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Baroness Hamwee: Amendments Nos. 55, 58, 69 and 72 in this group (paired as 55 and 69, and 58 and 72) stand in our name. This is the kind of situation where I should like to read all the responses together because we have prepared our arguments on each part. Having heard what the Minister had to say, and knowing that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, does not wish to proceed with some of her amendments, the jigsaw is beginning to fall apart slightly.
I heard what the Minister said about seven days being too short a period if Parliament is not sitting, and so on. I shall read what he said but, bluntly, I remain concerned about the possibility of considerable sloppiness if it is not necessary to take more formal steps more quickly than within the 21-day period mentioned in the Bill. When we are talking about oral directions which do not have to be produced in writing almost instantly, then one's concern is obviously increased.
The Earl of Onslow: One argument produced by the Minister was that this period of time could not be too short in case Parliament was not sitting. I should have thought that if an emergency was urgent, Parliament should be made to sit fairly sharpish. It should be summoned almost immediately if, as I assume, we are dealing with something extremely serious. If the situation is not serious, it should not have this amount of legislation devoted to it and such powers given to a Minister. One cannot have it both ways. If it is very serious, Parliament must come back almost instantly and then the Minister will have time to justify his regulations. If it is not serious, he will not need the power to give all the directions and so on within seven days.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I say in response to the point made by the noble Earl, that that is a debating point but I believe he would accept that there may well be circumstances when it is simply not appropriate to recall Parliament. We do not believe that the desire to apply normal periods of time is right in those circumstances. Of course, all governments would want to ensure that during an emergency Parliament was available and accessible so that matters could be debated properly. But we are trying to deal with some very difficult situations and trying to anticipate circumstances in which that may not be possible. It is for that reason that we believe that what we have in place achieves the right balance. One hopes that one is never in the position of the worst-case scenario, where the fundamentals of democratic scrutiny are undermined, but one can never be entirely sure.
The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 50 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 64. They are straightforward amendments that we believe are necessary to clarify and to underpin the triple lock test to which the Government referred at Second Reading. We have tabled these amendments in order to ask the Minister to explain some of the drafting in Clauses 7 and 8. The current drafting states that a Minister can make directions if he feels that there is an urgent need to do so and that,
Our amendments would leave out the word "insufficient" and insert the word "no". We would like the Government to explain how much time would be regarded as insufficient. Would that not vary from Minister to Minister and be open to interpretation? Would it not be more sensible to have the drafting that we suggest, which seems a much more final and easy to understand test?
We are talking about emergencies and the power of Ministers to act in extremis; powers that are enormously wide-ranging and, frankly, quite vague. Of course, we must not prevent the government of the day responding quickly to an emergency. However, a balance must be struck. In our view, "urgent" means so urgent that there is no time.
The Bill in its title plays down the fact that we are debating the issue of emergencies and what they might include. We believe that it is important that through the passage of the Bill we make it clear that we believe that only in extremis, when there is no time, should those powers be enacted or played out by the Ministers concerned. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: I agree with the sentiment of the argument of the noble Baroness. But perhaps I can ask her what the difference is between "no time" and "insufficient time". I assume that she does not mean the words "no time" to mean literally from one minute to the next, or does she? Does "no time" in this situation mean overnight? I am trying to understand the distinction. I am quite puzzled.
Baroness Buscombe: By "no time" I mean no time in terms of allowing an opportunity to do anything other than issue, say, an oral direction. "Insufficient time" could be interpreted far more widely. One could say that "insufficient time" means, "There was not enough time for regulations to be made as we had only a day or two, so I"a single Minister can carry out this function"felt it was better to get on with it and issue an oral direction. Whereas "no time" makes it absolutely clear that it is so urgent that an oral direction could be deemed reasonable in the circumstances. I hope that that is clear.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I always take some minor delight when opposition parties argue among themselves. I have taken no especial delight in it during the course of this debate but it does help to clarify some of the issues.
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Clauses 7 and 8 provide for urgent direction powers to be used and that they must be in sufficient time to make legislation in the normal way. Amendments Nos. 50 and 64 would provide that there must be no time to make legislation in order for the powers to be used.
We have had a lot of discussion around these points and we have looked at the power again in light of the amendments tabled by noble Lords on the particular subject and also in the light of the comments made by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. It is for that reason that we limited the urgent direction power to Clauses 5 and 6. It might just help if I explain some of the situations in which urgent directions of this kind would be issued.
Clause 5 enables orders to be made which require a responder to exercise its functions in relation to an emergency. Such orders can be made only after both Houses have approved a draft of the order. The time taken to secure a debate in each House might be significant and Parliament may be adjourned or prorogued. In such cases, there may be insufficient time to make an order under Clause 5 and an urgent direction would be appropriate.
Regulations under Clause 6 can require responders to share information with each other. These are subject to negative resolution. In the vast majority of cases it would be possible to make regulations. Clause 6 regulations could be made extremely quickly and could be brought into force before the regulations had been laid before Parliament, if need be. None the less, there may be cases where it is not possible to make regulations in this way. It would still take time to draft the legislation and there may not be a lawyer available to draft it.
In an emergency, even an hour's delay could be dangerous. As we shall discuss in further detail on the next group of amendments, there may be situations where there is insufficient time to commit the direction to writing and send it to the recipient. There may well be situations where time is so pressing that an oral direction to share information is what is required.
For example, in Japan in 1995, following the terrorist attack on the Tokyo underground, the inability of government to put other health bodies immediately in touch with medical scientists with direct hospital experience of sarin and its effects, is claimed to have inhibited diagnosis and treatment of casualties. If time permitted, regulations would be made under Clause 6 to require responders to share certain information. But, if there was insufficient time to draft and make regulations, it may be appropriate to require, by way of direction, a local responder to provide information to another responder.
It is in those sorts of circumstances, which I think one could fairly argue are health-related and simply humanitarian, that one would seek to use the direction powers in the way in which we have described.
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I can assure the Committee that the Government would use urgent directions only where they were quite genuinely necessary and where they had to be used in the circumstances that I have described. Where at all possible they would always seek to legislate in the normal way. The requirement that there is insufficient time to legislate achieves this effect.
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