HL Deb 03 July 1969 vol 303 cc662-8

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to raise a point concerning the business of the House, particularly with relation to the Divorce Law Reform Bill. Last Monday a number of your Lordships voted against the Bill and a number voted for the Bill, but I believe that far the greater number of those who voted for the Second Reading of the Bill did so in the hope and expectation that your Lordships' House would be given a full opportunity to discuss this vitally important Bill extremely thoroughly.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor laid considerable emphasis on the preparation that the Bill had had and on the very thorough treatment it received in the House of Commons. I would ask whether we are to treat it less thoroughly. I feel that although the first day which has been set down for the discussion of the Bill at the Committee stage is entirely appropriate, it would not be thought right by all of us to have such an important Bill, albeit a Private Member's Bill, discussed on a Friday when, generally speaking, it is not convenient for most Members of your Lordships' House to be present.

I should have thought that, of all the Private Members' Bills that we have dealt with in recent years, this is, par excellence, one on which all the voting should be as fully representative as it is possible for it to be. At the moment, I have an open mind about the contents of this Bill and how I shall vote. But I am quite convinced that if we reach the Third Reading of the Bill with any feeling that it has been botched or hurried or rushed, I shall certainly vote against it.


My Lords, may I comment on what the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has said? I appreciate his feelings in this matter and I take note of what he said; but I am sure he will realise that I had to take note of what a good many other people have said. One of the difficulties in this and other matters is that the opinion of your Lordships, when it comes to selecting a particular day for a particular Bill, is not unanimous. It is most difficult to find a day which satisfies all noble Lords in all parts of the House. I recognise the importance of this measure and I certainly share his hope that full consideration will be given to it.

It has been found that we shall have time on Thursday of next week, although I must say to the noble Lord that it has been represented to me that Thursday is not the best day, because noble Lords wish to be going off on Thursday evening; Friday is not the best day, and Monday was represented to me most strongly as being quite unsuitable. I really find it difficult in looking for a day which will command universal approval. But, having heard what the noble Lord said, I take his point, and I assure him that in consultation we will find the most useful time for a discussion of this important Bill.


My Lords, would the noble Lord perhaps take it a little more seriously than that? He has said that every day is unsuitable, and what my noble friend was saying is that Friday is unsuitable. This is a part-time House and an unpaid House, and as a general rule it does not sit on Fridays. There are large numbers of noble Lords who do other jobs and who make their plans well ahead and do not get to the House on Fridays. I realise quite well that this is technically a Private Member's Bill, but it is a Private Member's Bill of the gravest importance. It is something which affects a very large number of people in this country and upon which there are large numbers of your Lordships who wish to express an opinion. So I appeal to the noble Lord the Leader of the House to see this point about Fridays. It is not a day on which we normally sit, and this is a Bill which is far more important than the average Private Member's Bill.


My Lords, I am afraid I rather take exception to the noble Lord's remark made about my noble friend not taking this matter seriously. I know the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, is a little inclined to make these remarks quickly, but he is a fair-minded person and I am sure he will agree, and the whole House will agree, that my noble friend does his utmost to try to suit the convenience of the House. I think the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, may have found on occasion in the past that it is absolutely impossible to suit every Member in a House which prefers, for understandable and good reasons, to preserve complete flexibility and not have any time rules at all.

On the one hand, criticism could be made if we gave up Tuesdays or Thursdays, which are normally Government business days, on the ground that one would then be favouring this Bill. Fridays happen to be more suitable for the Law Lords, because they are not usually sitting then; and certainly it has been my experience, particularly under the previous Government, that important Private Members' Bills—and there have been a number, including the previous Matrimonial Causes Bill, with similar provisions, the Bill dealing with homosexual law reform and others of this kind—have been taken on Fridays. It is extremely difficult, and I ask your Lordships to accept that we do our best. It is unfortunate that these Bills are apt to arrive late with us, but certainly my noble friend will do his utmost to suit everyone. Indeed, this Bill has been put down for the Thursday. But I hope the noble Lord will not consider that my noble friend—or I, for that matter—does not treat this matter with the utmost seriousness. It is a matter of real difficulty.


My Lords, I am very glad to hear what the noble Lord has said, but may I ask him this question? He will remember that when the Bill was taken in another place and was discussed on a Friday there was a great deal of criticism, in the Press and outside it, about the fact that another place was dealing with this very important Bill on a day when not many people in another place turned up. How much more true will that be in this place! I hope that the noble Lord will reconsider this point because I think it is important.


