HL Deb 27 June 1996 vol 573 cc1016-23

3.39 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, before the House proceeds to the next business, I feel obliged to inform the House of the progress, or lack of it, in consideration of the Asylum and Immigration Bill. Noble Lords will recall that last Monday the Government indicated their intention to introduce major new amendments at Third Reading next Monday to override the judgment of the Court of Appeal given the previous Friday. In negotiation the Government Chief Whip was good enough to agree that there should be a recommittal of the relevant parts of the Bill to hold a Committee stage before the matter proceeded to Third Reading. I expressed my gratitude to him for that.

However, the understanding that we then had—it was only verbal and was not in writing—was that we would see the government amendments yesterday. The government amendments in their final form reached me only within the last hour. Earlier versions were in such a form that it was impossible to fax them to advisers. I have not been in any position to table amendments to the government amendments, or even to consider several pages of very complicated amendments and notes on amendments. This is simply not the way to conduct very serious business which has attracted the attention not only of the newspapers but large parts of the country who have been concerned about the destitution in which asylum seekers have been placed by the regulations passed in February of this year, as Lord Justice Simon Brown has said.

Not only is the matter itself a serious one but the procedure is an attempt to overturn a ruling of the High Court and involves serious issues as between secondary and primary legislation. I do not feel that we on this side are capable of dealing with the amendments with the seriousness that they deserve. I ask the Minister concerned whether she is prepared either to postpone the Committee stage, and therefore subsequently Third Reading, for a very short time—a day or two will suffice—or, if it is impossible to postpone the Committee, at least not to hold Third Reading on the same day so that serious consideration can be given to the new government amendments and any amendments to them.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, for sending me today a preliminary draft of the government amendments and then what I understand to be the final draft of the government amendments. He will, I think, agree that there are profound legal differences between those two texts. I had begun a legal consultation on the first text, and now find that the point upon which I was taking advice no longer exists. I am, therefore, in the same difficulty as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey.

I understand that haste is difficult for all parties, but is haste so desperately needed that there is no time for a few days' postponement? The issues which involve a conflict between two Acts of Parliament, and between an Act of Parliament and, as some see it, our international obligations, are very complicated indeed. They are issues that might have exercised, had they gone there, the Appellate Committee of your Lordships' House for a very long time. I do not have those skills. I should welcome some more time.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister also bear in mind that it is not just noble Lords on the Front Benches but one or two others of us who have taken part in the whole of these proceedings on the asylum Bill? For example, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and my noble friend Lady Williams and I have seen neither the preliminary nor the final amendments.

It is unreasonable to expect me, between now and Monday, to master those apparently enormously complex amendments. In view of the small number of your Lordships who took part in proceedings in Committee and on Report, it would not have been too much to ask that the noble Lord let us have copies too. When the noble Lord replies, will he say how we are to reply to people who are telephoning us constantly—I had a telephone call only this morning—asking our advice as to what happens to the benefits which were taken away from those people and which were restored to them by the Court of Appeal, and whether they can claim at least the benefits which apply until the new amendments are passed, if they are?

3.45 p.m.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, perhaps I could appeal to the Leader of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, did at least address the point that there are those interested in this matter other than the Front Benches. It may be that the Front Benches are in great difficulty not just in understanding what will be put to the House on recommittal but because they will also need to consult.

The strength of this House is the membership of the House, and not necessarily the relationship between the three Front Benches. I suggest to the Leader of the House—I know because of his long family connections with this place that he will be aware of this—that great importance should be attached to giving all of us who participate by speaking or, what is perhaps more important, by voting a reasonable opportunity to see the amendments as they are drafted and, if necessary, to consult.

This is a revising Chamber. At least that is the function which we have regarded as being perhaps our most important function. We cannot revise without some degree of understanding of what is being placed before the House. As I have said before, the House is all its Members; it is not an agreement or disagreement among the three Front Benches. We have in this House a great many of what I call the "independents". We who belong to a party may be in a better position than they are. They perform, in a sense, the most important function by providing a balance between the two sides of the House.

I say to the Leader of the House—I have said it before, and I hope he will not mind it being said again from someone who has been involved with business management—that the leadership of the two Front Benches has an inherent duty to protect the interests of the ordinary Members of this House. If we are to deal with important legislation, however contentious it may be, adequate time should be made available, taking into account the composition of the House.

We are not full-time Members. We do our best, but the Government should show greater understanding towards the requests that my noble friend has made. I say just one last thing, because it touches upon a previous debate. Despite what the Minister said when he dealt with the Statement, this is a new matter. It is a matter, true, that has been debated on Motions on Orders, but it is a new matter in so far as concerns this piece of legislation.

