HL Deb 01 February 1977 vol 379 cc727-32

2.53 p.m.


My Lords I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I hope that consideration of this short Bill need not detain your Lordships for too long, but I think I should explain why the Bill is necessary, and what it does.

Last October and November, we devoted a great deal of time to study and discussion of the measure that is now the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976. Noble Lords will recall that that Act, in broad terms, provides security of tenure to agricultural workers housed by the farmers who employ them. A main feature of the Act, which we debated extensively, is the provision whereby, in the interests of efficient agriculture, a farmer may regain possession of a house for an incoming employee. If the farmer does not have suitable alternative accommodation of his own to offer, he may apply to the local housing authority to provide suitable alternative accommodation for the current occupier of the house.

At Report stage in your Lordships' House on 11th November (as recorded in columns 737 to 739 of Hansard) a Government Amendment to the Bill was agreed. It provided for a time limit within which a housing authority had to notify a farmer applying for rehousing, whether they had accepted an obligation under the Act—and if not, why not. The time limit was to be three months after receipt of an application; or two months after the authority had received advice from an Agricultural Dwelling House Advisory Committee in cases where such advice had been sought Since ADHACs are normally supposed to give their advice within 28 days of receiving a request for it, the Amendment effectively set the time limit on decisions at three months after the housing authority had received an application. Both Government and Opposition were agreed on the desirability of making this Amendment, and it is only fair to point out that we brought it forward as a result of discussion in Committee on 27th October of an Opposition Amendment which had a similar purpose.

When another place considered on 17th November 1976 all the Amendments made to the then Bill by your Lordships' House, this particular Amendment was moved, spoken to and agreed without further discussion. But when the Amendment came to be transmitted for consideration to another place, a wrong line reference was put in. This meant that the Amendment was thus inserted so as to remove three lines of text which should not have been removed. The result was that another place inadvertently approved an Amendment which carried a wrong line reference. Not to make too pretty a point, it made it into a load of nonsense! This was not discovered and brought to the notice of the Clerk of the Parliaments until after Royal Assent. The Clerk of the Parliaments, in discharging his responsibility for publication of Acts of Parliament after Royal Assent, held that the Amendment in question had not been made. Consequently, the Act appeared without it.

The sole purpose of the Bill before us today is to amend the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976 by restoring the Amendment which disappeared from the Bill in the circumstances I have described—but which both Houses of Parliament clearly intended to make. I think we can all recognise that an essentially minor slip of this kind can and is almost bound by the law of averages to happen from time to time. Indeed, it is amazing that it does not happen more often. It is really very rare that this happens and I feel that that is a great credit to the work of the officials in both Houses.

The consequences which stemmed from this clerical error seem quite disproportionate. We are therefore considering whether some simpler procedure can be found to deal with this kind of error, but this is not something that I think we should or, indeed, can usefully discuss now. The main merit of the Bill before us is that it is only two clauses long. It restores the lost Amendment, as I explained, and is due to come into force two weeks after it receives the Royal Assent. I commend it very strongly to your Lord ships. I beg to move.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Birk.)


My Lords, the matter which is before us this afternoon has risen out of a slip and it indicates very clearly what a chapter of accidents can follow from a slip of the pen. There are two items that arise from this matter. The first is the question whether an Act of Parliament is valid in law if it does not accurately reflect the wishes of both Houses of Parliament. The second is the way in which the Clerk of the Parliaments should deal with the correction of material matters such as the situation with which we are here confronted.

The noble Baroness has described what has taken place. The Act received Royal Assent on 22nd November and it was printed, in so far as Section 28 was concerned, in the original form of the Bill introduced into your Lordships' House. This difficulty has arisen on a very material point—it is the cascade of legislation to which your Lordships' House has been subjected. To give a good example, on Third Reading, which took place on Monday, 15th November, we completed the Third Reading at 6.15 p.m. Between 6.15 and 7.30 p.m., when the Bill had to be in the hands of another place, 129 Amendments had to be attached to the Bill. Unfortunately, this error took place and this further Bill has been the outcome.

However, the story does not end there because, when another place considered your Lordships' 129 Amendments, the Government saw fit to apply the guillotine and, in doing so, another place became party to this error because the Amendment in question was not scrutinised, due to lack of time. Here we have a very clear case for total condemnation of the Government's legislative programme last autumn. Your Lordships' House was not able to fulfil its normal procedures satisfactorily nor was another place able to scrutinise the Amendments that your Lordships thought fit to attach to the Bill. I feel that we should most certainly say this afternoon that your Lordships' House is very well served by its Clerks and that, although it may appear at first sight that this is an error which is to be attributed to them, we should not forget that not only were 129 Amendments attached to the Rent (Agriculture) Act but that a very substantial number of other Bills were in their hands at the same time. To quote one example, no less than 169 Amendments were attached to the Health Services Bill, all of which must be accurate.

