Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Carter: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the two noble Lords. Perhaps I may answer the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition. It is true that this has been a long Session. As Chief Whip, I am extremely grateful for the patience that has been shown in all parts of the House in a Session which has been extremely heavy. An interesting point is that during this Session we shall have passed in excess of 50 Bills. That is almost exactly the same number as was passed in the 1979-80 Session, which is the equivalent 18-month Session after a period in opposition. To be fair, we have included in those 50 Bills three substantial Bills on devolution.

It has been a long Session. Your Lordships will have seen the statistic which has been quoted: that this has been the longest Session sitting of the House since the Long Parliament. I have done a little research on that. I can confirm that the number of Conservative Peers considerably exceeded the number of Labour Peers in that Parliament as well.

I think that I can promise noble Lords that the Session we shall start on 24th November will be no less exciting and demanding than the one we have had this year.

On the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, the Companion is entirely clear. If there is an interest to be declared it should be done at an appropriate time. It is not always necessary to do so at Question Time. Perhaps the noble Lord who intervened felt that as the Question was directly about Vickers he should mention the matter. But the Companion is entirely clear on the attitude that your Lordships should take on that matter.

Lord Renton: My Lords, on that last point, does the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip recollect that there have been fairly frequent occasions over the years when trade union leaders who happen to be noble Lords have intervened on matters affecting their unions in circumstances not dissimilar to those which arose at Question Time today? If it is proper for a trade union leader to do so, surely it is equally proper for a director of the company concerned, having declared his interest, to do so.

22 Oct 1998 : Column 1566

Lord Carter: My Lords, perhaps the best thing I can do is to read what the Companion says. It states:

    "Lords who have a direct financial interest in a subject on which they speak should declare it, making clear that it is a financial interest. They should also declare any non-financial interest of which their audience should be aware in order to form a balanced judgment of their arguments".
It also states:

    "On certain occasions such as Starred Questions and the various stages of a Bill following Second Reading, it may be for the convenience of the House that Lords should not take up time by repeating declarations of interest but Lords should make a declaration whenever they are in doubt".

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for prolonging the matter, but I believe that the House should be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for raising the matter immediately. The House should also be extremely grateful to the Government Chief Whip for reading out the relevant part of the Companion, which seems to me to be perfectly clear, as he intimated.

If the Government Chief Whip agrees with me that the Companion supports the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Gillmore, acted entirely within the spirit and letter of the instructions of the Companion, I hope that he will therefore acknowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Gillmore, acted entirely properly during the course of Question Time today.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords attempt to act entirely properly during Question Time. However, the Companion also says that noble Lords should be "especially cautious" when they have a direct financial interest. They should be extremely careful in the way in which they handle it.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I am sorry to pursue the matter further. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, is very courteous in his treatment of the House, but those of us who were present heard plainly a reprimand from the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, which was inappropriate. I ask the Government Chief Whip, without making a further meal of it, to say that in this case an error was made. That could be an end of the matter.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I am not sure that it was an error. I am not of the intention of reprimanding any of my colleagues. I am sure that my noble friend was aware of what the Companion said and I think he treated the matter in the way that he thought was correct.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am very sorry, because the Government Chief Whip is always extremely courteous and helpful to the House, and entirely unpartisan in the way that he treats us. I know that he is being unpartisan in this matter. However, there has clearly been an imputation about the propriety of the conduct of a Member of your Lordships' House--as it happens, a particularly well-respected and distinguished Member of your Lordships' House. I believe it would be appropriate--I am absolutely sure that no imputation

22 Oct 1998 : Column 1567

was meant by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that the noble Lord acted beyond the realms of propriety--that the matter should be made absolutely clear now.

Lord Carter: My Lords, in these circumstances it is always as well to check Hansard to see what was said. I am sure my noble friend had no intention of imputing any base motives to any noble Lord. He saw the situation. The Companion is entirely clear. He acted in the way he thought was right. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Gillmore, also thought that he was correct. I suggest we all read Hansard tomorrow and reflect on it.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, is it not a fact that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, refused to answer the question. Might he now answer the question posed by the noble Lord?

Lord Carter: My Lords, I know that the noble Lord is new to this House, but Question Time ended after 30 minutes.

Scotland Bill

3.38 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [The Scottish Parliament]:

Lord Simon of Glaisdale moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 15, leave out subsection (4).

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 1, which leaves out subsection (4) on the ground that it is obviously unnecessary. The subsection provides that:

    "The validity of any proceedings of the Parliament is not affected by a vacancy in its membership".
Nobody in his senses supposes that parliamentary proceedings become invalid during a by-election. A similar point arises with Amendment No. 69 to Clause 16, which is concerned with disqualification rather than vacancy.

I must at the outset apologise for the state of my voice. I hope that it will serve for the argument. If not, I am encouraged by the presence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, because my amendment repeats one tabled by him in Committee. I spoke in support of it and was expecting an answer to the points that I made. It was only after two-and-a-half months of silence and an inability to contact the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, that I tabled Amendment No. 1.

Subsection (4) is a perfectly unnecessary provision because no sane person supposes that a vacancy in membership, resulting from a by-election, say, invalidates the proceedings. In fact, in this case there is an additional point, to which I shall turn in a moment. The amendment raises the following question. Are we going to continue to clutter up the statute book in order to anticipate any argument, however futile?

