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5.14 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I feel that this has been a most useful and helpful debate, and like every noble Lord who has spoken I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, for introducing the subject this afternoon. As the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, said, this is a matter of public interest, and therefore perhaps a particularly suitable subject for your Lordships.

I have read with considerable interest the 1975 report produced by my noble friend Lord Renton and the report of the Hansard Society Commission on the legislative process which we are discussing—if I needed any reminder by those two reports. Like my noble friend Lord Aberdare, I am aware of the drum beat of dissatisfaction in your Lordships' House and elsewhere over the legislative process. It was expressed notably in

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the recent debate on the Sittings of the House which has been referred to a number of times this afternoon. The House then debated a report of a group also chaired by my noble friend Lord Rippon, whose absence has been so rightly noted and which I, too, greatly deplore. We wish him a rapid discovery.

Like the Hansard Society, I have also had occasion in your Lordships' House to refer to the writings of my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon, and have listened with considerable admiration to the animadversions on secondary legislation of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I say to my noble friend Lord Hayhoe that I have been increasingly conscious in the face of that accumulating evidence of interest that the Government owe your Lordships at least an interim reaction. It is for that reason that I am especially grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, for the opportunity he has given me. I suspect, however, that this is more likely to be my first rather than my last word on the subject in view of the short time we have this afternoon and because by its very nature the subject is one to which we shall return constantly. For surely, as many of your Lordships have hinted, the price of good legislation is eternal vigilance.

As this is a short debate, like others who have contributed I can hope to touch on only one or two points raised by your Lordships on a long and complex report on a complex subject. I have said this is an important subject. All noble Lords have said the same. It is important for us as legislators but, above all, it is of practical importance to those who use the legislation and are affected by it. That is why I welcome the principle enunciated in paragraph 7 and in the introduction to it of my noble friend Lord Hayhoe that the processes by which statute law is produced should be dictated, above all, by the needs of its users.

The simplest way to contribute towards achieving that object is as many have described this afternoon. It is important that the language of legislation should be intelligible. I was pleased to see at paragraphs 213 to 222 that the commission felt that much improvement had already occurred in that field in recent years and it welcomed the recent move towards textual amendment. However, I was equally interested to note at paragraph 219 that the commission recognised that certainty in legislation is also a virtue. Unlike the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, the commission recognises that that must militate against simplicity, at least to some extent. However I recognise, as does the Hansard Society, that there is no simple answer to that dilemma.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, also chided me for quoting selectively from the report of my noble friend Lord Renton in reply to his recent letter. I agree with him that certainty and brevity in legislation are not necessarily wholly mutually exclusive, but it is fair to say that there is a tension between the two. The only point I was seeking to make—I apologise if I expressed it less than clearly in correspondence—is that legislating merely by laying down general principles is in most cases unlikely to provide the certainty which Parliament and the public should expect. I agree with the noble and learned Lord

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and my noble friend Lord Renton that there is no virtue in legislation which attempts elaborately to deal with every conceivable circumstance, heaping—if I may put it this way—detail upon detail.

However, other factors can contribute to clear legislation. They serve the user and if brought into play they can improve the quality of legislation. The first—and it may seem obvious—are the resources of the parliamentary draftsmen. After a short acquaintance with that remarkable office, I am particularly pleased that at paragraph 187 the commission approves in principle of the present arrangements. However, as many noble Lords have pointed out today, it believes that the draftsmen ought to report to the Attorney-General.

I agree that we are immensely well served by that office. As was recognised by my noble and learned friend Lord Howe, among others, one of the main constraints upon it is shortage of staff. It therefore gives me particular pleasure to be able to announce today that the Office of Parliamentary Counsel will recruit four more draftsmen in 1995. I know that my right honourable friend the Lord President of the Council, who has a special concern with the Government's legislative programme, is also pleased that it has been possible to agree that.

One of the reasons why my noble friend Lord Renton approves of Scottish drafting may have something to do with the fact that there are relatively numerous Scottish draftsmen. The measure that I have announced today will help to improve the situation in England and Wales, which may not be entirely attributable to the causes that he suggested.

The report also makes much of the need for adequate consultation, which virtually every speaker today has emphasised, whether the Front Bench spokesmen or the noble Lord, Lord Nathan. I too pay tribute to the efforts of my noble and learned friend Lord Howe when he was in office. He will know better than I that there are considerations which constrain all governments in this regard. Perhaps not all are noble but they are necessary. I need not go into them now. The Government must get their business and, dangerous dogs or not, there is sometimes a need for speed. To be fair, in paragraph 52 the report recognises at least partially the justice of these imperatives—or at least their power.

In last July's Open Government White Paper, the Government recognised the value of consultation on policy matters. However, it is clear that proposals which remain unimplemented are no more than a bare statement of intent. I hope, therefore, that the House will accept that we have taken and are taking a number of measures to try to put this undertaking into practice. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, has recognised that fact.

