HL Deb 02 March 1998 vol 586 cc954-8

3.6 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard)

My Lords, last Friday my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, when replying to the Second Reading debate on the Succession to the Crown Bill, said: Her Majesty had no objection to the Government's view that in determining the line of succession to the throne daughters and sons should be treated in the same way". The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, immediately raised a point of order and said that, it was not normal to make known the views of the monarch on legislation before the House".—[Official Report, 27/2/98; col. 916] No doubt the noble Lord had in mind the passage in Erskine May, which says: Her Majesty cannot be supposed to have a private opinion, apart from that of her responsible advisers; and any attempt to use her name in debate to influence the judgment of Parliament is immediately checked and censured". I was not present during that part of the debate when my noble friend advised the House of the view of Her Majesty. However, I recognised that the matter was of some importance and, therefore, took advice on it. The advice that I have received is that, on a Bill which is so fundamentally personal to the sovereign and to her family, it would have been unhelpful to the House for the Government not to have made her view known to your Lordships. The procedure must always be applied with common sense and with due consideration of the circumstances. I am bound to say that the advice I received was both sensible and correct.

Her Majesty's views would very soon have became apparent through other channels. Indeed, there was an alleged mention of them in the Daily Telegraph of the day immediately before the debate. It might have been thought discourteous to your Lordships, when debating such a measure, not to have learnt of them first. Even though the advice that I was tendered was that no impropriety had occurred, I thought it might help the House, in view of the interventions made on Friday, to have the position clarified publicly at the earliest opportunity. That is what I have sought to do.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the Statement that he has just made to the House. Was my noble friend Lord Marlesford given notice that the statement was to be made today? Without prejudice to the advice received by the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal, it is astonishing that on such a constitutional matter a statement was made to the House on the Second Reading of a Private Member's Bill on a poorly attended Friday afternoon in a way which broke a convention which has survived over centuries; that is, that it is not normal to make known the personal views of the monarch on legislation before the House. I understand that no Member of the Opposition, nor the usual channels, nor my noble friend Lord Archer, were informed that such an historic break with convention was to be made. I note the advice that has been accepted by the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal. I have read and re-read page 382 of Erskine May, which has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, but which I refer to again: Where the Crown has a distinct interest in a measure, there is an authorized mode of communicating Her Majesty's recommendation or consent, through one of her Ministers"; that is, setting aside, or putting at the disposal of the House, the Crown's prerogative. That was done for this Bill on 30th July 1997. Erskine May further states, but Her Majesty cannot he supposed to have a private opinion, apart from that of her responsible advisers; and any attempt to use her name in debate to influence the judgment of Parliament is immediately checked and censured". It is my personal view that it was inadvisable for the noble Lord, Lord Williams, to have broken with the convention in this way. Whenever the personal views of the sovereign are placed before the House, ahead of the determination of a Bill, private or public, that runs the risk of influencing matters under discussion and impeding full and free debate. Therefore I hope the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal will assure the House that the precedent established should not be prayed in aid by the Government to justify alluding to the sovereign's personal view on other matters coming before the House.

3.12 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I hope that the majority of Members of your Lordships' House will feel that the Statement on the position made by the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal was fair and reasonable and widely acceptable. I think that the most relevant sentence in that Statement of the noble Lord was when he said that procedure must be applied with common sense and with due consideration of the circumstances. The circumstances were such that the failure to make a Statement to the House in the terms that the Minister did would have been widely misunderstood, and, I think, resented in this place. My only question is one that I perhaps take for granted. I assume that the circumstances of the Statement, the time and the place were understood by Her Majesty so that she was in full knowledge of what was being done.

Earl Russell

My Lords—

Lord Richard

My Lords, I had better reply to the two Front Bench spokesmen first.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked me whether I had communicated with the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. The answer to that is no. What I did was to communicate with the Opposition. The Opposition are here in force this afternoon. I made what I thought was a procedural statement to clear up a point which had arisen last Friday, instead of which I find myself under considerable attack from the noble Baroness, particularly on the basis that this is an historic break with convention. My advice is that it is not an historic break with convention. There is no breach of convention. There is no breach of the rules of procedure of the House. That is the advice that I have received. In those circumstances I say with great respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that I think she is going somewhat over the top as regards this issue.

