HL Deb 09 April 1968 vol 291 cc165-73

2.53 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether I may ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House a question about business. I must apologise for not having given him notice beforehand. My question is whether he would tell your Lordships why the Government have found it necessary to put down the Third Reading of the Theft Bill for to-morrow and whether he would also tell your Lordships what the hurry is about this Bill. Would he also bear in mind three considerations: first, that the House finished the Report stage of the Theft Bill only late last night, and it has proved to be a Bill about which there has been a great difference of opinion—not a Party difference so far as noble Lords on this side are concerned?

Secondly, there is no precedent—there may be a precedent but it is a very bad precedent—for a Third Reading of a much discussed Bill to follow so closely on Report stage; and it may very well be that the Bill as amended will not be printed until to-morrow or to-night and so your Lordships will not have an opportunity of seeing the Bill as amended. Lastly, will he bear in mind that the Bill is down for its Third Reading after the economic debate to-morrow in which there are 17 speakers, and it means that the House will be taking this Bill very late. I wonder whether, in the light of these three considerations, he will not think it unreasonable to ask your Lordships to take the Third Reading to-morrow.


My Lords, I hope that both my noble friend the Chief Whip and I will always have the most careful regard to the convenience of your Lordships' House. The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, whom I am very glad to see back (because I know that he has not been very well lately), probably is not personally aware—he may have benefited in this sense—of the amount of consideration your Lordships have given to this Bill, and not for one moment would I suggest that this consideration was not necessary. Indeed, if I may say so, it has given rise to some of the most fascinating debates, although it may be a little difficult for noble Lords to decide which side to support when a noble and learned Law Lord goes into one Lobby and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice into another. But, at any rate, the Bill has been very thoroughly discussed.

The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, on Committee stage himself spoke in total for well over four hours, which is equivalent to a sitting day in our House—and this is not to suggest that it was not very desirable. But the House considered the Bill in Committee on six occasions, and we had a further very lengthy discussion on Report. I could give some rather interesting statistics about this Bill. I do not know of any Bill of this kind which has ever been quite so exhaustively considered. My noble friend has, I think, accepted or made 34 Amendments. He has also accepted, so that the matter can come back to this House, the principle of an absolutely major Amendment which the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, wanted to put down. If it is rejected in another place this House will have an opportunity to discuss it. It is perfectly within the rights of this House to take the Third Reading to-morrow, and we have every hope that the re printed Bill will be available to-day.

There is an urgency about this Bill, as there always is about all legislation, in relation to the timetable. I would suggest that this is a Bill which raises a number of very important paints, but most of them are individual points, rather than general to the Bill as a whole, and I should not have thought, after the thorough consideration that has been given, in which this House really has done a very thorough and, I think, very good job, that it would be necessary to do more than give it a formal Third Reading. I am well aware of the importance of reserving the rights of this House, but the Government have bent over backwards to be helpful—and. I am sure the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne will accept this. We have studied their convenience in every way; we have met at particular times which have not been very convenient to the House. All the Government are now asking is that, having completed the major part of the work on this Bill, we should now dispatch it to another place where it will be subject again to very thorough procedure. It will come under the Second Reading Committee procedure there, and it will make considerable difference to the Bill's progress if we can get it through before the Easter Recess.


My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the House, is always very reasonable and very silver-tongued, but on this occasion I do not find him entirely convincing. What he is saying, so far as I can judge, is that because there has been considerable discussion, both in Committee and on Report stage, there is no need to have a Third Reading. That seems to me, if I may say so, to be a novel constitutional doctrine. The Third Reading is there for a particular purpose, and your Lordships will want to reflect on what has been said on Report and Committee stage, and to make speeches on Third Reading. If we have Third Reading to-morrow it will be very late indeed after a debate in which 17 speakers have indicated their wish to take part. We know how long speakers take on economic affairs, and I hesitate to say when that debate will be over. I wonder whether the noble Lord would have a look at it again and see whether some other time could not be found. Is there really all that much hurry?


