HL Deb 12 April 1983 vol 441 cc101-9

3.4 p.m.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, That the Bill be re-committed to a Committee of the Whole House in respect of Clause 7. I first of all owe the House an apology for having sprung this Motion on your Lordships at very short notice and with a small amount of consultation with only a few Members. I shall seek to explain the purpose of the Motion in a moment, but first I should like to deal with a misapprehension which has occurred in the mind of the Chief Whip and which may, therefore, have occurred in the minds of a few others of your Lordships and of which I should like to dispose.

Your Lordships, or those of you who were dealing with the Water Bill, will remember that when we last came to debate Clause 7 a number of us, including myself, registered a mild note of complaint that it was getting late at night, the House was thin and it would be much better to adjourn the discussion and return to Clause 7, which many of us regard as one of the most important in the Bill, on some other occasion. I would hasten to say that my Motion to re-commit Clause 7 has nothing whatever to do with that, because if it were to arise out of that then of course we should be creating a precedent and any noble Lord who was aggrieved at the way matters of great concern to him were being dealt with in the House would claim it as a precedent for re-committing a Bill. I entirely agree with the Chief Whip that that would be most undesirable. The explanation for this Motion is really quite different and I shall come to it now.

First, I should like to point out that Clause 7 is a most important clause. Other clauses contain provisions that are important for other people. Clause 6 is important for local authorities, Clause 5 is important for British contractors seeking business overseas and so on, but from the point of view of its being something which Parliament must itself be concerned about and take great care with, I think that Clause 7 is the most important. It is the clause which sets up consumer consultative councils in order to ensure that the consumers of the regional water authorities' services can have their complaints, their anxieties and their interests safeguarded and properly catered for. That is something which is not generally done to anybody's great satisfaction in any nationalised industry, and we must exert ourselves to see, if we possibly can, that in this case it is done properly.

The sequence of events which has led me and a few others to invite the House to consider whether re-commitment is not desirable is a matter to which I shall come in a minute. First I should like to read the Companion to the Standing Orders where it sets out the circumstances to which re-commitment is appropriate and then leave it to the House to judge whether the circumstances which have occurred in this case justify the action. I shall read an extract from the passage on re-commitment in the Companion, where it says among other things: Bills have been re-committed where important amendments were tabled in Committee of the Whole House too late for them to be properly considered at that stage,"— those are not the circumstances here— or where amendments, on a subject which had not been considered in Committee, were tabled at a later stage and required detailed examination. Decision on such amendments may then be reached on Re-commitment". What has happened is this. We had our debate on Clause 7 on Tuesday, 8th March, in the course of which my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale indicated that he had a brief containing a lot of information which he offered to read. He was not particularly inclined to read it, and the House was content to leave it unread on the understanding that he would write to us all about it. We then had a brief discussion on how those matters might be brought to the attention of the whole House. I suggested a reference in the Official Report which was not accepted, but at any rate we moved away from Clause 7 on the understanding that we should hear from the noble Lord. I think that we were left with the impression that what it was he had to say to us was actually in his notes in front of him at that time. That may or may not have been so. But in fact we next heard about the matter by way of a response from my noble friend in a Written Answer which he gave to a Parliamentary Question in the name of my other noble friend Lady Trumpington. The answer was dated Tuesday 29th and it appeared and was published for all to see in Hansard of 30th March. It contained a number of substantive matters of considerable importance to Clause 7.

But your Lordships will recall that Wednesday 30th March was our last sitting day. The Hansard published on that day was not of course available until the following day and could not reach anybody, except those who had been in receipt of the original letter, until after the Recess began. The first working day after the Easter holiday was Tuesday 5th April and by that time the House was in Recess, when consultations with people are very difficult. My noble friend Lord Bellwin has been in America all this time and we did not resume our Sittings until yesterday, 11th April. It seems to me that those circumstances are close enough to the circumstances for which the Companion to the Standing Orders provides a re-commitment.

