HL Deb 18 July 1995 vol 566 cc186-204

7.31 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons reasons be now considered.

Moved, That the Commons reasons be now considered.—(Baroness Blatch.)

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, before the voices are collected, I should like to ask a question of which I gave notice to the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip; namely, why was so important and controversial an issue as that which forced a decision this evening put down for a discussion and decision during the dinner hour?

The matter is important and controversial because it concerns the sentence of murder. It concerns the number of years that a convicted person shall serve in prison. It concerns the openness of the judicial proceedings, the judicial process which has some effect on the term that the convicted man shall spend in prison: shall that be open or shall it, in the words of the Lord Chief Justice, be secretive?

This House passed by a substantial majority an amendment that will fall for discussion very shortly. Only yesterday the Government's supporters in another place were whipped to reverse the decision of this House. So there is an additional issue that is controversial and important; namely, the standing of this House in the legislative process. I shall not deal with the merit of the amendment to which I referred. That will be dealt with by my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner shortly. That amendment was carried against government opposition. The Contents for the amendment were 142 and the Not-Contents were 126. Those 126 included what is called the payroll vote. So it was an amazingly substantial majority for this House. That can come about only if a substantial number of Conservative supporters vote for the amendment against the Government, as they did in this case, and an even more substantial number abstain, as they did in this case, and if the Cross-Benchers vote overwhelmingly for the amendment, as they did. Why was an issue so important intrinsically in relation to your Lordships' role in the constitution put down in this extraordinary way in the dinner hour?

What has happened does not stand alone. Noble Lords will remember that during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill an amendment was carried that was proposed by a former Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Can of Hadley, resisted by the Government, carried by a fair majority, but immediately reversed by the same office that was so assiduous last night. My general question is: why was so controversial and important an issue put down for discussion in this way in the dinner hour?

However, I also have two specific questions to ask. The first relates to my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner. It was his amendment, after all, that was carried. Why was he not told of the Government's intention to reverse the decision last night? Why was he not asked for his views as to the taking of this business in the dinner hour? Why indeed was he not consulted at all? Why was he not thereby given an opportunity to summon those who had been alerted—those who had voted for the amendment at Report stage? One would have thought that that was elementary fairness in the parliamentary process.

My second specific question relates to what are called the usual channels. I assumed that they must have been consulted about the business being taken now. Why were they not told about the Government's intention last night? On Friday evening they were in complete ignorance of what was proposed, as I found when I made inquiries. Why were they not told? When Winston Churchill appointed Patrick Buchan-Hepburn (who came to this House as Lord Hailes) as his Chief Whip in 1951, the Prime Minister said to him: "Your first loyalty is to me, but your second loyalty is to William Whiteley", who was the Opposition Chief Whip. How far is that spirit still honoured?

The last matter to which I wanted to refer is an article that appeared in the newspaper a couple of years ago or thereabouts. It stated that senior Tories were urging the Government to change the business management in your Lordships' House in view of a series of humiliating amendments carried against the Government. There were two very curious things about that article. The first was the word "Tories". Is it not odd that senior Tories should feel that a single chamber government, a single chamber legislation where that single chamber is subject to government whipping vigorously, is sufficient for the legislative process? Is it not curious that senior Tories, as they were described, should reject your Lordships' place in the legislation?

Subsequently, I asked the present Leader of the House about that matter. I asked him whether he regarded it as humiliating that amendments were carried against government Bills in your Lordships' House or whether he regarded that as a perfectly normal legislative process and part of your Lordships' legislative function. First, he replied that that question was rather like being asked, "When did you stop beating your wife?", but of course it was not like that at all. He finally came round to accepting that it is indeed part of your Lordships' function, prerogative and responsibility to carry amendments to government Bills when they seem to your Lordships to be justified. That is very much in question this evening.

Except in passing, I have not touched on the substance of the amendment, important though it is, because of far more importance is your Lordships' role in the legislative process: whether your Lordships will accept constant marginalisation in the constitution and accept being subordinated at every turn to the apparent need to carry government legislation through at all costs.

I have asked one general question and two specific ones. I am sorry that neither the Leader of the House nor the Chief Whip is present but we are well content to have those questions answered by the noble Baroness.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in honour I ought to respond before the Minister closes this short debate. I feel that I should say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that the proposal was put to me that the consideration of Commons reasons should be taken today in the dinner hour and I agreed to it. To that extent I acted on behalf of my noble friend Lord Graham as the "usual channels". If that involved lack of consultation with anybody else—whether it was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, or indeed the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, who, as it turns out, is the leading player in the substantive debate—I apologise to them in so far as I was concerned.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. I am very much obliged to him. When he was asked to agree to the discussion of this matter in the dinner hour today, was he told that it was the Government's intention to reverse last night the decision to which your Lordships had come?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

No, my Lords, but I was informed of that by letter from the Home Secretary—a copy of the letter to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner—subsequent to my agreement. I do not know whether that is a substantive consideration, hut, in so far as I had a role in this matter, I apologise to those who had not been consulted.

However, I defend the judgment that I made. It is not for any lack of support for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, or for the amendment which was carried in the House, which, as he knows, we supported wholeheartedly with a very substantial body of troops. Nor was it because I feel that the issue is not important. Even though it applies to a relatively small number of people, it is an important addition to the Bill and ought not to have been overturned in the other place.

