HL Deb 02 March 1967 vol 280 cc1181-91

3.37 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Royal Assent Bill, has consented to place Her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

The facts relating to this Bill are as follows. Until 1541 there was only one way of giving Assent to Bills; namely, by the Sovereign in person. The Sovereign came to the Upper House, the Commons were sent for, and the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, as to-day, stood on this side of the Table and read out the Title of each Bill. The Sovereign said "Yes", or nodded, and the Clerk of the Parliaments, as to-day, standing on the other side of the Table, turned to the Commons and said, "Le Roi le veult", or the alternative form, if it was a Money Bill, or if the King had said, "No", "Le Roi s' avisera".

In 1541 there was a Bill of Attainder against Katherine Howard the Queen, and although Henry VIII was perhaps not the most delicate Monarch we have ever had, he still felt some delicacy in coming to this House to give the Royal consent to a Bill which he knew would result, and did result, in the Queen's execution as soon as it became law. He therefore had an Act passed called the Royal Assent by Commission Act, which provided: Be it declared by authority of this present Parliament, that the king's royal assent, by his letters patent under his great seal and assigned with his hand, and declared and notified in his absence to the lords spiritual and temporal, and to the commons, assembled together in the high house, is and ever was of good strength and force as though the king's person had been there personally present, and had assented openly and publickly to the same. And he it also enacted that this royal assent, and all other royal assents hereafter to be so given by the kings of this realm, and notified as is aforesaid, shall be taken and reputed good and effectual to all intents and purposes, without doubt or ambiguity; any custom or use to the contrary notwithstanding. Accordingly, a Royal Commission was appointed for that Bill and another Bill.

Three years later, there was another occasion when there was a Royal Commission; and four years after that, when there was a Bill of Attainder against the Duke of Norfolk, there was another Royal Commission. The King died the day after, having given authority to someone to sign the Letters Patent, but not having signed them himself, in consequence of which the Duke of Norfolk contended that the Bill had never become law. After some five years, he obtained a Bill from Parliament declaring that to be right—and, fortunately, he had not been executed meanwhile.

To start with, the Royal Commission usually consisted of one Commissioner, the Lord Chancellor; but after some years it usually comprised three or five. Of course, in those days the Royal Assent was given only at the end of the Session, or, more often, at the end of the Parliament—because Parliaments were usually called for a short time only. Indeed, in 1625 it was necessary to pass a special Act to provide that Parliament might continue, notwithstanding the fact that a Royal Assent had been given. The Long Parliament introduced a change—a change, that is to say, from a Royal Assent being given only at the end of a Session, at least—partly because it was the Long Parliament, and partly because that Parliament did not give Charles I more than a month's money at a time; so, of course, a number of Royal Assents were necessary. But it was still unusual to have a Royal Assent except at the end of a Session, and still unusual for it to be given otherwise than by the Sovereign in person.

Charles II gave his Assent in person 30 times out of 33; James II 3 times out of 3; William III 62 times out of 64; Queen Anne 39 times out of 56—so there we see a change, because in her reign there were 17 Royal Commissions. It is not until we come to the Hanoverians—I suppose, partly because of their not extensive knowledge of English, and partly because of the number of local and personal Bills—that we find the Sovereign more often having a Royal Commission than coming to give the Royal Assent in person. The last Royal Assent in person was given by Queen Victoria in 1854. There is, of course, no reason why Her Majesty should not at any time give her Royal Assent in person.

Since then, times have changed, with a general recognition of the fact that power resides with the Commons rather than with this House, and some cause of friction in this field has developed between the Houses. It is, I suppose, possible to think that in the conditions of to-day there is something anomalous about the representatives of the elected Chamber coming and standing at the Bar, rather like waiters, while the Members of the hereditary Chamber loll in their seats. But what, I think, has caused more friction is the fact (and I suppose that most of us have had experience of this, when we have sat in the Gallery of the House of Commons while an interesting debate was going on; I remember one such occasion myself during a debate on housing) that, just as everybody is getting very worked up, there is a bang, and everything has to stop for this very old procedure.