We have five amendments down to Clause 7. Two of them, Nos. 13 and 16, are not entirely new but only new in part; three of them are entirely new. However, the point is not the newness or the novelty of the amendments, but the fact that that letter, not despatched until three weeks after the Committee stage when we were rather expecting to receive it a day or two after it, contains material which provides an entirely new context for the discussion of Clause 7. In my view that is why the provisions in the Companion to the Standing Orders ought to be invoked—in order that we can have a detailed examination of these important matters in the new context which that letter creates.

There is another Motion standing in my name in the Marshalled List between Amendments Nos. 12 and 13, which reads: that the House do now resolve itself into a Committee to debate amendment 13". As between these two Motions—the one I am now moving and that one—the second makes provision for a debate, in the form of a Committee debate, of my amendment only; whereas the Motion I now move makes provision for all five amendments to Clause 7 to be debated, as it were, in Committee, and for a free discussion to take place with your Lordships free to speak more than once and, if necessary, for another interval before the Report stage.

I hope that the explanation is reasonably clear as to why I think we should consider the re-commitment of the Bill in respect of this clause, and I am more than glad to put myself in the hands of the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be re-committed to a Committee of the Whole House in respect of Clause 7.—(Lord Sandford.)

Lord Melchett

My Lords, perhaps I can just add a few words as I have an amendment down to Clause 7 which is supplementary to the Marshalled List. It was tabled late for exactly the same reason as the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has put forward; namely, that I did not see the Written Answer until very late in the day—indeed, until just before the week-end. That Written Answer contains words which I thought contradicted what was said at the Committee stage and which led to my tabling an amendment to try to clarify the matter.

It seems to me that the Written Answer introduces a whole series of entirely new factors which, to some extent, went against what was said during the Committee stage. If the noble Lord's Motion is passed, I would certainly very much welcome an opportunity for a fuller debate on my amendment which is supplementary to the Marshalled List, Amendment No. 16A to Clause 7, than will be possible if it is taken during a Report stage of the Bill.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Sandford. Like the noble Lord, I recall how late the debate was on the consumer clauses and we obviously did not go into a great deal of discussion. I think we were all led to believe that the noble Lord who answered would, as is the normal practice (which for some reason or other did not operate in these circumstances), have written to us within perhaps two or three days with the comments that would have been given to us as answers. We did not even get them in that way as direct participants in the debate, which I think is remiss of the Government.

Instead, the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, who was not present in the debate at that late hour, tabled a Question for Written Answer which the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, answered and, in so doing, completely changed the whole issue which we were discussing at the Committee stage. For that reason, I support the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, because the whole of what we discussed in Committee has been completely changed by the Written Answer to the Question tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, at a very much later stage and during the Recess.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, before the noble Lord the Minister replies, perhaps it might be helpful to him to know that my noble friends on these Benches would also wish to support the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, in the efforts that he is making to ensure full and free debate on these very new matters, matters of substantial importance in this Bill. Therefore, we congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, on having discovered this device to enable us to do something which we regard as very necessary indeed, and we hope that he will be successful in it.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, we, too, support the Motion.

3.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, Clause 7 of the Water Bill was debated in Committee of your Lordships' House on 8th March when amendments were moved by my noble friend Lord Sandford and other noble Lords. This followed references to the clause at Second Reading and debates on it in another place.

In replying at Committee stage my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale proposed that, in view of the lateness of the hour, he would, if the Committee so wished, abbreviate his remarks and would undertake to let the House know later what he would have said if there had been sufficient time. The Committee agreed that this would be the best course and my noble friend withdrew his amendment with that assurance.

The further points which my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale would have made in his speech were set out in the reply given on 30th March to a Parliamentary Question tabled by my noble friend Lady Trumpington. My noble friend in his reply explained the reasons why the Government do not believe that it would be appropriate to write the provisions for the new committees into the Bill. He also explained that the draft guidelines would be revised in the light of comments received and a number of commitments made during the passage of the Bill, and that they would be reissued for a further short period of consultation. His reply listed the main changes already decided upon.

