Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

3.20 p.m.

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, on the wisdom of his choice of Motion and echo the therapeutic comments with which he commenced his speech to my noble friends Lord Rippon and Lord Renton, whom I welcome back to the Chamber.

I congratulate them also on the near unanimity of their insight into those problems, expressed over the ages in different words. First, there is no doubt that this is a problem of great seriousness. Secondly, it is a problem of very long-standing. It was Tacitus who said, "Whereas formerly we suffered from crimes, now we suffer from laws". It is a problem which has provoked some fairly eccentric solutions. It was Swift in Brobdingnag who said that in that kingdom no laws must exceed in words the number of letters in their alphabet; that few of them extend even to that length; and that to write a comment on any law was a capital crime. I am not sure that that made much difference.

The third point on which there is unanimity is about the essential requirements of reform. First, there should be better management of the legislative programme by government. The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, gave examples of what I came to describe as policy-making on the hoof, which even during my brief time as Leader of the House of Commons I was not able to check beyond a very modest degree. We need much better management of the legislative programme.

Secondly, more resources are needed for the drafting of legislation. That has often been said but has never been resolved. We need more resources which are better deployed, with time to plan the work; time to think about the process; time to consult colleagues in Commonwealth countries and time to catch up with themselves instead of having to handle reforms in the spillover period when work should be done on the next round of Bills; and time to look at the question of reform.

Thirdly, we need better and more innovative and imaginative management of legislative procedures. All the right proposals are set out in a sequence of reports: timetabling, Select Committees rather than Standing Committees and so on.

Fourthly, we need more time and resources for the preparation of policy and, above all, as the noble Lord said, for consultation, for draft clauses, for Green Papers, for Royal Commissions and so on.

As I say, there has long been unanimity on most of those practical points. Most of the texts of the reports consist of repeating and amplifying the recommendations of their predecessors. But I plead guilty to two aspects of that continuing debate. First, I plead guilty to recurrent bouts of reforming lust. I have long been dismayed and anxious about the way in which we do those things.

14 Dec 1994 : Column 1295

Secondly, I plead guilty to inability to satisfy that reforming lust to any significant extent. I am never sure which side, in the end, I shall be judged to have been on. I am delighted to see my noble friend Lord Carr of Hadley in his place because he will recall that, before the election of the government in which we both served under the premiership of my right honourable friend Sir Edward Heath, we were both most concerned with regard to the simplicity of the legislation that we were to produce in the shape of the Industrial Relations Act. We arrived in office full of zeal and enthusiasm and, indeed, full of draft clauses and of a draft redraft of the section of the then Labour Government's Bill which had only just been brought before Parliament, and simplicity was our message, endorsed specifically by the Prime Minister of the day with enthusiasm. And simplicity, I fear, we did not deliver. I am not now going to analyse that story because the reasons for it are set out in the many reports which we have before us.

In my humble role as Solicitor-General at that time, I played some part as one of the midwives to the appointment of the Renton Committee, which reported in 1975 again with many of the right solutions. Then, after a further period in Opposition, under the leadership of my noble friend Lady Thatcher I delivered in 1977 a speech to the Addington Society about the right way in which to prepare fiscal legislation, which was full of wisdom, as one always is in Opposition. I delivered a longer speech to the Society of Conservative Lawyers entitled "Too Much Law?", with a cautionary question mark at the end of it. Once again, those words of wisdom were endorsed enthusiastically by the then Leader of the Opposition, my noble friend Lady Thatcher.

Alas, alack, in our last three years together in Government, the Government of whom my noble friend and I were both members found themselves enacting on average three times more pages of legislation each year than in the last three years of the Labour Government whom we had replaced. So much for one's aspirations.

I claim some achievements but not many. First, during my time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, I believe that I was able to introduce a much wider pattern of consultation on fiscal legislation. I was glad to see that one of those most interested in this subject, Mr. Malcolm Gammie, said that it was clear that the development of pre-legislative consultation since my 1977 speech had:

    "significantly altered the landscape against which we must judge the fiscal process in the United Kingdom".

