HL Deb 18 June 1975 vol 361 cc874-8

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why they refused to extend the terms of reference of the Renton Committee on the Preparation of Legislation so as to enable the Committee to consider the question of Ministerial responsibility for the drafting of legislation.


My Lords, like our predecessors who appointed the Renton Committee, the Government took the view that it would be inappropriate for questions of Ministerial responsibility to be included within the Committee's formal terms of reference. However, as the Report makes clear, it was agreed that if there were any matters relating to Ministerial responsibility on which the Committee had observations the Chairman could write privately to the Prime Minister about them.


My Lords, I thank my noble friend. Is it not clear from the Report that this experienced Committee, which included an ex-principal Parliamentary draftsman, thought that the kernel of the whole question of Parliamentary drafting lay in the fact that the wrong Minister is responsible for it? Secondly, what harm could it possibly have done to allow this experienced Committee to say what they thought, and explain why?


My Lords, my noble and learned friend is expressing an opinion as to which Minister should be responsible for Parliamentary Counsel. This is a very difficult area, but I hope he will accept from his own Ministerial experience that Parliamentary Counsel service the Government as a whole and therefore they should be freely available to all the various Departments which require their services. In regard to the second part of the question, the views of the Renton Committee have been conveyed to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who is now considering them. I should not have thought it possible to publish this correspondence particularly since, as I said in my original Answer, this communication was confidential between the Chairman of this Committee and the Prime Minister.


My Lords, may I further ask my noble friend whether it is not to be expected that the correspondence will show why the Committee took the view they did? If this correspondence is not to be published, is this an example of open government openly arrived at?


No, my Lords; this is the natural consequence of confidential correspondence between the Prime Minister and a chairman of a committee. In regard to the Renton Report, I would certainly agree with my noble and learned friend. It is a notable Report published after two years of examination. It is very much worthy of consideration. I am giving careful attention to it. But I should not have thought that, in the short space between its publication and today, it would have been right to comment upon any detailed recommendations which flow from that Report.


My Lords, as a matter of precedence, may I ask the noble Lord whether it is customary for the chairman of a committee to be informed that certain matters are not within the terms of reference but that, on such matters, the chairman of the committee may write privately to the Prime Minister?


My Lords, my understanding is that the terms of reference were such that there was some element of doubt in the minds of those who were sitting on the Committee as to whether the question of the recruitment, training and Ministerial responsibility of Parliamentary Counsel was included in the terms of reference. As a consequence of correspondence between the previous Administration and Sir David Renton, the view was expressed that this aspect was not within the terms of reference. Therefore it was not considered; at least, the subject was not included in the Committee's public Report. But any matters which arose within the Committee's examination could be communicated privately to the Prime Minister.


My Lords, as one of those who recommended the appoint ment of the Renton Committee with the wider terms of reference, and one of those who regret that the Committee were partly emasculated before birth, may I ask whether the noble Lord agrees that there are very important contributions in this Report, in particular one that affects him personally in his role as Leader of this House? That is Recommendation 91. Can he tell us whether he accepts that recommendation?


My Lords, my noble friend the Chief Whip has advised me that it is not medically possible to have been emasculated before birth. The previous Administration and the present Government felt that the position of Parliamentary draftsmen was part of the machinery of Government and came directly under the Prime Minister. I think the House would accept that it would be rather strange to appoint a committee to give advice to the Prime Minister on how he should exercise his Ministerial responsibilities. I think that was the view at the time. I personally would not dissent from it. But the Committee indicated, in their correspondence with the Prime Minister, certain of their feelings and they suggested certain improvements. As I have said, these are now being considered by the Prime Minister.


My Lords, the noble Lord having now disclosed that the responsibility for the Parliamentary draftsmen, their recruiting, training and administration, rests with the Prime Minister, may I ask whether he will ask his right honourable friend how far Prime Ministers have any qualifications for undertaking these rather specialist duties, how much time they have to give to them, and whether perhaps the training, recruitment and administration of Parliamentary draftsmen is something which requires a little more Ministerial attention than it is likely to receive from that exalted Office?


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord readily and very quickly forgets the speech that he made in March 1971 in reply to my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner. This is one of the aspects that then arose. If my memory is right about what was said only a short while ago, the noble and learned Lord gave a thoroughly convinc- ing answer in reply to my noble and learned friend. The answer is that the Prime Minister is the Minister responsible for the Civil Service Department. It is the Civil Service Department that provides the machinery for setting up and maintaining this small organisation, and I can say from my own personal experience that we are well served by very experienced Parliamentary draftsmen who are drawn from the legal profession. I am glad to say that in September we shall be fully up to strength. I hope that some of the very heavy burdens that have fallen upon them will then be eased.


My Lords, however Parliamentary draftsmen are recruited, would not my noble friend agree that from the products of their work they, of all people, are the most misunderstood?


My Lords, having sat through Committees in your Lordships' House, I can only agree with my noble friend.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the critical exchanges that we had just now should not obscure the fact that Sir David Renton and his committee have done a painstaking and detailed piece of work which will be of value to this House and to the other place?


My Lords, this is certainly true, and I hope that in the next Session of Parliament we shall have an opportunity to debate that Report. Although it has much to do with the Executive, it has a great deal to offer to both Houses of Parliament.


My Lords, will my noble friend consider taking advantage during the Recess of reading two of the most entertaining books ever written—those by Mr. Justice Megarry—in which he will find judges battling with the proposition that they have got to decide what Parliament said and not speculate upon what it may have meant. But when what Parliament has said is utterly meaningless and incomprehensible, some problems do arise for the Judiciary from time to time.


My Lords, I shall certainly do this when my Chief Whip tells me when I can expect my summer holiday!


My Lords, the Chief Whip would now like to acquaint her noble friend the Leader of the House that it is time that this Question came to a stop!