HL Deb 10 July 1969 vol 303 cc1184-95

3.17 p.m.

BARONESS SUMMERSKILL rose to move, That if the Committee stage of the Divorce Reform Bill is not finished this day, proceedings in Committee on the Bill be not resumed on any Friday. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper. I have put this Motion down to-day because I believe that the Divorce Reform Bill is the most important social measure which has been debated in Parliament in the course of this Session. For that reason, I believe that it merits the presence in this House of as large a number of your Lordships as possible. It seems to me that on Friday there is a very thin attendance and therefore this very important measure cannot be debated as it should be.

I just want to remind your Lordships who were not here on the Second Reading of the two fundamental principles in this measure which will completely change our divorce laws. There is, first, divorce by compulsion of the innocent spouse and, secondly, divorce by consent after two years separation. In both those cases, there is failure to provide adequate financial provision. I am sure that those of your Lordships who did not attend the Second Reading will realise that if we put measures of this kind on the Statute Book they must have far-reaching implications. I have been told that it is normal to have a Private Member's Bill on a Friday. I think that to call this a Private Member's Bill is not quite correct, because in another place it was given Government time. Furthermore, I would say that a Private Member's Bill is always looked upon as a Bill of not great significance and of having perhaps only limited application. This Bill will have national application, and indeed will be a matter of concern for every family in the country.

I would remind the House of what happened in another place, and the reasons why I feel that we should have a greater opportunity to debate this Bill. The Third Reading was taken very late at night on a Thursday, and less than 25 per cent. of the Members entitled to do so registered their votes. Can this possibly reflect the feelings of the country on this Divorce Bill, which embodies such far-reaching changes? I suggest that our House can now give it detailed investigation, and can decide by Amendment whether it should go on to the Statute Book.

By a curious coincidence, my noble friend Lord Stonham, in speaking last Thursday on the Children and Young Persons Bill, rose at about 8 o'clock at night and said that he proposed to adjourn the discussion in order to resume in full strength on Monday. I am asking only for the same treatment of the Divorce Bill. Sit to-day, yes—but not too late. Let us adjourn early. as the Government quite wisely decided to do last Thursday on an important Bill, so that we can have a full vote. Then, instead of meeting to-morrow, let us meet on Monday when, again, we can examine the Amendments. I see that there are 46 Amendments down and, apart from my own, nobody can say that the names attached to those Amendments are insignificant. I am gratified to see that the noble and learned Law Lords have seen fit to put their names to some of these Amendments, and we should surely avail ourselves of their advice. Therefore I am asking that, instead of debating the Bill on Friday, we should debate it on other days.

In conclusion, I am sure that my noble friend Lord Stow Hill feels as I do on this matter—and I recall his very clever winding-up speech, which I quite understood—because he had sat here during the Second Reading and had heard noble Lords on both sides of the House get up and criticise one principle after another in this Bill. It is quite clear that the House was not agreed that this Bill should go forward as it is, and my noble friend realised this. He understands—he is a lawyer—and in his winding-up speech he said: If this Bill receives a Second Reading, obviously one must envisage a very intense debate in Committee on paragraph (e) and the five-year separation. If your Lordships decided in Committee to put a pen through that paragraph you could do so and the rest of the Bill could survive. Certainly it is a most important and fundamental provision, in my judgment at any rate, but the Bill without it would nevertheless be what I would describe as a viable Bill."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30/6/69, col. 439.]

He then went on to Clauses 4 and 6, which are concerned with the financial provisions, and about which there was some discussion. He said: … but those, again, are matters which obviously cry out for further discussion in Committee."—[col. 440.] "Cry out", my noble friend said, and he chooses his words very carefully. He then told the House that it was going to have its opportunity. He finally said: I beg your Lordships to say that it would be a great pity, after this tremendous labour by devoted people, inside and outside Parliament, if the Bill did not at least proceed so far as the detailed and minute examination to which it should be subjected, which nobody would deny, if it gets its Committee stage before your Lordships' House."—[col. 440] I am asking your Lordships to-day for that detailed and intense examination for which my noble friend pleaded the other clay. Therefore may we sit on clays other than Friday, when there is only a thin attendance? I beg to move.

Moved, That if the Committee stage of the Divorce Reform Bill is not finished this day. proceedings in Committee on the Bill be not resumed on any Friday.—(Baroness Summerskill.)

3.24 p.m.


My Lords, of course my noble friend Lady Summerskill is in order in moving her Motion, but under the same Rules my noble friend Lord Stow Hill is in order in putting down his business for consideration tomorrow. When there is this conflict between the two requirements it will be for the House as a whole to decide, and I imagine that, by Division or otherwise, it will wish to come to a conclusion as speedily as Possible.