Another cause of the difficulties, I think, has been the increasing frequency of Royal Commissions. There is, perhaps, something to be said for the old phrase about familiarity breeding contempt. In the last three years we have had respectively 10, 9 and 10 Royal Commissions a year—that is, more than one every Parliamentary month—and one has observed noble Lords who had been engaged in the debate here going elsewhere (I shall not speculate where to) and returning after the Royal Assent was over. There have been practical reasons, of course, for this increase in the number of Royal Assents: the Gas Board has run out of money, or the rebuilding of New Street station, Birmingham, would come to a dead stop unless the Post Office Subway Bill was passed; or Botswana was becoming independent, But, my Lords, however sensible the reasoning may be, I should be inclined to suggest that regard for this very old ceremony might be increased rather than diminished if it were held rather less often, and if there could be some shorter and simpler alternative way of providing for the Royal Assent.

I think that most of us would probably agree on two things; first, that no change ought to be made unless those who represent all political Parties in both Chambers agree, and unless, of course, Her Majesty agrees; and, secondly, that we should retain both of the existing methods of giving the Royal Assent. No one, I think, would want to effect any change in the position, which is that the Sovereign can at any time give consent in person; nor, I think, should we like to lose the ceremony of the Royal Commission. It is, after all, full of historic interest.

I always like best the way in which, when there is a Money Bill—because I have to wait for this—the Clerk of the Parliaments goes to the Bar and receives the Money Bill from the Clerk of the House of Commons, the Commons being apprehensive that, if the Bill came here in advance, your Lordships might mess about with it in some way or other. But these incidents of the ceremony are of considerable historic interest, and therefore what, with good will, has been sought to be done is to find some alternative and simpler method of giving the Royal Assent, but a method which departed as little as possible from history and, at the same time, would avoid this increasing cause of friction between the two Houses. That I think this Bill does.

The terms of the Bill are simple enough in themselves. It is intended that the actual Assent of the Sovereign should be given, as now, by Letters Patent. The form of the Letters Patent does not substantially depart from that in use now: Elizabeth the Second"— and so on— Forasmuch as in Our said Parliament divers Acts have been agreed upon by you Our loving subjects the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Commons the short Titles of which are set forth in the Schedule hereto but the said Acts are not of force and effect in the Law without our Royal Assent and forasmuch as We cannot at this time be present in the Higher House of Our said Parliament being the accustomed place for giving Our Royal Assent to such Acts as have been agreed upon by you Our said subjects the Lords and Commons We have therefore caused these Our Letters Patent to be made and have signed them and by them do give Our Royal Assent to the said Acts willing that the said Acts shall be of the same strength force and effect as if We had been personally present in the said Higher House and had publicly and in the presence of you all assented to the same commanding also Our right trusty…Chancellor of Great Britain to seal these Our Letters with the Great Seal of Our Realm and also commanding that this Our Royal Assent be notified separately to each House of Parliament pursuant to the Royal Assent Act 1967 and after this Our Royal Assent shall have been notified to both Houses of Parliament the Clerk of Our Parliaments to endorse the said Acts in Our name as is requisite and to record these Our Letters Patent and the said Acts in manner accustomed and finally We do declare that after this Our Royal Assent given and notified as is aforesaid then and immediately the said Acts shall be taken and accepted as good and perfect Acts of Parliament and be put in due execution accordingly in witness"— and so on. That, as your Lordships will observe, follows very closely, with only minor adaptation, the existing form of Letters Patent.

Then it is proposed that there should be a Certificate to the Speaker in some such terms as the following: These are to certify that Her Majesty being unable to be personally present in Parliament at this time has been pleased to cause Letters Patent to be issued under the Great Seal and has thereby signified Her Royal Assent to divers Acts which have been agreed upon by both Houses of Parliament the Short Titles of which are set out in the Schedule hereto and by the said Letters Patent has commanded that Her Royal Assent be notified separately to each House of Parliament pursuant to the Royal Assent Act 1967. Given under My hand"— and so forth. That Certificate will be signed by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and sent to the Speaker of the other place.