I should like to make one main point about my noble friend's Written Answer. There is very little in it which is new to your Lordships' House or, indeed, to Parliament, and there I certainly differ with the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. Of the five main changes to the guidelines listed in the Answer, no fewer than four reflected previous undertakings made to this House or the other place. Therefore, it can hardly be said that we are bouncing a new statement of policy onto your Lordships. Moreover, in agreeing to a fresh round of consultation on a revised draft of guidelines we are keeping open options not only for your Lordships but also for the wide range of bodies outside which have a major interest in these matters. So we cannot be said to be forcing the pace and preventing full discussions.

Let us look briefly at my noble friend's new amendment, Amendment No. 13, because it is relevant to this whole point. Most of what it says has been considered in debates in the other place, or answered in our Parliamentary reply. To the extent that the new amendment raises new issues, or indeed to the extent that noble Lords wish to debate issues already discussed or the question of writing the provision for committees into the Bill, we are prepared for a debate at Report stage. But I would re-emphasise the extent to which debate has already taken place. There was indeed discussion at Report stage in the other place of an amendment very similar in concept to the one which is tabled today, and that was moved by a vice-president of the Association of District Councils. There was discussion at Committee stage in the other place of some of the issues of principle arising; for example, the right of nominating bodies to appoint, and access of press and public to meetings.

We cannot therefore accept that there is anything in today's amendment which is so radically new as to justify the unusual step of sending Clause 7 back into Committee, thus delaying proceedings on a Bill which your Lordships' House has already had considerable time to debate. There are few Bills on which the Government have shown more flexibility than this one. In response to what was said at Second Reading we agreed to restore in full the jurisdiction of the local ombudsman over water authorities. We have agreed at different times to other significant changes in Clause 1, Clause 5, Clause 6 and Clause 7—and may I remind your Lordships that this is an 11-clause Bill. We have agreed to a number of major changes in many other ways.

I feel I cannot accept that there has been inadequate time for consideration, discussion and representation. We wanted to consider carefully what my noble friend was putting forward, and I think perhaps three weeks was longer than one might have wished for that, but we wanted to consider it carefully. The most important part of it so far as this issue is concerned—that is, the issue of recommitment—is whether what we have come forward with is something which is so new as to require a debate beyond that which can be had at Report stage.

Remember in addition that there is the opportunity for debate at Report stage. The only problem with debate at Report stage is that, apart from the Minister, who may speak more than once by leave of the House, the procedure does not permit anyone else to speak more than once. Your Lordships may well consider whether that is the most desirable way, but that is another matter altogether. I myself would not be unsympathetic to a view that maybe there ought to be, by leave of the House, permission for speaking more than once at Report stage, but that is not for me to say.

The fact is that there is the opportunity. There is no attempt here in any way to try to reduce the opportunities for debate. Here we are involved in a procedural matter. Certainly to my noble friend, upon whose help I rely so much in so many ways and on so many occasions, it is not lightly that we say that we are not in favour of what he is proposing today. Yet there are involved here certain precedents which could indeed be brought up, and I am sure will be brought up again often in the future if this Motion is to be passed. In all the circumstances I can only hope that your Lordships will agree that perhaps this is one of the occasions when we should not accept the proposition that my noble friend puts forward.

3.23 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, may I add one point to support my noble friend? The Companion tells us that the machinery of re-commitment is to be used in only rare cases. It is clearly a matter of judgment when such action is to be justified, but I would think that there would need to be considerable substance in the matter to justify such a procedure. Clearly if there was not, then this procedure could be followed on any Bill when one could say that something new had come up to be looked at on Report stage which had not been looked at sufficiently on Committee. This would begin to make a nonsense of the procedure of this House.

It is a matter of judgment whether what my noble friend Lord Sandford has put so lucidly before us is a matter of substance. Those of us who are more or less familiar with the Bill can perhaps exercise an informed judgment. I dare say that to noble Lords who are not quite so intimately informed on this important Bill it may not be quite so clear. In my opinion, although consumer councils are of course important, the particular matter here is not of such gigantic substance that it is going to shake the world. I should have thought that my noble friend Lord Bellwin is right. We can deal with it perfectly adequately within the machinery of the Report stage debate, and we would not be justified in creating such a major precedent as to re-commit on something of this kind. I hope that the view of my noble friend Lord Bellwin will be accepted.