I made that judgment and accepted the proposal put to me by the Government Whips' Office because I do feel that the second consideration of an issue by the other place ought to be final. I am very much opposed to continued resistance by this House after that.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I am sorry again to interrupt the noble Lord. Surely that was not a second consideration. It was the first consideration. The matter had not been before the other place before last night.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I accept that the noble and learned Lord is literally correct. But, in the end, the other place is the elected Chamber. It had an opportunity to consider the issue. It was debated last night and it was rejected. That may be called by emotional words such as "subordination" but I believe that the elected Chamber is primary and that there would have to be exceptional circumstances for us to overturn the judgment of an elected Chamber.

I speak for myself. Some of my noble friends may disagree with me on occasion—good luck to them. On this occasion, I apologise for any discourtesy in which I have been involved, but I do not regret the judgment that I made in accepting the suggestion that was put to me.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether he accepted the dinner hour faute de mieux and, in particular, was he offered prime time at all for this debate?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

No, my Lords, this was the time that was offered. I was conscious, without it being said, that we are in the last week before the House rises for the Recess.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I thought for one moment that we were having two separate debates: one about the timing of this debate and the other about the substance of the matter. As I understand it, we have a single debate. The timing may be relevant to it but we are dealing with the substance of the matter. Forgive me if I am wrong. In that case, I ask for guidance on the precise Motion that we are debating at this moment.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, went beyond the question of timing into an expression of view about the role of this House. If that is appropriate to the question of timing, I should like to pursue the matter. But it would be very helpful to have guidance if we are to conduct our proceedings in an orderly way.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as I was referred to, perhaps I may explain my position. My reference to the role of this House was in relation to the complaint which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, made about the timing. I was not, other than in a passing reference, referring to the substance of the issue which will be before the House when the Motion which is now before the House—namely, that Commons reasons be now considered—is resolved.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I should like to try to be helpful, as the only "usual channel" in his place, which is an accident of the moment.

Today is a very good time to raise the difficulties of business managers in trying to accommodate the will of the House. Today is also a very important day for those involved in the Disability Discrimination Bill. Against the background that the House wants to cease its business at about 10 o'clock, noble Lords proceeded to table many amendments which, if given justice, will take it beyond that time. In addition, the House and the Opposition decided to take two Statements, which took out two hours of the day. That, of course, was unknown before the event came along.

All I can say is that at this time of the year, timing is extremely difficult. For instance, in a debate this afternoon a demand was made that further time be found to discuss that issue before the House rises on Friday. That proposal will no doubt be supported by many people. So the difficulties of a business manager in this situation are well understood.

I am privy to being advised by my Front Bench colleague on what he believes to be reasonable in all the circumstances. But the noble and learned Lords, Lord Simon and Lord Ackner, have a point. They played a crucial part in the business now coming back to us from the Commons. When timetabling is considered, perhaps in the future an occasion may be found to advise them of the timetable intention, above and beyond the published Whip. Last Thursday it was known that the debate would be held today and held in the dinner hour. Some consideration should be given to these matters by the House, perhaps in the Procedure Committee.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, as always, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, is reasonable. However, I am glad that he accepts that there is a problem before the House. I associate myself with the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. It is most unfortunate that we are discussing this important constitutional matter at this time of the evening. I should have thought that there would have been some flexibility in the parliamentary timetable; first, when it became clear that the Government intended to reject the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner; and, secondly, when it became plain that we would be taking two important Statements today.

The other point I make, whether or not it is acceptable to the Government, is that this is not the end of the parliamentary Session. There will be a spillover Session. If the Government felt that it was reasonable to give this House a more full opportunity at a better time to discuss this matter, it could have been done in October, before the end of this parliamentary Session.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I hope all noble Lords agree that this is an important Bill and that there is anxiety on all Benches to see it on the statute book. Perhaps I may say also that in another place, as the elected Chamber—that is important—they are entirely within their rights to consider amendments passed in this place and to come to a view about them. In fact, this they have done. Not only have they done that, but also they accepted all other amendments passed in this House except this one. This is the one that they rejected.

That meant that there was only one issue to be debated, and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary wrote to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, on 14th July saying, The purpose of this letter is to let you know that I will be seeking to reverse that amendment at Commons Consideration of Lords amendments on Monday 17th July". Perhaps I may say too that this business appeared on the Order Paper on Thursday of last week, so that we all understood that the Commons were considering our amendments. We cannot and must not, and will rue the day that we ever do, take for granted what will happen in another place. They are free spirits. They can take a view about amendments. We are a revising Chamber. That is our role. We asked the Members in another place to take a view. They have done so and we are now considering their consideration of our amendments.

I understand also that the Government's business managers spoke to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and a representative for the Liberal Democrats before the business appeared on the Order Paper and there was agreement to this matter being discussed in the dinner hour. I believe therefore that warning was given. We should never take the House of Commons for granted; it is an elected Chamber. And my right honourable friend took the precaution of writing to the noble and learned Lord informing him of his intention to invite the Commons to disagree with this amendment.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

  2. cc191-204
  3. LORDS AMENDMENT 7,025 words
  4. c204
  5. LORDS AMENDMENT 174 words