HL Deb 08 March 1979 vol 399 cc299-303

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Wells-Pestell.)


My Lords, I have two brief comments to make on the Third Reading of this Bill. The first is a word of thanks to my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell, and the second is of complaint. Within hours of the completion of the Report stage of this Bill the other afternoon, my noble friend was kind enough to send me a very full report of all the discussions that had taken place with the Public Services Pensioners' Council and other bodies in regard to the matter that I raised on Clause 11, and I am very grateful to him for that. Indeed, it would have been the more valuable had it not been for the other matter that I must raise, which is one of complaint.

On looking at the Order Paper your Lordships will notice that at the side of the Title of this Bill there is a twiddley mark, a section mark, the meaning of which is given at the head of the Order Paper. It says: Bills marked [thus] have been set down before the expiry of the recommended minimum interval between stages". Owing to the late sitting that we had the other night, the Official Report of that day's proceedings, containing the debate on the Report stage of the Social Security Bill, was not available until 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon. In moving and withdrawing an Amendment on the Report stage, I said that I wished to have the opportunity to consult with those bodies which had made representations to me in common with other noble Lords, and I hoped that by the time of the Third Reading I would be in a position to indicate whether my noble friend the Minister had given satisfaction to those concerned in the very full statement that he was kind enough to make in this House, supplemented by the written paper that he sent to me.

Unfortunately, owing to the short interval between these two stages of the Bill no opportunity has occurred to consult with those whose guidance I needed to have. There is nothing that can be done about that now except to move that the debate be adjourned, but I do not wish to make trouble in the tranquillity of your Lordships' House. I do, however, protest against the short interval between these two stages of this Bill. I think that when these occurrences take place it becomes us to sound a cautionary note to those responsible for the business of this House, that there are some things we will not put up with. I think that unless there are very strong grounds of urgency behind a step of this kind, it is only reasonable that we should be given a day or two to reflect on the outcome of the Report stage before we are asked to give the Bill a Third Reading and to pass it. There is here a general point. I myself feel that Members of another place seem to regard the Parliamentary process as ended when a Bill leaves their House. Indeed, I think that some believe that the democratic process has ended by the time a Bill leaves their House; that we are merely a constitutional nuisance and that we stand in the way of the speedy implementation of the voice of the people. Since we have a job to do, I think that we should insist on reasonable opportunities for doing it. There are days when we do not sit; there are days when we rise early; there are days when we sit late; and one wonders on what basis the business of this House is determined when one examines the graph of attendances and the time spent here. That is my complaint. Whenever this situation occurs I think it is the duty of those of us who wish to preserve what is left of the dignity and the value of this House to reinforce the views of those here who wish to see it continue and to flourish and to play a useful part in the constitutional processes of our Parliamentary system.


My Lords, I take the point that my noble friend Lord Houghton has made and recognise immediately that there is some validity in what he has said. It would perhaps be useful if I spent a minute or two to explain the situation, as I understand it. It is true that the Social Security Bill corrected a number of mistakes in the Pensions Act which was before your Lordships some time ago and which is due to come into force on 6th April next. Therefore, it was important and urgent that we should deal with those mistakes. I think we realised at the time that there might be some Amendments, and that if there were, those Amendments would have to go back to the other place and that when they had decided on those Amendments the Bill would have to return to this House. We had to make those allowances. Therefore, in consultation through the usual channels, it was decided to fix Tuesday, 6th March for the Report stage and today for the Third Reading.

An additional difficulty arose bearing in mind that the Act must be on the Statute Book by 6th April or well before then, that it also applied to Northern Ireland, and that it would be necessary, once the Bill received the Royal Assent, for the Northern Ireland Office to seek an Order-in-Council to have the Bill applied to Northern Ireland. That was not easy to fix. It so happens that at one time the latest date was about 14th March, so we were running very close to it. We had been able to put it off for a few days but it was essential that we should have regard to the needs of the Northern Ireland Office in this matter. I think that my noble friend is entitled, as are all noble Lords, to a full explanation.


My Lords, I think I should confirm that consultations did go through the usual channels on this and, to that extent, I must bear a certain amount of responsibility for the "wriggly" sign which appears before this Bill on the Order Paper. I agree that this reduction of the usual time between stages should be made as rarely as possible and only when there are very good grounds for such a thing happening. It was my view then, and I think that it is my view now, that there were very good reasons in this case. Therefore, I hope that your Lordships will agree while fully appreciating what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has said, that this was one of those occasions.


My Lords, in response to what was said by both the noble Lord the Minister and my noble friend, may I put one further point to the Minister? It may be that the plan to take the Report stage on Tuesday and the Third Reading on Thursday was, in the circumstances he described, not unreasonable; but was not the situation altered by the failure of the delivery of Hansard? As noble Lords who were interested in the measure—as was the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and as were many of us—were not able to get Hansard until late yesterday, the situation was quite different if they wished to take any action and, in particular, the sort of action that is possible in this House, to put down Amendments on Third Reading. I would ask the Minister in considering this situation for the future to consider when—through no fault, necessarily, of the Government; although they are not awfully lucky with their industrial relations—Hansard fails to be delivered, the Government ought to make soundings in those circumstances as to whether to postpone the next stage so that noble Lords who are interested in the Bill may have time to consider whether or not they wish to take any action. I should be grateful if the noble Lord and his colleagues would consider the matter in that light, too.


My Lords, I think the best thing I can say to the noble Lord is that I will take up this matter personally with my noble friend the Leader of the House.

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.