I feel, as do we all on this side of the House, that there has been a last minute repentance by the Government in publishing today a Consultative Document about the Rent Acts. It is very clear that the Government at last concede the point that Rent Acts no longer fully satisfy the management of property in this country. It is very clear from the consultative document that the Government had second thoughts about the Rent Act 1974 and I hope that they will have second thoughts about the Rent (Agriculture) Act.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down I should like to ask him whether, on the basis of a Clerk's mistake, it is really necessary to hang a political polemic against the Government?

Several Noble Lords: Yes, yes.


I think that the whole attitude in picking up every political point they can is against the general sentiments of people in this country today.


My Lords, it seems to me that this unfortunate accident raises a very profound constitutional question; namely, far from considering whether the second Chamber should be abolished, we ought now to be instituting proceedings to establish a third Chamber.

Viscount St. DAVIDS

My Lords, I should like to suggest that that is exactly what Bernard Shaw said a number of years ago. When asked whether we needed a second Chamber, he said that we would need six or seven before we were through.


My Lords, I should like to rise in a strictly non-political mood to say that, if this incident teaches us anything, it teaches us that the House of Lords should not make 129 Amendments to a Bill that has come from the Commons.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, we seem to have got a great deal of mileage out of this small measure. I should like to answer the points that were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sandys. His first point was on the validity of the Bill. It is true that at one point in another place it was suggested that the Act might not be valid for the mistake that took place. Therefore, my colleagues and I have taken advice on this matter and as a result we are in no doubt that the Act is valid. Any noble Lords who have doubts—and I am sure that there cannot be many of them—should look at the case of British Railways Board v. Pickin. This case was decided by your Lordships' House in 1974, and it was unanimously held inter alia that it was not lawful to impugn the validity of a Statute by inquiring into what happened during its progress through Parliament. I should add quickly that, if the noble Lord is not satisfied with that, I will ask my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor to explain it, which I am sure he can do much clearer than I can.

With regard to the noble Lord's second point about the cascade of legislation, as my noble friend Lord Brown said, it is an easy political point to make; it goes backwards and forwards like a ping-pong ball. The mistake was that a figure 4 was read as a 7, and since many of us use a continental 7, particularly since we are now in the Common Market, one can see how easy it is for a 7 to be read as a 4, or the other way round. This could happen whether or not there was a cascade of legislation and whether or not there were months in which to consider a Bill. So the two things have nothing to do with each other.

A point of agreement which I have with the noble Lord is in the kind remarks which he made about the Clerks of both Houses and the Clerk of the Parliaments, who have a very difficult job all the time, whether the legislation is cascading or dripping. The noble Lord also said that this Amendment was not scrutinised at all or was not discussed. I must tell him that he is quite wrong on that. If he looks at the relevant column in Hansard, he will see that in fact it was moved by my honourable friend Mr. Armstrong, one of the Ministers for Housing, and that it was agreed to. It was not guillotined. There was time for discussion, but as it had been agreed to in this House it was moved and it was agreed to and only the substantive Amendment was discussed. But there was no need to discuss this Amendment and nobody wanted to discuss it. There was no lack of opportunity. But I do not think that even a discussion would necessarily have enabled anyone to pick out that the figure 7 should have been a 4.

There is no question of a last minute repentance. As I pointed out when I introduced the Bill, this Amendment was originally moved, in a slightly different; form, by the Opposition at the Committee stage; it seemed to me that it made very good sense, so we picked it up and moved it as a Government Amendment, I think the noble Lord will recall, at Report stage. So there is no question of a last minute repentance. All we are doing is putting the intentions of Parliament into use by this means of an amending Bill.

As I said when I introduced the Bill, the question of procedure in order to try to avoid having to do this in what I agree is a rather clumsy way—when it is only a very minor clerical error—is being examined. I should point out that it is not correct that follow-up action on the Renton Committee Report would have dealt with this particular kind of mistake, because what the Renton Report deals with are technical errors discovered before Royal Assent, and with rearranging the tidying-up measures after Royal Assent. It does not bear on this kind of clerical and procedural error which in fact was not picked up until after Royal Assent. This was the problem here. So far as the other comments are concerned, I am quite sure that my noble friends and the noble Lord will not expect me to comment on them.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.

Then Standing Order No. 43 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution) Bill read 3a, and passed, and sent to the Commons.