My Lords, I do not know how far the Government can go in making concessions. As I have said, we have conceded an Amendment, so that there is no need to move it on Third Reading. What I put forward is not a novel doctrine at all. Of course the House always has the right to debate any Bill and can exercise that right on Third Reading. But I have made the point that, on the whole, most of the issues of this Bill are not so much of a Third Reading kind, and it is the usual practice—or perhaps I should say a frequent practice—that a Bill which has been exhaustively debated on Committee and Report frequently goes through on Third Reading "on the nod". The noble Lord shakes his head, but I can remember many occasions. If the noble Lord wants it, then I think, although we have tried to have regard to the convenience of the House, that as another place will be sitting on Thursday we can take it on that day. We have tried to avoid doing this, but it may be that this is the only solution.

Looking at it, and having heard a great deal of the debates myself, I really do not believe that there is much more to be done to this Bill. This is a considered opinion. We do not stand on strict formality in this House unless it is necessary. If the House wishes to exercise its rights, then it is within the power of the House to do so. But when the Government have in fact made so many concessions and been so accommodating in regard to the convenience of the House, I think it is not unreasonable to ask at this stage that we let the Bill go through formally, or quite shortly.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether it is right for him to prejudge the wishes of the House in this matter? What is the objection to taking the Third Reading on the day when we return after the Recess?

3.2 p.m.


My Lords, in his first reply the noble Lord the Leader of the House brought me into the discussion. I did not know that I had spoken for four hours, but I hope the House will allow me to say something which might last about five minutes. The noble Lord has spoken of "concessions" and "bending over backwards". Perhaps he will allow me to say that those of us who have taken part have done precisely the same thing. It would have been quite easy for the Report stage not to have been concluded last night. Had we endeavoured to hold up the Bill it would not have been concluded, and we could not have had the Third Reading on Wednesday. We have bent over backwards in the consideration of this most important Bill.

The noble Lord the Leader of the House says that a concession has been made with regard to one Amendment. I understand that my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross has made a concession in saying that he will not move an Amendment that he wanted to move on Third Reading. I just draw attention to this. It may be that the Bill itself, as amended, will not be in the hands of Members of this House until to-morrow. But one thing is quite certain. The Hansard of the Report stage in its completed form will certainly not be in Members' hands until to-morrow. Surely it is right that we should have an opportunity of considering what has been said on Report before we have Third Reading.

The noble Lord, Lord Stow Hill, on his most important Amendment, concluded his speech with these words: I would ask permission to be allowed to withdraw this Amendment in order that it may receive further consideration in due course before it goes to another place."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8/4/68, col. 136.] I have Hansard here. Under this present programme, the Bill will go to another place on Thursday. That does not allow much time for consideration. If the urgency is so great as the noble Lord suggests, I for one, as I think he knows, have not tried to hold up the progress of the Bill. I think it is unfortunate to take it so late after a long debate. Certainly I do not think that the Third Reading should be formal, because there are a few observations that ought to be made. But so far as I am concerned, so long as it is not regarded as a precedent and while I think it is most undesirable, if it is absolutely essential I can be here late tomorrow night.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Viscount. Of course, the reference to the length of his speaking was intended to show his assiduity and thoroughness rather than to import any criticism. I acknowledge that throughout this Bill there have been continual discussions of an informal nature, some perhaps more satisfactory than others; and the noble and learned Viscount and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, have shown themselves in a mood of accommodation. I do not find the Hansard argument entirely convincing, since the noble Viscount has in fact quoted from the Hansard in question.


My Lords, this was the first part. Hansard concludes with the words: For Continuation of Proceedings see Official Report for Tuesday, 9th April. That will appear on Wednesday.


My Lords, practically nothing of major significance happened after that point. Presumably noble Lords who were present at the time and were following the debate would have some recollection of what passed. I would not ask noble Lords to accept this were there not a genuine urgency for it. The other place has a heavy programme. Noble Lords are aware that Governments are inclined to cram too much into a pint pot, but if we do not send it to another place it will delay the Second Reading there, and the Bill will not get into Committee until quite a time afterwards.

I know that the concessions that have been made on both sides have shown a willingness to meet the convenience of all concerned, and I hope that the House will accept this procedure. The point made by the noble and learned Viscount that there should not be a precedent is, I think, most important. It is no use saying that something will not be a precedent if in fact it is subsequently quoted as a precedent. The point is well taken, and I am grateful to the noble and learned Viscount. If he could be here to-morrow evening and we could pass this Bill through, it would be greatly for the convenience of this legislation and. I hope, would make for the reputation of this House in having due regard for its responsibilities, while showing a certain amount of flexibility for the convenience of Parliament as a whole.

