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Statutory Instruments

(Production and Sale) Bill

3.3 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

When I moved the Motion suspending Standing Orders last Thursday, I indicated that I hoped that agreement through the usual channels might be reached to proceed with the remaining stages of the Statutory Instruments (Production and Sale) Bill before the Summer Recess.

At that time, I undertook that, in the event that such agreement could not be reached, we would not invite the House to proceed further with the Bill without providing a further opportunity for your Lordships to decide how this House would wish to proceed.

It is with the greatest regret that I must report to your Lordships that there is no usual channels agreement. Therefore, I hope your Lordships will agree that in keeping with the assurance which I gave last week, I am inviting your Lordships to decide whether or not this House is content to proceed today with the Third Reading of the Bill.

As my noble friend Lord Howe explained on Second Reading and again yesterday, there are pressing and substantive reasons why the Bill should be enacted before the House adjourns for the Summer Recess. As your Lordships know, the Bill seeks to rectify a defect

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in the arrangements for the printing of statutory instruments which could give rise to possible technical defences in proceedings for breaches of such legislation. If the Bill is not passed, the Government are advised that there is a very real risk of the courts being obstructed by needless and contrived argument as to the validity and evidential status of printed copies of instruments. That legal advice shows clearly that there could even be a possibility of defendants being acquitted on that technicality alone.

At the very least, if challenged, statutory instruments would need to be proved specifically in court. That would represent a serious obstacle to the efficient administration of justice throughout the Summer Recess and until the Bill was enacted. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that it really would not be very responsible of this House to allow that risk to persist longer than is strictly necessary unless there were compelling reasons to do so.

I fear that noble Lords opposite have not, either in the earlier proceedings on the Bill or in discussions through the usual channels, put forward any cogent argument relating to the provisions of the Bill as to why the House should not proceed in this way. They appear to wish to delay the Bill on one ground alone: simply because it seems to them that if they manage to do so they will hold up implementation of a government policy on which this Bill has absolutely no bearing whatever.

I have endeavoured--and there is clearly a severe deficiency in my capacities in that regard--to explain to noble Lords opposite that that is so. Indeed, they persist in the erroneous belief that without this legislation being passed the privatisation of HMSO cannot be completed. That is actually not true. As I have said, the Bill has no bearing on that privatisation. It merely addresses a legislative defect which, now it has come to light, I submit to your Lordships it would be wholly irresponsible not to rectify because of the potentially damaging consequences for the administration of justice. Therefore, failure to pass the Bill would result in quite significant additional costs in the printing of statutory instruments which might in due course result in a higher cover price. I know that that is something which noble Lords on all sides of the House would regret.

I understand that noble Lords opposite feel a sense of outrage about this development or the way in which events have developed. I should like to say with the greatest sincerity at my command that I regret deeply that that is so. I hope that noble Lords opposite will accept that I have entirely fulfilled the obligations which I felt I was under and, indeed, have done my best to give advance warning to the leaders of the two main opposition parties about my intentions.

I hope that they will recognise that in another place the entire proceedings on the Bill took less than two hours. In the Second Reading debate in your Lordships' House, only two noble Lords spoke other than my noble friend. In Committee yesterday only two amendments were tabled and one of those was not moved. I am not surprised about that because I am sure that your Lordships will agree with me that it is not the habit of

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this House or, indeed, the parties opposite to encourage the Government to continue to break the law. Therefore, as Leader of your Lordships' House, and in spite of being fully aware of the absolute need to preserve cordial co-operation between the usual channels, without which it is difficult for this House to proceed in the way that it traditionally has, I must ask your Lordships with the greatest regret to consider conducting and proceeding with business on which there is no agreement through the usual channels.

I hope that the House will feel that the considerations which I have outlined with as much clarity as I am able will lead the House to judge that it is right to proceed with the Third Reading of this Bill. I hope that your Lordships will agree with me and agree that the Bill should be read today a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.--(Viscount Cranborne.)

Lord Richard: My Lords, I rise to oppose the suggestion that the House should now proceed with Third Reading of this Bill; not only that, but I propose to divide the House on the issue. The noble Viscount the Leader of the House is absolutely right, there is a deep sense of outrage on this side of the House in relation to the way in which the Government have behaved in the matter.

The noble Viscount has enunciated this afternoon a novel constitutional doctrine; namely, that the usual channels work. They should work and, indeed, he is in favour of them working, except of course when he comes to the conclusion that the Opposition's argument in relation to a Bill, and the way in which they are approaching it, is not one which the Government think appropriate.

If we are in a rush in relation to the Bill, it is because the Government did not introduce it early enough. Indeed, I might have a word to say in that respect. I see several nods of heads on the other side. We were told last night that this point arose as long ago as the middle of last April. If we are running against the time limit now in view of the House being in Recess as from tomorrow, it is not the responsibility of the Opposition; it is the responsibility of the Government. There is no obligation whatever on the part of an opposition to assist the Government to get their business through.

I have to point out to the House that not only has there been no agreement through the usual channels to truncate the timetable specified in the Companion to the Standing Orders, in particular as regards the time needed between the Report stage and Third Reading, but also it is now being done not just without the agreement of the Opposition but specifically against our wishes. I hope that the House will accept that I am not one who usually indulges in great procedural wrangles simply for the sake of so doing. However, I have to tell the House that not only are the Opposition outraged about this, but I personally do not think that this is the way in which governments ought to behave in this House.

