HL Deb 27 November 2000 vol 619 cc1101-4

Lord Renton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will ensure that their legislation next Session is less detailed and contains more statements of purpose and of principle, and that adequate time is provided for its thorough consideration by each House of Parliament.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, with his long-standing interest and authority in this area, will be aware that statements of purpose and principle have been less common in recent years under successive governments and that detail is often seen as the fail-safe way of achieving certainty in law. In the 1970s the noble Lord chaired a committee on the preparation of legislation which decided that the draftsman should not be required to sacrifice legal certainty for simplicity of language. The Government agree and also seek to ensure adequate time for consideration of legislation. In this Session we have sat for extra days to allow such scrutiny, although the number of Bills introduced in Parliament has been an average number for a third Session.

Lord Renton

My Lords, while I thank the noble Baroness for her reply, perhaps I may remind her that so far in this Session we in this House have made 4,619 amendments to government legislation, which is more than twice as many as ever before. That is partly because the legislation is too detailed but also because Members of another place have not had a full opportunity to consider it. In the interests of democracy, will the Government please mend their ways?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I was very grateful to receive from the noble Lord a copy of his lecture on this subject entitled, The Evolution of Modern Statute Law and its Future, in which in his concluding remarks he enjoined everyone to do better. That is what the noble Lord is seeking to do today. In his lecture he made some very constructive proposals for achieving change and improvement in legislation, which included increasing the number of Bills that should be considered in pre-legislative form and increasing the number of Bills in draft. I think the noble Lord would agree that the Government are seeking to do that whenever possible.

Lord Peston

My Lords, am I alone in believing that we provide more than adequate time to scrutinise the legislation placed before us and indeed that we would have even more time if noble Lords would consider sticking to the rules and not making Second Reading speeches at every stage of a Bill's progress through the House? If noble Lords actually scrutinised the legislation, my guess is that we would certainly improve it and that we would certainly get through it rather more quickly.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. He has raised on several occasions the point about the strict procedures of the House. I must say that my observation of current practice inclines me to agree somewhat with his general remarks. As he will know, there has been discussion about perhaps taking the Committee stage of more Bills in the Moses Room, which might allow for precisely the practice that he suggests. Perhaps I may point out that in the equivalent Session—the third Session—of the 1987–1992 Parliament the House sat for 153 days and passed 27 Bills. In the last Session, we sat for 154 days and passed an equivalent number of Bills. Therefore, my noble friend can see that this practice has been going on for some time.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness will not accuse me, at any rate, of not being impartial on this matter. Perhaps I may remind her that increasingly over the years it has been a besetting sin of all governments to bombard Parliament with ill-conceived legislation which then requires an immense amount of amendment. Will the noble Baroness attempt to persuade some of her less helpful colleagues that quantity can be the enemy of quality?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, gives me the opportunity to repeat the point that I made to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, about the advantages, which the Government are anxious to pursue, of considering Bills in pre-legislative form and publishing Bills in draft. The noble Lord is of course right; this has been a problem for successive governments, as I think I made clear in my original Answer. I would just say to him that in the third Session of the 1979–83 Parliament—that is, 1981–82—the House considered 46 Bills, and this year we hope to pass 39 Bills. Therefore, as I said a few moments ago, it is not a new problem.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that were the Government, both in your Lordships' House and in another place, to draft primary legislation in broader terms, that would have the added benefit for the United Kingdom of allowing the National Assembly for Wales to prepare its subordinate legislation within a broader framework?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, without venturing into the question of the appropriate activities for the National Assembly, I would simply say to the noble Lord that this demonstrates the continuing problem of the tension between broad-brush statements of principle—there have been occasions in the past few years when those have seemed appropriate—and the difficulty of ensuring absolute legal accuracy in the detail of a Bill.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, it is clear that our parliamentary draftsmen are working under enormous pressures of both time and the number of people available to carry out the work. Will the Government consider increasing the number of parliamentary draftsmen to enable them to cope with the amount of work that they are now being forced to carry out?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords on all sides of the House will wish to congratulate the parliamentary draftsmen on their herculean efforts in often difficult circumstances. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, will be pleased to hear that the number of parliamentary draftsmen is being increased. Whether the increase will be sufficient to meet the demands upon them we shall have to wait and see.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that one of the biggest problems we face is that, increasingly, legislation arriving in this House from another place has been badly scrutinised? Given that the other place is reviewing its procedures in order to introduce far more use of the guillotine, does the Minister further agree that that will increase the problem and that even more badly drafted, badly scrutinised legislation will arrive in this House, which will have a knock-on effect as regards the work that we do here?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the Leader of the Opposition is braver than I in criticising the activities and procedures of the other place. As I have said on two occasions, the practices that we are introducing of a greater amount of legislation being looked at under pre-legislative scrutiny arrangements—as we did, for example, with the Freedom of Information Bill and the Financial Services and Markets Bill—have meant that both Houses have been able to give such legislation greater attention. It has been acknowledged that both of the Bills that I have mentioned have been improved by the detailed scrutiny of this House.

Lord Ampthill

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept the figure produced by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that the number of amendments passed by the House during this Session amounts to 4,619? A couple of weeks ago she said that such a figure was not available.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I think what I said then—I shall repeat it for the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill—is that amendments that are passed are not broken down between those which originate from the Government and those which originate from other sources. But, of course, the majority of amendments passed are those brought forward by the Government. If it is not too dangerous to say so, I am willing to believe that the research of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is better than the figures provided to me. The figure that I have in front of me is that 3,930 amendments have been passed, which is the figure that I gave on the previous occasion.

Lord Renton

My Lords, the figure that I have just given was obtained this afternoon from the Public Bill Office.

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