for at least one occasion each Session. For the rest of this Session, however, we would suggest that the present type of Commission is held at each natural break—that is, Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and in the summer—but on the other occasions this Session, and more usually in future years, the normal procedure might be for the Royal Assent to be notified separately in another place by Mr. Speaker and in this House by the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, without the present ceremony.

A short Bill would be needed for this purpose, and I hope that it will prove non-controversial. Details of this new procedure are being worked out by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor in conjunction with Mr. Speaker and other authorities in another place. My right honourable friend the Lord President is making a similar announcement in the course of a speech this afternoon in another place.

That concludes my Statement.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl the Leader of the House for having made that Statement. He is, of course, quite right: conversations have been going on, both in another place and here, between the Leaders of the various Parties. I think that there can be no doubt that irritation and sometimes friction is caused between the two Houses by the interruption of business caused by the Royal Commission procedure. We must also realise that sometimes it is no doubt embarrassing to Black Rod who, after all, is only doing his duty as a servant of this House. At the same time, I think it would be a great pity if this very old ceremony, this picturesque ceremony, this dignified ceremony, should disappear altogether. I am sure it is worth going on with, on occasions. It seems to me that the procedure which the noble Earl has outlined roughly is an extremely flexible one. As I understand it, it would be possible to use either the old procedure of the Royal Commission or the new procedure, whichever is more suitable or convenient. On the whole this is a good compromise, and I certainly would recommend it to your Lordships.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends and myself, may I say that we entirely agree with the suggestion that has been put to the House by the noble Earl the Leader of the House this afternoon. We believe that anything which diminishes the possibility of friction between the two Houses is acceptable, and we warmly support the proposed change.


My Lords, I am entirely in sympathy with the object of this proposal. Having sat in another place for a number of years, I know how awkward can be the interruptions in business. But I am by no means satisfied that this is the best way of solving the trouble. I do not think that there has been any criticism in this House of the present procedure. And the Statement which the noble Earl has made does not contain many details of what is proposed. This is a change of great constitutional importance. After all, the Royal Commission, which sits at appropriate times, represents the Sovereign, and until just over a hundred years ago the Sovereign by no means infrequently came down to Parliament and was the King in Parliament or the Queen in Parliament, as the case might be. Now it is proposed that the Royal Presence by representation should be reduced. And I am by no means certain that the best way has been found for relieving the problems which arise in another place when Black Rod goes there.

Is this not a constitutional procedure of considerable importance? Is it not the case that the Royal Commission procedure dates from 1541, when King Henry VIII did not wish to be present to give the Royal Assent to a Bill of Attainder against Catharine Howard? The noble Earl said that there will be some legislation and expressed the hope that it will be non-controversial. I know that there have been discussions about this matter, but, if there is to be legislation, may I suggest to the noble Earl that it might be appropriate that this constitutional change should be considered by a wider body, representative of both Houses, by a Joint Select Committee, and not confined to the Leaders of the Parties, who I know have done their best?

I put forward one idea and I would ask the noble Earl to say whether it has been considered and, if it has not, whether he would consider it before this proposed procedure is put into operation. Instead of Black Rod summoning from another place all the Members of the Commons led by Mr. Speaker, which means an interruption of business in another place for about a quarter of an hour, might not an alternative machinery be—and this would not involve legislation—for representative Members of the Commons to be appointed for the Royal Commission to answer the summons of Black Rod, so that the proceedings in another place would be interrupted by only about two minutes?

I dare say that there are other proposals which might be put before a Joint Select Committee for consideration. I would ask the noble Earl whether there will be opportunities for considering variations of this procedure, so as to avoid what I think is a very undesirable change of this magnitude in the present constitutional practice, as I believe we can avoid it, and at the same time solve the difficulty experienced in another place and not here in your Lordships' House.


My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend the Leader of the House. Like the previous speaker, I spent many years in another place, and when there was a heated debate on an important matter and Black Rod knocked at the door, because of the acrimony on both sides of the House Black Rod was sometimes subjected to very undignified remarks from the Back-Benchers. When I look at conditions in England, I think that we have to make changes in both Houses. If we can have this ceremony four times a year, and if we can fix days when non-controversial matters are being discussed in another place, that would make Black Rod's job easier than it has been for the past ten years. Maybe the proposed change may upset old men who have seen Black Rod and Mr. Speaker standing at the Bar every time a Bill has been enacted, but I think the time has come when a change has to take place. What my noble Leader has said to-day is a compromise between the old and the new which I think is a change for the best.


My Lords, I do not propose, as the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, has done, to suggest a reconsideration of a decision which has been reached. I think it is too late for that. I cannot help regretting, as an old Leader of the House, the partial disappearance of a ceremony which provides a constant reminder to us all of the close inter-relationship which must always exist under the British Constitution between the two Houses of Parliament and the Crown. It has always been, to me at any rate, and I expect to many other noble Lords, too, perhaps partly because of the ancient formula which is used, a very moving ceremony. But I realise that times do change and that we must change with them.

At any rate, I am very glad to know that this ancient procedure is not going to disappear altogether and that in the interests of the business of Parliament it is only to be, as it were, rationed. There is one assurance I should like to ask from the noble Earl the Leader of the House, so far as he can give it: that this is not the beginning of a slippery slope and the House of Commons are not going to come back in a year or two and say that even the few occasions when this ceremony is still used interferes with their business and they cannot stand it any longer. That would be a great pity. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, that this is a most important constitutional ceremony, and although it may not be used in future so often as it has been in the past, I think it would be a thousand pities if it disappeared altogether.


My Lords, I am grateful to all the noble Lords in various quarters of the House who have been good enough to express themselves satisfied with the plans which have been outlined this afternoon. I am very glad that the noble Marquess stressed this inter-relationship between the two Houses and the Crown. I can only hope that, if this is possible, it will be still firmer in the future than it has been in the past. Certainly there is nothing intended here—and if it had been so intended it would not have secured the support of noble Lords—which will weaken that relationship.

The noble Marquess tried me rather high, as I think he realised, when he asked me to give an assurance about the mind of the House of Commons at some future date. He, of course, knows more about another place than I do, as also does the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne. They both won their spurs there. I am afraid I never succeeded in making my way into that mysterious body, and, so far as I am concerned, their mind remains a mystery. I cannot give any assurance about what they will or will not do on some future occasion. All I can say is that while I am here this is the plan that I would agree to, and I should not myself, while I am Leader of the House, agree to any movement along the slippery slope to which the noble Marquess referred which impaired the relationship between the two Houses and the Crown.

I can only say to the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, that when the Bill is introduced there will be an opportunity for full discussion. We hope it will be non-controversial, and this means, I suppose, that before then we must hope that he will have been converted to the wisdom of these plans. The noble and learned Viscount is an ex-Lord Chancellor who has done great service: he is always completely accessible, and I am always completely accessible, and his ideas will I am sure be of interest. However, I hope that when the time comes he will recognise that almost every conceivable variation has already been considered, and that he will join the rest of the House in giving a welcome to the Bill.

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