HL Deb 08 June 1973 vol 343 cc299-306

11.51 a.m.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Leader of the House, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That Standing Order No. 44 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with on Tuesday next for the purpose of taking the Bahamas Independence Bill through its remaining stages on that day.—(Earl St. Aldwyn.)


My Lords, I apologise to the noble and learned Lord for interrupting him. May I ask the indulgence of the House for two minutes to enter a protest about this Motion? We had the Second Reading of the Bahamas Independence Bill yesterday. The main provisions were not disputed, but nobody who attended that debate could say that it was entirely uncontroversial. I have three Amendments for the Commitee stage, and with the Second Reading yesterday and the Committee stage on Tuesday it seems to me that your Lordships are not being given a fair chance to study the Amendments or to make up your minds on them.

It also seems a little uncomplimentary to the judgment and impartiality of your Lordships that it should be assumed that, should I divide the House on the Committee stage, the Government will automatically win. Moreover, a number of Her Majesty's subjects are very concerned about the Bill, and the way in which it is going through the House will seem to them to savour of rather unseemly haste.


My Lords, in normal circumstances I would have given sympathetic support to the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven, first of all perhaps on the speed at which the Committee stage is being taken, and also on the addition to the Motion for the Report stage and Third Reading to be taken immediately following the Committee stage. I think the House would be right to support the noble Lord, as we must always be jealous not only of our rights but also, when we are passing legislation, of how it affects the people directly concerned. But I would advise the House not to support the noble Lord if he should object to the Motion by calling a Division, for these two reasons.

First, an Independence Bill is a consequence of a Constitutional Conference, where the parties concerned have worked together and have produced an agreed solution. When a Bill is introduced granting independence, it has to be again subject to consultation between, in this case, the authorities in the Bahamas and our own Department. This means that time becomes very short for the passage of a Bill, particularly taking into account the independence date which has been settled in the Bahamas. So the Government may be acquitted of rushing the Bill through Parliament.

In regard to the Amendments, they were moved and fully debated in another place. They had one simple purpose; there was nothing very involved in them. The reports in the newspapers and in Hansard will clearly give to Members of your Lordships' House the substance and the problems that are involved. Therefore while, in normal circumstances, I should have supported the noble Lord, I think that this is an occasion when I could not do so; and I think that the Government ought to be permitted to get the Bill through as quickly as possible, so that the arrangements in the Bahamas, which are quite involved, can be proceeded with.

There is one other factor. Though the Bill grants independence, the Constitution can come into force in the Bahamas only when the Order in Council is presented to Her Majesty, and that, of course, cannot be done until the Bill has been passed. I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven, but on this occasion I have to advise the House not to support him.


My Lords, it seemed to me, listening to him, that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, enunciated a rather novel constitutional doctrine. It was, unless I misunderstood it, that if an Independence Bill is agreed between Her Majesty's Government and the people of the Colony concerned, it is thereby removed from the detailed scrutiny of Parliament.



If he did not say that, I am not at all clear what his opening comments were. I support my noble friend Lord Belhaven. It is surely, to put it no more strongly, most extraordinary that a Motion of this kind should be put on the Order Paper and debated in the same day. I wonder whether my noble friend could give me any precedent for that, except in the case of some grave national emergency. I do not think that anyone could say that the Bill constituted that.

It is true that if we followed the advice given us by my noble friend Lord Belhaven, it would put the usual channels in both Houses to a certain amount of inconvenience, but that is something to which they are accustomed, and which I am sure they could face with equanimity. But I cannot really believe that this is an emergency of the kind that demands such treatment.

My noble friend Lady Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie yesterday developed the point touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, about the timetable. There are four weeks between next Tuesday and July 10, and it would surely be possible to find Parliamentary time for some discussion of the detail of the Bill. It would be out of order for me to go into the merits of the Bill, but it is surely especially important that Parliament should be careful of the rights of minorities, even of small minorities; and it is the rights of minorities that are at issue in the Bill.

Another question I must ask my noble friend is this. Why has this procedure had to be adopted? It would have been perfectly easy to put down the Motion a week ago or a month ago, or at any time in the past. Why did it have to be rushed in this way? I can think of only two alternatives: sheer incompetence of the Government officials concerned, or a deliberate attempt on the part of my noble friend to stifle discussion. I prefer the first alternative, but I should like to know which is right. It seems that, as my noble friend Lord Belhaven said, it is a little unfair that Amendments should be put down to-day for debate on Tuesday.

My noble friend the Minister of State yesterday accused my noble friend Lord Belhaven of being slow on the trigger. She said that he ought to have had his Amendments ready for the Second Reading debate and to have put them down the moment the debate was over. That would seem to me to imply another kind of disregard for the rights of this House. The offence that my noble friend the Minister was really accusing my noble friend Lord Belhaven of was simply that of having an open mind and of waiting to hear the debate before deciding what course he would pursue. I am sure that matters will take their course. I regret very much that this procedure has been followed and I should be obliged if my noble friend would answer the questions which I have put to him.


My Lords, I should like to express appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven, for raising this issue because, over a long period of Parliamentary experience in another place as well as here I have always stood for the right of Members of Parliament to resist efforts by Governments to press through legislation without a full opportunity for discussion. Nevertheless, I now ask him to reconsider his proposal. I do so for two reasons: first, the major issue in the Amendments to the Bill was very fully discussed yesterday on Second Reading and the noble Lord had the opportunity then to put forward his views persuasively and in detail. If there is now a suggestion from some Members of this House that we need more time to discuss this issue, my regret is that they were not present yesterday. when, after a very full discussion. the Second Reading was carried.

I must not discuss the merits of the Bill, but I would say to my noble friend that I think it became clear during the discussion yesterday that the case which he was putting had been much modified by subsequent events. I should have hoped that, on the major Amendment which was the real issue before the Committee stage, it would now be possible to come to a conclusion without a second exhaustive debate. In view of the circumstances, it seems reasonable—and I have tried always to be reasonable in arguing with the noble Lord on this matter—to ask the noble Lord to withdraw his suggestion.


My Lords, I must support my noble friend Lord Belhaven. I am not really in agreement with the propositions that he is putting forward, but under the procedure that is here being invoked we may in future find ourselves in grave difficulties. This Motion was put on the Order Paper for the first time to-day and is now being debated. When we come to the Committee stage the noble Lord will put down his Amendments, which we shall discuss. The noble Lord might well, at the end of this discussion, on the assumption that your Lordships reject his proposals, feel that he, by some stroke, might produce another form of Amendment which might meet the wishes of the House.

If we then go to Report stage, the noble Lord will be entitled to submit a manuscript Amendment, but, if he does so, he will be in some difficulty because he will have only the time while the Chairman is moving from his seat to the Woolsack to draft it in two copies. If he wishes to put down an Amendment for Third Reading, under Standing Orders he must give 24 hours' notice, which is impossible; so his sole remaining possibility would be to move the Adjournment of the House. I am not suggesting that my noble friend should do such a thing, but when one embarks on proceedings such as those upon which the Government have now embarked, there may come a time when some disagreeably disposed noble Lord will indeed wreck the proceedings of the House by using the rules of procedure as a weapon. I feel, therefore, that while the noble Lord must accept the present situation, the House should be very careful before it repeats the procedure.

12.6 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for what he has said on behalf of the Opposition, and I listened with interest to what my noble friends Lord Coleraine and Lord de Clifford and the noble Lord Lord Brockway have said. I had to look at this from a slightly different point of view than I think has been taken by a number of noble Lords. There has been an assumption that this House would automatically defeat any Amendments that were tabled. This is an assumption that I have no right whatever to make. It is my duty to see that there is opportunity for Amendments to be moved in this House and, if carried, to be considered in another place in due course.

As the noble Lord Lord Shepherd has said, plans are well ahead for the celebration of Independence, and if they are to be adhered to the Bill must receive the Royal Assent by the 16th of this month, which is next Saturday. Therefore, if my noble friend Lord Belhaven moves his Amendments on Tuesday, and carries them, it is essential that we should be able to complete all stages of the Bill that day so that it can go back to the other place to be considered by them and, if they disagree with my noble friend's Amendments, be returned to us so as to receive the Royal Assent by next Friday.

That is the reason for this Motion. The last thing I would do is to try to deprive your Lordships of any of your constitutional rights and it seemed to me that it was more important to ensure that, if Amendments were carried, they had proper time for consideration in another place, than to delay the stages of the Bill.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven, has of course no right to speak again, but it would be helpful to know whether he intends to divide the House.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. I have made a protest. I should like to thank the noble Lords who have supported me, and others, who have spoken very fairly. I do not wish to press the matter to a Division.


My Lords, I should just like to say that what is being done is entirely in accordance with the practice of the House. Clearly, if any sizeable number of Peers object to the procedure that the Government have put forward, we could not go through with this; but the reasons for getting, this moving are, as we understand them, compelling. It is for the House to judge whether they are sufficiently compelling. I think the message is that there are good reasons, but I ought to make the point to the noble Lord that it is perfectly possible at various stages not to proceed, even if we pass this Motion. It would be possible to vote against the Motion that the Report be received, or to suspend Standing Order No. 46 to allow manuscript Amendments on Third Reading. Although this is clearly undesirable if there is a very large or even a small group of Peers who find this unsatisfactory, they have so far failed to convince me that the arguments in favour of delay are stronger than those in favour of going on. It is, after all, perfectly possible for the noble Lord to get his Amendments down to-day, to have them discussed in Committee—or, rather, he has them down already—and I do not believe that it would have been appropriate (and this is a matter which might be considered) to put this Motion on the Order Paper before we had had the Second Reading. We get into these difficulties, and it is a matter for the House to judge. But, if there had been going to be a Division, the balance of argument would have led me to support the Government, because the noble Lords still retain their right at various stages to try to persuade the House to take certain action.


My Lords, I should like to know if the noble Lord said that this was a perfectly normal procedure.


My Lords, I did. It is a procedure that I have known and used on a number of occasions. The Government usually consult the Opposition, but they are well aware that the usual channels cannot represent the whole House and they have to make the best judgment they can. The noble Lords are perfectly entitled to object to what is proposed and, if they think it so serious, to vote against it. However, I doubt whether they have persuaded the House that this is desirable.


My Lords, the critical date is that which has been announced for the Independence celebrations. It seems that this has been somewhat rushed. To have a Committee stage three days after the Second Reading is not, in general, a satisfactory plan, but I should have thought that in this case, bearing in mind what the noble Lord has said about my noble friend's right to have his Amendments fully debated, it would be rather unfortunate if the announced date of the celebration had to be postponed because we could not fulfill our task here.

On Question, Motion agreed to.