There is, however, one consideration that I would venture to put before your Lordships. This Motion puts forward a very attractive proposition, that we should not sit on Fridays. I must say that this is very attractive to me, and I have no doubt that all noble Lords would consider it a very easy way out. What it does not take into account, and what is much more difficult, is to decide when we should consider our business if we do not take it on a Friday. In July every year, since long before my time, this House has a great deal of business to consider. July is the busiest month of the year. Although we have tried very hard to make it a more even two-way flow as between this House and another, when the flush of legislation comes from the other place we have considerable problems in this month of July.

This month we have the Housing Bill: we have the Post Office Bill we have the Education (Scotland) Bill; we have the Development of Tourism Bill; we have the National Insurance Bill; and we have the Transport (London) Bill—which now has some 80-odd Amendments down to it: 62, I may say, from one noble Lord. That Bill is down for consideration on Monday. That is the business which my noble friend says she would like to sweep away. And we still have to come from another place the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Bill, which I understand will probably receive full treatment from your Lordships' House.

If we are to fulfil our responsibilities as a revising Chamber, we can either sit very late into the night and into the early hours of the morning, or we can go further into August, which I understand is not desired. Or we can use five days of the week, which does not seem to me (and I discussed it through the usual channels) an unreasonable proposition. There is nothing unusual about this. We sat last year for six successive Fridays; and in the year before the present Labour Government took over (I turned it up) we sat for six successive Fridays in June and July. The last time divorce was considered in this House, it was considered on a Friday, in the proceedings on the Matrimonial Causes Bill, and I am told that it was not a thin House. Although the total membership of the House at that time, five years ago, was less, there was a very considerable vote. I therefore suggest to my noble friend that we have to take other matters into account.

In all this, I would say that the Government themselves do not have control of the business: we are acting only as an honest broker. My noble friend, Lord Stow Hill, has been most considerate, most understanding and most sympathetic in moving his own Bill about, in order to fit in with the requirements of the Government. We have found it possible—and I thank those noble Lords who have co-operated—to make Thursday, to-day, available, which was not the original intention. We have also moved business about next Tuesday, and a good deal of inconvenience has been caused. But we shall now have Tuesday for this Bill. As I said, my noble friend Lord Stow Hill has been extremely understanding and co-operative in this matter. I am bound to say that I only wish my noble friend Lady Summerskill had been equally co-operative.

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, in accordance with the practice and rules of the House, the mover of a Bill has some responsibility for the choice of date when he puts it down, and in those circumstances I think your Lordships would wish to have an account from me of the thinking which led me to decide to ask your Lordships to undergo the undoubted inconvenience of reassembling on Friday. May I say at once, with real sincerity, that I am extremely sorry if I have caused inconvenience. It is a thing that I should be most reluctant to do, but I was confronted with this situation.

My noble friend Lady Summerskill has read out passages from a speech which I ventured to make on Second Reading, when this Bill was before your Lordships previously, and I endorse every word of it. I am most anxious that your Lordships should have a full and ample opportunity for considering each one of the clauses most minutely and in the fullest possible detail. The choice, in those circumstances, was this: either I could (if this is the appropriate language) choose Thursday, to-day, which was made available by the kindness of my noble friend Lord Beswick, plus Friday, thereby incurring the reproach of causing your Lordships inconvenience, plus Tuesday of next week, thereby securing three days during which your Lordships could consider this Bill in Committee; or I could, as it seemed to me, avoid inconveniencing your Lordships by rather rushing the debate in Committee by trying to crowd it into the Thursday and the following Tuesday.

I was confronted, in those circumstances, with a balance of considerations. Should I occasion inconvenience to the House, or should I adopt the choice which I in fact adopted of bringing it about, by the dates I chose, that your Lordships had a full three days, or nearly a full three days, in which to go through this Bill and examine it in Committee? hope your Lordships will think that I did right in deciding that three days were better than two days; and I am a little surprised by the argument which was put forward so convincingly by my noble friend Lady Summerskill, that we should cut the time available by one-third. It would mean that we should have to skimp the Committee stage consideration of this Bill; and it seemed to me that the argument which she was advancing to your Lordships would have resulted in precisely the opposite conclusion to that which she wanted to reach.