This House has always been careful about considering new legislation within a Bill. This change to the Bill may be necessary, but at this very late hour we should have a proper opportunity to understand what is being proposed and to be satisfied before we are asked to vote upon it.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the Leader of the House bear in mind that there is a postal strike until midday tomorrow? That seems to point us in the direction of delay and postponement.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness will listen carefully to what my noble friend on the Front Bench and other speakers have said, because we are getting too fond of passing through Parliament legislation which is defective and which is seen to be defective when it is too late. It would be a disaster if the Court of Appeal, having ruled against the Government on this issue once, was able to rule against them again because the correcting legislation was again defective. That is why it is important that Members of the House, and Members of another place, should have adequate time to consider the revised legislation.

There is one other point I wish to make. The Prime Minister himself—I agree with him, and I think that many in the House will agree with him—said only yesterday, I believe it was, that Parliament was rushing too many Bills through Parliament too quickly. Apparently he is going to propose that we have two-yearly Sessions starting in March. The Leader of the House shakes his head, perhaps he can give us a progress report on that. Let me just tell the House what I believe to be the case from a reading of the responsible press. It is that we are going to have a great deal more time to consider fewer Bills so that we can consider them properly and not make so many mistakes.

I urge the Leader of the House and the noble Baroness to take seriously what has been said and to try to meet that criticism.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, for those Back Benchers and others who wish to become involved in the Bill, perhaps I may say that cols. 702–736 of Hansard give excellent background reading if they wish to be prepared for the debate on Monday.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, perhaps the House will allow me to speak briefly on the point in response to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. My right honourable friend trailed the idea not of one opening of Parliament every two years but continuing an opening of Parliament once a year, and looking forward to the second year in terms of what legislation might be brought forward in the interests of a cause which I know both he and I hold very dear. Yet again, I suspect that noble Lords' reaction to what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, called the "responsible press" confirms me in my unjustified prejudice that the phrase is a contradiction in terms.

I am extremely sorry that a number of noble Lords, in particular such distinguished noble Lords as the noble Lords, Lord McIntosh and Lord Shepherd, have expressed such serious reservations about the timing of the tabling of the amendments in relation to the consideration on recommitment. I wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, as I know he recognises, that it is absolutely imperative that the Leader of this House should do all he can to ensure that the interests of the whole House are considered above the interests of the Government, however tempting it might be to do the latter. I assure your Lordships that that is always at the front of my mind. It is in that spirit that my noble friend the Government Chief Whip has established such harmonious relationships with his opposite numbers. We must always seek to arrange business by negotiation and arrangement. I am particularly sorry that on this occasion, in respect of what I agree is an important matter, noble Lords should feel that they have a cause for complaint.

I believe that my noble friends Lord Mackay and Lady Blatch in particular have made every effort to keep the House and those noble Lords who are particularly interested thoroughly informed about the matter. As the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, agreed, the issue is not new. I suspect that in the network of paths of legislation in your Lordships' House this is probably one of the most heavily and frequently trodden and has been during the past few years. Indeed, we know from the enormous number of Hansard columns on the subject that on previous occasions the House has fully debated and pretty strongly endorsed Her Majesty's Government's policy on benefits for asylum seekers. Your Lordships have already had the benefit of what always seems to me to be a remarkably detailed grasp of the matters under discussion, evidenced by noble Lords opposite. That grasp is always most strongly evidenced by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell. It is significant that those who have such a mastery of what is proposed are the very ones who say that they need more time in order to extend their already considerable knowledge.

Of course, it has taken some time to draft the amendments. The matters are complex. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will acknowledge that my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish has already circulated and placed in the Library a full briefing of what is at stake. As your Lordships are aware, on Monday he made a full announcement to the House of the Government's response to the judgment of the Court of Appeal and gave notice of our intention to invite the House to amend the Bill to restore the position. I was grateful for the acknowledgement of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that my noble friend the Government Chief Whip readily agreed to his suggestion that a Motion should be moved to allow the new amendments to be debated in Committee and to permit full exchanges without constraints on Third Reading. My noble friend and the noble Lord came to a rapid agreement on that.

I understand that this morning the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, received a letter from my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish enclosing draft amendments, which required only minor refinements, together with a full explanation of their effect. That communication was copied to other Front Bench spokesmen and was also placed in the Library. Therefore, they were available to the whole House in the way that I think the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, would approve.