Lord Drumalbyn

My Lords, may I offer one other comment on this? I do not know exactly whether it would be in any way conclusive. My noble friend has already referred to the fact that there was a draft of the guidelines circulated on, I think, 22nd November. This reply to a Question on 30th March is in fact pretty near a redraft of the same guidelines. It seems to me that this puts an entirely fresh complexion on the whole thing. I would also suggest, with great diffidence to your Lordships, that we would in this particular case have a very much tidier debate if Clause 7 were recommitted at this time.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, we have come to recognise that one of the characteristic features of the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, is his flexibility. This has been mentioned in this Chamber more than once. He has been, as he rightly claimed, extremely flexible in the course of our consideration of this Bill. Many of us are grateful to him for the flexibility he has shown. But would it not be in keeping with this known character of his, his known form, as it were, if he were to show flexibility here once again?

So far as I could gather from his earlier comments, his only real objection to this course, apart from its unusualness—and I admit, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, has said, it is unusual—seemed to be that a number of people would want to speak perhaps twice, and presumably that would take up a certain amount of the time of the House. He seemed to be saying that the debate might be more lengthy than we required.

I am not sure when the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, got up to speak, but it might have been round about three o'clock. Therefore, we have already spent 25 minutes on this procedural discussion which we could easily have spent on discussing the actual matter of Clause 7 had the Minister merely acceded right away. By attempting to save time, I think the Minister is really losing time. He is a flexible man, and we are often comforted in that thought. I think perhaps he should be flexible again this time.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, before my noble friend Lord Sandford decides how to dispose of this issue, I think we ought to exercise our judgment here as parliamentarians because a most important issue is involved. My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale on the Committee stage on 8th March, at col. 202, referred to the fact that it was a very complicated issue and said, if I may quote his words: There are three different sets of guidelines attached to this Bill". This is indeed correct. My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale was perfectly correct in assuring the Committee of this particular matter, but if we are going to debate this subject in a manner which is both tidy and satisfactory—and I so agree with what has been said by earlier speakers—we should accede to the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Sandford.

3.29 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, may I suggest a method whereby we could have the best of both worlds? The point made by my noble friend Lord Nugent is that if we adopt this procedure now we shall set a precedent. That is an extremely powerful argument. If noble Lords opposite were in Government and noble Lords on this side decided to do that, no Bill would get through this House because one could play monkeys with almost any Bill that came to your Lordships' House. This is a dangerous precedent.

It is just possible that new things are being produced by the written reply to my noble friend Lady Trumpington. Would it not be possible on this occasion to say that when we debate Clause 7 we delete the rule which says that a noble Lord may speak only once on each issue? Would it be possible to suspend that particular Standing Order for the sake of this clause, and so avoid its being re-committed, and then everybody has the best of all possible worlds? Being a peaceful man, that is what I always want.

Lord Denham

To reply to my noble friend on that point, my Lords, I am advised that it would not be possible to adopt the procedure he suggests, desirable though it may be, without notice.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, perhaps I may make a brief observation, with the leave to the House, in response to the noble Lord. Lord Howie, to whom I am grateful for what he said. I am well aware of the time it has taken to have this discussion, and my concern is very much that of my noble friend Lord Nugent. It would have been easy to have said: "Why not? There is no concern on the Government's part about the matter being debated". But there are factors here which are far more important than the issue of this one matter at this one time.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, I am grateful to the House for giving this matter the amount of attention it has had. I think we need to stick strictly to the procedural issues, and not deal with the substance of the amendments. A number of references have been made to precedents. I do not agree that this would create a precedent. The Companion to the Standing Orders specifically prescribes for the possibility of recommitment—rare, maybe—and it is supremely a matter for the House to decide whether the circumstances which have arisen, and which I have outlined, correspond to the circumstances set out in the Companion to the Standing Orders It is not for me, for Ministers or for the Chief Whip to decide whether that is the case. It is a matter for your Lordships, and I must therefore leave it to the House to make a decision in the matter.

