HL Deb 23 October 1975 vol 364 cc1608-26

[Nos. 1–4.)

After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:

Repayment and disqualification

".—(1) In any case to which section 1 of this Act applies the district auditor shall at the same time as he makes the certificate referred to in subsection (2) thereof make a further certificate stating the sum or sums which and the person or persons whom he would have surcharged under each of paragraphs (b), (c) and (d) of section 228(1) of the Local Government Act 1933 but for this Act.

(2) Within 28 days of making the certificate required under subsection (1) above the district auditor shall apply to the court for such order or orders as the court may think fit to make as hereinafter provided in respect of the said certificate and against any person or persons named in it.

(3) On an application under subsection (2) above the court may confirm, vary or quash the said certificate and, if it confirms or varies it, may—

  1. (a) order that any person named in the said certificate as confirmed or varied shall pay to the council which incurred the expenditure or suffered the loss or deficiency in question, or to its successor council, such part as the court thinks fit but not exceeding £1,000 of the sums for the expenditure or loss or deficiency of which such person was responsible as certified therein; and
  2. (b) subject to subsection (4) hereof whether or not it makes an order for the payment of any part of such expenditure or loss or deficiency if the total thereof exceeds £2,000 and any person responsible for authorising or incurring it is or was at the time of his so doing a member of a local authority shall order him to be disqualified for being a member or elected to a local authority for a period of five years unless there are special circumstances connected with the relevant transactions to be specified by the court which in the opinion of the court justify the remission of the whole or part of any such disqualification.

(4) The court shall not make an order under subsection (3)(a) or (b) above if the court is satisfied that the person authorising or incurring the expenditure, loss or deficiency in question acted reasonably or in the belief that his action was authorised by law, and in any other case, before making an order under subsection (3)(a) above, shall have regard to all the circumstances, including that person's means and ability to pay and the degree to which in the opinion of the court he was guilty of wilful default.

(5) Any person in relation to whom an order may be made in proceedings under any of the foregoing provisions of this section shall be entitled to appear and be heard in such proceedings.

(6) The courts having jurisdiction for the purposes of this section shall be the High Court except that, if no sum specified in the certificate given under subsection (1) above exceeds the amount over which county courts have jurisdiction in actions founded on contract, the county court shall have concurrent jurisdiction with the High Court.

(7) Any expenses incurred by a district auditor in complying with the foregoing provisions of this section shall so far as not recovered from any other source be recoverable from the local authority from the audit of whose accounts such expenses arose or from the council which is the successor to that local authority."

Clause 2, page 3, line 19, after ("account of") insert ("(a)")

Clause 2, page 3, line 21, at end insert— ("; and (b) any sum or sums which the court may order to be paid to that council").

The Commons disagreed to these Amendments for the following Reason:

Because it is wrong in the circumstances dealt with by the Bill to confer jurisdiction on the court and wrong to provide for repayment by a person named in a rent loss certificate.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth not insist on their Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 4: Because it is wrong in the circumstances dealt with by the Bill to confer jurisdiction on the court and wrong to provide for repayment by a person named in a rent loss certificate. Your Lordships will no doubt remember that when this Bill was last before us certain Amendments were made to it which effected a major transformation of its provisions. The difference of opinion which divided us perhaps to the greatest degree was on the issue of Clause 4, which concerned disqualification from civic office already incurred by the 11 former councillors at Clay Cross, as a result of a surcharge of some £7,000 made in January 1973. Your Lordships will be aware that your decision to leave out that clause has been upheld by another place.

We must therefore now turn our attention to the other Amendments returned to us as unacceptable by the other place. These Amendments affect some 400 councillors up and down the country. We should be clear about one point. We are considering persons in a position of authority who may in different ways have failed to comply with the law. They are not criminals. They have not gained any financial advantage. None the less, they failed to comply with the law and this cannot in any circumstances be condoned. The lost rent income must be recovered locally.

The Amendment made by your Lordships' House is perfectly straightforward. We debated it at length and I do not think I need to detain the House by giving an explanation of it. However, I should like to consider for a few moments what would be the procedure under that Amendment. The district auditor would complete his normal audit and full investigation of any losses or illegal expenses resulting from a failure to implement the Housing Finance Act. He would then apply to the court which wastefully, perhaps, in some people's minds, and certainly in mine—would have to go through the whole investigation again. Those whom the court found responsible for any losses or illegal expenses above £2,000 would then be disqualified from civic office for a period of five years, unless the court found "special circumstances" justifying relief. As my noble friend Lord Shinwell pointed out in earlier stages, these "special circumstances" are left mysteriously undefined. The court might also fine each of those responsible up to £1,000 for any loss.

