HL Deb 23 April 1996 vol 571 cc1020-7

3.8 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

This Motion invites the House to agree that the Second Reading and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill should be taken on Thursday of this week. Your Lordships will be aware that the Bill gives effect to the announcement on 21st March by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister of arrangements leading to all-party negotiations in Northern Ireland.

Her Majesty's Government regard it as of the utmost importance that the momentum of the peace process should be maintained. I hope that I am right in thinking that that view is generally shared by your Lordships' House. There are of course varying shades of opinion about the detailed contents of the Bill; but I think I am right in saying that the main thrust of the Bill commands widespread support and agreement that it should he enacted in time for the election in Northern Ireland to take place as planned on 30th May so that the negotiations may begin on 10th June.

The House will be aware that from the very beginning the Government have been operating to an extraordinarily tight timetable, and I have been more than grateful to your Lordships for the patience and understanding which have been shown in the Government's adumbration of their plans. Equally, I know that some noble Lords will regret that it is necessary for such an important Bill to be taken through all its main stages in this House in a single day. It is a regret that I share.

The House rightly sets great store by its function as a revising Chamber for legislation. Indeed, that is a function that is not obviously compatible with the speedy passage of a Bill. After all, our Standing Orders safeguard our procedures and provide that legislation is customarily considered to a timetable which allows the fullest opportunities for scrutiny. It is only right, therefore, that those Standing Orders should be set aside only by the wish of the House.

I have, however, made it clear, not only this afternoon but on previous occasions, that there is widespread support for the intention to hold elections in Northern Ireland on 30th May. In order for that to be achieved, the necessary powers for the returning officer to make arrangements for polling must be put in place very soon. I hope I am right in thinking that your Lordships would not wish to prevent that timetable being met.

It might also be asked why it was thought necessary to allow longer for consideration of the Bill in another place than is proposed for this House. I hope the reason for that will commend itself to your Lordships as a pragmatic and sensible one under the circumstances. The presence in another place of representatives of all the main Northern Ireland parties whose interests will be directly affected by the provisions of the Bill made it desirable that, of the short overall period available for the parliamentary proceedings, more time should be spent in another place. Perhaps this is a little self-regarding, but I hope your Lordships will acknowledge that I am usually among the first to defend the interests of this House, both as Leader of the House and in a personal capacity. I suggest that on this occasion the particular circumstances of the legislation are such as to make this the most sensible way to proceed.

I have no doubt at all that it will be possible on Thursday for those noble Lords who wish to take part to give the Bill careful consideration. If your Lordships should see fit to amend the Bill, another place will of course consider those amendments in the usual way. I beg to move.

Moved, That, if the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill is brought from the Commons, Standing Order 44 (No two stages of a bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with to enable the Bill to be taken through its remaining stages on Thursday 25th April.—(Viscount Cranborne.)

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, my noble friends and I are of course prepared to do anything to facilitate the peace process in Northern Ireland. We support the principle of this Bill and will play our part in carrying it on to the statute book. I understand what the noble Viscount the Leader of the House said about the timetable; namely, the need to hold elections on 30th May so that talks can commence on 10th June. Nevertheless, I must express our serious disquiet about this Motion.

As the noble Viscount indicated, this House is a revising Chamber or it is nothing. As he very fairly said, Motions of this sort are not compatible with that position. Yet we face a situation whereby we are confronted with another Business Motion, the second in 20 days, under which we are being asked to suspend our rule that no two stages of a Bill should be taken on a single day—indeed, to pass all stages of the Bill on Thursday of this week. Even the modest proposal that we made that there should be a second day to discuss this matter; namely, Friday of this week, was turned down.

The House will recall that we debated a similar procedural Motion relating to the Prevention of Terrorism (Additional Powers) Bill on only 3rd April. My noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, in indicating that we have no intention of opposing the Bill, nevertheless expressed his concern that the House was to be deprived of the opportunity of discussing it with the degree of care that this House always applies to the consideration of legislation particularly when, as on this occasion, it could affect the interests of many law-abiding members of the public. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, also expressed some of his concerns about the timetable that the House was being asked to accept.

