HL Deb 10 February 2003 vol 644 cc464-6

2.58 p.m.

Lord Goodhart asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will ensure that all statutes are published on the Internet as soon as they receive Royal Assent.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, all Acts are published simultaneously on the Internet and in print as soon as possible after Royal Assent. It is important to ensure that an accurate approved text is published and that all users have access at the same time to the same text. To do otherwise might raise issues of fairness. When a Bill has been heavily amended during its final stages, there may be some delay between Royal Assent and the receipt of the final text by the Stationery Office.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware of a case recently reported in The Times, in which the Home Secretary made an order for the removal of an asylum seeker on 14th November 2002, under Section 115 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, two weeks before the Act was published? It was a matter of great concern to the Court of Appeal. Does he accept that it is intolerable that decisions should be taken on statutes that are not yet in the public domain? Does he agree that the best way in which to deal with the situation would be to ensure that all statutes are put on to the Internet as soon as they receive Royal Assent?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am familiar with the case which attracted significant criticism from the noble and learned Lord the Master of the Rolls with regard to the delay in publication. The difficulty was that the Bill received Royal Assent on 7th November only two hours after your Lordships agreed to the final round of Commons amendments. Therefore, there was uncertainty about the outcome. The Public Bill Office could not make a proof copy until Royal Assent had been granted. The proof copy was sent to the printers the next day. There were two further stages. The Public Bill Office, parliamentary counsel and the relevant government departments had to check the proofs carefully which then had to be printed. Checking the proofs took eight working days and the printing took five working days. I do not pretend that that situation was satisfactory.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that the use of the Internet as regards the publication of parliamentary material could be much improved and speeded up? Is he aware that in the other place the minutes of evidence of certain Select Committees are put on the Internet the following day? That is an enormous advantage for those of us who like to keep in touch with what is happening in certain Select Committees at the time when such events are making the greatest impact on public affairs.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. I revert to the general topic raised by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, in saying that many judgments are published immediately on the Internet. Some benefit would have been gained from immediate Internet publication of the statute we are discussing. However, that would not have met the essential point that Bills cannot, or should not, be published on the Internet until they have been carefully checked. Four substantial Bills received Royal Assent at about the same time and the resource simply could not cope. We are trying to prioritise important Bills. I accept that the one specified by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, would have fallen into that category.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the Information Committee is examining proposals to display amendments daily on the Internet? Although that is not immediately in sight, it is certainly something that we are working towards.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is very important to disseminate accurate public information as soon as possible. Normally, there is a gap between the passage of a Bill and Royal Assent of the order of two months. The Royal Assent we are discussing was expedited and a delay arose in the printing of the relevant document.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, in view of the concern felt on all sides of the House about the gap between citizens and Parliament, will the noble and learned Lord, who is after all distinguished for his support for modern approaches, consider the possibility of publishing draft Bills and explanatory notes on the Internet to encourage the public to comment on them? A precedent exists with regard to some of the operations of the US Congress whereby Bills are published on the Internet in draft form and the public are invited to make suggestions on how they might be amended.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is an extremely valuable suggestion. I hope that as we develop pre-legislative scrutiny—to which I believe we are all committed—that useful avenue will be explored. One would then be likely to obtain a wider and a more fully informed public response.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, Acts of Parliament and their associated Hansards should be published on the Internet. But what happens if the relevant Hansard is incorrect? That happened recently with regard to a Treasury matter when the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, wrote to Members of your Lordships' House to correct a statement he had made at the Dispatch Box. However, that letter has been seen only by a handful of Members of your Lordships' House. Will important correspondence of that kind also be published on the Internet?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I believe that the letter mentioned by the noble Lord is in the Library of the House which, as we know, is the most appropriate place in which to conceal material one does not want widely disseminated. That is a constitutional convention of many centuries' standing. However, I shall certainly consider that point and any similar points.

I believe that I may inadvertently have made a slip of the tongue. I meant—I thought that I had said this—to refer to a period of two months between Royal Assent and commencement. If I said between amendment and Royal Assent, I was wrong to do so.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House say when the Government will finally be in a position to deliver the Answers to Written Questions electronically?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, generous hearted as I am, that is a shade wide of the Question.

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