I do not believe that any noble Lord who supported the Amendment intended in any way to be vindictive. There was a general recognition from noble Lords opposite that the earlier provisions of the 1933 Act were harsh in the extreme. Of course, there are always exceptions, but we are well served by those who undertake work on local authorities. However, even the new limit of £1,000 would be a cruel blow not only to the councillor himself, but also to his family. I ask the House to reconsider these Amendments. On a number of occasions, I have rehearsed the arguments of principle against the new clause. It provides a new, expensive and time-consuming procedure whose whole purpose could well be regarded as exacting punishment in a situation in which, in the Government's view, amnesty is justified.

The Government have repeatedly stressed that these local losses must be made good locally without charge to the taxpayer, and that the defaulting councillors must thus face the full election and political consequences of their actions. Do not let us minimise those consequences. Increases in rents or rates are bound to follow. The effect may be less upon those affected if they are imposed very shortly after the incident, but it is bound to be very much greater when the issue involved is barely a memory. Our approach is to give the local community a second chance. To pursue these men and women with a kind of Morton's Fork for the extraction of personal penalties would neither be appropriate, nor would it be in keeping with the traditions of mercy and compassion which have been shown by previous Governments in like cases.

I am personally convinced that what these councillors did was wrong, in law and in principle, but I can understand the profound, although very mistaken, beliefs which influenced their actions and I can conceive of the great stresses placed upon them at that time. I put this forward in mitigation, yes; but for approval, most definitely, no. Unlike the Clay Cross councillors, these others eventually complied with the law.

While staying firm on the question of recovery, I believe that this is a time when we should exercise compassion. If noble Lords cannot accept our arguments of principle, perhaps I may be allowed to point out the strong practical reasons for not insisting on the Amendment. The events with which this Bill is concerned happened, in the main, three years ago. The law which the councillors broke has been repealed for many months. The matter is past but still the local authorities concerned are forced to wait on our decision before they can redeem their debts. They urgently require a decision. If this House insists on its Amendments, we shall not only be putting off the day when the Bill is passed but we shall be asking for the procedure to be lengthened yet further while the courts themselves consider each individual case.

Let us remember that at Clay Cross appeals occupied the courts for nearly a year. In my view, no local authority will thank us for any further delays in the recovery of their debts. It is to nobody's advantage that these debts should remain uncollected. On the question of the passage of time, tenants move, and the longer the delay the more may tenants, who were in the areas directly involved at the time, move to other places, and therefore avoid the imposition of higher rents or rates. After the passage of time, new tenants will come into that area from outside and they will have to bear the burden. Therefore, time is a very important factor.

We would be putting on the courts weighty burdens of responsibility. As I have pointed out before, they would have to work with very few precedents indeed. The district auditors, on the other hand, have considerable experience in deciding just this kind of issue, and I understand that most of the detailed work of audit is already complete. It is to be hoped that once we have passed this Bill the matter can be settled quickly. My Lords, this Bill has received its fair share of debate. The Commons endorsed the judgment of this House on what many of your Lordships felt was the major point of principle. I now ask your Lordships to accept the judgment of another place as to the remaining part of the Bill.

Moved, That this House doth not insist on their Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 4.—(Lord Shepherd.)

3.39 p.m.


My Lords. I have a melancholy task to perform and I begin it by saying that none of the unhappy things I shall have to say is intended as a personal reflection upon the noble Lord who has had the disagreeable task of proposing this Motion, or upon any noble Lord opposite. I will confine myself to the questions of principle involved and the arguments, if they can be called such, which have been put forward in support of the question which we are asked to accept.

As the noble Lord has reminded us, we have debated this question before but I must recapitulate at least the facts. The Government have introduced legislation—and this is it—to give blanket absolution to 400 of their own supporters (I use their own figures) whose identities we are not even allowed to know, nor even the degree of their guilt; who have knowingly and without reasonable excuse defied a law passed by their opponents. I say "unreasonably and without excuse" because, under the law as it stands, if they had either acted reasonably or under a mistake of law they could have got absolution from the courts. That is what they are doing.

