§ 2.2 p.m.
§ Order of the Day read for the consideration of the Commons Amendments.
§ THE MINISTER OF STATE, BOARD OF TRADE (LORD BROWN)
My Lords, we have already had a short debate on the amount of time available to your Lordships' House to consider the 351 Amendments which have been moved to this Bill in another place since it left here on January 31. I sincerely hope that it will be unnecessary to go over the ground then covered, and in pursuit of that aim I should like to apologise to the House for the deplorably short time now available for consideration of these Amendments. We have done our best to compensate for the unfortunate position in which the House has been placed by making available as much explanation as possible before to-day.
In fact, the task before us is not, I think, nearly as formidable as might appear from the sheer number of Amendments to be considered, because so many of them fall into groups associated with changes having the same end in view. I trust that this will become clear as we proceed with our task. In order to facilitate our task, we shall be asking the House to debate some large groups of Amendments, and to agree to our moving certain consecutive Amendments en bloc. A list of the proposed grouping of consecutive Amendments is available in the Printed Paper Office.
The Government are exceedingly anxious that all these Amendments be accepted to-day, in order to avoid the 1155 three months' delay which would otherwise arise in bringing into force those Amendments concerned with the control of insurance and the detection of fraud. In the interests of speed, therefore, I and my noble friends will make our initial explanations of these Amendments as brief as possible, and will reserve our longer comments only if these are called for in discussion. I beg to move that the Commons Amendments be now considered.
§ Moved, That the Commons Amendments be now considered.—(Lord Brown.)
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, the noble Lord said that we have already debated these circumstances but, of course, technically he is not correct. A statement was made, and some observations were made on that statement. In spite of the apology that the noble Lord has offered to the House, I do not think we can pass this Motion just like that because, after all, we are being asked to consider 352 Amendments, including 42 clauses—or we may say 40 clauses if we make allowance for the fact that in one case three new clauses do duty for one in the original Bill. The first Sitting day on which these Amendments were available to your Lordships was Monday of this week, so few noble Lords here will have had more than three days to examine them.
This, of course, is no fault of Members of the Government who sit in this House, who I acknowledge with gratitude have done their utmost to help noble Lords interested to have some idea of what they are expected to consider this afternoon. But I think that at the present time we are sometimes apt to lose sight of what Parliament is for. It is not enough for legislation to be carefully considered by Departments. The whole point of bringing legislation before Parliament is that in Parliament there is a wide cross-section of people with a wide variety of interests who are able to bring their particular points of view and their particular experience to bear on the legislation that is presented to them. If they do not have sufficient time to consider that legislation beforehand, the whole purpose of Parliament is frustrated.
My Lords, there are two democratic principles here which I believe are being 1156 violated. The first principle is that Parliament ought not to be asked, except in an unforeseeable emergency, to pass legislation which it has not had an opportunity to examine carefully. The second principle is that neither House ought to be asked to consider, still less to pass, legislation which it has no opportunity of amending or rejecting—apart, of course, from the Parliament Act. We may be told that we are perfectly free to amend or disagree with any of the Amendments before us provided we are prepared to accept the consequences, one of which is that, since the Government have so arranged business that there is no time left before Parliament rises for the other place to consider any Amendments your Lordships may make, the Bill could not then become law until the end of October—and we are told that the Government want the powers conferred in the Bill now. Of course, in such circumstances the Government must bear the entire responsibility if the Bill does not pass before the House rises, but this Government are already notorious for not accepting responsibility for the consequences of their own mismanagement.
In these circumstances, in view of the way this House has been treated, it would be entirely justifiable for your Lordships either to decline to accept this Motion, or else to treat the whole proceedings in the way that the Leader of the House in another place must obviously have intended; namely, as a pure formality. Her Majesty's Opposition do not consider that such a course, though justifiable, would be right. The proper thing to do is to consider these Amendments to see whether, in all the circumstances, they are acceptable to your Lordships. But for the Government to assume in advance that this is so would not be right. At best, that is taking a big risk.