It is then proposed that on the same day, at a convenient time, each Speaker should say: I have to notify the House in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967 that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts. This is a convenient ceremony which will take up no time in either House, and will, I hope, remove the friction to which I have referred.

Of course, we cannot bind our successors. I understand, first of all, that what I have said so far has been agreed by all Parties in both Houses; secondly, that the intention is that the Royal Assent by a Royal Commission shall always take place at least at the end of each Session; that it may be that we shall have three or four during the first year, perhaps at what are called in other contexts "natural breaks", but that, probably after the first year, it will be reserved for the end of the Session as, in a sense, an "end-of-term" ceremony. I have no doubt that for all concerned it will be a ceremony of rather more interest, perhaps, than it has been in the past, by reason of its being carried out in future rather less often.

My Lords, alternatives have been suggested. I say this because I remember an alternative suggested by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, when my noble friend the Leader of the House mentioned the question to the House a few weeks ago. On that, I would say that I am satisfied that every conceivable alternative has been suggested and discussed. We have considered having Royal Commissions at half-past twelve; we have considered having Royal Commissions immediately after Question Time in the other place; we have considered having them on particular evenings. Then, we have considered a plan by which only one or two chosen Members of the other place would come up here; we have considered having a Royal Commission in the Queen's Robing Room, or in some other place where it could take place without the proceedings in either House being interrupted. I am quite satisfied that the proposal which is contained in this Bill, and which I have outlined, is the only proposal that stands any prospect of being agreed—and it has been agreed—by the representatives of all political Parties and by Her Majesty. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(The Lord Chancellor.)

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack for the explanation he has given of this short Bill. As he has explained, all the Bill does is to provide an alternative means of signifying the Royal Assent. It does not mean that our old procedure of the Royal Commission disappears, and I, for one, am very glad that that is so. Whatever may have happened in the past, the Lord Chancellor conducts the ceremony with great dignity and in excellent English—which is more than can be said for the Clerk of the Parliaments.

I do not think that we should dispose too lightly of our old traditions. They are an important and colourful part of our past, and a continual reminder of the gradual development of Parliamentary government in this country. At the same time, there is no doubt that the rather frequent interruptions of business caused by Royal Commissions have tended to cause difficulties, more particularly in another place. I think that on one occasion in the not-too-distant past, after Black Rod had been to summon the House of Commons, a sort of informal debate was continued in that Chamber by some of its Members—a sort of lawlessness which would not be tolerated in this House, with its absence of Rules of Order.

But I believe that, on the whole, in the interests of the relationship between the two Houses, and because of the fact that these Royal Commissions seem nowadays to occur rather more frequently than in the past, we should try the procedure outlined by the Lord Chancellor. There is nothing binding on anybody to continue the experiment if it does not succeed; and certainly I hope that, whether the experiment is successful or not, we shall always continue to have a certain number of ceremonies under the old pattern. It seems to me that the question of how often they should occur should be a matter for discussion among all of us. Having said that, perhaps in a way rather regretfully, but comforted by the thought that at any rate this is only an alternative procedure, I should like to support the Bill which the noble and learned Lord has moved.

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, I should like, very briefly, to give the support of noble Lords on these Benches to the Bill which is before us now. I share with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, a certain regret that the old customs and traditions have to change. But I am pleased to see they are not being entirely removed from us, and that we shall still be able to enjoy from time to time the ceremony of the Royal Assent by Royal Commission. I am pleased, also, to find that no change is made in the position of Her Majesty, in that if Her Majesty chose to come to this House, she could do so. As the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack knows, it has always been a hope of mine that one day Her Majesty would come in person to take part in our proceedings.

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, I think it would be pity if this Bill were to be passed by your Lordships without a single word being spoken by a Back-Bench Member of your Lordships' House. I should like to congratulate the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack on producing a simple Bill which even an out-and-out layman like myself can understand. I am also particularly grateful for his excellent historical exposition of the system under which the Royal Assent is given under the 16th century procedure. I am sure that many of your Lordships were not aware of the details. I certainly was not.