Perhaps I may remind the House of a little of the background involved. On Thursday last the Lord Privy Seal moved a Motion. The Motion was that Standing

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Order 38 and Standing Order 44 should be suspended until the House rose for the Summer Recess. Let us just consider what was said in that Motion. The noble Viscount said:

    "I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. The Motion is to make it easier to arrange a number of items of business which have usual channels' agreement. At this stage in the Session, I am advised that it has not been unusual for the House to agree to such a Motion which allows for greater flexibility in the arrangement of the Order Paper and the consideration of legislation".--[Official Report, 18/7/96; col. 1001.]
That is true. If it is agreed between the usual channels, it is indeed a most sensible Motion to move. However, at that point, I rose to my feet and said:

    "I do not wish to detain the House long on this Motion; nor do I wish to move a formal amendment to it. But the Leader of the House will know that going through the House at the moment is a Bill called the Statutory Instruments (Production and Sale) Bill. He will also know that ... the Opposition ... are not prepared to see the proper time limits on that Bill truncated in the way set out in the Motion.

    Therefore, ... while I do not wish to amend the Motion formally, I wish to have the expressed consent and acceptance of the Leader of the House to the fact that discussions on the Statutory Instruments (Production and Sale) Bill are continuing within the usual channels. If they are successful, no more will be heard from me. But if they are not successful, it will be necessary for the Leader of the House to come back to the House in relation to that particular Bill and ask for a Motion in like terms to the one which he is moving now".
Well, we are still waiting for a Motion to truncate the time limits on this Bill. However, the noble Viscount has not put down a Motion to that effect this afternoon; what he has done, presumably, is to use the Motion that he passed last week in order to sweep it up in that all-purpose piece of legislation.

Following that exchange of last week, we agreed to take the Committee stage of the Bill yesterday; and, indeed, we did so. We also accepted that the Report stage should be taken formally thereafter in accordance with the terms of the Companion to the Standing Orders. We could have objected to that course of action but we did not do so. At 6.30 yesterday evening it emerged via the noble Earl, Lord Howe (who is the Minister in the House in charge of the Bill), that the Leader of the House intended to move that the Bill be now read a third time immediately after Question Time today. Understandably, there was a strong reaction on the Floor of the House last night as a result of that information.

In view of the history of the matter I have to tell the noble Viscount the Leader of the House--and I pick my words carefully--that, regrettably, we shall have to read the fine print of what he tells us with somewhat greater care than we thought necessary in the past.

However, quite apart from that, the affair raises some serious issues. The Government say that the Bill is nothing to do with privatisation. I do not happen to believe that. There is no point in the Leader of the House saying that he does not believe that our arguments have any validity. We are perfectly entitled to press those arguments. Indeed, I justified that during the Second Reading of the Bill only the other day. If it has nothing to do with privatisation, what is the rush? The Government say--and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said it last night--that they can manage perfectly well without the Bill, although that may cause some

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inconvenience. Again, I ask, why the rush? We know that this legal problem became known in April of this year. If it was so urgent, why was the Bill not introduced at that time?

More importantly--and this is the substance of what I have to say to the House--why are the Government now prepared to tear up the good relations that enable this House to function properly? I can recall no previous example of the Government behaving in such a way; nor can any of my more senior colleagues whose memories go back further than mine; nor, indeed, can any of the Clerks who conducted some research into the point. This is an unprecedented display of government high-handedness and it is totally unacceptable to the Opposition. It is perfectly in line with the Government's attitude towards the Recruitment and Assessment Services, which we shall be debating tomorrow. I must stress that they will have to pay the price for this in due course.

Last night the Government Chief Whip said:

    "It has been clear since last week that the Bill did not form part of the usual channels arrangements".--[Official Report, 23/7/96; col. 1363.]
That is a novel doctrine. As I understand it, Bills are now, apparently, to be part of the usual channels' agreement unless and until the Government find that they cannot get their way within those channels and, thereafter, they will get their way in any event. What is this new doctrine of Bills being outside the usual channels about? Are we to have a sort of special starred section on the Order Paper of normal Bills which fall within the usual channels, and then a special section for Bills which do not fall within the usual channels so that the Government can then decide on their timetabling? Indeed, are we to tear up the Companion to the Standing Orders to that extent? I sincerely hope not.

I propose, therefore, to ask the Opinion of the House on the Motion that the Bill be now read a third time. I accept that this is a rare event, but it is one which has been forced upon us by the Government's action and the unprecedented behaviour of the Lord Privy Seal. No doubt the Government will get their majority; indeed, I am sure that the Whips have been active in that respect. Interestingly enough, last night at 7.30 p.m., on a dead day in the House, it just so happened that there were 101 Conservative Peers littered around the building who all turned up to vote.

Similarly, I have no doubt that the Government will ram the Motion through and that the troops will loyally go into the Lobby and force through the Third Reading of the Bill today. It is yet one more example of this House being used as a political football by a Conservative Administration. Now they have even got to the stage when they are bending the rules to secure the passage of a Bill that they say they do not really need in defiance of the timetable set out in the Standing Orders in a way for which there is no precedent; and, indeed, in total disregard of the normal procedures and the usual channels. It is quite disgraceful and they should be ashamed of themselves.

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