My Lords, since we have only one day in which to examine these Amendments, I would suggest that it would be idle to try to examine every Amendment in this House to-day; and I agree with what the noble Lord has said, that we should try to take them in batches. We have no option but to allow many of these Amendments to be taken formally, even though it might have been possible to improve them. This is all the more regrettable in that nine of the new clauses, 1157 admittedly including two very short ones, came to Parliament for the first time on Report stage in another place; and that of the 303 Amendments, as distinct from new clauses, on the Order Paper at that stage, well over half were put down by the Government.
What makes the total of 40 or so new clauses all the more astonishing is that we were assured by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack on December 19 that the scope of the Bill was disclosure, and such matters as provisions with regard to insurance companies, in which field—that is, insurance—recent events, he said, have particularly shown urgent need that the law should be amended at once. He said that the Government would welcome any Amendments which were designed to improve the existing Bill but not, he hoped, to extend it. That may be found in column 1939. Then, in column 1943 he said that if we expanded the Bill in this House the Government would have to reconsider whether, after all, they could go further with the Bill beyond this House.
Now we have 40-odd new clauses, and we shall see when we come to the Amendments, that the scope and content have been extended quite considerably, in particular by the inclusion of new investigation clauses in Part I, and by the extension of the powers of the Board of Trade to investigate the affairs of insurance companies to cover all companies—something we were told would be reserved for the second Bill to be brought before Parliament in a subsequent Session. Then, Part II, which deals with insurance, has been turned upside-down by a completely new definition of "classes". All this makes nonsense of the noble and learned Lord's claim that any legislation on company law brought before your Lordships must be most carefully prepared.
I certainly cannot congratulate the Government on their handling of this Bill, but I hope that the arrangements we propose for handling it to-day will commend themselves to your Lordships. If your Lordships accept this Motion to-day, we on these Benches propose to concentrate on discussion of matters most of which would involve a series of Amendments; and I have given notice of them to the noble Lords opposite. We 1158 could discuss this proposal, I would suggest, on the first of the Amendments on which it arises. We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and to the Board of Trade for providing us with a mass of material which would have received close attention had there been more time. Apart from this, I should be content to allow intervening Amendments to be taken in between, and, of course, any noble Lord would be free, naturally and as always, to question any particular Amendment he chooses. If we deal with the Amendments in this way we shall, I think, make the best of our time and mitigate in some measure the Government's miserable mismanagement of this Bill.
§ LORD BYERS
My Lords, I do not propose to repeat the protest I voiced when the Statement was made from the Government Benches the other day. I realise that there is some urgency to get this measure accepted and on to the Statute Books, because, as I understand it, of the shaky nature of a number of companies, particularly in the insurance world, but I suggest to the Government that this state of affairs might have been better dealt with by confining the urgent measures to a separate Bill, so that we could have had more time to deal with this voluminous Bill. I am afraid that if we are not careful we are going to allow a number of bad points to get on to the Statute Book. I feel that we require full notice of the intentions of the Government with regard to the next Bill dealing with companies, so that we can put proper Amendments forward. In the circumstances, I think that what the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, has suggested—that we concentrate on the major points—is right; but I am afraid that what happens normally in cases of rushing through legislation is going to happen again. We are going to have bad legislation on the Statute Book, and instead of saving time we are going to take more time to put it right in the future.
§ LORD ERROLL OF HALE
My Lords, I would apologise to noble Lords for arriving somewhat late. I wish only to add to what was said earlier, that we are in this difficulty: that while we appreciate the need for the Bill's passage, we deplore the fact that we are not able to give proper consideration to the 1159 Amendments. It is only because the Government have made representations to us of the great urgency to secure the Royal Assent that we are submitting ourselves to a procedure which I believe remains an affront to Parliament.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.