It would be a pity, I think, if the system of pronouncing Royal Assent to Bills were to be quietly abolished, but I gather from the noble and learned Lord that this will not be the case. He has set my mind at rest on that point. On the other hand, I can quite see that the old system could interrupt business in another place, and also in your Lordships' House at a most inconvenient time. But it would seem to me to be not wholly impossible for that usually most efficient of all institutions, "the usual channels," in both Houses, to get together so as not to cause what the Television Act and the Lord Chancellor would regard as an "unnatural break" in the middle of an important debate.

Another possibility occurs to me now, but I gather that it has been considered and rejected. It is that, now that another place has taken to sitting in the morning on occasions, the customary Royal Assent procedure should be carried out during a natural break in one of their morning Sessions. This would of course necessitate that your Lordships' House also met on the morning of that particular day, but surely this would be a small price to pay for retaining a ceremony which has come over the centuries to indicate Her Majesty's relationship to the work done by the High Court of Parliament.

3.57 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to detain your Lordships for long, but there are two points which I should like to mention in connection with this Bill. Like the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, and my noble friend Lord Carrington, I think it is important that this old ceremony should not fall altogether into desuetude. As the Bill is drafted, it is possible for that to happen. The reason why I say that—and here I speak rather as an old House of Commons man—is that it always seemed to me, whenever there was a Royal Commission and Black Rod arrived and had the door slammed in his face, that it was a reminder of the struggle of Parliament for supremacy; and, as a House of Commons man, I thought it was a good thing that there should be that reminder. There is also, I think, the tradition that ever since Charles I came down to arrest the five Members of the House of Commons, no Sovereign has been allowed to enter the Chamber. It was also a reminder of that. I should therefore like consideration to be given to whether something could not be put into this Bill to ensure that the ceremony takes place a certain number of times. But, apart from that, I quite see the reasons for this Bill— the inconvenience which is caused by having very many Royal Commissions.

There is another point that I should like to put to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, and I would put it like this. Drama, atmosphere, and so on, play a part in our proceedings, and I think Parliament would be the poorer without them. I well recall the occasion when the Abdication Bill went through this House. It was passed through all its stages in one day in both Houses, and then we all came along to hear the Commission read. There was a pretty big attendance by both Houses on that occasion. I well remember that, as the words fell from the lips of the Clerk of the Parliaments, "Le Roi le veult", that was the precise moment at which the reign of Edward Viii ended. It was a dramatic occasion, and one which I personally shall never forget. If those occasions go out of our procedure, I think it will be a pity.

There arises from that just one question which I should like to put, and it is this. Under this new procedure, when does a Bill acquire the force of law? Is it when Her Majesty signs the Letters Patent, or is it when the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has announced the fact in this House? It is just a matter of detail on which perhaps the noble and learned Lord could inform me. Apart from that, I support the Bill; but I hope that some consideration will be given to writing into it something which will ensure that this procedure does not fall into complete desuetude.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, to the noble Lord, Lord Amulree and to other noble Lords for the reception they have given this Bill. If I may, I will reply to the two points which have just been mentioned. On the first, when I said "natural breaks" I meant Easter, Whitsun and Christmas; and I think that the usual channels have taken the view that, for the first year, there should probably be a Royal Commission at those times and always, in every year, at the end of a Session. I will consider whether or not the last should be written into the Bill.

On the further point raised, the day when a Bill comes into force, is not, as one might think, the day on which it is passed by the second House. After a Bill has received the Royal Assent, the Clerk of the Parliaments writes on the Bill both Le Roi le veult and the date; and it is the date which he writes on it that is subsequently incorporated in the Statute. As we all know, just after the Title there is a date. As I say, that date is the date which the Clerk of the Parliaments writes on. I am not suggesting that the Clerk of the Parliaments would ever write on the wrong date; but if he did, the date in law would be the wrong date that he wrote. As to the moment of that day on which the Bill takes effect, under the Acts of Parliament Commencement Act, 1793, an Act comes into force on the first moment of the day of the date which has been endorsed on it by the Clerk of the Parliaments.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.