3.6 p.m.


My Lords, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he appreciates this point? I say at once that I do not wish to stand in the way of, or do anything contrary to, the agreement just reached. The noble Lord has spoken about the concessions of the Government. But, after all, it is the right of this House, if it thinks fit, to move and have considered Amendments on Third Reading. It is impossible to put down those Amendments until a print of the Bill, as amended on Report, is available. Therefore, this cannot possibly be done in time for to-morrow.

I gather that I personally shall slightly benefit by what has been done, because I understand that the Amendment that is to be accepted by Her Majesty's Government is the one that I advocated on Clause 11 yesterday. But I think there was an even more important matter that was discussed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stow Hill. In reply to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stow Hill, the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack promised, as one would expect, the most careful consideration. The whole House understood that, as Lord Stow Hill understood it. to mean that we should get the result of that consideration by Third Reading, so that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stow Hill, could consider what further action he should take in this House before the Bill goes to another place. I think it is most important that all these rights have been thrust aside.


My Lords, I do not wish to take up further your Lordships' time. There is some dispute as to what my noble friend Lord Stow Hill said or meant. I know specifically what he has told us he meant; namely, that he would be content that this matter should be considered in another place. I would say that my noble friend Lord Stonham, in what I hope may be a brief debate to-morrow—although it will be in the hands of the House—will again list those matters on which the Government are willing to give the fullest consideration in another place.

Noble Lords may talk about concessions. We know that in your Lordships' House we operate a basis of making some concessions to one another. We have no control over the hours we sit, other than what your Lordships may decide. On the whole, I think this has worked out fairly reasonably, and I think that the particular issues that would have been the subject of amendment tomorrow have, in one way or another, either been postponed or disposed of so that it will not be necessary to move them. I have every hope that the Bill will in fact be in your Lordships' hands to-morrow.


My Lords, I do not wish to continue this matter. I must say that I am totally unconvinced by the noble Lord, the Leader of the House. Nobody could possibly have a more reasonable Opposition than he has in this House at present. Sometimes I think that we are a good deal too reasonable. When I cast my mind back and think of what the late Lord Alexander of Hillsborough would have said if, when we were in government, we had proposed what the Leader of the House has proposed to-day, my imagination boggles. As a final shot, I would merely say this. Apparently we are doing this out of consideration for the convenience of another place. I hope that the noble Lord will take it from me that in the latter part of this Session we shall be watching to see that the House of Commons gives as much consideration to this place as we give to them.


My Lords, if I do not embarrass the noble Lord, may I say that among my blessings is the noble Lord himself. I distinguish a certain difference between the previous Opposition and the present Opposition. I am grateful for this, and it shows the responsibility which the particular strength which the noble Lord has sitting on his side may to some extent impose on him. I am accustomed to the noble Lord firing off in strong terms just when he is being particularly conciliatory. Although I can never guarantee that I shall secure all the consideration that your Lordships' House may feel is its due, I shall always do my utmost to get it. We are following this procedure not merely for the convenience of another place but for the convenience of Parliament as a whole.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, the Leader of the House, what special urgency has arisen since eleven o'clock last night? I find it difficult to believe that during the whole of the time between three o'clock yesterday afternoon and eleven o'clock last night Her Majesty's Government were not well aware that they were going to propose the Third Reading of the Bill within 48 hours. Would it not have been courteous to the House to have informed the House at some stage yesterday that this was going to be done? Valuable time has already been lost between last night and this afternoon on the part of those noble Lords who wish to take an interest in the Third Reading to-morrow.


My Lords, the Government have always made clear that they hope to have this Bill by Easter. I am sorry that the noble Lord feels he has not employed his time as profitably as he might have done if he had known that the Bill was coming up for Third Reading to-morrow night. But I do not think that he has wasted much time. Presumably he has slept during some of the time, and some ideas for a brief speech may have occurred to him. I suggest that the situation has in no way changed. For the reasons I have already stated, it would not have been possible for the Government to say—indeed it would be an act of hubris—that they expected to have the Third Reading on Wednesday, when we did not know whether we should get the Report stage completed last night. Where it not for the co-operation of noble Lords opposite we might not have done so, but now, happily, we are able to proceed.

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