The noble Lord said they had erred in different ways. They have not erred in different ways; they have erred in the same way. They have erred by deliberately, unreasonably and without any mistake of fact or law broken a law passed by the Government's political opponents. The noble Lord asks for compassion and mercy. I begged the noble Lord on Second Reading, if he found, as I conceded, the Act of 1933 harsh in any way, to introduce a change in the general law in the direction of compassion and mercy; and I told him that in the exceptional circumstances of this case I —and I suppose those on these Benches —would have allowed retrospection to cover these particular cases, including even the 11 Clay Cross councillors. That offer was contemptuously refused.

The Bill goes on to pass responsibility for the financial consequences of their misdeeds at the option of Labour controlled councils to the ratepayers instead of the rent payers who have gained by the misdeeds. And the noble Lord asks us to consider the political consequences to the councillors concerned. We know from Clay Cross itself that there are no political consequences; that these little enclaves with their tied and corrupted groups of Labour voters are little arcadias of their own. That is the situation we were dealing with. It is clear that a Bill in these terms strikes at the root of democracy and at the roots of the rule of law, and I think it is rendered more and not less shameful by the fact that without, to my mind, a semblance of justice the Government have chosen to cast to the wolves the 11 Clay Cross councillors themselves, who have done no worse than the 400 but who happen to have been identified before the Bill was introduced, by reason I think only of the fact that their malefaction continued longer. They have used this discrimination against the Clay Cross councillors wholly unjustly—at least in my opinion—as a sort of fig leaf to conceal the shamelessness of what they are proposing to do.

By the Amendment which we are now asked to withdraw we sought to make sense of the Government Bill. We proposed an alternative which—at least in the case of the 400 and, as I originally proposed, in the case of the 11 Clay Cross councillors themselves—would have ironed out any injustice or oppressiveness in the existing law without usurping the functions of the courts. The Government now ask us to reject this honourable compromise in favour of their own disreputable proposals unaltered. The reason for this demand is that it would take a long time for the courts to arrive at their conclusion and possibly cost a great deal of money. But the existing law would take the same amount of time. All that we have done in this proposed Amendment is to give, in addition to the power of absolution granted to the courts under the general law, additional powers of absolution and remission for the special 400, and the time consumed would not have been a minute different nor the money involved a penny more expensive than the existing proceedings.

But instead of altering the general law this Party and I call it a Party and not a Government in this connection—pledged to the abolition of privilege introduces a privilegium or privilege confined to the 400 of their supporters, but do not extend it to any other possible malefactors who may be guilty of precisely the same offence. The excuse, lamely brought forward on this occasion but still reiterated by the noble Lord, which is offered on behalf of the 400, is that they sincerely and passionately detested the legislation—the Housing Finance Act—which it was their duty to enforce.

Let me tell the Government this, and let me tell them without any qualification at all: Conservative councillors and parents all over the country, doctors, junior doctors and consultants of no political persuasion, farmers and fishermen, small shopkeepers and self-employed utterly detest aspects of this Government's policy on education, on housing, on taxation and, in respect of this very Bill, on the liability of ratepayers, with every bit as much sincerity and every bit as much abhorrence and loathing as the 400 anonymous malefactors. And the fact to which the noble Lord drew our attention, that these 400 were councillors and therefore occupying an honourable and responsible post, seems to me only to aggravate and not to mitigate their offence. Yet if they disobey the Government's diktat—and I spell it with a "k" on this occasion—the full rigour of the law will be enforced against Conservative councillors, Conservative parents, farmers, shopkeepers, fishermen, self-employed and ratepayers, under this very Bill, when the 400 malefactors are given absolution; and we are asked to give it because of a small majority in the House of Commons, consisting of their own fellow Party members elected by little more than a quarter of the electorate. This is another step towards the development of an elective dictatorship.

Clearly the Government's persistence puts this House in an embarrassing position; to condone lawlessness or to provoke retaliation, which has already been covertly threatened from the Back Benches. My noble friend Lord Carrington will be offering advice on the constitutional position before the Question is put. I make only two observations, the first as a constitutionalist, but the second as a lawyer. On the merits, of course, there is no doubt that this case which the Government have put forward is totally devoid of reason or justice and is subversive of the rule of law.

