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Clause 1—(Procedure For Making Cor-Rections And Minor Improvements)

Volume 464: debated on Friday 13 May 1949

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."—[ The Attorney-General.]

11.3 a.m.

I apologise for troubling my right hon. and learned Friend with a small point which might have been raised more conveniently at an earlier stage but has only just been brought to my notice. It is stated that in subsection (1) that

"It at any time it appears to the Lord Chancellor to be expedient that a Bill should be prepared for the purpose of consolidating the enactments relating to any subject,"
that should be done, and "corrections and minor improvements" may be made hi accordance with the procedure outlined in the Clause. Now, I gather that this is taken to include Church Assembly Measures. The slight difficulty which arises is that, as my right hon. and learned Friend knows, Church Assembly Measures cannot be amended by Parliament but can only be accepted or rejected outright, if necessary after Debate. I am wondering whether my right hon. and learned Friend can say anything which would make it easier to reconcile the apparent discrepancy between the existing constitutional position, as between the Church Assembly and Parliament, and the provisions of this Clause?

I make no apology for troubling my right hon. and learned Friend with a rather more substantial matter which could not have been conveniently raised except after discussion on the Second Reading. My right hon. and learned Friend referred on Second Reading to certain discussions which had previously taken place in regard to this Bill. My recollection of those discussions, and of the Bill as originally drafted, was that the proposal was that Statutory Rules and Orders should be prepared embodying the proposed corrections or amendments it was desired to make, and that they should be subject to the ordinary procedure. We raised in these discussions the question, which was something of a moot point, whether one could table a Prayer for the rejection or annulment of a Statutory Rule and Order which was not designed to come into force except as part of the consolidated Measure. It was quite obvious that the question presented difficulties, but the procedure which my right hon. and learned Friend outlined on Second Reading is somewhat different. Although I welcome this Bill, I wonder how far we are abrogating any of our rights. The procedure now is that Amendments should be tabled in the House. My right hon. and learned Friend says that that provides an opportunity of writing to the members of the Joint Committee and making representations, but that, of course, is very different from the right to raise points on the Floor of the House and discovering whether those points have any substantial support.

I studied Erskine May last night, but found that it contained little information about the procedure on consolidated Measures. I would like to know, therefore, whether this procedure is intended to relate to Private Bills as well as to Public Bills? On a consolidated Measure relating to Private Bills, which are necessary in dealing with the affairs of a local body, there is the right of petition by the local body, which might be abrogated by this Bill. The Bill refers to minor corrections and amendments, but I understand that it is clearly the intention that the procedure should allow for the clearing up of what I might call moot points—the many and varied propositions of great importance on which, from time to time, the courts have expressed doubts. Some of these are matters of first-rate importance. It is a very good thing that we should have a Measure designed to clear them up, and I am sure we would all like to congratulate my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor on initiating procedure which is designed, at long last, to make a small start with consolidation.

In starting this consolidation, however, we should know precisely where we are. As I understand it, a great deal depends on the wording of the Preamble of the consolidating Bill. If it is the intention only to consolidate, then there is no opportunity for discussion. On the other hand, if it is intended to consolidate and amend, Amendments can be tabled. My right hon. and learned Friend, on Second Reading, referred to the Report stage. The Bill gives power to the Joint Committee to make further amendments of their proceedings over and above the amendments which have been tabled in the House. It is a limited but distinct power, and it may be very important. If they do exercise a power of this kind on Report we shall have an opportunity of discussing Amendments. The answer given by my right hon. and learned Friend, on Second Reading, was not satisfactory; he said we could throw out the Bill. But no one wants to throw out a consolidating Bill because of a small matter which, nevertheless, may be important to a large class of persons, and thus lose the Bill because that was the only way open to Members of the House to raise points of substance.

The chief object of the Bill is to prevent long discussions and make it possible, within the limits of Parliamentary time, to get these important Measures through, but I feel that the Bill, as drafted, may well result in depriving Members of the House of a very important right to raise matters of substance. I would like to know what are the implications of the Measure, what will be the procedure on Report, and whether my right hon and learned Friend can tell us that when Amendments are tabled, there will be an opportunity to discuss them within the limits of Parliamentary time?

11.15 a.m.

The object of the Bill is to avoid any alteration in the existing procedure for Measures to consolidate, but not to amend, the law. Consequently, there will be no opportunity for tabling on Report Amendments to Bills brought within the procedure proposed here, even if amendments are made by the Joint Committee. That is the essential object of the Bill—to avoid the delay and complication which would inevitably ensue if consolidation Bills which dealt only with drafting corrections were made open to general amendment on the Floor of the House.

The procedure proposed in the Bill is that minor corrections and amendments—and their scope is defined in Clause 2—should be dealt with in the Joint Committee, after due notice has been given to the House and to all concerned that it is proposed that minor amendments and corrections should be embodied in the Bill and after Members or others have had an opportunity of making their representations about those corrections and amendments to the Joint Committee. If my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) thought that a correction or improvement it was proposed to embody in the Bill involved a point of substance he would be entitled to make his representations to the Joint Committee and, no doubt, to be heard by them. If his representations were not satisfactorily disposed of, he would be entitled to raise the matter on the Floor of the House, not by moving an Amendment but by opposing the further passage of the Bill.

