HL Deb 17 October 1986 vol 480 cc1024-9

11.24 a.m.

Lord Mulley

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask the Leader of the House how many government amendments to Bills have been tabled for consideration by the House after the Summer Recess; why they are so numerous; and whether more are likely to be tabled before the end of the current Session.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, up to the morning of Wednesday 15th October, 710 government amendments had been tabled to five of the Bills set down for consideration in the spillover period. The total number of amendments tabled was 1,243. So government amendments formed 57 per cent. of the total. All Governments continually revise their legislation as it goes through Parliament. They do so in response to representations at the various stages of the Bill. The Government will only table more amendments in response to important representations from your Lordships' House.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, I am much obliged to the Leader of the House for that Answer and for his great courtesy in replying personally on a Friday. Does he not agree that the unprecedented number of government amendments at the penultimate and final stages of parliamentary consideration of very important legislation reflects unnecessary and incompetent management of the legislative programme? Secondly, does not the whole process of this last Session rather suggest that Ministers collectively and individually have not taken the necessary care with regard to the substance and detail of Bills before they are presented? Can the noble Viscount at least give some assurance—if the Government intend to stay in office for another Session—that they will try to do a little better?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I do not think that I can wholly accept many of the strictures that the noble Lord has produced. I cannot give him the details of amendments in previous Sessions without a considerable amount of extra work which I do not think would necessarily be justified. The noble Lord says that the situation is unprecedented. It may be. I am not disputing that. But neither he nor I can prove it. I do not think that he would wish me to obtain all the statistics necessary to do so or not. There are, however, a large number of amendments.

I have been over this ground before. There were many complaints, for instance, about the Financial Services Bill. I promised, as did my noble friends, that work would be done in the Recess to meet many of the complaints made at Committee stage. That work was done. It may not be regarded—and is not by many people—as perfect, but it is widely accepted that the work led to a much better Bill than we had previously. That has been the result of a large number of amendments.

I have a breakdown of the amendments put down by the Government and put down by the rest of your Lordships' House. I shall not give that unless I am asked to do so. I would, however, say that your Lordships are, after all, a revising chamber. It is of the essence of a revising chamber that amendments are put down. If the Government did not put them down, many in your Lordships' House would be blaming me for not having responded to representations made in this House. It is one of those things in life on which we cannot win. I do not expect to win on it. It is, however, good for us that the noble Lord should have voiced his strictures.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Viscount always talks a great deal of sense. Would he not agree, however, that the volume of amendments over the last few weeks has placed an intolerable burden on this House in particular? Would he also not agree that amendments at this stage, put down in this way, place a considerable burden on the parliamentary draftsman? Would he not further agree that here is a lesson to be learnt? I express the hope, and ask for his confirmation, that this situation will not be repeated in the next Session.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I certainly hope that it will not. I accept that there is a considerable burden. I have not, however, noticed any lack of zeal on the part of people outside the Government in putting down amendments. For example, on the Financial Services Bill, there were 396 government amendments but 658 amendments altogether. So there is another 40 per cent. due to the zeal of your Lordships. On the National Health Service (Amendment) Bill there were three Government amendments and 56 from your Lordships—again an example of considerable zeal. On the Public Order Bill there were 25 amendments from the Government and 107 from your Lordships. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, will not mind, I am sure, if I touch upon the European Communities (Amendment) Bill being discussed today. On this Bill the Government have proposed no amendments while your Lordships have put down 60—again quite a lead.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does the noble Viscount not agree that when amendments are put down to this degree by the Government themselves and by noble Lords from all parts of the House it points to the deficiency and imperfection of the original Bill?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, it may do. But, of course, at the same time, what is the purpose of your Lordships' House as a revising chamber if it does not improve original Bills? There is a balance to be made. I am not sure, since the noble Lord puts it this way, that when he was in Government he was in a white sheet any more than I am. We both had our deficiencies. Perhaps we still have, but there it is. I believe that it has been worse on this occasion. I accept from the noble Lord that we must see that it does not happen again.