I hope that after three days your Lordships will feel that this Bill has been properly and thoroughly examined. It may be changed or it may not be changed; but if it emerges from its consideration in Committee at least one can say of it that it has been subjected to a profound examination in this House and that this House has in every sense fulfilled its function as a revising Chamber. If we cut the time by one-third, it probably will not be possible to say that, and that is a result which I personally should very much regret. In those circumstances, I can only, as it were, throw myself on your Lordships' mercy and hope that your Lordships will endorse the decision which I took, with the assistance—and may I acknowledge with great gratitude the assistance I have received—of my noble friend Lord Beswick, and will think that I was right, in all the circumstances, in asking your Lordships to meet on Friday.

Before I came to that decision I examined very closely what the precedents were. My noble friend Lord Beswick has read them out. It is not as if I were asking your Lordships to do something which is wholly unknown in this House. Your Lordships have discussed both Government business and Private Member's Bills on a Friday. It very often happens in July; and in July it is rather the usual thing, in a sense, for the business of this House to be rather crowded because measures come from the other place at the last minute. It is difficult to avoid that situation. In those circumstances, I greatly hope that your Lordships will not accede to the arguments of my noble friend Lady Summerskill, and will decide that if we do not complete the Committee stage debate this evening, as I imagine we shall not, your Lordships will be ready to resume that debate tomorrow.

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, we are, I think, placed in some difficulty, because we have listened to two very reasonable speeches, one from the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, and one from the noble Lord, Lord Stow Hill, and I have sympathy with both of them. I sympathise with the noble Baroness about Fridays, and I have said so before. It is perfectly true that we sometimes have to sit on Fridays, and I have no doubt that the practice was started by a Conservative Government, if that gives any satisfaction to noble Lords opposite. But it is, on the whole, a last recourse. We try not to do it; and we try not to take important business on those Fridays because a large number of noble Lords do other jobs and so arrange their affairs that they do those other jobs on Fridays, when the House is not sitting. It upsets everybody's plans if we sit on important Bills on Fridays, and as a general rule I think that that is a very bad thing, and I said so forcibly on the last occasion. I am sorry if I offended the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, by saying that he was not taking things seriously; but I think it is a bad thing.

My Lords, on most occasions I am inclined to blame the Government for everything, but on this particular occasion I do not think, in honesty, I can; because what happens, as the noble Lord, Lord Beswick has said, is that every July we are used as a dumping ground for all the legislation coming up from the other place which they have studied and amended at their leisure. Then we, in a short month, have to decide on all these matters. As a result, July is an extremely crowded month. I have looked—because I have had the opportunity of talking to noble Lords opposite—at the timetable which faces us for the next few weeks, and I should like to say, if I may, that I think the noble Lord the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip have really done their best. They have given two Government days to this Bill, and so far we are being asked to sit on only one Friday. When we originally discussed this matter I do not think that any Government days were given to it—or, at any rate, if so, only one. I think that they have tried. So, much as I dislike sitting on Fridays, and much as I regret that a Bill of this importance should be discussed on a Friday, I have come to the conclusion that it would be far worse that your Lordships should refuse to sit on a Friday in order to discuss a measure of this importance, and that if we did the House might very rightly be blamed for it.


My Lords, I should like to endorse what has just been said by the noble Lord. I appreciate the noble Baroness's case, which she put very reasonably to the House, but, equally, I think we have to realise that at this time of the year we are expected—we are obliged—to work a five-day week, and particularly to deal with a measure of this importance. I can see no reason, inconvenient as it is to many of us, why we should not, on a measure of this importance, have a very full attendance tomorrow on this Bill; and I do not think one gets more time for a measure by passing a Resolution not to sit on Fridays. I should like to add that I think it is time we made known again to the other place that we should like to start more Bills here, so that they can get them at this time of the year and relieve some of the pressure on this House.


My Lords, as the person who raised this issue last week, I should like to add a further word. We on this side do not normally agree with everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, says, but I believe that noble Lords on all sides of the House who take their Parliamentary duties conscientiously and feel that your Lordships' House has an important role to play, not least on these social reforms, agree with her that this is an important Bill. I think it is the most important Bill in the way of social reform that I can remember in the ten years I have been in your Lordships' House: certainly it is the most far-reaching. I have no objection at all to working five days a week at this time of the year. What I object to is taking a Bill of this importance on a Friday and not seeing the rest of the Government's business adjusted to make way for it.

The reason I have for saying that is the way in which this matter has been handled so far. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor pointed out on Second Reading what a respectable ancestry this Bill has got and how thoroughly it had been dealt with in the Commons. The Commons certainly spent a long time on it. They discussed it over a period of six months. They started on December 2, and finally passed it on June 12. We are now asked to deal with all stages of the Bill in three weeks. That is the kind of thing we have complained about many times before.

