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Lord Richard: Before the noble Lord sits down, we all saw the 7th Cavalry arrive from the Box with the information requested by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. Can the noble Earl now give us the date on which the Government believe they were aware of the matter?

Earl Howe: I cannot; but I am advised that the defect in the statute was discovered around mid-April. I cannot be more precise than that.

The principle of retrospection was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I agree that legislating retrospectively should only be undertaken when it is absolutely necessary and in accordance with established principles. That is precisely the case here. If the threat to the courts is to be removed, there is no alternative but to confirm the status of existing copies of SIs. That is, by definition, a retrospective act.

But the Government are also acting in accordance with the settled principle that retrospection may be justified where it confirms prior, albeit mistaken, genuine expectations of the meaning of the law. Here, HMSO and all concerned with it sincerely believed that contracting out SI printing was lawful, and the Bill merely confirms that expectation.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, accused the Government of wanting to look for rows and disagreements. I hope I have persuaded him that nothing could be further from the truth. I cannot overstate the need to maintain the retrospective powers in this Bill. Without them, the courts risk becoming burdened by needless argument and obstructed by the need to have individual SIs specifically proved.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: Perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. I made a statement to the effect that the Government, as always, are anxious to have a row about the management of business. First, they sought to persuade the Liberal Democrat Benches and these Benches that the urgency of the matter was such that they should welcome having all the stages of the Bill taken on the same day. Secondly, as recently as last Thursday, the Leader of the Labour Benches received from the Leader of the House an assurance that the only business that would be dealt with on this Bill this week would be the Committee stage this evening. I see the Government Chief Whip shakes his head and we must read the record.

We have acknowledged that in addition a standing order, in the absence of any amendment being carried, allows for Report stage to be taken at the same time. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, and I have asked the Minister to confirm that it is not the Government's intention to do other than that this side of the Recess and to allow Third Reading to be taken in the overspill. If the Minister can assure us that it is not the Government's intention to drag out this matter, there will be no disagreement, but I can assure him that there will be a row if, by one means or another, the

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Government intend to ask permission of this House to proceed on this Bill other than by taking Committee and Report stages this evening.

It is not in the best interests of the House--indeed it is almost unprecedented--that business proceeds without the approval of all sides. The Government know that they do not have the approval of the Opposition Benches this side of the Recess to do other than deal with the Committee and Report stages of this Bill.

Earl Howe: I am a little surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, should raise these questions under the heading of this amendment. I should have thought that the time to have done it was when I moved the Motion that the House resolve itself into a Committee on the Bill. Nevertheless, we seem to be having a fairly wide-ranging discussion and I shall endeavour to assist the noble Lord and the House so far as I am able.

The noble Lord is perfectly right. There has been no usual channels agreement to complete the passage of this Bill before the Summer Recess. However, I believe that there are good, substantive reasons why the Bill should be enacted before the House goes into Recess and I outlined those reasons. Therefore, I can tell the noble Lord that my noble friend the Leader of the House intends to move that the Bill be read a third time immediately after Questions tomorrow.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: That, of course, is a quite disgraceful statement. In 20 years in this House I have not known a single case in which a government of the day, whatever their political persuasion, have done that. If the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, was the Leader of the House, it would not be done on this occasion either.

Earl Howe: I do not think that that is a remark which, in the cool light of day, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will wish to stand by. It is a gross affront to my noble friend the Leader of the House.

Lord Richard: Perhaps the noble Earl will permit me to speak. He has now in effect made a Business Statement. As I understand it, the Business Statement is that tomorrow his noble friend the Leader of the House will move a Motion that the Third Reading be taken tomorrow. The Motion will be moved tomorrow against the views of the Opposition with no agreement through the usual channels. As soon as the Motion has been moved--no doubt it will be rammed through with a government majority in this House--we shall immediately move to the Third Reading. Is that what the Government are proposing for this House? If so, it is monstrous and unacceptable.