I must tell the Government that if this were to be the only argument we should not be deterred by threats or hints of retaliation or irresponsible talk of a constitutional crisis. Of course, it must be accepted that if the Government are working towards a deadline the House ought ordinarily not to use its delaying power as a weapon to prevent the carrying out of a policy which is thought to be necessary by a certain date, even though we do not agree with it. For that reason I promised in July to do my utmost to pass the legislation connected with the £6 limit with which I heartily disagreed, and I believe that it is in the recollection of the House that I kept my promise. But where no deadline exists the law as passed and amended by a previous Labour Administration presents a means whereby a constitutional crisis can be avoided, provided of course that the House of Commons majority are prepared to undertake the sole moral responsibility for what is proposed.

But it is not the only argument. As a lawyer I add this point that the House would do well to take into account, although perhaps it will be more appropriate for my noble friend when he comes to speak on the subject to carry it in mind. The Bill deals with human beings. disreputable and illegal as has been the conduct of those human beings whom it is proposed to indemnify. Over the heads of the 400 malefactors hangs at present a sword of Damocles in the shape of possible disqualification and financial penalties conceivably leading to bankruptcy. This would not of itself worry me as a lawyer, provided the courts had the last word as proposed in our Amendment. But as we know justice delayed is justice denied, and continued uncertainty as to their position is not one of the penalties imposed by the law nor is it a penalty which Parliament should lightly inflict by reason of disagreement between the two Houses. It may be that, when the House hears my noble friend, your Lordships will feel it possible not actively to resist the Government's proposal. If it does so, it will not be because it wishes to share with another place any responsibility for these wicked and unconstitutional provisions, nor because it is deterred by any fear of retaliation. It will be because it thinks in the circumstances in which it has been placed by an irresponsible and oppressive Administration that contemptuous abstention may be the lesser of two evils.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friends on these Benches have viewed with the greatest anxiety the progress of this thoroughly obnoxious piece of legislation. In a sense it is obnoxious because it is a barefaced attempt by the Government to bale out their political friends from quite deliberate breaches of the law, indeed committed by those people with the encouragement of the Labour Party because it was at the very time when the law was being broken that the Labour Party Conference chose to go on record as saying that in due course it would come to the rescue of its associates.

It is clear that we have to deal with two separate categories of councillors, divided as they are somewhat artificially by the mere chance that at Clay Cross there was a special audit and the surcharge had already been levied. In relation to the 400 councillors, the Government are proposing that no surcharge and no disqualification should follow. Your Lordships proposed instead that the matter should be referred to the courts. In relation to the 11 Clay Cross councillors your Lordships proposed that the surcharge and the disqualification should stand, but the Government in the other place endeavoured even then to remove the provision that the surcharge should stand. It was only because the Government were defeated on that Amendment in the other place that we no longer have to consider that disgraceful suggestion. It would perhaps be idle to speculate whether the defeat of the Government was either unexpected or unwelcome, but in this situation we now have to consider whether the penalties in relation to the 400 councillors should stand.

I am bound to say that I find the reason given by the other place a curious one. Here are people who have deliberately broken the law and the reason given as to why we should not insist on our Amendment is that it is wrong in the circumstances dealt with by the Bill to confer jurisdiction on the courts. That comes very close to being an open invitation to anarchy. In this difficult situation my noble friends had to consider with the greatest concern what course we should now suggest your Lordships' House should take.

May I say at once that we find it just possible to suggest to your Lordships that perhaps it might be practicable and proper for your Lordships' House not to insist on the Amendment that was originally put forward by this House. We have come to that conclusion because we bear in mind four factors: first, there is the time factor that many of the infringements of the law took place three or four years ago and it might be held to be a little hard to enforce the full rigors of the law where so much time has elapsed. Secondly, we bear in mind what the noble Lord the Leader of the House has said as to the undesirability of appearing to be in any way vindictive towards these 400 councillors. If we do not insist on our Amendment, I hope that these councillors will appreciate that far from being vindictive we are leaning over backwards in generosity to try to deal with them.

Thirdly, there is a matter which is very much in our minds. This Bill is widely regarded by the public as being the Clay Cross Bill and on the single issue of the Clay Cross councillors the Government were resoundingly defeated and the rule of law was to that extent upheld. Finally, there has been a public outcry over this legislation. I believe that its impropriety is now widely recognised, and the result may well be that any future Government will hesitate a very long time before proceeding down a similar path.

