HL Deb 09 March 1981 vol 418 cc3-4

2.40 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the increasing delay in the publication of primary and secondary legislation, and what steps they will take to protect persons against the legal consequences of infringing rules of law whose nature they are unable to discover.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising this matter, which I reply to in the absence of my noble friend the Lord President. It is regretted that there has been some increase in the time taken to print Public General Acts. The Government fully recognise the need to postpone commencement to allow for possible delays in publication, particularly where any new criminal offence is created. In the Government's view, Bills are too various in character to allow for any change in the general rule that Acts should enter into force on Royal Assent.

So far as regards secondary legislation, the Government are not aware of any increase in the time taken for publication. Noble Lords will, of course, recall that Section 3(2) of the Statutory Instruments Act 1946 provides that in proceedings for the contravention of a statutory instrument it is a defence to prove that at the time of the alleged contravention the instrument had not been issued by Her Majesty's Stationery Office or brought to the notice of the public in some other way.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, while I thank my noble and learned friend for that very full reply, particularly on a day when his department may not be at full strength, may I ask him whether the Government accept, in principle, one of the main recommendations of the Statute Law Society's report, which indicated that it should be a matter of course that after Royal Assent there should be a six weeks' delay before Acts of Parliament came into force, in view of the delays which have been experienced?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I have read the Law Society's report, and also that of the Statute Law Society, which had a working party in, I think, 1979. I enjoyed reading them both. There is a great variety in the requirements for commencement in relation to individual Acts. In some cases—for instance, the Iran (Temporary Powers) Act 1980—very early commencement, if not immediate commencement, is an urgent necessity. Others involve periods much longer than six weeks to enable professional advisers to absorb the contents. Still others need different commencement dates for different purposes. I cannot resist, in the presence of the right reverend Prelate, reminding noble Lords that it has not yet been possible to bring into effect the Easter Act 1928.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, I wonder whether the attention of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has been drawn to a recent Northern Ireland order—the Social Security (Contributions) (Northern Ireland) Order—where I believe there was a delay of 13 days between the making of the order and its publication, which would seem to me a glaring example of the kind of thing that the noble Earl is complaining about?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, for giving me some advance warning of this very fast one. I gather the simple truth, although it runs into pages, is that it was thought right—this is rather an Irish answer—so as not to offend Northern Irish susceptibilities, to bring into force the Title and the interpretation clauses, but the operative clauses will not be in force till 6th April.