3.32 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Motion shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 112; Not-Contents, 81.

Amherst, E. Drumalbyn, L.
Ampthill, L. Elliot of Harwood, B.
Amulree, L. Elwyn-Jones, L.
Ardwick, L. Elystan-Morgan, L.
Aylestone, L. Evans of Claughton, L.
Balogh, L. Ewart-Biggs, B.
Banks, L. Ezra, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Fisher of Rednal, B. [Teller.]
Beswick, L.
Birk, B. Gainford, L.
Bishopston, L. Gaitskell, B.
Blease, L. Gallacher, L.
Blyton, L. Gladwyn, L.
Briginshaw, L. Glanusk, L.
Brockway, L. Gormley, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Greenway, L.
Byers, L. Grey, E.
Chitnis, L. Halsbury, E.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Hampton, L.
Collison, L. Hanworth, V.
Cooper of Stockton Heath, L. Harris of Greenwich, L.
Craigavon, V. Hatch of Lusby, L.
Crowther-Hunt, L. Hayter, L.
David, B. Hemingford, L.
Davidson, V. Heycock, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L.
Donnet of Balgay, L. Howie of Troon, L.
Hunt, L. Pender, L.
Irving of Dartford, L. Phillips, B.
Jeger, B. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Prys-Davies, L.
John-Mackie, L. Rochester, L.
Kagan, L. Ross of Marnock, L.
Kearton, L. Rugby, L.
Kennet, L. Sainsbury, L.
Kilbracken, L. St. Davids, V.
Killearn, L. St. John of Bletso, L.
Kings Norton, L. Sandford, L. [Teller.]
Kinloss, Ly. Sandys, L.
Kirkhill, L. Serota, B.
Lane-Fox, B. Somers, L.
Lauderdale, E. Spens, L.
Leatherland, L. Stamp, L.
Listowel, E. Stanley of Alderley, L.
Lloyd of Hampstead, L. Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Lockwood, B. Strabolgi, L.
Loudoun, C. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Lovell-Davis, L. Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Mackie of Benshie, L. Underhill, L.
Masham of Ilton, B. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Melchett, L. Walston, L.
Milford, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
Oram, L. Whaddon, L.
Paget of Northampton, L. White, B.
Parry, L. Winstanley, L.
Peart, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Ingrow, L.
Allerton, L. Kitchener, E.
Avon, E. Long, V.
Bancroft, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Lyell, L.
Bellwin, L. McFadzean, L.
Beloff, L. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Belstead, L. Mancroft, L.
Berkeley, B. Mansfield, E.
Bessborough, E. Maybray-King, L.
Caccia, L. Merrivale, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Milverton, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Montgomery of Alamein, V.
Clifford of Chudleigh, L. Mottistone, L.
Constantine of Stanmore, L. Mountgarret, V.
Cottesloe, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Craigton, L. Newall, L.
Cranbrook, E. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Onslow, E.
Daventry, V. Orkney, E.
De Freyne, L. Rawlinson of Ewell, L.
De La Warr, E. Renton, L.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Rochdale, V.
Dilhorne, V. St. Aldwyn, E.
Ebbisham, L. Selkirk, E.
Effingham, E. Semphill, Ly.
Elton, L. Sharples, B.
Ferrers, E. Sherfield, L.
Fortescue, E. Skelmersdale, L.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Glenarthur, L. Strathspey, L.
Glenkinglas, L. Swinton, E. [Teller.]
Gridley, L. Teviot, L.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Thomas of Swynnerton, L.
Thorneycroft, L.
Harvington, L. Trumpington, B.
Henley, L. Tweedsmuir, L.
Hives, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Hornsby-Smith, B. Vivian, L.
Hylton-Foster, B. Westbury, L.
Inglewood, L. Wootton of Abinger, B.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Motion agreed to accordingly.