I am grateful for the views of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. It would be difficult to see how the Bill could sensibly have been debated without that information being passed to the House; otherwise it would have been debated on the basis of leaks in the newspaper. I cannot believe that that is what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, would have wanted. If there had been many leaks to the newspaper, I am perfectly certain that we would have been under intense pressure to have clarified the position.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us what precedents there are for citing the private views of the monarch in a matter which is controversial in party political terms?

Lord Richard

My Lords, first, with respect, I do not agree that they are necessarily the private views of the monarch. Secondly, it would have been impossible to discuss the Bill without the views of the present monarch being considered. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, asked me whether this took place after consultation. Of course it occurred after consultation with the appropriate authorities, and with their full agreement. In my respectful submission to the House, in those circumstances it would have been remiss of the Government not to have dealt with the position.

Earl Russell

My Lords, in my professional capacity, perhaps I may be associated with the advice that the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal has received. I believe it to be entirely correct. I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, also to be correct that this procedure is not normal, but that is because the subject matter of the Bill is not normal. Such a procedure relates to Bills on the succession and on Royal marriages, which in their very nature are not likely to be every day occurrences.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am certainly grateful—I nearly said surprised—to have received the support of the noble Earl, Lord Russell. His historical knowledge is far greater than mine. I am fortified in the position I have taken by not only having the support of the Clerks of both Houses but also of eminent historians and constitutionalists in this House.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House accept that at the present time, when so much constitutional change is being discussed, the Government need to be particularly careful about the propriety of the way in which the views of the Crown, or the personal view of the monarch, are conveyed to the House? Does he also agree that the Government have a duty when they are dealing with a comment that has been made by a Member of the House—in this case by my noble kinsman Lord Marlesford—to tell the individual that this matter is to arise, and not to use the Opposition Front Bench as message boys?

Lord Richard

My Lords, with great respect, I do not accept the final point that the noble Baroness has made. It seems to me that in circumstances of this kind, when the incident occurs on a Friday, I have to decide on a Monday morning whether to make a Statement. I thought I was helping the House in making the Statement. When I am dealing with an issue which has arisen in the House I really cannot make myself responsible for notifying everyone who had an interest in that issue last Friday that they should be here this afternoon. If I have been discourteous to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, of course I apologise, but I do not think that I have.

The noble Baroness said that the Government have been responsible, or are being responsible, for much constitutional change. The author of the Bill we are discussing is sitting on the Benches behind the noble Baroness, not behind me. The constitutional change that was debated last Friday has emerged from the Opposition Benches and not from the Government Benches. The noble Baroness asks me to be especially careful as regards the Queen's views. Of course we shall be careful. I totally accept that point. Were it not for the peculiar, special nature of this Bill, no difficulty would have arisen. However, the nature of the Bill is such that it was almost impossible to discuss it without this matter being an issue. If it was going to be an issue, it was obviously better that it was dealt with on a formal, agreed basis by the Government Front Bench than by leaks in newspapers.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I ask the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal just one question. Is it proper or is it normal practice to refer to the Clerks of both Houses as having given advice?

Lord Richard

My Lords, if another hare is about to start running, let me strangle it now. If I should not have said that I have had the advice of the Clerks of both Houses. I apologise to the Clerk of the House, to whom I should not have referred. If that helps the noble Baroness, I am delighted to say so.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, before the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal sits down, perhaps I may ask this. Before Erskine May is cast aside quite so easily as appears to have been done on Friday, would it aid the House in future if, when there is to be some substantive change, prior notice were given to noble Lords at one of the normal meeting days of the House which is known to be well attended, so that noble Lords can take the matter on board? Had that been done, this difficulty would not have arisen.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I do not accept that Erskine May has been tossed aside. Nor, indeed, is the advice that I have received that Erskine May has been tossed aside. If Erskine May had been tossed aside, and that is what the Government were advised, I should be making a very different statement today from the one I have made.

Lord Annan

My Lords, could we vote in favour of common sense and not pedantry?