My Lords, I know that there are a handful of eccentrics who venture to suggest that your Lordships' House serves no useful purpose. I think it can be said that on this issue, as indeed on many others, we have served an invaluable purpose. We have served to bring to the attention of the country the evil of this legislation; we have served to secure an invaluable improvement to it. I say without hesitation that in those circumstances we on these Benches have come to the view that it might be proper not to insist on the Amendments which we sent to the other place and we hope that as a result of this we can write finis to one of the sorrier and more disgraceful chapters in our history.

4.0 p.m.


My Lords, as Leader of the Opposition I think it right that I should say just one word as to how we on this side of the House might deal with this matter. Let me say at the outset that I agree with everything that my noble friend Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone has just said and with everything that he will say on the other Amendments which arc to come before the House. This is an appalling Bill and one which should never have been introduced. I do not doubt that that view is shared by most, if not all, noble Lords opposite. We all know why the Bill was introduced. We know, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, has reminded us, that it came from an undertaking given by Mr. Short at a Labour Party Conference—a deplorable undertaking which should never have been given.

y Lords, if there grows up in this country a feeling that Acts of Parliament can be disregarded because we do not like them, and because they are passed by our political opponents and subsequently our political friends will pardon us retrospectively, we shall very soon find ourselves in a position where no orderly government is possible in this country. By this measure the Government are undermining the rule of law, for themselves just as much as for their opponents. We find this Bill wholly reprehensible, and of course it is not the only Government legislation to which we on this side find ourselves totally opposed.

We do not like the Community Land Bill, we do not like the Petroleum and Submarine Pipe-lines Bill, we do not like the Employment Protection Bill, we do not like the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill, we do not like the Industry Bill, we do not like all the nationalisation measures. We think they have very little bearing on or relevance to the crisis in which this country finds itself at the present time. But how would it be if your Lordships were to behave as irresponsibly as the Clay Cross councillors. How would Parliamentary Government be continued? On this side all our inclinations are to reject these measures or, if not to reject them at Second Reading, to amend them in such a way that they are not so damaging to this country as we believe them to be. Yet if we did that, how long could our system of Government continue?

The Government, the Labour Party, have a majority in the elected House, though the noble Lord, Lord Byers, will no doubt be quick to point out that because of our electoral system they do not represent a majority in this country. But they are the Government, and most of the measures that they have introduced were in their Manifesto. Unless we are prepared drastically to revise both the electoral system and the Second Chamber —and I should have thought that that would take some little time and not a little controversy—we have at the present time to live with the situation and the conventions that have grown up over these last 30 years.

My Lords, the House of Lords is always in a difficult position in the days of a Labour Government, when, generally speaking, there is a majority opposed to that Government in this House. We are not an elected Chamber, nor representative of the electorate, though I sometimes think that we are a good deal more representative than the House of Commons. But most of us in this House, or a great number of us, have lived through these problems before, and it has generally been the rule of the Leaders of the Opposition—and I have had some experience of this myself—that when the Labour Party is in Government we act with restraint and caution to avoid quarrels between the two Houses, except on issues of the very gravest constitutional importance.

I happen to think that this is an issue of grave constitutional importance, but nevertheless, very reluctantly, I come to the conclusion that we should not on this occasion seek to pursue the matter any further, and, broadly speaking, I do so for two reasons: first, because I do not think that we can have a dispute with the House of Commons on too many issues at the same time; not because of threats —I do not think we should be frightened of threats from another place—but because experience shows that when your Lordships decide to take a stand the issues on which we are taking that stand tend to be ignored and the argument centres around whether or not the Second Chamber, composed as it is, has any right to defy the will of the House of Commons. I have seen this happen on a number of occasions. If your Lordships chose and choose to disagree with the Commons over a wide range of subjects, the subjects themselves would be submerged in a vast controversy about the House of Lords, about the House of Commons and about their respective rights and places in the Constitution.

Your Lordships earlier this week decided that the issue of the freedom of the Press was of such importance that you were prepared to use the powers which were expressly given to you in the Parliament Act 1947 by a Labour Government, or at any rate, if we had not quite reached that stage, it was abundantly plain that those who voted for the Amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, and I for one, were in no mood to change our minds when the matter reappears, if it does reappear, in this House. I believe that that issue is of the utmost importance, and I would not like to sec it obscured by a constitutional crisis, which I have no doubt would be manufactured if your Lordships sought on more than occasion, at the same time, to insist upon Amendments on different Bills. I am glad to say that on the Goodman Amendments and the freedom of the Press generally there has been a great deal more talk than usual about the merits of what we are doing, than about a constitutional crisis.