So far so good.

Secondly, I played a modest part in relation to the embryology Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, mentioned, because in the Commons stages of that, we were able to timetable the decisive stages; to offer the House rational choices; and to proceed with a programmed debate.

Therefore, everyone knows what needs to be done and occasionally it can be done. But for the most part our achievements are achievements of extreme modesty.

14 Dec 1994 : Column 1296

Why is that so? Why is it that recommendations which are so unanimously endorsed have so little done about them, and what, if anything, are we to do about it?

I believe that the attempts that have been made by successive governments to give responsibility for that task to this or that Minister or department, be it the Attorney-General, the Lord Chancellor, the Prime Minister or, heaven forbid, the usual channels or the Leader of either House, all run into the sand because in the hands of any one of those individuals they find themselves competing with the selfish departmental interest of those individuals themselves or the shortage of resources of those individuals. Sometimes they find themselves literally competing with conflicting departmental interests. And, above all, the usual channels normally have no enthusiasm for innovations in the legislative process.

Most serious of all, nobody is charged with the centrally important task of continuous sole responsibility for the management of the legislative reform process. It is never in the hands of any one individual, and that must be the answer. I offer one piece of encouraging experience in that respect in relation to the reforms in management of both Houses separately and in relation to each other that have taken place in the past four years. Those resulted very largely from the recommendations of the Ibbs Committee which was appointed and reported and whose recommendations were adopted during my 15 months as Leader of the House of Commons. Those recommendations have been put into place in the past four years and have transformed the effectiveness and administration of both Houses in relation to each other.

That did not happen because of my personal commitment but because politicians in both Houses were ready to be mobilised to do something about the problem. The House of Commons Commission, under the leadership of my noble friend Lord Weatherill, was able to dynamise the House of Commons in that respect. Leaders of both parties in both Houses also did the same. Above all, the task of defining the process of reform was in the hands of Sir Robin Ibbs who, with enthusiasm and gusto, started and finished it within a measurable timescale. For that to happen, political commitment is vital and it is not sufficient to identify just one Minister. The Government must identify an official with that responsibility, sufficiently equipped to follow it through from day to day, from month to month and from week to week. That is a task of supreme importance for the administration or even creation of law in this country.

One last point: I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is to speak in the debate because very recently he produced another Hansard Society report entitled What Price Hansard? That is another topic—the absurd prices now being charged, perhaps even as a consequence of some of the policies which I initiated as Chancellor of the Exchequer, for Hansard and for Bills to be available to the public. We need to do something about that.

Again, that is a task which can be tackled by ourselves. If the House of Commons Commission proceeds to enlarge its expenditure, as it is able to do—

14 Dec 1994 : Column 1297

and, indeed, as I found it was when I was Chancellor of the Exchequer and tried to stop it from so doing—and if it is willing to do so with the co-operation of this House, then at least the two Houses together, regardless of what Her Majesty's Government may say, can tackle that aspect of the problem. However, far be it from me to foster revolutionary thoughts of that kind.

I close with a simple, single message, quoting from my 1977 speech:

    "It is the politician who must bear the responsibility for changing the system, whether as Ministers or parliamentarians. It is we who are in charge. Only we can change the system".

3.30 p.m.

Baroness David: My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, has given us the opportunity to discuss the Hansard Society report today, particularly as I was unable to speak on 2nd November in the debate on the report on the sittings of the House. I believe that a letter from me to the Procedure Committee, expressing my outrage at the repeated late night-early morning sittings during the passage of the 1992 Education Bill, was one of the triggers that encouraged the setting up of that committee, and so I am anxious to comment.

I presume that we all start from the premise that legislation and the business of the House could be better organised. There is general agreement that Bills are produced in too much of a hurry without enough consultation with interested people and organisations, the parliamentary counsel and the civil servants who have the job of preparing the Bills. I thought that the evidence from the FDA report was very illuminating.

The gestation period for a Bill is, or should be, very long. Although I cannot agree that a Bill, once introduced, should be carried over into a second Session, there should be the proposal for a Bill, perhaps with a Green Paper and a White Paper for comment, at least a year before First Reading. Consultation in that way should mean a smoother and faster passage for the Bill.

