HL Deb 29 June 1995 vol 565 cc868-70

3.25 p.m.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will provide parliamentary time to allow a Private Member's Bill to amend the Interpretation Act to proceed.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, time for consideration of Private Members' Bills in another place is allocated under the relevant standing order and sessional order. In your Lordships' House, Private Members' Bills are timetabled in the same way as other business.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Is it not a fact that the Private Member's Bill introduced in another place is designed to bring into operation the recommendation of the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe that all member states should review the terminology of their public documents, and in particular their laws and Acts of Parliament, to remove sexist terminology from them? Is it also a fact that that recommendation, which was presumably supported by the British Government representative in the Committee of Ministers, maintains that, as part of the work for human rights and sex equality, it is vital that the need for non-sexist terminology in all public documents and procedures should be pursued; and rejects the claim, often made in this House, that the masculine gender is a generic term which embraces women as well as men?

Can we begin a long overdue reform by this Government, which themselves ought to have introduced such a Bill, at least making time for that brave effort by the Member for Bristol East to reach the statute book?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am all in favour of the use of non-sexist language. However, when it comes to legislation, I am primarily interested in Bills being drafted in ordinary language, as simply as their subject matter permits. Most important of all, there should be clarity of language, so that there is certainty of how the law will be applied. In this country the interpretation of statutes is left to the Interpretation Act 1978. That is quite clear in its explanation, under Section 6, that words importing the masculine gender include the feminine, words importing the feminine gender include the masculine, words in the singular include the plural and words in the plural include the singular. What could be clearer than that?

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, to deal specifically with the Question on the Order Paper, will the noble Lord be kind enough to confirm that so far as concerns this House any Member of this Chamber who complies with the necessary procedure in standing orders can introduce a Bill into this House, including the Bill of which my noble friend has given some particulars? Will he confirm that? Otherwise, I might have to give him advance notice that I intend to introduce a Bill at a later stage to repeal the European Communities Act 1972.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, in his customary way the noble Lord has been extremely helpful. He is absolutely right. It is the right of any Member of this House to bring forward a Private Member's Bill and it is up to the usual channels to decide on the allocation of time.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there has never been the slightest problem in finding sufficient parliamentary time for any of the Private Members' Bills over the past 12 years?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I hope that is a judgment on the way the usual channels have operated over the course of the past 12 years.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that a number of years ago I tabled amendments to government Bills to refer to the Secretary of State as "it", as has been done in a number of states in America, including Oregon? Those amendments were accepted by the Public Bill Office and debated on the Floor of the House. Unfortunately they were not accepted on Divisions, but would that not be a good example to set for the future?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, as I said in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, I am interested in legislation being clear and understandable. I am not sure that calling Secretaries of State "it" is helpful in that respect.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is not "it" a neuter word? If the Secretary of State is referred to in that way, would it not be a breach of human rights to neuter him?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, as is usual in these debates, my noble and learned friend has been extremely helpful.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Can the Minister explain whether, in his reply, he is rejecting the 1990 recommendation of the Ministers of the Council of Europe, who are advocating the very changes to which I referred and which he has just been disparaging? Can he tell us whether or not the Government are in favour of that resolution?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, there is nothing under the law of this country that stops non-sexist language being used. Therefore we already fully comply with any requirements because it is not illegal to use such language.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I am pleased that he confirmed that this House has the right to introduce Private Members' Bills? Does he recall that this House passed, without any opposition, my National Health Patients Accommodation Bill? It is designed to outlaw mixed sex wards in National Health Service hospitals. The Bill went to the other place. Can the Minister say why the Government are blocking that Bill in the House of Commons?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I hope the House agrees that the question the noble Lord puts is slightly wide of the one on the Order Paper. However much we wish our will to encourage another place, on Private Members' Bills it is up to another place to decide how best to use its time. It may well be that the noble Lord's Bill has run out of time.