HL Deb 14 March 2002 vol 632 cc947-9

3.34 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill consolidates the legislation on European parliamentary elections, which currently consists of three Acts—the European Parliamentary Elections Acts of 1978, 1993 and 1999—and a number of provisions in other legislation.

A similar consolidation Bill was introduced in the last Parliament, but it fell for lack of time because it was held up by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which made relevant amendments to the legislation that was being consolidated. Your Lordships may recall that that consolidation Bill received your Lordships' support. The opportunity has been taken to make one or two changes to the first Bill, in order to take account of subsequent legislation and to incorporate an amendment made to that Bill by the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills.

The Bill will make it easier to follow the legislation on this subject. I am aware that there are differences of opinion on the substance of the law on elections to the European Parliament, but this consolidation Bill is not the place to debate them. The Bill is simply intended to make the existing statute book clearer.

I offer my thanks to the Law Commission and to Parliamentary Counsel for all that they do in this valuable work.

If your Lordships are content to give the Bill a second reading, it will be referred to the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills in the usual way. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I shall not detain the House long. We all support consolidation of the patchwork of the statute book. It is important legal housekeeping, but it offers no opportunities for spin doctors and so it has had a low priority under this Government. Their record on the matter is pretty feeble. I agree with my noble friend Lord Renton.

Any consolidation measure starts with the same welcome as the sinner that repenteth. But this rarity makes it all the more interesting to ponder why this particular part of the law has been singled out for consolidation now. I understand the background and that the Lord Chancellor has just set out the earlier efforts to consolidate this part of the law, but I have two questions for him.

The first concerns further pending legislation on this subject. I understand that Mr Peter Hain, the Minister for Europe, has announced that on behalf of the Government he has agreed in Brussels—just before this Bill was brought forward for debate—that the Government will shortly promote more legislation on European parliamentary elections.

We know from Mr Hain that that will include making dual membership of this Parliament and the European Parliament illegal. That is the so-called dual mandate. I understand that Members of this House or another place will no longer be able to sit in the European Parliament. Am I right in assuming that that can be done only by amending Clause 10 of this Bill, as that clause firmly provides the exact opposite of what Mr Hain has promised to achieve?

Mr Hain says that he has agreed that this change in European election law and other changes, about which I have no information, will be ratified by the Government by the end of this year. It would be helpful if the noble and learned Lord could tell the House what changes are proposed to this legislation in order to fulfil Mr Hain's promise to our European partners and what timescale the Government propose for that legislation. Given the history of the matter, I believe that the Joint Committee will probably want to know the answer to that.

My second question concerns the status of the new law. As we know, the 1999 Act is regarded by some lawyers as a legally dubious Act of Parliament because its passage relied on what is claimed to be the invalid Parliament Act 1949. This view is held by, among other distinguished lawyers, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson. He brought forward legislation on the subject not long ago. I realise that the Government and others do not agree with that view. I do not want to enter into that controversy today. Apart from anything else, I am not qualified to do so. There are, after all, two respectable legal views held on matters every day of the week in the courts and, generally speaking, half the laws are proved wrong every day. But this issue has not been tested.

My question is whether this potential flaw in the 1999 legislation is carried through into the new legislation or is cancelled out by this new Bill. Can this consolidation Bill, if properly passed into law, give a greater legitimacy to the underlying legislation than it currently has? It would seem wrong for such a purpose to be achieved by means of a consolidation Bill with its special procedures. Can the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor tell us whether the Bill does launder the 1999 Act in this way? One wonders whether that might be the reason that the Bill is before us now. Is it really a legal laundry Bill?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the noble Lord gave me no notice of either of those points which are of considerable detail. I hesitate always to give advice on any point of law, particularly since the noble Lord recognises that the law can sometimes be difficult, without attending closely to the detail of the point. I shall write to the noble Lord on the first point.

I am, however, entirely satisfied that, even if a further amendment was required, consolidation is still desirable so that there can be a clear base from which people can work when future changes arise. But I am far from saying that any need for a future amendment will arise. I shall write to the noble Lord on the subject.

The status of the 1999 legislation is in my view undoubted. The Bill neither adds to it nor subtracts from it.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and referred to the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills.