§ 3.32 p.m.
§ The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Shepherd)
My Lords, may I inform the House that, subject to the progress of Business, it is now proposed that the House should rise for the Summer Recess on Thursday, 7th August and that the House will sit at 11 a.m. on that day.
It is also proposed, following consultations through the usual channels, that the House should return for one week beginning Monday, 22nd September, to take the Committee stage of the Employment Protection Bill and part of the Committee stage of the Petroleum Bill. The House will then adjourn until Monday, 13th October.
§ Lord CARRINGTON
My Lords, I am really very sorry for the noble Lord, the Leader of the House. He knows the House well and he knows the sort of thing he is asking the House to do. Here we are on the 31st July and the noble Lord has to come to confess to your Lordships that the Government have got themselves into an appalling muddle over their own legislation. Three of their major Bills have not yet received their Second Reading in this House; yet they intend, come what may, to get them on the Statute Book before the end of the Session. Not content with an unprecedented spill-over, as I understand it of 1183 four weeks, they now ask your Lordships to come back in September. I wonder what would happen if the House of Commons were asked to come back in September because of mismanagement of the Government timetable. As my noble friend says, they would probably ask for some more money. Next Session I have a good mind to put down a Motion suggesting that this House adjourns on 1st June and reassembles on 1st September. It would be a very much better way of doing things; it would be very much more agreeable for us: we should have June and July off and we should not have to sit in this intolerable heat. It would enable us to work exactly the same number of weeks; and even more to the point, it would let the Government get their business right in the House of Commons and not keep us waiting as they have done this year.
One of the main purposes of this House is and always has been that of a Revising Chamber. It affords the Government the opportunity of remedying mistakes that they have made in the House of Commons and of having second thoughts, and at the same time of listening to arguments in a House where political passions do not run so high. If that is not our main function, I do not know what is.
Here we are, faced with three Bills only half digested in the House of Commons. Great sections of them have never been discussed in the House of Commons because of the guillotine. Two of them are of the utmost importance in their own spheres, pushed through this House on a basis which, I think, is little short of disgraceful. At the same time, we have not yet finished the Industry Bill and we have two major unresolved problems with another place which are still to be settled. The Community Land Bill, which is one of them, is the most complex, controversial and, in my opinion, most foolish Bill the Government have introduced and we are supposed to dispose of it without enough time for the Government even to reflect about what we have to say.
They intend to force these measures through and so they ask us to sit in September. I am sure that your Lordships will not refuse. It is obviously our duty to spend as much time as the Government are prepared to give us in seek 1184 ing to improve these important and tendentious Bills. The Government should remember that although we are willing horses, or may seem to be, we are both voluntary and elderly. They should remember too—and I warn the noble Lord—that even elderly horses can kick quite hard in tender places.
My Lords, if during the passage of these three Bills through this House the Government show that they are not prepared to listen to what we have to say and are not prepared to consider with sympathy reasonable Amendments which are put forward; and if we find that they are not prepared to accept any single Amendment that we propose and are treating the House as a rubber stamp, an inconvenient constitutional difficulty which can be disregarded, then I must tell the noble Lord that those who sit on these Benches will use every Parliamentary means at our disposal to make life very difficult indeed for noble Lords opposite. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, does not need me to spell out what I mean by that.
It is not the duty of an Opposition in this place to obstruct the passage of Bills which the House of Commons have passed, but equally it is not the duty of the Opposition in this place to facilitate their passage undigested, unamended and undiscussed in order to make life easy for a Socialist Government who are so incompetent that they cannot even run their own timetable.
§ Lord BYERS
My Lords, I hope the noble Lord the Leader of the House will appreciate the very strong feelings, certainly in my Party, at the way Government business has been managed or mismanaged in the last few months. It is quite intolerable that we should destroy our function as a Revising Chamber because of the overloading of the Parliamentary timetable. Some of this legislation coming up from another place is bad enough to begin with; but if we are not going to have sufficient time to revise it and to put it in proper shape, then the people who are going to suffer will be the ordinary citizens of this country. That is where we have a responsibility which we must discharge.
§ Lord SHEPHERD
My Lords, it is customary that when we have had a Business statement the Leader of the House should have the opportunity to reply immediately to the points made by the Leader of the Opposition and of the Liberal Party before they escape his memory. I must say I was rather reassured by Lord Carrington's reference to this House as free from political controversy and heat; because I had been warned that perhaps his noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham might well be indulging in one of these speeches which we always enjoy in a Bill that is shortly to be considered before this House.
I accept, as I did last Monday, that the business is particularly heavy. Whether it is mismanagement is a question of weighing the facts or of opinion. Many problems have arisen in another place because the Government have sought to meet the requests of the Opposition, both Conservative and Liberal Parties, in the conduct and examination of legislation that is now before the Commons. Therefore the Government have sought to give more time there but, unfortunately, this has created pressures at this end. I hope that having had this experience, one which I know the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has experienced on previous occasions—plural in his case as opposed to my singular—we will seek to avoid it next year. I will do my best to avoid it, but I cannot promise.
We will seek to examine this legislation in the spirit in which we have conducted legislation since February 1974. I do not think your Lordships' House could complain, taking all the legislation as a whole, that Ministers on this Bench have been unmindful of the case which has been made, and we have sought on very many occasions to meet the genuine cases that have been made throughout the House. If the Conservative Government of the past had reacted in the way in which my noble friends have done, some of the difficulties of their legislation might have been avoided.
I am fully conscious that this is a revising Chamber and we need time to consider our legislation. It was for that reason that I entered into consultation through the usual channels, regarding meeting in September. This extra week creates a little more flexibility, it allows 1186 more time between the stages of the Bills, and I believe we should be able to do what we think we ought to do on this legislation in the time available. I am sorry to bring the House back in September, but I have had a feeling over many years in discussions with noble Lords from all sides that the Summer Recess often proves a little too long, and that noble Lords are happy to be back.
§ Lord PANNELL
My Lords, will my noble friend consider that these difficulties—which have taken place over the past 25 years during which I have been concerned with Parliament—have sprung from the fact that we are almost the only country in the civilised world which runs its affairs on a sessional basis; other people have five-year plans and things like that. Would it be a good idea to consider whether the Session should have an arbitrary time limit? Our affairs are now run on the basis of an agrarian society, the springtime, the harvest and the rotation of crops. Is it not time we moved on and allowed unexpended legislation to be carried through into a new Session?
§ Lord SHEPHERD
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Lord President of the Council in another place has suggested that there should be a good and radical look at the procedures of Parliament. This is obviously a matter which should be considered.
§ Lord ALPORT
My Lords, following that answer, may I ask whether the noble Lord would agree that this problem is created in some degree by the way in which we take the Committee stages of the legislation which comes before us? Would the noble Lord agree that we should reconsider proposals which have been made on previous occasions, that some of the less controversial legislation should be taken in a Select Committee of your Lordships' House?
§ Lord SHEPHERD
My Lords, we had a Committee which examined the Lotteries Bill, and it has been a successful procedure. I hope your Lordships will proceed to deal with many more Bills off the Floor of the House. I believe that we may be forced to do it because of our numbers, the pressure of business, the need to look at European Economic Community measures, and a vast number 1187 of interests that come before your Lordships' House. Many of these matters are now being taken relatively late in the evening, but they should be dealt with early in the afternoon. None of this can be done, we cannot get the flexibiilty that we need, unless we look at the way in which our procedures can be adapted. This is a matter for the House. If it is the wish of the House that this should be considered by the Procedure Committee—not to establish yet another Procedure Committee for procedure, but to see how we can improve the procedures—I would give it my support.
§ Lord ALPORT
My Lords, in the interim between when the House rises at the end of next week and when we meet in September, could the noble Lord consider, through the usual channels, whether some arrangement which would be for the convenience and effectiveness of this House could be reached?
§ Lord SHEPHERD
My Lords, I might be mischievous and suggest that the Community Land Bill should be sent to the Moses Room, but I do not think I would have much success with that! I will look at the suggestion of the noble Lord.
§ Lord WYNNE-JONES
My Lords, has my noble friend the Leader of the House noticed that the week which has been chosen for the re-assembly of your Lordships' House is the one when the North Atlantic Assembly is meeting in Copenhagen? Several Members of your Lordships' House are members of that body.
§ Lord SHEPHERD
My Lords, I am very sorry. I will not seek in any way, through the Chief Whip, to dissuade my noble friend from going to Copenhagen. The real difficulty is that at this time of the year we have the three major Party political conferences, and this is the one week during which the conferences are not held. I therefore suggest that this date ought to stand.
§ Lord COLERAINE
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether part of the difficulty is that not only this Government but successive Governments have imposed upon Parliament burdens which it was never designed to bear? Would it not be better to lessen the programme of 1188 legislation, rather than try to squeeze it into a close timetable?
§ Lord SHEPHERD
My Lords, there is undoubted truth in what the noble Lord has said. There is a great need for legislation; matters have to be dealt with and these require legislation. We speak of difficulties, we speak of this and that. I hope that your Lordships' House will agree to the proposals which I have made; that we will overcome these immediate difficulties, and that we will do what we are required to do. I will certainly see what I can do, so that in the next Session we are not confronted with the same difficulties.