Since then noble Lords have also received a copy of the final amendments as they will be tabled. That allows all of this afternoon and all day tomorrow for noble Lords to prepare their own amendments. I had hoped that the House would agree that those arrangements were properly helpful. In view of what has been said, and despite what has been said, I doubt whether it would be in the interests of the House as a whole to rearrange next week's business at this late stage. But my noble friend the Government Chief Whip will always be prepared to listen to further representations through the normal channels. Those further representations are always welcome. Meanwhile, I should be misleading the House if I did not say that my judgment, for what it is worth, is that there has been ample time and that the interests of the House are that it should proceed to the further consideration of this business as scheduled on Monday. After all, as my noble friend Lord Mackay pointed out, this is a matter on which there appears to be a considerable command of the issues at stake among, in particular, Opposition spokesmen.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the matter should not be prolonged because there is no Motion before the House. But unless there is a change of heart there will be a Motion before the House on Monday.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the question at issue is not of courtesy but of practicality. Will the noble Viscount think again about his assertion that there is no new matter involved? I would agree that the withdrawal of benefits is not a new matter. However, the view of the Court of Appeal that the withdrawal of benefits conflicts with the right to seek asylum is new. That matter needs the most careful consideration. I must express my regret that the noble Viscount has taken the line that he has.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I apologise for entering the House only a moment or two ago. I came immediately I saw the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. The statement was difficult to anticipate. There are grave matters concerning our acceptance of some of the international conventions and treaties which we have signed. The noble Lord shakes his head but without consultation he can know no more than the rest of us whether that is the case. As Members of this House who are most concerned about British respect for international law, we need time to consult and discover whether that is so. That is another reason why we believe the matter to be exceptionally accelerated.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, perhaps I may respectfully put forward a point of view different from that put forward by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I have now read the transcript. I agree that there was a very complex, difficult issue on which the court was divided. However, it was a simple issue in essence. It was simply whether the regulation was ultra vires.

On Monday, we shall not be concerned with the complexity of that issue. I have not seen the draft of the amendment but I know that other noble Lords have done so. However, it will not be complex in that form; it will be, as my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish said, to put into the statute in primary legislation the intention of the Government. That may take drafting and it may raise difficulties. I accept what was said by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. I, too, would have liked to have seen the document and have a little more time. However, surely one must balance that against whether the issue is so important that one should upset the working schedule of your Lordships' House.

4 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the Leader of the House said that he agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that the interests of Back-Benchers must be looked after as well as those of noble Lords on the Front Benches. How would anyone on the Back Benches have known that those documents had been placed in the Library of your Lordships' House at half-past eleven this morning? If they take away documents and draft amendments tomorrow, how will they be able to lodge them in time to appear on the Marshalled List when there is a notice on the collection box in the Lobby which says that nothing that is posted by first-class post, even today, will reach its destination until Saturday morning? That means that if noble Lords draft amendments in the course of the remainder of today and post them even as early as half-past five this afternoon, they will not reach the Public Bill Office or the Clerks until Monday morning. Therefore, they cannot appear on the Marshalled List.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, I believe that I detect a sense of deviousness here. Surely if a Motion or amendments were placed before your Lordships which met with the general approval of the majority of noble Lords, I suspect that we should not have all these rather emotional arguments used, although they are understandable, about the apparent shortness of time.

It seems to me that there is a way in which those who are diametrically opposed to the principle of these matters may be trying to appeal to the emotions of this House by using the vehicle of shortness of time and being unable to be prepared.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I ask the noble Viscount to withdraw the charge of deviousness.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I bitterly resent being called devious.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, I entirely withdraw any suggestion that any person or party is being devious. If I gave that impression, I apologise and withdraw it unreservedly. It seems to me that there is probably more concern about the substance of the matters to be dealt with rather than the validity of the apparent shortness of time argument. Unfortunately, there is now less time available than there would have been had we not gone down this route in the first place. There is the whole of Friday and, quite frankly, there is the weekend. Sometimes, we must burn a little bit of midnight oil.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Leader of the House whether he will enable the whole House to settle this matter on completely non-partisan lines. From time to time both the role and the composition of your Lordships' House are widely discussed not only in Parliament but outside. In order to emphasise the important role which this House occupies in the whole of the United Kingdom Parliament it is repeatedly and very justifiably emphasised that one of our functions is that of revising legislation which comes from another place. Surely in those circumstances, where responsible representations have been made to him and without creating any precedent whatever for the matter to be raised frivolously, and on the basis of what has already been said, not only by my own Front Bench but more seriously perhaps by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, the noble Viscount should follow his own precepts, regardless of his own party position, and say that in these circumstances it is necessary for the House to perform its revising function correctly and with due time. In that hope, perhaps the noble Viscount will accede to the request made to him by my noble friend on the Front Bench.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, of course I am distressed that I should find my own judgment at variance with that of so many respected Members of your Lordships' House. I shall certainly undertake to reflect on the matters that have been raised in a spirit of co-operation and in the best traditions of your Lordships' House.

But I must reiterate—bearing in mind that I have undertaken most seriously to reflect on what noble Lords have said—that the point made by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway really is worthy of consideration by noble Lords who have voiced their objections. I must reiterate also that the substance of the point has been rehearsed time and time again in your Lordships' House.

Of course, I undertake to reflect further on this matter and I shall endeavour to do so dispassionately, as I know your Lordships would expect me to do. But I hope also that your Lordships will accept that I find arguments on the other side persuasive. If that is the judgment of my noble friends and I, then the promise made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, is something that we shall have to face in due course, but I hope that we shall be able to avoid that eventuality.