HL Deb 21 May 1968 vol 292 cc589-95

2.45 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to offer, with my own regrets, an explanation to the House about the delay in publishing to-day's Marshalled List for the Countryside Bill. Owing to a human error the Amendments were not available for printing in the Marshalled List. In the ordinary way we get such an impeccable service from the printers that I hope that there will be no ready disposition to lay any blame in that quarter. We have done our best, and so have the printers, to make available copies of the new Amendments which were tabled last night. The printed list is available in the Printed Paper Office. If the interests of the House can best be served by any adjustment of our present arrangements for the consideration of this Report stage of the Bill we shall be ready to consider them, although having had an opportunity of discussing this I understand that it might be thought that the best course would be to go through the Marshalled List as now printed—even though I accept that some Peers are going to be placed at some disadvantage.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for his explanation. Let me say straight away that I associate myself with all that he has said about the very high standards of service which we receive from everybody who serves this House, not least the printers. I am grateful to the noble Lord for having offered to consider some adjustment of the programme; but, that said, I must protest against this sort of thing which is becoming too frequent. A great avalanche of legislation is shortly to descend upon us, and I feel it quite wrong to let this forerunner of the avalanche go by without making a protest against the way in which legislation is tending to be pushed through this House without the possibility of our giving it due attention.

It was only yesterday, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, will recall, that a long and important new clause—I think it was the Exmoor clause—was added to the Bill. That clause was tabled on Friday; it did not appear until Saturday. Most of your Lordships are not in the House on a Saturday and therefore most of you did not see it until Monday. It was taken at that short notice yesterday. May I remind your Lordships what the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, said on that occasion? It was: I think that at this stage all I need to do is to commend it"— that is, the new clause— to your Lordships and once again to apologise for the short notice at which I have been able to put it down."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20/5/68; col. 540.] While fully accepting what the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, has said about what was clearly a slip—which was, perhaps, all the more obvious because we have so very few slips in the administration of this House—I feel that I must protest against the repetition of this sort of thing.

As for the possible adjustment of the programme, in considering this I feel it would be only right for me to hear what has to be said by my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor, who is handling the Bill, and by my noble friend Lord Molson, who is particularly concerned with one of these Amendments. I should add that there is another Amendment which has just appeared in the same way. It stands in the name of my noble friend Lord Merrivale.


My Lords, the Chief Whip was kind enough to ask me what I thought would be the most convenient way to get us out of this difficulty as easily as possible. Perhaps the best thing would be to proceed with the Amendments on the Marshalled List as, at long last, it has now been put into our hands. No doubt the Parliamentary Secretary will give us an even fuller explanation of his Amendment than would otherwise be necessary, because many of us will be reading it for the first time when he speaks to it. Naturally, we shall expect a little more than the usual indulgence in putting down Amendments, if necessary, on Third Reading, since to a large extent this Report stage is developing into a kind of Committee stage.

I would emphasise what my noble friend Lord Jellicoe has already said. This breakdown of machinery which resulted in the Amendments not being printed until halfway through this morning and their not being available to your Lordships until about half-an-hour ago is the kind of thing which is liable to happen when no reasonable notice is given. Even had the printers been able to do their work at the right time, it still would be most unreasonable that your Lordships should see these Amendments only on the very morning when you are expected to debate them in the afternoon.

As my noble friend has said, this is constantly happening. I made a protest last week. At that time the very important Amendment dealing with Crown roads had not appeared on the Marshalled List. That Amendment carries out what was virtually a promise given by the Government during the Committee stage in another place. All these weeks went by without any of the necessary detailed work being done; then, at the last moment, your Lordships are asked to look at these extremely difficult and complicated matters and in a moment of time to understand them and all their implications. There is on these occasions—and there was particularly in that case—no opportunity whatsoever of consulting the county councils and the amenity societies, and so on, which have been concerned with this matter. Mention has been made already of the very important Amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Foot, yesterday. Incidentally, I should like to inquire from the Government Chief Whip or from anyone else (unfortunately I was obliged to be away from the Chamber in the middle of yesterday afternoon; but some of my noble friends have told me about this) whether there was a breakdown in communications which resulted in many noble Lords who were in the Library not knowing when this business came on in your Lordships' Chamber. I should be glad to know whether that was the case. What has happened to-day—although I am sure we shall all do our best to get ourselves and the Government out of the difficulty in which we find ourselves—is only the reductio ad absurdum of what has been happening all through this Bill and on a number of occasions in the past. I say to Her Majesty's Government that it is unreasonable to ask this House to legislate if your Lordships do not have reasonable notice of the proposals of the Government.


