HL Deb 09 March 1966 vol 273 cc1132-6

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may intervene, at the request of noble Lords earlier to-day, to repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Lord President of the Council. This is the Statement:

"The House will recollect that following the Statement made by my honourable friend yesterday about the Building Control Bill, I was asked to make a Statement about the Government's proposals and the constitutional propriety of what my right honourable friend announced.

"There is, of course, no question of the provisions of any Bill having the force of law until the Bill has received the Royal Assent. This was made clear yesterday by my right honourable friend. It is, however, the Government's intention, in the event of its being re-elected and the Bill being approved by Parliament, to give effect to the controls provided for in the Bill.

"The House will be aware that under the provisions which it was proposed to incorporate in the Bill, work carried out in the construction or alteration of a building or civil engineering project costing more than £100,000 would be unlawful unless it were exempt or licensed by the Minister. The Minister has since November 1, 1965, been indicating cases in which building would be permitted and the arrangements he has made have been broadly accepted by the construction industry.

"The purpose of my right honourable friend's Statement, which was made at the request of the Opposition, was to give further guidance to the industry. In the view of the Government, it would be regrettable that possibly urgent and essential projects might be held up because those proposing to carry them out were uncertain whether they would be granted a licence. Accordingly, my right honourable friend felt it helpful and prudent to indicate that existing arrangements will continue for the time being.

"The Government considers that to do less than my right honourable friend proposed would create confusion and uncertainty in the industry".


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for communicating to this House the contents of that Statement, I should like to put a question or two about the constitutional propriety of the course that has been pursued; because the Statement he has just read did not seem to deal with that. Is there any precedent for a Minister on the eve of Dissolution of Parliament saying that he proposes to exercise powers which Parliament has not given him for licensing the building industry? And is the noble Lord aware that the Minister said yesterday that there was nothing illegal about starting a project costing over £100,000, but anyone doing so without authorisation does so at his peril? The announcement, I gather, was made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on July 27 last. Am I to take it that in the event—the unlikely event—of the Party opposite being returned to power they will introduce a Bill which will make a provision of this kind retrospective until July 27 last; and is there any precedent for a Minister seeking to exercise controls of this sort just following upon an announcement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer?


My Lords, this Bill is still one of which another place is seized; and I think noble Lords would agree that in those circumstances it is in accordance with well-established precedent that it should not he discussed here. If the noble and learned Viscount cares to look at page 452 of Erskine May, I think he will find the matter discussed there. If I am right in this, as I believe myself to be, it is obviously impossible to discuss questions relating to this subject which the noble and learned Viscount wished to discuss. However, I have made a Statement to-day at the request of the Opposition, and if it is proper to discuss it then I suggest that it should be discussed at much greater length than is possible in the course of a debate about other matters.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I am not discussing the Bill at all? I am discussing a Statement made by the Minister of Public Building and Works yesterday about the authorisation he is going to give for building. I am not discussing a Bill at all. The Minister made perfectly clear yesterday that he is seeking to exercise powers which Parliament has not given him and for which he has no statutory authority at all. That is what I am asking the noble Lord about, and I am asking him whether there is any precedent for any such unconstitutional action. The Statement he read purported to deal with constitutional propriety. It gave no justification for this most unconstitutional action.


My Lords, things do not get any better or worse by the loudness with which they are said. What the noble and learned Viscount asked about was a matter so closely connected with a Bill now before the House of Commons that I suggested to him and to your Lordships' House that it could not be properly discussed without involving a discussion on a Bill of which the House of Commons is at present seized. I see that the noble and learned Viscount shakes his head. I do not believe for one moment that I shall convince him; but he must listen to me since I listened to him.

If I may go a little further, he will remember that towards the end of his speech he was talking about proposals in the Bill. This Bill has not yet reached its final form; it has had no Third Reading in another place; we do not officially even know what it is. But assuming we looked at it, we should have to remember that it is still possible that these proposals may be changed. They are at present in the Bill—perhaps I am allowed to say this—and are retrospective. But, be that as it may, it does not meet the difficulty we shall be under if we start discussing matters so closely connected with a particular Bill and the proposals in it. We cannot discuss them without, as I see it, breaking the sound tradition that one House does not discuss matters which are at the moment before another House in the form of legislation. Therefore I must maintain, with respect to the noble and learned Viscount and with respect to his long service in another place, that we really cannot discuss this matter properly. We shall discuss only a part of it, and that is not fair to anybody concerned.


My Lords, may I put this to the noble Lord? I am not asking about a Bill and the noble Lord is really not meeting the point I am putting to him. The Minister of Public Building and Works said yesterday on what policy principles he was going to apply licensing to the building industry from now on. That is what I am asking him about. I am not asking him about any Bill or anything like that. I am not concerned with that. I am asking about the announcement by the Minister of Public Building and Works of the policy he is going to pursue now. And I am asking whether there is any precedent for such an announcement when there is no lawful power to exercise it.


My Lords, I am well aware of what the noble and learned Viscount has just said. It is what he said before. I gave my answer to it and I believe that the argument—for it is an argument—that he is putting forward is fundamentally fallacious for the reason that I gave. I hesitate to say these things to the noble and learned Viscount; but, after all, we both served in another place and we know the distinction between the two Houses and the importance of seeing that we do not get House of Commons legislation discussed in this House. You cannot do it by raising questions about the constitutional propriety of a Statement made about the very Bill that is now under discussion in another place.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for making a Statement, as a very genuine concern is felt about this matter. Does he agree that an important constitutional principle is involved here, as Mr. Grimond pointed out in another place yesterday? Secondly, does he agree that retrospectvie legislation is nearly always objectionable, as we on these Benches pointed this out at the time of the Burma Oil Bill? I am rather sorry to say that the Opposition Front Bench sold the pass on that occasion. Thirdly, does he agree that retrospective government by Ministerial threat is even more objectionable, and that Parliament must be on guard against it?


My Lords, in my opinion there are at least two constitutional principles involved here. No doubt the noble Lord had one in mind; the one I have in mind is the one that must restrict the interference by either House with the legislative procedure of another House. I do not see how you can discuss a Statement made with reference to a particular Bill before the House of Commons without interfering with that constitutional principle. As the noble Lord asked me whether I agreed with a whole host of things, I hope he will accept, since we have another debate, that I agree with about half of what he said.


Surely the noble Lord does not expect to get away with it like that. He has been asked a direct question. May we have an answer to the direct question: is there a precedent or not?


My Lords, the answer is in the negative.


My Lords, may I assure the noble Lord, first, that I am not discussing any legislation in another place. I wish to ask him two questions about the legislation that he has announced will be introduced in the next Parliament. The first question is this: Does he agree that the legislation to which he referred in his statement proposes to make retrospective provisions dealing with the criminal law? Secondly, does he recollect that the present Lord Chancellor, his noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner, said in this House that such legislation was always objectionable?


My Lords, in answer to the first question, I have nothing to add to the Statement that I read out. In answer to the second question, I should like to know the context in which the statement was made and then I should like to have an opportunity of reading it and of considering a reply on an occasion more appropriate than the present one.


My Lords, may I respectfully and humbly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, on as skilful a piece of evasion as I have heard in twenty years in this House? But I would just say this: he has not fooled anybody.