HL Deb 22 July 1991 vol 531 cc466-74


The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that she, having been informed of the purport of the Child Support Bill, has consented to place her prerogatives and interests, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

I beg to move that the Commons amendments be now considered.

Moved, That the Commons amendments be now considered—(The Lord Chancellor.)

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, before your Lordships agree to the proposal, I suggest that there ought to be a moment of consideration. Indeed it seems highly questionable whether the Bill should be discussed today. It seems quite extraordinary—and I use that word in all its senses—that a Bill which only concluded its stages in the other place last Thursday is now presented with 21 pages of amendments for your Lordships to consider today and 12 new clauses—a substantial little Bill in itself. It was only this morning, that I was told by the Printed Paper Office that the Marshalled List of amendments was available. Those of us who live out of London and have to travel up especially did not see the list until midday. It is quite impossible to deal adequately with those amendments at such little notice.

It is an important Bill. It aroused general hostility in your Lordships' House from the two dozen or so Members who took a particular interest in it. No one except the two Ministers in charge of the Bill had anything good to say about it. It is a profoundly bureaucratic Bill. It starts by obtaining leave to recruit 4,700 civil servants, of whom 2,200 are new placements. For a Government who claim to be rolling back the frontiers of state, that seems odd. However, the problem does not stop there. There are wide invasions of traditional civil liberties in support of the Secretary of State in his powers under the Bill. There are over 100 regulation-making powers, of which only a dozen or so are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. It is difficult to think of any measure which is more profoundly bureaucratic. It deserves proper discussion.

The Bill proceeds at the outset by the ouster of the jurisdiction of the courts, as well as ousting the traditional function of Parliament to make the laws in favour of the Secretary of State doing so by regulation.

That is not the only matter in this Bill procedurally which gives cause for disturbance and concern. The second day of the Report stage continued until the early hours of the morning. It was very nearly two o'clock when we discussed the important constitutional matter of the parliamentary control of delegated legislation. The hour was so late and your Lordships were so pressed that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who had been leading admirably for the Opposition, postponed his remarks on that issue until the debate on the Motion, That the Bill do now pass. Matters were so arranged that he had no opportunity to do so.

After that, I took the liberty of writing to the Chief Whip to ask that there should be a reasonable computation of the time that would be required on Third Reading. I was assured that the business before the Child Support Bill was purely perfunctory and that adequate time would be allotted. Your Lordships did not start consideration of the Bill on Third Reading until 4.20 p.m. By about 10.30 p.m. we had by no means reached the end of the many amendments on Third Reading, the majority of which were government amendments.

The noble Lord the then Chief Whip then scurried around the House begging Members not to move amendments, or to move them perfunctorily, and not to speak on the Motion, That the Bill do now pass. The reason he gave was that if the business went on beyond 11 p.m. the following day's business would be lost.

The noble Lord made a personal appeal to me. I felt that unless the Government's business managers were hoist with their own petard they would never show proper consideration to your Lordships, and what has happened today shows that my misgiving was accurate. With the noble Lord the Chief Whip about to retire, I did not have the heart to make a speech on Bill do now pass, which I had come to London to do, and I moved amendments perfunctorily.

That is the background to and the history of the Bill. It cannot be considered entirely in isolation, because it is part of the course of conduct of business which has amounted to a devaluation of your Lordships' role in the Constitution.

In this Session alone we have had the War Crimes Bill, where the Parliament Act was invoked to deny your Lordships a voice in the decision. All constitutional lawyers in your Lordships' House, not least of all my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham, were unanimous that that was an improper use of the Parliament Act. That was also the view of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who was the principal historian of the genesis of the Parliament Act; it was also the view of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, who as a young man had taken a personal interest in the passing of that measure. It did not stop with the War Crimes Bill. There was the Criminal Justice Bill, where your Lordships' views were again overridden, despite the fact that powerful voices had been raised in support of the provision which your Lordships inserted into the Bill. Even those who believed that your Lordships should give way on that matter so that the Bill's valuable provisions should not be endangered were convinced that the reasons given for refusing your Lordships' view did not stand up for a minute to investigation. That again was the view of my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham.

More recently—only last week—we had the Finance Bill produced in your Lordships' House much later than was proper so that it had to be debated on Friday last. Nothing could be more inconvenient to those interested in the measure. I can only say that if such things happen, not only with this Bill but with all the other measures, your Lordships are in danger of seeing new brooms sweep your Lordships' House on to the dustheap of history. The Labour Party has produced a scheme for a reformed Second Chamber. It was subject of the most devastating criticism by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, in a debate in April last year; but if the Government behave in this way, they are presenting the Labour Party with a case for House of Lords reform on a plate.

