HL Deb 15 January 2002 vol 630 cc967-9

2.51 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, 21 days before the Second Reading of a Bill, Ministers could make available the substance of the reasoning on which they base their statement that the Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, it may be that the noble Lord was unaware when he tabled his Question that the Government have agreed that Explanatory Notes for all government Bills first introduced after 1st January 2002 will draw attention to the main convention issues that each Bill raises. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor announced that development in his reply to a Written Question from the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, on 18th December 2001. It can be found in the Official Report, at col. WA 43. The relevant guidance for those preparing government Bills has been amended accordingly. This is a positive development, which should further focus ministerial attention and enhance our debates on these matters.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. In our other embodiment, it is somewhat akin to a very satisfactory compromise statement made in open court. I am grateful to her. Does she agree that this framework of guidance, which we saw on 26th December and which was devised by her department, could or should disclose adequate reasoning in support of the certificate and could and should dispose of the situation that arose in relation to the representation of the people legislation at all three stages? There was a well-founded challenge to the rectitude of the certification but the Minister gave no answer at all. As a result, corrective measures have now to be taken, as explained in the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, of 10th January.

May I ask one question? Can we have in the Joint Committee on Human Rights, if possible, 21 days before the Second Reading of a Bill, draft Explanatory Notes so that we may give consideration to them?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord that this is a very helpful development. As many noble Lords know, that development was in response to suggestions made to the then Home Secretary, my right honourable friend Jack Straw, and my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, by the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Alloway and Lord Lester, in the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We thank them for that.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that Explanatory Notes are made available as soon as they are published. I cannot say that all Explanatory Notes will be available 21 days before Second Reading; they would or should normally be available the day after the Bill is first introduced and at least 14 days before Second Reading. We will use our best endeavours to produce them as quickly as possible but until a Bill is published it would be impossible to explain definitively the basis upon which that certificate would be granted. However, we shall do our very best.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, although it is obviously helpful to the Joint Committee on Human Rights to identify in the Explanatory Notes what the Government think the issues are, would it not be much more helpful if the Government explained why, at the end of the day, their advisers found that there was no incompatibility?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I take it that the noble Lord refers to the disclosure of the legal advice on which a Minister may base his decision. Noble Lords will know that successive governments have made it clear that it would be inappropriate to disclose such legal advice. This Government do not intend to depart from that practice, for good reasons with which the noble Lord will be more than familiar. This helpful change will help us with scrutiny and is much to be applauded. We think that this is as far as we need to go at this stage, although I reassure the noble Lord that we shall continue to scrutinise the issues to see how we can best assist.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we on these Benches welcome the change to which she referred? It should enable this place to do its job of legislative scrutiny more effectively. However, pursuing that logic a little further, is it not a cause for regret that the new administrative procedure was not applied to the Animal Health Bill, which had its Second Reading yesterday?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says about the Animal Health Bill. It is a matter of great celebration, as he rightly said, that this practice will be adhered to in future. We all rightly celebrate that.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I briefly seek clarification. May I ask the noble Baroness whether she accepts that I am not seeking disclosure of legal advice for which public immunity from disclosure is properly available? I ask only for adequate disclosure of the substance of the reasoning.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I fully understand that that is what the noble Lord seeks. The current structure will enable the essence to be understood and proper debates to be had. The new method will be effective. Of course, if there are signs that it is insufficiently effective, we remain open to reexamining it.