A prime example of a Bill where there was no consultation was the students' union and teacher training agency Bill which was brought forward last Session. Not even those on the Government's own Benches, who were really well informed, had been listened to. It was, in the end, they who brought pressure to bear on Ministers which meant major changes to the Bill and a very long gap between Second Reading and the Committee stage while the government amendments were created. It is ironic that, according to the CVCP, the Government could have made any changes that they wanted without any legislation at all.

Another excellent example is the Education Reform Act 1988 in which I was heavily involved. It was a major measure. There was no White Paper. Short, consultative documents were published in haste in July and August 1987, allowing from five to 11 weeks for replies. That was over the period of the school summer holidays. No analysis of the responses was published. LEAs were at no point involved in consultative discussions. It is not surprising that many measures in the Bill, pushed through against strong and reasoned opposition, have had to be changed—the national curriculum and testing being prime examples.

14 Dec 1994 : Column 1298

In that respect, Recommendation 71 of the report which says that:

    "The operation of every major Act ... and all the delegated legislation made under it, should be reviewed some two or three years after it comes into force",

seems very apt. Such a review might prove very salutary for a government that has rushed through Bills with indecent haste.

I support strongly the proposal that after Second Reading there should be a meeting of Ministers, Front Bench Opposition spokesmen, civil servants, a few interested Peers and some organisations which are highly involved and affected by the Bill. Evidence could be called. After Second Reading seems the right time, as it is then that anxieties and, perhaps, misunderstandings about the Bill are aired. There might well need to be a slightly longer gap between Second Reading and the Committee stage than the statutory two weeks.

The report tells us that the Australian Senate and the Canadian House of Commons have those meetings and that they work well. In her 2nd November speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, pointed out how profitable such meetings that she arranged had been as regards the Children Bill. I agree with the noble Baroness; I was there. Similarly, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, arranged meetings on the code of practice for children with special educational needs in the 1993 Bill. That was very enlightening and helpful.

I was impressed by the evidence given by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, in the report. He has immense experience. He advocated the meeting after Second Reading that I have just been applauding. I urge the Government to pay heed to all his written evidence in M1 and M2 on page 153 of the report, where noble Lord's ideas seem to me to be extremely constructive and practicable.

What has been said about primary legislation goes also for delegated legislation—consultation at the formative stage with appropriate experts and affected bodies. Greater openness is called for, and that is a recommendation for all legislation. As Recommendation 35 says:

    "Some means should be found of informing the citizen, his lawyers and the courts of the intention underlying the words of the statute".

Recommendation 94 says:

    "The Government should do all ... [in its power] to explain new law to the public, and especially those most affected, in terms that are readily intelligible".

Going along with that, the Government should enable HMSO to price their publications, and especially Acts and statutory instruments, at well below cost. I am glad that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, referred to the price of Hansard in that respect. Open government has been promised by the Prime Minister. Well, let there be a start here.

There are interesting discussions in the report on European legislation that affects us. I applaud the suggestion that the powers and resources of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee should be enlarged to enable it to detect potential legislative conflicts with the European Convention on Human Rights and, again, for it to detect prima facie conflict

14 Dec 1994 : Column 1299

between provisions in proposed legislation and the requirements of European Community law. That seems to me to be necessary.

I do not think that there is enough acknowledgment of the excellent work and reports of our European Select Committee. But the proposal (and this is already happening) that the Lords, through Select Committees, should look at matters more peripheral to current legislation, though clearly relevant in the long term—for example, questions such as those of civil rights, of central local government relations or of the environmental impact of legislation—seems to me to be totally acceptable.

I am sure we all agree that Law Commission Bills, many already drafted, should be sent to Standing Committees off the Floor of the House and that other Bills of a non-controversial nature could be treated in that way too.

We conduct ourselves in a very strange and erratic way. So I hope that many of the proposals in the report can be embraced by the House. I am very glad that the noble Lord has given us the opportunity to express our views.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page