The proper course is to do what is normally done at this time of year; namely, when the Commons finishes its deliberations and submits a substantial list of amendments—as was done with the Children Bill and the Courts and Legal Services Bill—to postpone discussion until the autumn. If that is done, your Lordships have an opportunity to study, in a way that we do not have today, what is proposed.

There is another matter: by this procedure amendments are in effect precluded. It is true that manuscript amendments are permissible on consideration of Commons amendments, but the Companion to the Standing Orders discountenances their use. I am sure that business managers on both sides would deprecate that breach of the spirit of standing orders. There are a number of amendments to the Commons amendments which should be made. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who jumped the gun and left us at the starting gate, has managed to put down some amendments, but those who saw the Commons amendments for the first time today, especially those who saw them only at midday, have had no chance to put down amendments.

I deprecate the procedure and ask your Lordships to join me in those deprecations.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Denham

My Lords, perhaps I may say a brief word. The noble and learned Lord has made what I believe amounts to a personal attack on me.

Noble Lords

No, no!

Lord Denham

He did not do me the courtesy of informing me that he was going to do so. Had he done so, I should have been able to reply to his accusations at a little greater length.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I did not understand the excellent speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, as an attack upon the former Chief Whip. He was rightly pointing out to the House that much legislation is ill-considered and, because it is ill-considered, is not as good as it should be by the end of the debate. That has consequences when the legislation is put into operation. He is right. His remarks were entirely proper. I hope that the House will take note of them. For too long not only under the present Government but also under previous governments we have felt that the quantity of legislation is more important than its quality. I have reached the conclusion over that period that we now want properly considered quality legislation which does not have to be altered practically every Session.

The appeal by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, is reasonable and relevant. It should be taken into account by the Government and certainly by this House.

In relation to the Child Support Bill, like the noble and learned Lord, I received a copy of the amendments today; and I also received from the noble Lord, Lord Henley—and I thank him for this—Notes on Commons Amendments. Unfortunately, I have not yet had time to read them let alone assimilate them. Therefore, there is certainly a case for delaying this 13ill, as the noble and learned Lord requested, until the autumn spillover.

There is no reason why that should not be done. As I understand it, this Bill does not have to be put into operation immediately. Indeed, I understand that it will not come into operation until 1993. Therefore, would it not be better that we should properly consider the Bill and the Commons amendments when we hive plenty of time in the spillover period? We should not try to cram the discussions today into about two or three hours.

That is all I wish to say except to reiterate my firm support for the excellent case which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, has put to your Lordships about legislation being considered properly by this House, and indeed by another place.

Lord Renton

My Lords, it is with great reluctance that I rise to comment on the handling of government business when I have such a great respect for the way in which my noble friend Lord Denham exercised his responsibility with regard to it, and when we have a new Chief Whip for whom I have also a very great regard.

I refrain from commenting on the merits of the Bill, and the history of how, when the Bill was previously before your Lordships, it was handled. However, I must say that I had no sight of these amendments until I arrived at your Lordships' House at 2.15 this afternoon. I then found, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, pointed out, that there are 21 pages and 135 Commons amendments. Many of them are very long and complicated. Speaking for myself, I require a day or two to fathom their significance, and how they affect the text of the Bill as it was when it left your Lordships' House.

was very grateful to my noble friend Lord Henley for giving us Notes on Commons Amendments. I am relieved to know that he has distributed them to noble Lords on other sides of the House as well as noble Lords on this side. I believe that that is a most commendable way of helping your Lordships to get through difficult and complicated Bills. However, we should not now be asked to deal with this Bill virtually without an opportunity of considering adequately, or at all in my case, this mass of amendments. As has been said by the noble and learned Lord and by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, nothing would be lost by considering the amendments in the spillover Session in October.

For those reasons, I earnestly hope that my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack, who has displayed great patience and his usual learning and ability in piloting this difficult Bill, my noble friend the Leader of the House, and others on the Front Bench responsible for taking decisions with regard to our business, will heed what has been said. It is in order to maintain the reputation of your Lordships as Members of a revising Chamber that we should not be rushed into considering this matter this afternoon. I hope that further and wiser counsel will prevail so that we have a chance of considering the Bill later—preferably in October.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Renton. I do not wish to enter any argument concerning the activities of our former Chief Whip for whom we all have the greatest respect.

However, I should like to speak to the specific Bill before this House. This Bill was very contentious and there was little support for it when it first came to this House. Noble Lords on all sides have tried to do their best to amend the Bill, not because they disagreed with its principle but because of the way in which it will affect individuals throughout the country. Your Lordships' House has a specific duty to protect the individuals who will be affected directly by the implementation and application of the Bill when it becomes law.

