HL Deb 13 May 1971 vol 318 cc1197-201

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to inform you that subject to the progress of business it is hoped that the House will rise for the Whitsun Recess on Thursday, May 27, and return on Tuesday, June 8.


My Lords, perhaps this might be the moment at which I could ask the Government how hopeful they are that we shall have a Whitsun Recess? I think most of us are more concerned as to whether we are likely to get breakfast to-morrow morning. I should with great seriousness like to ask the noble Earl the Leader of the House whether he would take certain matters into account with regard to 'the conduct of the Industrial Relations Bill. It is my impression, and I think noble Lords will agree, that for the most part our affairs have been conducted with great courtesy on both sides of the House, and I think in this respect your Lordships can be proud that we are maintaining the standards that are normal. But in other respects I fear we shall not be maintaining the standards that are expected, apparently originally by the Government and by the public at large, in our consideration of this Bill.

To-day we start on what is clearly a new Bill—it could have been the Contracts of Employment (Amendment) Bill; admittedly, it is relevant to the Industrial Relations Bill, but it is a large subject on its own. We are glad to hear the noble Earl himself, who, I know, is interested in these matters of protection and dismissal and so on, is taking part. But the Government's stubborn insistence on getting this Bill through by some notional timetable is having quite serious effects. Whatever may have been said about some of the earlier stages of the Bill, feelings were very strong on this side of the House, and there were some admirable, though sometimes long, speeches. Noble Lords have been sitting here late at night, and there have been a number of noble Lords on both sides of the House who have been very faithful in their attendance, although we were interested now and again to see some new and less familiar faces; the Government Chief Whip has got quite a reserve to call on. The effect of the way we debate this (my noble friend Lord Shinwell referred to this the other day) late at night does mean that we are deprived of expertese on what is a very technical Bill, on which there are a number of legal points, and on which the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, struggling manfully as he has, has I think on occasion—I do not mean it offensively—been somewhat at a loss to answer some of the important points.

We are now coming to a part of the Bill which really will call for very close examination. As I understand it, we are quite likely to sit very late to-night, and this has a really serious effect on other business; it is already affecting other business that we ought to be concentrating on, and there is a tendency to say "Let us get that through". Tomorrow there is an important Bill, which has already been discussed—I think it is the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill—and we have had to organize—and for all I know, noble Lords opposite have had to do the same—that some of our colleagues who might have been here to-night should go home to-night in order to come in and take part in the proceedings on that Bill tomorrow; there may well be an important vote. Perhaps this is not a problem for noble Lords on that side, but to those of us who heard some of the considerably more lengthy speeches which came from certain Benches on that Bill when it was debated in an intermission, it does suggest to us that we are not really conducting this Bill properly.

In my time in your Lordships' House I have known one or two all-night sittings, usually when there was great urgency to get a measure through within a few days. I do beg the Government not to press us too hard on this. We have sat this week until after 2 a.m. on two nights. We are going to sit very late to-night. If we are to maintain our reputation as a place that seriously considers the matters that we are considering, and on the whole there has been a good deal less irrelevance on this Bill than I have sometimes noted on other Bills, even though it is lengthy, I do ask the Government to take this at a tolerable tempo. At the present moment it is imposing a very heavy strain. I do not wish to single out only the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, because the same thing is affecting my noble and learned friend, the former Lord Chancellor, who has to be in the House tomorrow.

I am bound to say to the noble Earl that we shall have to consider the position very carefully. The Government have got the power and the majority. We do not wish to resort to undesirable tactics. I hope the Government will take this as a serious and objective representation of view; I do stress that I am not making this point for tactical reasons. It is a matter which I think the noble Earl may wish to draw to the attention of his colleagues, who, I believe, are bringing undue pressure on him.


My Lords, I shall, of course, take careful note of what the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition has said, as I always do. Straight away I would endorse one thing he said, and I do it very gladly, and that is that, despite the division there is in the House on this Bill, I think it is remarkable and noteworthy, and to the credit of your Lordships' House, that we have managed to maintain our normal standards of courtesy towards each other. I think this is so; I agree with the noble Lord about this. I hope very much that it will continue, because this is the tradition of your Lordships' House and I think we get much of our flavour from observing these courtesies. But, that said, I can only point out to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that this is a major Bill and there is a measure of urgency attached to it, because I do believe it is in the wider national interest that this Bill should be enacted without undue delay.

But, of course, I am always open to representations from the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition, about the organisation of our business. One of the troubles here is that the usual channels have not been as open as they normally are, and if they were to be open a little bit more and we were thus able to discuss constructively together the programme and see how to meet the difficulties in a rational way, I would be very glad to do so. But I must point out to the noble Lord that there was another Bill within all our recollections before your Lordships' House where passions and feelings ran very high, and that was the London Government Bill. I think many noble Lords will recollect our Committee stage on that Bill. I should like to point out to the noble Lords opposite that we are already within eight hours of the total time we took on the Committee stage on the London Government Bill. I feel, therefore, that noble Lords are not in a position to complain about the amount of time we have allocated to this Bill. I must say, in all sincerity (although I believe there has been an improvement), in certain respects quite obviously we have not maintained our usual standards of relevance in the debate. I believe, if I may say so, that the remedy may lie just as much on the Benches opposite as with the organisation of Government business.


My Lords, I opened my remarks in a conciliatory spirit. I made no accusations. I think it is a pity that the noble Earl, in his final remarks, took the tone he did. I do not wish to debate this matter. There is no comparison between the London Government Bill and this Bill. The noble Earl spoke about the usual channels being more open. The fact is that none of us—and he knows this as well as I do—can forecast the progress of this Bill; so much of it is uncharted territory to us, and is uncharted territory to the Government Front Bench. The Government may well think it is essential to get this Bill by a certain date. There is an argument that the sooner this Bill gets on the Statute Book and is shown to be as futile as we believe it to be the better, but that is not an argument for completing it by fixed dates. There is no reason why we should not sit, as we have in previous years, and as we sat on the Transport Bill in the days of the Labour Government, to the middle of August. I beg the Government to take this Bill at a speed at which it can be given proper consideration.


My Lords, may I make this suggestion, having taken part in all the debates to which the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has referred when I was the Leader or Deputy Leader of the House? Would not much better progress be made if speeches—and they have been very relevant; I think every speech I have heard has—could be short? A great deal could be done by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and his friends to ensure that that was so.


My Lords, we all respect the noble Earl with his great experience, and I do not blame him for not being here in the middle of the night, because many of us cannot be here. I think he will note that now we are away from the opening highly controversial principles of the first clauses, the speeches have been short. Indeed, it is very much in our interest to pin the Government with short speeches, especially when we cannot get answers from them. Of course, there have been some lengthy speeches from that side of the House.


My Lords, may I just ask this question? The noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, observed that the usual channels were not as open as they might have been. May I ask him whether he is inviting us to have discussions about the progress of the Bill in order to get it within a date which the Government have already fixed in their own minds, or are they inviting us to have discussions about the date on which it would be reasonable to complete this Bill?


My Lords, I am inviting the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite to have discussions as to what a reasonable timetable would be. I am very open. I have no preconceived date in my mind, but I am pretty certain that it would not be beyond the wit of man to make more rapid progress than we have been making until now.

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