On that occasion the Government did not find it possible to answer the questions put by both noble Lords. I suspect that they would have been very surprised on that occasion to learn that, even then, the Government were considering proposing a similar procedural Motion on another Bill less than three weeks later.

The Government's argument on both occasions has been the same; namely, the need for urgency. Yet it is now clear that the Prevention of Terrorism (Additional Powers) Bill could have been introduced many weeks earlier. Had that been done, the Bill could have received proper consideration. The same applies to this Bill.

As the noble Viscount the Leader of the House indicated a few moments ago, the Prime Minister made a Statement on 21st March which was repeated by the noble Viscount in this House, outlining the electoral process to be followed. Since the Bill, as ultimately published, followed the outlined system so closely, it is my view—and, rather more importantly, the view of my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham, who is responsible for Northern Ireland policy in my party—that it could have been published and its early stages gone through before the Easter Recess. However, as I have already said, the House will have to consider every stage of this Northern Ireland Bill on Thursday.

We have one day to consider the Bill and, as the noble Viscount the Leader of the House was frank enough to confirm, the House of Commons will have three days. I am bound to say that I did not find the explanation he gave as to why there should be that remarkable distinction all that persuasive. Of course, there are Ulster Unionists and others in the House of Commons who wish to discuss the Bill in detail; and of course we understand the parliamentary arithmetic of the present House of Commons. Nevertheless, it seems more than mildly surprising that a House that sees itself as a revising Chamber should have one day to consider the Bill whereas the House of Commons is to have three.

On matters of this sort we are very much in the hands of the Leader of the House. Following a similar dispute some years ago on a similar procedural Motion relating to another Bill, the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, intervened and insisted that this House should be given more time to consider the Bill. That was done. I am extremely sorry that similar action has not been taken on this occasion.

The problem is a simple one. The overwhelming majority of Ministers sit in the House of Commons. Inevitably, their principal concern is to meet the interests of Members of the House of Commons. I do not think that they apply their minds a great deal as to how this House will react to a restricted timetable. Indeed, when my colleague, Mr. Alan Beith, was consulted by the Home Secretary on the contents of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, the matter of its consideration by this House was not even raised by Mr. Howard. Similarly, it was not raised when this Bill was first discussed with my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham. It came up only later when it was learnt that some of us were very unhappy about the arrangements.

I hope that the noble Viscount the Leader of the House understands our serious disquiet about the manner in which this House is being treated. If the House wishes to maintain its reputation as a serious House of Parliament, which is the last bastion of protection of the public interest against unreasonable behaviour by the Executive, it cannot afford simply to accept in a mood of humble acquiescence Business Motions of this character. I hope that the noble Viscount will register our concern and do his best to meet it.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, perhaps the unhappiest Member of the House is the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, who has had to come before us with this procedure. As he himself said, it would not be his wish in normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances. The noble Viscount will be aware that when the proposition was put to us our reaction was not overwhelmingly to accept it, but to recognise that this is a serious matter, not only in the context of the Bill, but in relation to the stature of this House.

Discussions have taken place. Among those with whom I discussed the matter was the spokesman for Northern Ireland matters on this side of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. Unhappy as he was that we were being invited to agree to the procedure, his first reaction was that, if it could be done, then he would not stand against completing it in one day. But the Leader of the House should recognise that it is not a normal day. It is not a normal Thursday. We need to conclude reasonably early because we are meeting on Friday. In addition, an important Unstarred Question remains on the Order Paper.

While no one would want to inhibit any Member from using the opportunities that may present themselves during the day, a tough point might be reached at a time when it may be recognised that it would be detrimental to attempt to proceed with what the House will agree to today. In those circumstances I hope that the usual channels, who will be present at the appropriate time, could meet to resolve how best to deal with the remaining stages. Let us hope that they are reached in good order.