My Lords, I will only say that there is frequent criticism of Parliament: sometimes it is fair and sometimes it is unfair, and I believe that it was unfair on another place. The Members of another place are free, if they wish, to come and take part on a Friday, as indeed are the Members of this House, and I remember perfectly well a Division in this House on a Friday which was a very large Division. I do appeal to the noble Lord that, even if he does not wish to make a complete withdrawal, he might say that he does not intend the remark he made to my noble friend about taking this matter seriously, because it sounded rather sharper than I think he intended it to be.


My Lords, may I put this point in supporting what my noble Leader has said? It has been said, as is technically correct, that this is a Private Member's Bill. But surely it is quite different from any ordinary Private Member's Bill to which we are accustomed, which comes forward and in which no particular interest is taken. Although it is technically a Private Member's Bill, it is a Bill which the Government have facilitated and pressed on in order that it might be taken and fully considered in all its stages in another place. I appeal to the noble Lord the Leader of the House to treat it in that way and to accept that Friday is far and away the most inconvenient day that he could possibly select.


My Lords, after all, the Opposition have the majority in this House. We have to conduct our business here in a general spirit of agreement, and on the whole I think we manage rather well. Perhaps they would be willing to take Government business on Fridays—and in fact I made such a suggestion; but I think there would be equal objection to that. I must say my own impression in my time in this House is that Friday is an appropriate day for Bills of this kind, I know that this is a House which is not paid for its services, but I am not sure whether a Friday is a particularly more important day to be absent from this House than a Tuesday or a Wednesday. Our area of choice is very small, and I would appeal to the House to accept that we are doing our best. And I would again remind the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that my noble friend does take this seriously.


My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned the convenience of Lords of Appeal. May I ask him whether he is aware that ever since the Appellate Committee was set up 21 years ago it has been a rule, well understood, that any noble Lord who sits on the Appellate Committee is entitled to have that Committee adjourned at any time in order to attend to business in this House. Accordingly it is no excuse at all for causing inconvenience to other Members to say that inconvenience would be caused to Lords of Appeal; because it would not.


My Lords, I would just say to the noble and learned Lord that it was not an excuse; it was an attempt to be helpful, because one must have regard to those people who are concerned with the Appellate Committee. This is not a matter on which I think I should be further drawn; I will leave it to the noble and learned Lord to discuss it with my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack. But the point is taken. I hope we shall not press it. What was said was meant seriously and helpfully. I understood that Fridays were to that extent more convenient, but if the noble Lord says it makes no difference, I accept it.


My Lords, far be it from me to suggest that the Government are not taking the matter seriously; of course they arc. But surely there is considerable argument—and I believe the majority of noble Lords think this—that it would be very desirable to take this particular measure at a time when there is a maximum number of people here. Is it, therefore, beyond the wit of man to arrange something else on the Friday, even if it is public business?


My Lords, may I add a word? This is, of course, a Private Member's Bill, but the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor explained very clearly—and I did not criticise it at all—the reasons why such an important Bill as this had to be treated as a Private Member's Bill. Government time has been provided in another place, and I should have thought that for a measure of this importance it would be wise if Government time could be made available. May I put this other point? With a Bill of this sort, surely it is unusual to take the Committee stage on two successive days, Thursday and Friday. Is it not possible, when one looks at the Order Paper, that the remains of the Committee stage could be fitted in after the Sharing of Church Buildings Bill or the Transport (London) Bill Committee on recommittal, on the following Monday? Or is it not possible for us to depart from the usual rule and perhaps have the end of this Committee stage on July 16, when, according to the Order Paper, the last question we have to deal with on that day relates to monsters in Loch Ness?


My Lords, I wonder whether it would not be better if the business of the House were considered in rather more detail through the usual channels. For our part, we are very happy to allocate a day in the week, but there are other points of view and they have to be meshed in. It is very difficult on the Floor of the House to gear and integrate the various considerations raised. If the usual channels agree that other important Bills, Government Bills, of which there are several, can be taken on a Friday, then no doubt other days can be found for the Divorce Bill. It is a matter for discussion.


My Lords, may I have the last word, as somebody who is very interested in this Bill? May I make an appeal to the House and to my noble friends, and remind them that this surely must be the most important social measure that is going through Parliament his Session. One cannot compare it with the homosexual Bill or the Abortion Bill. Both those Bills relate to certain comparatively small sections of the community. This Bill is related to the welfare of every family in the country, and for that reason I appeal to my noble friends—I know I have bothered them and they have heard my voice before on this subject to-day—to give it reconsideration.


My Lords, obviously the House does not wish to prolong this discussion. Again, I say to the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition, that my noble friend and I do take this subject seriously, and we will do our best. But I think it will also be apparent to the House from the way the discussion has gone that it is not the easiest matter to arrange things to suit your Lordships' House. I remember a terrible scene in the last Session over the Seals Bill. I accept what my noble friend has said, that this is an immensely important matter, and we will do our best and will discuss it through the usual channels.