We never seem to get any change; and it appears to me that the Government are constantly asking Parliament to pay the price for their lack of foresight. There must have been a business programme in the eyes of the Government from the moment of the Queen's Speech. None of the measures which the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, has mentioned were not in the gracious Speech. We knew they were all coming. In fact, circumstances do slightly alter cases, but in this case we have not had the House of Lords Reform Bill, which we were expecting, and we have not had the Industrial Relations Bill, which we were promised—and still the Government are in a jam. For myself, I feel that if Parliament does not take a stand—and this seems to me a good point at which to take a stand—in order to have time to handle these important Bills properly when they come to us, we shall never get anywhere. If the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, cares to press her Motion to a Division I shall certainly support her.


My Lords, there are two aspects of this matter to which I should like briefly to draw your attention. First, your Lordships have a reputation for conducting business in a highly civilised way. For that reputation I think that no small amount of thanks is due to those most industrious and helpful people responsible for organising what have come to be known as "the usual channels". Recently, I think there have been occasions when they may have received more kicks than ha'pence. I do not think that this is really the kind of thanks they deserve—and I refer to "the usual channels" not only in the person of Lord Beswick but to the usual channels on all sides of the House.

The other fact that I think should be remembered—and the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, seemed to overlook it—is that this is not a Government Bill. This is a Bill which could not be a Party political Bill. No Government of any political colour could introduce such a Bill. This is a Bill of great social reform and it has followed the pattern through your Lordships' House that other Bills of Social reform have followed in the past. I agree with the noble Baroness—I seldom disagree with her—that it is a pity that we have to consider these matters on a Friday; but this is a busy month of the Session and we are within three weeks of the end of that month. The alternative seems to be to prolong the Session for Government business into August. I am sure that that would be a much greater evil than having to deal with these matters of great importance for a few hours on a Friday, in addition to the other day that the Government have generously found time to devote to it.


My Lords, I should not like to suggest that my noble friend Lady Summerskill, in moving this Motion, is trying to lose this Bill. After all, we have four Bills coming up on a Friday in the last few weeks of this Session. One of them is an extremely important Bill, the Children and Young Persons Bill. I think perhaps that my noble friend, as a great feminist and as one who has done a great deal for the rights of women in this country, would have been wiser to hurry along the Divorce Reform Bill in order to press for the matrimonial property legislation about which she is so concerned. I believe that the Divorce Reform Bill will act as a catalyst for the marital property legislation. That is all I have to say.


My Lords, as a Backbencher I should like to say that I have not been convinced by any of the speeches made this after- noon that there is any real reason why this House should not sit on a Friday. I feel that the noble Baroness has moved this Motion merely as a delaying tactic to prevent this very important Bill from going through this Session.


My Lords, this is a Private Member's Bill. In the other place Private Members' Bills are governed by a very strict timetable. The result of that is that it is very difficult to get them through. Very often they should not be got through. This is a Private Member's Bill which has not been starred; but the Government are giving it every facility. On the one hand, the Government say that they are neutral; on the other, they are doing everything to help the Bill. It is inconceivable to my mind that they should do that—star it or not!


My Lords, I would acquit my noble friend Lady summerskill—it was apparent from the moderation of her speech—of any desire to delay this Bill by spinning out the discussion now. I must say that I am grateful to noble Lords for the moderation with which among other things, they have treated the noble Lord, Lord Beswick and myself. I must say that if by some strange chance I ever find myself in Opposition I shall be much more sympathetic than I was when I was in Opposition previously. I agree with noble Lords that it is unfortunate that we get stuff "shovelled" down to us at the end of a Session. Successive leaders and Chief Whips of all Parties have tried desperately to prevent it. I agree that it has happened again. This is one of the matters in which we had hoped that House of Lords Reform would have produced a greater degree of equality. But it is too late to discuss that now.

I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, that the Government do plan their timetables but that the timetables do not always work out. I must say that I have not previously known a Session in my life time in which major Bills have disappeared and new major Bills have suddenly appeared to add t the turbulence of our affairs. I think that we have done our best. We have given up another Government day to this Bill. Although we cannot achieve perfection in this matter, I hope that the House will feel that we have tried to be as cooperative as possible. My noble friend has a right of reply but I think that apart from her speech (I do not, of course, wish to prevent anyone speaking), the feeling is that we should like to come to a decision on this Motion.


My Lords, I want to make only a short reply. Tuesday, the other day referred to, was put in after my Motion was put down. Most of the debate will take place tonight and tomorrow, Friday. There are some matters of such principle to which the noble and learned Law Lords will address themselves that, frankly, I feel it will be a great disappointment to the whole House not to hear them. Therefore I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sandford. I think that we must go to a Division.

On Question, resolved in the negative and Motion disagreed to accordingly.