For instance, we have begun to publish more Bills in advance. Several noble Lords referred to that. We have done so either in whole or in part. Some parts of the Environment Bill, which will receive its Second Reading tomorrow, were published before the end of the last Session. We intend to publish in draft fairly soon a new Reserve Forces Bill which could therefore form the

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basis for detailed discussion before it is introduced. We would like to increase the incidence of advance drafting, in particular with Bills of a technical nature. That suggestion was made by the noble Baroness, Lady David. In this respect, I too am encouraged by the example of the law reform measures and I hope that in this way we can address at least some of the recommendations in Chapter 7 of the report. To that extent, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that this approach is probably better and more practical than the suggestion of a two-year legislative cycle, for all the attractions which seduced my noble friend Lord Aberdare.

In recent years, one of the most striking developments has been the growth in the proportion of legislation which is made under delegated powers. Some weeks ago we had an interesting debate on the special arrangements for scrutiny of orders made under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act. I shall therefore not dwell on them now.

I would, however, suggest that the general balance between primary legislation, on the one hand, and conventional secondary legislation, on the other, is an important issue on which it is possible for sensible and well-informed people to hold divergent views.

On the one hand, there is no point in occupying Parliament's time with detailed uncontroversial provisions which could equally well be dealt with in regulations. If, as I know some of your Lordships believe, there is a tendency towards over-elaboration in some primary legislation, it may be because such material has been included. On the other hand, other noble Lords are understandably anxious about conferring wide-ranging powers to implement important policies by means of secondary legislation. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, is one and I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, is another.

It is a difficult balance to achieve and, as ever, there is no substitute for sensible judgments in individual cases on which matters should be enacted in which form. But, if I had to express a personal view, my suspicion is that there may be room overall for somewhat greater use of delegated powers, provided that this can be done without loss of quality and with the necessary degree of parliamentary oversight, to which so many of your Lordships referred. I should be extraordinarily interested if the debate were to continue in your Lordships' House and elsewhere as a form of consultation in its own right.

The Motion also invites us to consider the lapse of time between the passage of legislation and its implementation. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, addressed himself to the question today. This is a matter to which the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee gave attention in its 12th report. It recommended that the House should seek a mechanism to ensure that Acts of Parliament are brought into operation. That mechanism has also been advocated by a number of your Lordships today, including the noble Lord, Lord Nathan.

The recommendation is under consideration by the Procedure Committee and, therefore, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I do not pre-empt that

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consideration. However, I would make the obvious point that no government invite Parliament to enact legislation without intending that it should be brought into effect. It is open to Parliament to specify in enactments the date on which or by which provision will take effect. But that is a course which will not always, or even often, be the wisest one to take.

Circumstances change. It has even been known for governments to change, although that has not been part of our recent experience. It would be an uneconomical use of Parliament's time to have to introduce amending primary legislation whenever it proved necessary for good reason to defer the implementation of legislation. The point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, to the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee—that complex legislation may take time to implement and only the Minister will know when a provision is ripe for commencement—also seems to have a considerable force. However, I recognise that a number of your Lordships might add, sotto voce, "He would say that, wouldn't he?".

Several noble Lords—notably the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, and my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon—commented adversely on the price of Hansard. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, drew attention to an interesting report on the subject. I was fortunate enough to have read it when it was published under the auspices of the Hansard Society. The Government's policy is that the cost of Hansard should be borne by its readers rather than by the public at large. It is worth noting that there has been no increase in price since 1991. Nevertheless, I have an instinctive sympathy with the impulse behind the report and its conclusions—that our proceedings and those of the House of Commons should be as readily available to the general public as possible. I hope that your Lordships will not press me further, but I certainly wish to reflect extremely closely on the comments that have been made today by Members from all parts of the House, and I am grateful for them.

Finally, perhaps I may reiterate what I said in the debate on the report on the Sittings of the House. Timely instructions to counsel from departments are one of the keys to producing well-drafted legislation. Many of your Lordships made that point this afternoon. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, that I am glad that the commission recognises the importance of that and that the answer, as my noble and learned friend Lord Howe said, lies in the Government, and by that I mean government Ministers.

We can never achieve perfection, as I believe I remarked during the course of the debate on the report on the Sittings of the House. But I agree with my noble and learned friend that we have made some progress in that area, as we are beginning to do with the parliamentary aspect of the legislative process. In particular in your Lordships' House I suspect that we shall continue to do so, particularly if any of the experimental measures suggested in the group report on the Sittings of the House turn out to be a success. I was delighted to hear the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, in relation to that.

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Time precludes me from commenting on a number of matters raised in the report and, indeed, in this debate. For example, I should have very much liked to have made more than a passing favourable reference to the virtues of consolidation and the importance of encouraging the progress of the statute law database. However, as I said a little earlier, this is a subject to which we should and will return. Perhaps I have said enough to your Lordships this afternoon to show that Her Majesty's Government wish to make a positive contribution towards improving the quality of our legislation and giving a convincing answer over the coming months and years to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan.

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