Moreover, the procedure will not operate at all unless the Lord Chancellor and Mr. Speaker have themselves certified that the corrections are only minor corrections or improvements, and are of such a nature as to render it unnecessary that they should be dealt with by separate enactment in the ordinary course of our legislative procedure. There is that safeguard, therefore, against any substantial amendments being made. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham said that at one stage it was contemplated that these minor corrections or amendments might be embodied in some form of statutory instrument, though not, I think, a statutory instrument subject to Prayer. It was pointed out during the discussions we had that it might be thought inappropriate to use what is, in effect, legislative machinery in this connection, and in the course of our further discussions—possibly my hon. Friend was not present—it was finally agreed that the use of a statutory instrument in that way would be inappropriate, and that the better method is the one now contemplated in the body of this Bill.

It was never intended that there should be any opportunity of amending the Bill itself on the Floor of the House, even in relation to minor corrections and amendments. The whole object of the procedure is to avoid the possibility of amendment on the Floor and to give the Joint Committee, in appropriate circumstances, this very limited right of recommending to the House minor corrections and improvements for the purpose of removing ambiguities, resolving doubts, forth, as defined in Clause 2.

I hope the Committee will feel, as the House did on Second Reading, that the rights of the House are fully protected, first, by publication, a month in advance of the consideration of the Bill, of the minor improvements and corrections which it is proposed to embody in it; second, by the right of representation by Members of the House, or the general public, about any of the proposed corrections or minor improvements; third, by the discussions which take place in the Joint Committee, and the hearing of evidence there; fourth, by the certificate of Mr. Speaker and the Lord Chancellor; fifth, by the rights which the House still has, on Report and on Third Reading, to throw out the Bill as a whole if it is thought that there is anything in the minor improvements and corrections which ought properly to have been made subject to enactment in the ordinary course of our legislative procedure. The other point which my hon. Friend raised was in regard to the possibility of consolidating all Private Bills. It is not the practice and it is not intended to be the practice within this Statute to include Private Bills in the consolidating Measures that are introduced.

I come to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) in regard to Church Assembly Measures. In dealing with this matter on Second Reading I said that the Bill would apply to Measures of the Church Assembly, and that it was possible in certain matters that the Measures of that Assembly would be consolidated with the ordinary law. An example of it is in relation to marriage. We have in an advanced stage a Bill which is intended to consolidate all the existing enactments in relation to marriage. There are nearly 40 of them, and if my recollection is right, four of them are Church Assembly Measures.

As I informed the House on Second Reading, we had discussed this matter with the authorities of the Church Assembly, and they considered that the proposals which we were placing before the House in this regard were not inappropriate. Indeed, no objection was taken to them when the Bill was introduced in another place. I can give this assurance to my hon. Friend and the Committee—that before laying the Memorandum in which minor corrections and improvements are embodied, the authorities of the Church Assembly will be consulted in regard to any corrections or improvements which it is proposed to make in connection with the Measures of that Assembly. It is most unlikely that thereafter the Lord Chancellor would wish to include amendments and corrections in Church Assembly Measures which were not, in fact, acceptable to the Church Assembly, but in the unlikely event of that course being taken the Church Assembly would be entitled to make representations to the Joint Committee in regard to that matter.

What does the right hon. and learned Gentleman mean by the authorities of the Church Assembly?

I understand that these matters are dealt with through the Bishops and no doubt the Bishops and other officials would be consulted in regard to the matter and they would have a right to consult the Church Assembly as a whole. It should be remembered, however, that these are drafting and minor matters, and the whole purpose of the Bill is to ensure that no matters of substance are involved. I should not think it likely that the Church Assembly would be summoned to deal with any corrections which might usefully be embodied in the Bill. Moreover, there are few Bills likely to come within the scope of this Bill in which Church Assembly Measures are likely to arise. They arise particularly in relation to the laws of marriage, and I doubt whether there will be other cases of consolidation, certainly none that I have in mind at the moment, in which Church Assembly Measures would arise at all.

I have now received further and better particulars about the authorities of the Church Assembly. Although I have the honour of belonging to that body I am afraid I am a little unfamiliar with its administrative arrangements. There is a Standing Committee of Diocesan Chancellors which no doubt in appropriate circumstances will be consulted. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon will feel that the interests of the Church Assembly will be very fully protected by the procedure I have indicated.

I am sorry to pursue this point, but

"a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet."
My right hon. Friend's explanation would suggest that the flower he described is a violet and yet in Clause 2 the violets shall include magnolias and the ultimate aroma might be misleading to the uninitiated. It is not sufficient to say that Clause 2 is a good one, and it is useless to introduce a Measure like this unless it does some good.

We are discussing Clause 1, which is the mechanics of the Bill, and the Attorney-General has said that the mechanics of the Bill apply to such minor amendments as are referred to in Clause 1. I am discussing, the minor amendments referred to in Clause 1 and the procedure for resolving those minor amendments.

The hon. Gentleman kept referring to what is in fact Clause 2, its advantages and so on. That question does not arise here.