Therefore, we have a duty to consider these Commons amendments with seriousness and a minimum degree of time, which has not been given to your Lordships today. Therefore, I join in the earnest request of my noble friend Lord Renton that the Commons amendments should be considered in the spillover period in October.

Earl Russell

My Lords, if I say that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, has raised a valid point, I do not wish for a moment to be construed as making any criticism whatever of the Government Front Bench. They have done what they can to facilitate the conduct of business and my noble kinsman's action in circulating Notes on Commons amendments is a truly notable courtesy for which I am deeply grateful.

Nevertheless, I cannot but agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that it is difficult to master such a mass of amendments in such a short time. It is not the first time that this has happened. Noble Lords may remember the National Health Service and Community Care Bill when Commons Hansard was not available and we did not know why our amendments had seemed to be unsuitable to another place. That is a general and not a particular problem.

Perhaps I may suggest—and I hope that the Government Front Bench will find my suggestion agreeable—that the best way to deal with the matter is to refer the general question regarding the time available for consideration of Commons amendments to the Procedure Committee.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Renton. On Friday I telephoned the Printed Paper Office and asked for a list of amendments to be sent to me. The most extraordinary thing happened—it was lost in the post! It did not arrive either on Saturday or Monday morning.

Also, we should pay tribute to the voluntary organisations such as the citizens advice bureaux and the Child Poverty Action Group which have worked extremely hard to inform your Lordships of the various points of view held by their staff and the people that they represent. It has been quite impossible either to read the amendments or, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, the helpful notes given to us by my noble friend Lord Henley. It will be impossible to speak intelligently. In fairness to the voluntary organisations and the statutory bodies which have sought to help us, we should defer decisions on this Bill until a later date.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the Question before your Lordships is that the Commons amendments to this Bill should now be considered.

I have had the advantage of hearing a great number of views about this Bill as we considered it. As your Lordships will know, the Bill was initiated in this House as we considered it very carefully and in considerable detail. Resulting from that consideration, which I believe to have been careful and thorough, my noble friend Lord Henley and I gave a number of detailed commitments that are met by many of the amendments which we now have before us.

Other amendments deal with matters of detail, and of course the Commons, as the Second House, has had an opportunity of considering what your Lordships did in relation to sanctions in respect of failure to co-operate. On that matter the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, tabled amendments to the amendment approved by the Commons. We shall come to that later.

The main proposal is that we should defer the matter until after the Recess and take it up again in the spill-over period. As my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale said, the Bill contains a number of provisions for regulations, and the Government have made it plain that the regulations are to be the subject of extensive consultation.

We spoke of 1993 as being the time when we hope that the Bill as an Act will become fully operative. One knows from experience that where a provision of this kind exists, in order satisfactorily to implement it considerable time must be allowed for proper consultation on the regulations and we must also prepare a great deal of instruction and guidance to the staff. Your Lordships have clearly drawn attention to the need for sensitivity in the area with which the Bill deals. The need for staff training is therefore extremely important. In addition, we must issue guidance more generally.

Those noble Lords concerned with the implementation of the Children Act know that that was enacted in 1989. We are hoping that it will come into force on 14th October of this year. But a large amount of work needs to be carried out even in relation to a measure of that sort. Those who are charged with implementing the Bill are clear that it is right that if possible the Bill should be available in the form in which Parliament passes it in order that that work can proceed. In addition to giving guidance to the staff and those immediately concerned, it is necessary also that the public generally should be informed about the Bill. Accordingly, it is highly desirable that it should be enacted before the Recess.

My noble friend Lord Henley and I were aware that the Bill had passed the Commons on Thursday. We therefore wanted to help your Lordships as much as possible to deal with it and for that reason we prepared—many of your Lordships have a copy—the booklet which deals in considerable detail with the amendments. That was done in order to assist your Lordships. My understanding is that the amendments were available on Friday as a result of the efforts of the Chief Whip. The comment of my noble friend Lady Faithfull suggests that they were available on Friday, although sadly in her case the ministrations of the Post Office do not appear to have been equal to the importance of the communication. The Marshalled List was available this morning in accordance with the ordinary system.

I do not know whether I am included in one of the new brooms to which my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale referred. I hope perhaps that the newness is wearing off a little by this time. However, I assure your Lordships that the Government respect the work of this House and the way in which it performs its duties, indicating such in this case by having invited it to initiate the parliamentary consideration of the Bill and giving it a prime place in regard to this Bill. A corollary of that is that one must have regard to what the House of Commons has done and at the same time seek to preserve, before the Bill is due to come into operation, as much time as possible to secure all the work—which is considerable—that is required for the Bill ultimately to be implemented.

