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9.3 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not think I should address the House by saying "My Lords". I address the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and the Deputy Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. Those noble Lords deserve to be addressed individually rather than collectively. I am not sure that in my 14 years in this House I have ever experienced a situation where the Opposition Benches have been completely empty. Since the 18th century there has been official recognition of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition and I am not sure it is entirely proper that they should not take part in debates, particularly debates as important as this one which has been introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Nathan.

All three of us must be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, for the work that he has done in this area. We must also be grateful for the work of the Select Committee on Procedure, and indeed for the work of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee which preceded that. It will be evident that there was a good reason for the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee to attack this problem when it did. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 included provision for the establishment of a criminal injuries compensation scheme which would have run in parallel to that of the law in other areas of personal injury compensation. That part of the Act was never brought into force and was never repealed. Subsequently the then Home Secretary tried to introduce a criminal injuries compensation scheme which departed radically from the provisions of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act without seeking legislative authority for it; in other words, that was done by Order in Council. He was struck down by the courts and as a result he was forced to introduce primary legislation in the Criminal Injuries Compensation Bill which consisted of a compromise between the provisions of the 1988 Act and his original scheme. That finally received parliamentary approval but it clearly caused justifiable concern to a large number of Members of Parliament in both Houses.

No one can disagree that it is undesirable that there should be legislation on the statute book which is not implemented. That must be the starting point for our consideration of this issue. However, there are exceptions to every rule. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, has referred to the desirability of bringing legislation into force after a certain period of time. However, there are examples in the other direction. The Football Spectators Act 1989 would have required all football spectators to carry membership cards. The Hillsborough tragedy, which is now being investigated again at the instigation of the Home Secretary, led to the report from the subsequent Lord Chief Justice, Lord

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Taylor of Gosforth, whose wise report made it clear that an identity card scheme was not appropriate. It would have been a great pity if that had been implemented before the report had been produced.

A much more ancient example concerns the Easter Act 1928 which provides for Easter to be on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. That would have been between 9th and 15th April this year. But Section 2 of the 1928 Act states that regard should be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body before an order is made. The Council of Churches in Britain and Ireland has said that it would not wish to move to a fixed date without worldwide agreement. Noble Lords who are members of Christian Churches will know that there is disagreement among them about when Easter should be. There has been no worldwide agreement; and as a result the Easter Act 1928 has never been implemented. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, suggests that it should now be repealed, but I understand that the Churches would not be pleased if that initiative were taken.

However, these are extreme examples. There are perfectly good although mundane reasons on most occasions why an Act, or part of it, should not be implemented on a fixed date. Sometimes there is a need for public consultation. Sometimes there is a need for administrative machinery. Sometimes international developments such as the ratification of conventions are necessary before an Act can be implemented. Sometimes Acts require expenditure of money which simply is not available and that may delay implementation.

We have to accept that we should not take too purist a line. We should accept that unforeseen problems could arise. Sometimes Parliament, even in passing legislation, recognises that specific provisions may never be brought into force. The Representation of the People Act 1985 contains a commencement order for Schedule 1 which states that it can be implemented only if the Secretary of State is satisfied that it is necessary to do so in order to prevent serious abuse of the system of voting by post in Northern Ireland. I cannot say that the commencement order will never be required, but I think that we should all hope it will not be required. All that leads me to say, contrary to the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, that it would not be desirable to insist on fixed dates for implementation.

I do not believe that the problem is as serious as the noble Lord suggests. If we consider the command paper to which the noble Lord referred, we find that the record is not that bad. In most cases Acts contain only one or two unimplemented sections. Reading through them, I thought that most of them could be perfectly reasonably justified. That is not to say that nothing should be done.

Perhaps I may respond to the noble Lord's specific points. He asked me about the statute law database. He is right to say that it was originally intended that it should be available to Parliament and the public by 1997. I am sorry to have to confirm that it will not now be available until 1999. That is the nature of information technology projects, I am afraid. This is not the only one to suffer delay in that way.

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The noble Lord asked me whether, if the legislation were delayed, there should be a similar command paper on unimplemented legislation. I am certainly prepared to give him the undertaking that if it were delayed beyond 1999, there would be a second command paper during the course of that year covering Acts not only up until 1992 but 31st December 1994. In other words, we would not only update but improve the coverage of the command paper. We could go beyond that, but after a while the database and the record of unimplemented legislation would become swamped by what I believe the noble Lord would recognise as trivial examples of those which should never be implemented closer than a year or two after enactment.

The noble Lord asked me about the repeal of the 69 Acts in the command paper. I can give him the assurance that instructions will go out to departments which are producing major and wide-ranging legislation in the course of this Session: that they should have regard to two points. First, where there is an opportunity to repeal unimplemented legislation they should take it; and, secondly, that they should take good care that in commencement procedures in the Bill before Parliament they should ensure that no measures are included which would give rise to the concerns expressed by the noble Lord. I am hopeful that we will not bring before Parliament legislation of that kind. However, it is up to Parliament in the end to protest when commencement orders are vague. I am sure that what is now called the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee will take good care to cover that point.

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I think I have answered the point that the noble Lord raised about a similar command paper in the future by saying that we will do so if the slippage on the statute law database is any greater than it has been. I think I have also answered the point about our policy on future legislation.

It is Parliament's responsibility as well as that of the Government to see to it that our scrutiny covers those points. The President of the Council, Ann Taylor, in another place, has asked the Modernisation Committee there to consider whether Special Standing Committees could be used more effectively where they would have an effect in ensuring better scrutiny of legislation. Your Lordships have the provision for a Special Standing Committee procedure in this House. We have hardly ever used it. I hope that we shall use it more and that that will improve the quality of legislation. I hope it will reduce the number of cases when unimplemented legislation will arise.

To sum up, our strategy is twofold. We have to tidy up the existing law, and we have to ensure that new legislation is better informed than it has been in the past. I hope that the noble Lord will feel that it is the intention of this new Government to treat the matter seriously. Although we cannot accept his particular recommendation for a time limit, we are prepared, and keen, to attempt to secure that the volume of unimplemented legislation is reduced and continues to reduce.

        House adjourned at sixteen minutes past nine o'clock.

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