My Lords, the second reason why I advise those who sit on these Benches not to take the issue any further is this. This Bill had a universally bad Press and was condemned by everybody, including some in the Labour Party, and by many more in that Party who were reluctant publicly to criticise their own Government. The disquiet and the dissatisfaction culminated in the defeat of the Government in another place on one of your Lordships' Amendments, the Clay Cross Amendment. Though it is true that that vote had very little effect, because the councillors were disqualified for a subsequent breach of the law, it seems to me a very important vote. It showed that despite the disciplines which exist in the House of Commons there was real unease about the principles behind this Bill, and that in the case of the Clay Cross councillors there were enough members of the Party opposite who were simply not prepared to condone what the Government were proposing.

I go further than that, as did the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. I do not believe that on any subsequent occasion on which the Government tried to introduce a Bill of this kind they would have the smallest prospect of support by a majority in another place or here. I do not think they would even try. The Government got a bloody nose in the Commons, they got a bloody nose in the country, they got a bloody nose in the Press, and they got a bloody nose in your Lordships' House. And in the process they have damaged themselves by ever introducing this Bill at all. But they will have learned one lesson; they will not do it again. Consequently, though we would be perfectly entitled to use our delaying power to prevent this Bill reaching the Statute Book, if only for a month or two, I feel that by your action your Lordships have already achieved the main purpose of our objection to this grubby Bill, and that purpose is not the pursuit of 400 councillors who may or may not have offended.

Let me make one further point. There are those who doubt the usefulness of this House. There are those also who feel that, unless on important matters we reject legislation or insist upon our Amendments, the House is weak and its continuation is not justified. But just consider my Lords, what your Lordships have done in this Session alone. The Policyholders Protection Bill would, but for the work of Members of your Lordships' House on both sides, be a totally unacceptable measure, but we amended it in a way in which it is acceptable to everybody. On numbers of other Bills, only half discussed in another place, we have succeeded in amending and improving, and we are seeking to do so now on the Community Land Bill.

But for the House of Lords, the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill would now have been on the Statute Book for many months, with no provision for the safeguards for the Press on which we are now insisting; nor, indeed, even with the compromises which the Government were prepared to accept at the insistence of this House. And so would this Bill have been law, but there would have been no defeat of the Government by supporters in another place, nor would it have been possible for there to have been; nor could there have been the publicity or controversy which has raged around this Bill as a result of what we have done in this House; nor, I think, has that lesson been lost upon the Government. I do not believe now that they will introduce in future legislation of that kind, which is unacceptable to everybody in this House who believes in Parliamentary democracy.

4.11 p.m.


My Lords, this is a matter which we have debated with great passion and great sincerity on a number of occasions. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, would agree that there is I little fresh that has been said today, or that I could now use in reply to a notable speech by him. I did not agree entirely with him, but I respect the sincerity with which he holds his views, and can only but admire the clarity with which he put his views to your Lordships' House.

I am not one of the eccentrics of the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder; I believe that this House has a very useful role to play. I think that its role is more difficult during the period of a Labour Government. The difficulty is not so much on this side of the House but rather more on the other side, because for them there is an inevitability that if they were to push their convictions to the full there could be only one answer. In the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, have said, this is not an occasion for a speech upon the constitutional position, because clearly today there is not a crisis.

I said on Monday that I did not see a critical situation in regard to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill. This is a matter where time is still available. We have chipped away at that problem: we can continue to chip away at it so that we can narrow the area between us, and then we can decide whether the issue is of such gravity that there should he this conflict between the two Houses. I have always seen your Lordships' House as being complementary to the other place and not as its traditional challenger. I see us working in partnership with them, certainly giving them a second opportunity, maybe even a third opportunity. I can well remember my Chief Whip, when there was a Conservative Government, being one who went against all my convictions and beliefs so far as this House is concerned in sending a certain measure twice down to the House of Commons. On that occasion the House of Commons and the Government were to accept it. We have this degree of flexibility. Clearly it can put a strain on another place, particularly at a time when the workload there is in itself very high. But I do not speak of a critical situation. We have time. I still believe that we have enough good sense and enough good wisdom and judgment to avoid it. If such a situation comes about, then I shall speak more fully upon it.