However, I ask one other thing of your Lordships. It is possible to deal with a great many simple amendments very quickly. Sometimes I notice that it takes a little longer than I would have expected to deal with some of these amendments.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the cause of the Government's problems is due to the way in which statutes are being prepared; and that he could do a great public service and further enhance his great parliamentary reputation if he persuaded other Members of the Government to insist that their departments instruct the parliamentary draftsman, instead of trying to go into a vast mass of detail to try, vainly, to cover every conceivable, hypothetical circumstance, to state the intention of Parliament in each Bill and declare the broad principles of the legislation? Does he not agreee that if this method were achieved then we should have better legislation and better service to the users of statutes, especially the courts?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend who has done a great deal of work when he was in another place on the preparation of statutes which were extremely valuable. I accept absolutely what the noble Lord has said. I would not wish in any way to appear complacent about the Government. If some of your Lordships heard what I said to some of your colleagues about their Bills your Lordships would not find me in any way complacent.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does the Leader of the House not agree that the Question raises the point of the role of this House? There is a tendency to extend the House of Commons procedures into this House. There is a requirement for a self-denying ordinance on all sides. Does not the experience of the last couple of weeks suggest that the Government are also misusing this House? They are virtually completely changing the legislation within this House. I would respectfully suggest that there is need for a debate—perhaps in the next Session—on what the role of this House should be. because it is going beyond a revising Chamber at the moment.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, it would not be for me to make statements about the role of this House or how it seeks to follow that role. After all, I have been here for a very short time and would certainly not wish to pronounce on these questions. I say only this. Yes, I think that there is an argument that the Government have relied too much on your Lordships' House in certain Bills. But if the Bills are better as a result, then probably that is part of the role of your Lordships even if we have had to rely on it too much. Regarding the length for which we all speak in this House, I suppose it is always possible for us to use a few less words than we do. I hope that we shall all seek to do so.

Lord Tranmire

My Lords, is not my noble friend aware that this matter has been discussed for a very long time and procedure committees, certainly of the House of Commons, have made recommendations to lessen the burden? Will my right honourable friend consider that the time has come when the procedure committees of the two Houses should meet together to consider ways in which this overburden can be reduced?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am certainly prepared to discuss through the usual channels in this House how we deal with our own procedures. Having been involved in the procedure of both Houses in my lifetime, I am a little hesitant to get the two procedure committees together. They might generate a great deal of paper and take a great deal of time. I am not convinced that they would necessarily come to a satisfactory joint conclusion. But I am certainly prepared to see how we can help.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, will the noble Viscount on reflection not feel that it is a little unfair to compare the number of government amendments with the number of amendments coming from other parts of the House since we do not have the opportunity of putting things into the Bill before they are printed? I was brought up on the basis that the Minister should see that he has his Bill in good shape before First Reading. I followed a rather complicated Bill through another place, with no amendments at its Report stage, they having been dealt with in Committee. Is it not the correct procedure to get a Bill right in the first House and not to have all those technical amendments in the second?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, if I gave those figures as a means of conferring blame or stricture then it would have been unfair. I do not think I did so. I gave them as facts. As for getting a Bill absolutely right at the beginning, if there is any former Minister sitting in your Lordships' House at this moment who could say that about any Bill he had introduced I should be extremely surprised. I do not think it would have been the right way because the wisdom of Parliament is part of the reason why we take time on the legislative process. There is no such thing as getting it absolutely right beforehand. I have heard many arguments on a great many occasions that when government did not accept amendments to a Bill it was a disgraceful affair because they were not paying attention to the wisdom of Parliament. Again it is the old story of not being able to have it both ways.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, will the noble Viscount the Leader of the House agree that the number of amendments made by this House—of which the majority are always government amendments—is an index of the succes with which the House performs its revising function, and of the receptivity and flexibility of the Government?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, such kind words from someone who has such experience of your Lordships' House, and indeed of the constitution of Parliament generally, are very welcome indeed to me.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, does my noble friend consider that one conclusion to be drawn from the overburden of our legislative proceedings in this House is further consideration of the possibility of introducing a Standing Committee procedure for the consideration of Bills, analogous to that which has operated for so long and so successfully in another place?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I undertook that this would be considered. I shall discuss it through the usual channels. We shall see whether we can have an experiment on these lines. I have heard two views from those who understand this House much better than I do. There is always the problem that one may save some time by having a Standing Committee but then a great many people arrive fresh to the task for the Report stage who there say, "I have not had a chance to put my point on the Committee so I insist on doing it on Report." One may find therefore that, when considering the time taken on both stages, one does not gain very much. However, it is certainly worth trying and I do not mean to knock the argument down in any way.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, without wishing to enter into the merits of this argument with which the noble Viscount has been dealing, will he look at the experience in 1975 when the Standing Committee procedure was used and the Report stage of this Bill took precisely two and a half hours after a three-day Committee session?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, yes, of course I shall look at what noble Lords said at that time about a Standing Committee. It depends very much upon the type of Bill that is considered as to what happens afterwards. One has to look at it on those grounds.