It may be that at 9 o'clock, 9.30 or 10 o'clock we would need to make a judgment. In those circumstances it is not unreasonable to ask the House to agree to the terms of the Motion. However, the Leader of the House ought to be aware that the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, are good House of Lords points. If anything can be done to give earlier notice and to be more generous with time, that would be to the benefit of the House and to the Leader of the House.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I support the sensible suggestion of my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, that should debate on the Bill proceed at some length on Thursday, the Leader of the House might see fit to arrange for the debate to be concluded on the Friday. The whole House will recognise that that would be a sensible way of responding to a difficult situation.

I wonder whether I might ask the Leader of the House to provide us with more information regarding the timetable of events. I am thinking, in particular, of the deadline to be met to enable the electoral process to commence in good time. This House, and the whole of Parliament, needs a clear idea of when Parliament has to conclude its deliberations on the subject.

We all recognise the difficult situation that exists regarding the Government's negotiations on Northern Ireland. We all hope that the discussions will he concluded successfully. We need to recognise that for that to happen the negotiations need to continue on the basis of mutual respect among all parties. One of the difficulties that we are faced with is the way that the Government are constraining parliamentary consideration of the Bill. It suggests that the Government have some contempt, some lack of respect, for the very institutions of their own Parliament. I hope that in his explanation of the constraints of the timetable, the Leader of the House will demonstrate that the Government have taken all possible steps to ensure that there is adequate time available for parliamentary scrutiny of this important Bill.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I should like to ask another slight timetabling question of my noble friend, the Leader of the House, because it is quite obvious that the House will want to put down amendments to the Bill as, indeed, it did to the Prevention of Terrorism (Additional Powers) Bill which, as we have heard we passed the other day through all its stages in one day. On that occasion the powers that he arranged for a short break between Second Reading and Committee. The House adjourned during pleasure for the issue of manuscript amendments, and again, if my memory serves me right, between the Committee stage and the Report stage. Will my noble friend the Leader of the House say whether that will be the case on Thursday, as it was with the previous Bill?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for his support for the policy, which has never been in doubt either from himself or, indeed, from the party which he represents. Equally I am delighted to try to reassure him—I am sure under the circumstances, in view of his remark, somewhat inadequately—that I wholly support his contention that this is a serious House of Parliament. I think that that was the phrase he used. It is a phrase that I have used, in particular, in response to various inquiries in a similar vein over the past few months from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who also sought my reassurance along the same lines.

Looking at the timetable which has been pursued, both in another place and here, in terms of the Government's legislative programme, I have no doubt that if the noble Lord, Lord Harris, looks, which I know he does, at the amount of time given to consideration of the Government's mainstream legislative programme—though it may not perhaps be particularly tactful on my part to remind another place of this—he will see that your Lordships' House can take a certain amount of pride in the serious consideration and thorough examination accorded those Bills brought forward by Her Majesty's Government in your Lordships' House.

At the risk of perhaps sounding more than usually patronising on the subject, I believe that your Lordships deserve congratulation on that. My noble friend, the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, has been under some pressure, because of your Lordships' insistence on scrutinising the Government's legislation, somehow to begin to live up to the timetable which he had intimated to our colleagues that your Lordships would be able to sustain during the course of the current Session. I hope that that, at least, will give, in the generality if not in this particular, some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, who I think it may be fairly said has played more than his usual part, even by his high standards, in ensuring that so far the generality of the Government's legislation has received its proper scrutiny in your Lordships' House.

It is fair to say that this is, indeed, an exceptional case. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will realise that after the Statement to which he referred, and the Statement that I repeated in your Lordships' House on behalf of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, there was necessarily a period of consultation with the Northern Ireland parties. It was important to see whether it would be possible for a mutually agreed election system to emerge from that consultation. As it turned out, it proved to be impossible to agree that. Under those circumstances, as foreseen in the original Statement, Her Majesty's Government had to decide what was likely to be the most acceptable compromise. That is what we have endeavoured to produce. That has inevitably taken time. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will recognise that since we had already, with the approval of his party, and, in particular, his noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham, set a date for elections—a date that was requested by the Dublin Government—it would be sensible for us to try to achieve whatever timetable seemed the most expedient, even at the expense, which I recognise, of proper scrutiny in your Lordships' House.

I hope your Lordships will forgive me for having taken so long, but the objection of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, as he recognised, is a serious one. I resist it only with the greatest of reluctance, as I hope I made clear during the course of my opening remarks.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, for his suggestion, which was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell. If your Lordships were to agree, I think that it would be extremely sensible, should it become apparent during the course of next Thursday's proceedings that proper examination of the Bill could not be concluded in the time available, that perhaps the usual channels should take counsel together and give further thought to how the Bill could subsequently be considered. The noble Lord pointed out that the House will be considering other matters on Friday and that there is an opportunity there. I am grateful to him for that suggestion, if the House will go along with it.

The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, and, in a slightly different context, my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale asked some timetabling questions. In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, this legislation has to be on the statute book by the end of the present month if the returning officer in Northern Ireland is to have the time to perform his task according to statute. Therefore, I hope that he will accept that we are under considerable time constraints in that regard.

I can best answer my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale by telling him that since the Bill is expected to be passed by another place some time on the evening of Tuesday, 23rd April—that is, today—a text of the Bill will be available in the Printed Paper Office on the morning of Wednesday, 24th April—that is, tomorrow—in a form passed by the other place. If the other place sits late and the Bill is unamended, then the Bill in the Printed Paper Office tomorrow morning will be another place's print of the Bill. Otherwise, arrangements will he made for a House of Lords' print of the Bill to be available. But in either case, the Bill as printed by this House will he available in the usual form on the morning of Thursday, 25th April.

It might be for the convenience of your Lordships if I also add that the Public Bill Office will accept amendments in advance of the Second Reading of the Bill, should any of your Lordships wish to put down any amendments. Until any Lords' Bill is available, any amendments should as a matter of convenience relate to the print of the Bill coming from another place.

The provisional list of any amendments received will be placed in the Printed Paper Office on the morning of 24th April and supplemented or replaced as necessary. A provisional Marshalled List will be available in the Printed Paper Office on the morning of 25th April and a Marshalled List will be available from 2.30 p.m. Any further amendments tabled before the conclusion of the Second Reading debate will be circulated as manuscript amendments on separate sheets. I hope that those arrangements will be considered satisfactory under the difficult circumstances which I have laid before your Lordships.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, perhaps I may clarify one point; namely, if any part of the Bill remains unattended to on Thursday, Friday may be the obvious time to deal with it. However, when the usual channels meet, there may be other circumstances, of which I am not aware, to indicate that, in view of the fact that the noble Viscount has said that the deadline is Tuesday, the remainder of the Bill could be dealt with in this House if not on Friday then on Monday or Tuesday of next week. If it is not possible to deal with the Bill on Thursday and any part of the Bill which is left must be dealt with on Friday, then so be it.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I am sure that the noble Lord will understand that it will be difficult to go beyond Friday. I am grateful to him for accepting that.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend would deal with one point. If the discussion of the Bill is taken on Friday, that will diminish the time available for discussion of the Finance Bill, which is set down for Friday. As your Lordships know, some noble Lords feel that it is a great pity that the most important Bill of the year should in any case be debated on Friday. I ask my noble friend to say that, if the Northern Ireland Bill obtrudes into Friday, then another separate day in the following week will be found for the Finance Bill.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I hope and believe that my noble friend raises an entirely hypothetical question which we may not need to address. I keep my fingers crossed that we shall not need to do so, but if the situation envisaged by the Opposition Chief Whip arises on Thursday, clearly we shall have to bear that point in mind. I hope that my noble friend will accept my assurance that we shall do so.

On Question, Motion agreed to.