My Lords, may I remind my noble friend of this fact and make a suggestion to the Leader of the House and the Minister in charge of the Bill? I fully appreciate the extraordinary difficulty with which the House is confronted in having to face these Amendments, particularly at this stage in the progress of the Bill. But it is always possible for the House (it has been done frequently; I have often accepted a proposal when I was leading the House) to move to recommit a clause. The House then goes into Committee and the Amendment can be dealt with in a proper way, as at a Committee stage. I hope that in respect of any of these clauses which create this difficulty my noble friends will move to recommit them, so that we can go into Committee to discuss them. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that suggestion.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us think that he has no real need to be abject in his apology about this matter? Is it not the fact that what has been said this afternoon indicates that a reform of our mechanism is vitally necessary? When a criticism is made that the Report stage is being made into a Committee stage, whose fault is it? Surely it is the fault of the people who put down on Report the same Amendments as they put down on the Committee stage. There is no means of preventing that from happening, and no means of preventing the very same Amendments from being put down again on Third Reading. It is about time we got a bit of logic into this situation.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, should advise himself afresh about this matter. The trouble has not arisen over any Amendments moved from the Opposition Parties or from the Back Benches opposite. The trouble has centred on the fact that the Government tabled two major new clauses at the very last moment. I agree with everything said by my noble friend Lord Molson. It is wholly unreasonable to ask Parliament to consider matters of substantial importance like this with virtually no notice. It is impossible to consult all the people outside who are rightly interested in this Bill, and it is impossible for anybody to put down Amendments to new clauses in these circumstances unless they seek leave to move a manuscript Amendment. And your Lordships will all be aware that it is extremely difficult to have a satisfactory discussion on a manuscript Amendment which no one has seen until the previous moment.

Three manuscript Amendments were moved yesterday and we had debates on them, but few of us would say that in the time available we were able to do full justice to the points which they sought to establish. In this case the trouble has arisen through great haste on the part of the Government in seeking to get this Bill through. It is only 26 days ago that we had the Second Reading debate. Since then, we have had three days in Committee, and this is the second day on Report. If your Lordships will calculate, you will see that the intervals have been exceptionally small.

This trouble has been grievously aggravated by the action of the Government in putting down these two important new clauses at the last possible moment. I am prepared to discuss this latest new clause to-day, but I must join with my noble friend Lord Molson in warning the Government that there may well be Amendments put down on Third Reading simply and solely because it has been impossible to find time to bring considered judgment to bear on the proposals which the Government have put before us.


My Lords, before the Leader of the House replies, may I ask him whether he would not agree that noble Lords who have spoken from the other side of the House have engaged in a little bit of politics? I have sat through a good many of the debates on the Countryside Bill, and I am bound to say that I have seen no evidence of any attempt on the part of the Government to get it through quickly or hastily. I think that the noble Lord in charge of the Bill has handled it extremely skilfully, and has been very co-operative, as indeed have noble Lords opposite. But to jibe at the Government and say that they are seeking to make unnecessary haste is, I thing, a little unworthy of the noble Lord who did so.


My Lords—


My Lords, I would remind your Lordships that we are to have a debate to-morrow in which all these subjects can be aired, and I was hoping to curtail the discussion today. But if the noble Lord, Lord Strang, wishes to speak—


My Lords, let me say from these Benches in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Rowley, that I entirely agree with everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, and by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor.


My Lords, I regard this as a "curtain-raiser" to tomorrow's debate—perhaps not a promising one, although it may have led to the expending of some of the undoubtedly strong feeling that exists—and therefore I do not want to discuss the general points. But I am bound to say, having heard noble Lords opposite, that although the Government have been extremely co-operative—at least I believe so—in the matter of handling the debates and trying to meet the Opposition, I recognise that we have put them in a difficult position with regard to these Amendments to-day, and I appreciate the attitude of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, in suggesting that we should see how we get on to-day. We may have to face the possibility of further Amendments on Third Reading.

It is not particularly pleasant for a Government spokesman to stand up time and again and defend the conduct of business, and that is why we have put down the Motion for to-morrow, so that we may air the whole problem and explain some of the difficulties that confront the Government, which are not wholly connected, if I may say so, with the avalanche of legislation. There are other factors in your Lordships' House. I do not want to say anything contentious on the present point. My noble friend Lord Kennet—and I appreciate the tributes that have been paid to him—has tried his utmost, and I believe that he has conducted this Bill with great skill. I have listened most carefully, as has my noble friend the Chief Whip—and let me say that he has problems to cope with in timetabling your Lordships House, some of which we shall deploy to-morrow.

I hope that we may now proceed. I should like to make clear to the noble Lord, Lord Molson, that we are extremely willing to discuss how we may handle this matter at the moment. It is only fair to say that I do not regard the problem as wholly the result of a printers' error. The noble Lord put his finger on the time that was allotted. If we could leave the matter now and get on with the Bill, no doubt we can discuss this subject also in more general terms to-morrow.