Lord Strathclyde: I had no intention of playing a part in this little debate. Frankly I am surprised that we should have this exchange of words at this stage of the Bill. It has been clear since last week that the Bill did not form part of the usual channels arrangements. It is of profound regret that that is the case. But my noble friend the Leader of the House also agreed that the

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Business of the House Motion that he moved last week would not include this Bill so far as it went and that he would return to the House in order to make a further statement. My noble friend Lord Howe has this evening confirmed that, assuming that the Committee stage proceeds and the Bill is unamended, using the provisions under the standing orders that the Report is received this evening, he will come forward with his statement asking the House for its permission to move the Third Reading.

There is no trickery here. There is no attempt to ram the Bill through this place. We had a Second Reading some days ago. The debate has been well previewed. This place will be asked to make a decision tomorrow. I do not see that noble Lords opposite can argue with that. Perhaps I might suggest to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition--before he gets to his feet--that it might serve the interests of this place better were we to continue with the Committee stage so that this place has a fair appreciation of what concerns the Opposition so much about the Bill.

Lord Richard: I am grateful to the noble Lord the Chief Whip for making that statement. Perhaps I may tell him what concerns me. When the Bill first came here we were asked to expedite it. We gave it a Second Reading, and it went through in the usual way. We then agreed to take the Committee stage with a truncated timetable. We agreed to that, so we are doing it tonight. When we agreed to do that, nothing was said about Report or Third Reading. Very well, the Bill is getting its Committee stage tonight.

The Government are using the provisions of a Standing Order to have a Report stage tonight--again truncated. Now we are told that they are not only truncating the Committee stage and the Report stage, they are also going to truncate the Third Reading of the Bill, despite the fact that, as far as I know, the usual channels have not discussed it, and despite the fact that it was made clear last week that we would not agree to that. It is to be put to this place tomorrow. I use the phrase again: it will be rammed through with a government majority. I say to the Government Chief Whip that that is not the way in which you ought to behave, particularly in relation to a Bill which we are told has nothing to do with the privatisation of HMSO. I have never believed that. I believe it even less tonight.

Lord Strathclyde: I do not wish to pre-empt the debate that will take place tomorrow afternoon, and the comments that my noble friend the Leader of the House will make. All I have done this evening is seek to clarify the situation. I do not believe that anything my noble friend Lord Howe said was a great surprise to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition or to noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I understand that they were aware of the decision of my noble friend the Leader of the House that if this place approved the Committee stage and Report stage this evening he would tomorrow move the Motion for the Third Reading.

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Furthermore, that honours entirely the commitment my noble friend made when he moved the Business of the House Motion last week, that he would return to ask the permission of this place before that Third Reading was taken.

Earl Howe: I readily acknowledge that the problem for the noble Lord, Lord Richard, is that he does not believe me when I tell him that the Bill has nothing to do with the privatisation of HMSO. That is the case. It has nothing to do with the privatisation of HMSO. The bidders have not expressed one jot of interest in the Bill. We have had hundreds of inquiries from bidders. Not one of them has related to the Bill. That shows the measure of concern that they have for it. They do not care whether the printing of SIs is part of HMSO or is not part of it. It is such a tiny proportion of HMSO's turnover as not to make any difference.

I say again to the noble Lord, that there are remedies available to us if the Bill is not approved. The remedy is that SIs will have to be printed in-House. That is possible, but it does not do a service to those who purchase SIs; it does not do a service to public libraries which might want to stock them, because it will put up the cover price. It is not so much a question of the Government wanting to ram through a piece of legislation as for this place to act in a responsible manner towards the law of the land.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: Perhaps the Minister will allow me to comment. If he is saying that the Bill is not needed to do what is required, but that in order to get the Bill tomorrow he and his colleagues are prepared to face a breakdown in discussions between the usual channels and have come to the conclusion that they would rather have that breakdown than do something for which the Bill is not necessary, that makes it a very sad day. If between today and tomorrow the Government would care to reflect that there are other means of achieving their ends, other than having Third Reading tomorrow, that will be a major step towards restoring normal relations. But if they persist, they are telling these Benches that when there is a choice between administrative convenience and the usual channels, they prefer administrative arrangements. That is not good for the future of this place.

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