The noble Lords have spoken in harsh, hitter tones. I fully understand their feeling. I hope, despite what they have said, that they recognise that the Government are acting in a sense of compassion, and although these councillors may have been, and are, members of this Party, we did not have that in mind when we took the action but rather the problem that existed for any Government that had been returned in February 1974.

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, before the House reaches a conclusion, and since all previous speakers represented Front Benches, perhaps a humble Back Bencher may be permitted a few observations. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, informed your Lordships' House that this was a constitutional issue. He spoke with indignation, even passion, about legislation presented by the Government of the day. When one is confronted by a problem, the proper and honest course is to face it in forthright fashion and not run away from it. To put it in another form; deal with the problem in a logical fashion; adopt the honest course consistent with one's principles and sincere convictions.

I have no claim to indulge in philosophy, unlike the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, who frequently expresses views with philosophical content, indeed with high moral value of which, if I may be allowed to say without condescension, I approve. But, as I listen to those speeches, I ask myself a simple question: if those of the Opposition, whether Conservative or Liberal, or maybe on the Cross-Benches, regard the Government's legislation with the utmost disquiet and detestation—and the language used this afternoon was of a most florid description; it will be noted in many quarters—how long will it be before there is a constitutional crisis as between Members of your Lordships' House on the Opposition Benches holding those views, genuinely, strongly and with the utmost conviction, and the majority, however minimal, in another place. Sooner or later—probably sooner rather than later—the issue will be joined, and much of the language used this afternoon by noble Lords on the other side (as I have said, conditioned by genuine convictions held with the utmost sincerity) will force that issue, irrespective of compassion on one side or other, or tactical considerations, political and otherwise.

When the noble Lord who spoke from the Liberal Benches was addressing the House, I could not help remarking to myself—and I venture to offer the opinion to your Lordships—that he was asking us to compound a felony. A felony had been committed, one of the most despicable kind—that was the language of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone. He was saying, "We do not propose to take any action except to condemn, and leave it at that." But that is compounding a felony. He is a lawyer of eminence, a man who possesses very high forensic qualities, yet he is advising Members of your Lordship's House, taking into consideration all the factors involved in this issue—the Clay Cross villains, these terrible people who have defied the law — "Let us take no further action, just condemn".

My Lords, that is not enough. If there are noble Lords on the Benches opposite who feel so passionately and strongly, and who regard this as so urgent a matter and use language which means that there is a constitutional issue involved, then there is only one course for them to take, and that is to act honestly and have it out with the other place. What prevents this? Nothing but tactical considerations. This probably is not the time, yet we have heard such condemnation from noble Lords opposite of the present Government and all their legislation; not a single piece of legislation has met with satisfaction from the Opposition in this House. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, seemed surprised that Opposition noble Lords dislike the Government's legislation. Then what is the remedy? Another election? But if a Conservative Government were returned —it could happen—then the majority on the Benches opposite would remain to support a Conservative Government and we, who would become the Opposition, would have no remedy; we would remain a minority.

Members of your Lordships' House must take note that this is an issue as between a non-elected body—I do not condemn it because of that but merely state a fact and an elected body, and sooner or later the clash must come. The question is: should it be now? If noble Lords opposite feel so strongly, then it should come now and there is no point in delaying it. There is no use their being obsessed with vindictive notions, antagonisms and hostility against the Government and the majority in the other place, yet taking no action just for tactical considerations. I advise noble Lords opposite to face the consequences of their action and not allow themselves to be obsessed with ideas, notions and dislikes and simply leave it at that. It will come sooner or later. Noble Lords opposite might as well have it out now, and that is my advice to them.

Lord HOME of the HIRSEL

My Lords, perhaps I may comment briefly, first, because I came here this afternoon with the full intention to vote; and, secondly, because I should like to say a word to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell. I came here to vote because in a quite long Parliamentary life I do not think I have seen a more dangerous Bill introduced into Parliament in the context of the survival of democracy. There may be many definitions and varieties of democracy of which your Lordships could speak, but I should have thought that we would all agree, in both Houses of Parliament, that if democracy is to survive we cannot have a system in which the citizen chooses which law he will obey and which he will not. I felt, therefore, that I ought to vote on this issue. I think we are already somewhat demoralised in the democracies, and the right reverend Prelate was right to call attention to this only the other day. But I believe that if we admit the principle that the citizen can choose, when Parliament passes a law, whether or not he will obey it, then that is the end of the democracy which the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell and I have seen and which I hope we will both support to the end of our lives.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

4.27 p.m.