In the light of that explanation I hope that your Lordships will agree with the Motion I proposed, that the Commons amendments be now considered.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, before my noble and learned friend sits down perhaps he would be so kind as to allow me to intervene. When one glances at this no doubt helpful bunch of explanations of Commons amendments, with the useful groupings that they contain, one realises that one will have to think much faster than I am capable of doing in order to follow the explanations given as each group of amendments comes up. Even a few hours of opportunity to absorb the implications would have been an enormous help.

Is there no hope of the business being so arranged that we could consider the matter, if it is vital that it comes into operation in early October, later this week? I can see no reason why it should come into force early in October. The commencement clause, Clause 48, does not indicate any urgency in the matter. Many things in public life are a choice of evils. But if there are two evils here, the choice is between the supposed evil of a slight postponement of the coming into force of the Bill or what I consider to be the greater evil of rushing the Bill through this afternoon.

Perhaps my noble and learned friend would be kind enough to consider those two alternatives and we may then persuade him to take a different view.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as I explained, the intention is that the statutory provisions should come into full effect in 1993. The point that I am seeking to make is that in order adequately to prepare the work that is required for that, those in charge of the preparation require to know the form of the statutory provisions.

I indicated also that a fair amount of the subject matter of these amendments is either fairly technical in character or, more importantly, the result of undertakings given to your Lordships as the Bill went through being implemented. The business has been proposed on the basis that the Bill should be taken for consideration of its Commons amendments today. Provision has been made for other business for the remainder of this week and we must consider the convenience of those who have at least had some warning of the matter.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, perhaps the noble and learned Lord would allow me to intervene. We all appreciate exactly what is being said. We are grateful to him for confirming that the Bill will not come into operation until 1993. However, we appreciate also—I certainly do—that there are administrative matters to be dealt with. As far as I can see, the number of orders which have to be agreed in the amendments are relatively few. But within the part of the Bill which is agreed and to which there are no amendments tabled, many other matters need to be discussed and need administrative preparation. Would it not be possible for those matters to be dealt with because they are already agreed, and for us to have a better opportunity, perhaps in the autumn or even later this week, to discuss the Bill as it should be discussed? I feel quite sure that the noble and learned Lord and the Government would not wish administrative convenience to be given precedence over proper consideration and discussion by this House.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am wrong if I gave the impression that it is administrative convenience. It is the necessity of making proper provision for the Bill to take effect which is in issue here. As the noble Lord says, a good deal of the Bill is already agreed. But as far as I am concerned, it is right that before any of the work involved with the implementation of the Bill is done—that work is quite considerable and important—those charged with the responsibility should know that the Bill has received Royal Assent.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Waddington)

My Lords, perhaps I can help. I wish to be quite frank with the House. I believe that it would be very difficult to postpone this business until after the Recess. The business of the House is very crowded from now on. However, situations like this arise from time to time. It is obviously right that these developments should be discussed. I am wondering whether it would be for the convenience of the House if we were to delay this matter for a little while for discussions to take place between the usual channels. I remind the House that there are two Statements to be taken so there is bound to be some delay before we can proceed very far with this Bill. I wonder whether it will be convenient for the House to postpone consideration of this business for a little while so that we can then at least discuss how we might best proceed.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, that is a most helpful suggestion from my noble friend the Leader of the House. I wonder whether he can take it a little further. In considering what should be done—accepting, if he does, the views of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that it is essential to pass this Bill before the House rises—will he bear in mind that, as I understand it, the House is not scheduled to sit on Friday of this week? Therefore, it should be possible to shift to Friday some of the other business to be dealt with this week and to insert this Bill in the vacancy so created. I do not ask my noble friend to commit himself to that, but will he consider it rather than force the House to what may be a difficult decision and perhaps even unpleasant for the Government?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I cannot greet that suggestion with much enthusiasm. In order to obtain Royal Assent before the Recess the Bill will have to be taken by this House not later than Wednesday because of the nature of the business in the other place. It could not be taken on Friday.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I am sorry. My noble friend has misunderstood me and I am sure that that is my fault. I was not suggesting that the Bill should be taken on Friday. It would be very inconvenient to do so. I was suggesting that he creates a vacancy, perhaps on Wednesday, by shifting the business scheduled for that day to Friday, which is vacant at present.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, perhaps it would be convenient if I move formally that consideration of the Commons amendments on the Bill be postponed until after the two Statements have been taken. I beg to move.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

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