22 Oct 1998 : Column 1568

That causes me to consider what has happened to the statute book in recent decades. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, who is in his place, will not be surprised to hear me refer to his Committee on the Preparation of Legislation. It reported in 1975 and criticised the prolixity of the statute book, which was then three volumes of public and general Acts. Within a few years, notwithstanding what the Renton Committee had stated, it had increased to five volumes. The format was then enlarged, to the extreme inconvenience of those who had had bookcases made for the smaller volumes. However, no doubt that did not matter to the various government departments which could have larger bookcases made. In spite of the fact that that larger format enabled the volumes to be reduced to three, they have subsequently again increased to five and I should be very surprised if this year there were not more. Why is there this prolixity, only one aspect of which is highlighted by the amendment?

Your Lordships may remember a letter written by George Bernard Shaw in which he apologised for its length on the ground that he had no time to write a shorter one. That is the same in parliamentary drafting. It takes time to economise in drafting. The parliamentary draftsmen, particularly this year, have been under exceptional pressure, and it is very much easier to repeat formulas which have been used in the past--however inappropriately in the past and still more inappropriately in the present--than to try to pare down.

Similarly, officials wish to cover every single point. That matter was referred to specifically by the Renton Committee, quoting a memorandum from two eminent Scottish lawyers, my noble and learned friend Lord Emslie and the late Lord Wheatley who at the time were respectively Lord President and Lord Justice Clerk. No notice has been taken of that, so we ask why parliamentary counsel have not been told to economise. Why has not the pressure been taken off them to enable them to do so? The answer is that no one is effectively responsible to parliamentary counsel as a whole. In theory, they are directly responsible to the Prime Minister, but the Prime Minister has things to do other than worry about the details of drafting.

A few years ago, Sir Robert Andrew, an eminent former civil servant, was appointed to consider the government legal services and he made a great number of recommendations. One was that parliamentary counsel should be responsible to the Law Officers. Of all his recommendations, that was the only one that was not accepted. Anyone who has knowledge of Whitehall can imagine the manoeuvres and pressures which led to that exception.

As it is, all that we have is that the draftsman of a particular Bill is responsible to the Minister in charge of it. When the Minister is a layman, naturally, he will immediately accede to the argument of counsel that such and such has been done previously and that such and such is desirable, even if not strictly necessary, in order to obviate an argument. I believe that to be the case here.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate, who I apprehend will reply, will perhaps confirm whether my recollection is correct. It fits in with the letter I received

22 Oct 1998 : Column 1569

a few days ago and which, unfortunately, crossed one of mine. We both know where the other stands. I repeat that, effectively, a lay Minister is in the hands of counsel.

Since I entered the other place in 1951 I have known only one Minister who insisted on having his way in paring down drafting. As he generally operated in the small hours of the night that was not very popular with parliamentary counsel. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will know to whom I refer. He is no longer alive--that is to say, Lord Duncan-Sandys is no longer alive--but happily the noble Lord is still alive. It is only when there is a lawyer that parliamentary counsel can be effectively challenged and perhaps still more when a Law Officer, as in the present case, is in charge of the Bill. An exceptional burden of responsibility lies on a Law Officer because he is not purely a partisan spokesman of the Government. He owes a duty to the House in which he sits to put the law impartially and accurately. Those of us who heard the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate speak of his duty in relation to the Lockerbie prosecution will have no doubt that he stands firmly in the best tradition in that respect.

The argument in favour of the subsection is quite absurd because no sensible person has ever supposed that a parliamentary by-election--and that is what we are concerned with here--invalidates the proceedings of Parliament. But there is an exceptional case in the present Bill. Clause 8(4) states:

    "The election shall not be held if the latest date for holding the poll would fall within the period of three months ending with the day on which the poll at the next ordinary general election would be held",
and is followed by some immaterial words. In other words, if the argument in favour of retaining the subsection in Clause 1 is right, it means that there are three months during which Parliament is totally incapable of activity providing that there is a vacancy or disqualification during that period. I owe that point to my noble and learned friend Lord Brightman. I hope that he will speak on this amendment. It is a clinching argument.

I said that nobody in his senses could argue that a by-election invalidates the proceedings of Parliament. I go further. In the light of Clause 8(4), anybody who so argues would have to be hurried off rapidly to a mental hospital.

I now deal with the arguments of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate which I received a day or so ago. They are in answer to questions that I asked on 16th and 30th July. When I heard nothing in all that time I suspected that I could hear distantly the sound of entrenching tools in Whitehall and so it appeared when I received his letter. The first thing he states is that there are precedents. So there are. This provision occurs in other statutes and all except one appear in schedules where they were not noticed. In any case all the statutes, including the latest, dealt with corporations aggregate. But the Scottish parliament is not a corporation aggregate. As the noble and learned Lord the Lord

22 Oct 1998 : Column 1570

Advocate pointed out in his letter clearing up the confusion, the Scottish parliament is an unincorporated association. So no precedent applies.

The second argument is that the parliament is defined as having a particular number of members. I suppose the argument might be put forward that the absence of one of those members invalidates the proceedings. But the House of Commons also has a specified number of Members. That cannot be exceeded because it is governed by the various electoral Acts. As I say, nobody has been sufficiently off his head to argue that the proceedings of the House of Commons are invalid during a by-election.

Filled with enthusiasm, the noble and learned Lord went on to say that that argument could not be put forward in relation to the House of Commons because it would be precluded by the Bill of Rights. But that will not do. All that that Bill says is that proceedings in Parliament may not be questioned out of Parliament. So I ask the noble and learned Lord specifically whether anybody in Parliament has ever been so foolish as to argue that a by-election brings the validity of its proceedings to an end. I hope that I have dealt with all his points. I believe that I have. If I have not, no doubt he will develop them. I press this amendment. Unless we make a stand at last on a perfectly plain issue, we will continue at great expense and inconvenience in allowing the statute book to grow and grow. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page