With respect, I am referring to the improvement of minor amendments in Clause 1. If I cannot say what a minor amendment is, I will not say it, but I will confine myself to saying that "minor amendments" under Clause 1, even if we did not know what was stated in Clause 2, is still a phrase which might be interpreted in a very wide way. I do not want to have to raise this matter at a second stage, and I will confine myself to improvements to the minor amendments.

It might very well be that someone would suggest that a minor amendment might include bringing all the advantages of our old procedure into conformity with modern practice. The Attorney-General made one suggestion which seems to me to be very acceptable. He apprehended that Members would be afforded the opportunity to make representations to the Joint Committee, and I feel that that is some improvement. I hope he will find it possible to say that the Government will recommend the Joint Committee to carry out that suggestion.

I want to make another suggestion to deal with this matter within the terms of the Bill. These amendments are to be laid upon the Table and the Attorney-General knows what that means. The most active and industrious Members of Parliament—and modestly I count myself one of those—do not have the facilities or the opportunity to keep in touch with, digest and read over every amendment that is tabled. Indeed if they visit their constituencies, those amendments may be laid on the Table in their absence, and before they know about it the harm is done.

There is a Committee in this House which considers the Statutory Rules and Orders, and a similar Committee might be appointed to look at the amendments which are tabled, make representations to the Joint Committee, and so on. It would meet the objection which I have raised, which I think is important. That is a suggestion more in conformity with the traditions of this House, and it would meet with general approval if the Attorney-General could give an undertaking that at some stage such a Committee would be appointed which would have the duty of keeping an eye on these amendments, considering representations which would be made, for example, by the Law Society and the Bar Council from time to time as to the effect of the amendments, and making representations to the Joint Committee.

What does the hon. Gentleman mean by amendments? He referred to minor amendments. Does he mean the minor improvements or the amendments which might be in the minor improvements?

I was referring to minor improvements but I cannot at this stage state what the definition of minor improvements is, but I apprehend that it is possible that someone might say that minor improvements include amendments. I cannot give any reason for that.

Perhaps if the hon. Member read the Bill he would see that there is a provision for amendments in the minor improvements.

Yes, by the Joint Committee, and the Attorney-General says that these amendments made by the Joint Committee are not subject to discussion in this House. The result is that no Member of this House can make representations to the Joint Committee, and the request which I have made is I think a modest and proper one.

11.30 a.m.

I made it clear when I dealt with this point specifically on Second Reading that hon. Members of this House as well as members of the public would have the right to make representations to the Joint Committee. The Bill provides not only that the proposed amendments are to be laid a month at least before their consideration by the Joint Committee, but that notice is to be given in the "London Gazette" of the proposal to make these minor amendments in the Bill. I can feel little doubt that hon. Members will have ample opportunity to inform themselves well in advance of the subject matter of the minor amendments which the Joint Committee will have to consider.

I do not think I could accept now without further consideration the proposal that this House might be asked to establish an ad hoc committee in order to examine minor amendments which were to be examined by the Joint Committee. It seems that that would involve wholly unnecessary duplication of work. This House is represented on the Joint Committee and on that committee Members of this House, and Members of another place, will have ample opportunity to consider whether or not the minor amendments and improvements are appropriate to be dealt with under the machinery of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, or any other hon. Member, will have ample opportunity to submit representations in writing to the Joint Committee about the matter, if he wishes to do so.

Yes, if I can read every week the "London Gazette," the "Board of Trade Journal," the "Manchester Guardian" and "The Times."

I know how assiduous a Member of Parliament my hon. Friend is. I am certain that proposals of this kind will not escape his attention if they come to be made. He will be able to make his representations in writing. Whether or not the Joint Committee will be free to hear him as an oral witness is of course a matter for them. I said on Second Reading that I apprehended there was no doubt that in a proper case the Committee would agree to hear Members of Parliament who desired to be heard before them. They do, of course, hear witnesses such as counsel and draftsmen in regard to these matters and I have no doubt that in proper cases, if they thought that representations ought to be made, they would hear hon. Members who desired to make representations and to be heard in regard to particular matters. To appoint a second committee of this House would trespass to some extent on the proper functions of the Joint Committee and would certainly involve a duplication of the work which has to be undertaken by the Joint Committee.

Will the Attorney-General forgive me for interrupting him? I would point out that this is precisely the procedure on statutory rules and orders. The precise reason that the procedure is adopted is because of the little opportunity that Members of this House get to consider statutory rules and orders in detail. A statutory committee considers them, and makes representations to the House. It is still open to anybody to raise the matter and to have a full discussion in the House. Thus we get a duplication of procedure in precisely the same way.

It may be, if the ad hoc committee dealing with statutory rules and orders finds nothing objectionable in them, that there will be no discussion on the Floor of the House in regard to them at all. In the case of consolidation Measures, there is bound to be a hearing by the Joint Committee and consideration by that committee; the receipt of representations and perhaps of oral evidence and then a report to the House by that Joint Committee. That is bound to take place under the procedure. If we provided that before that stage is reached there is to be a preliminary examination by a committee of this House we should, in my submission, be duplicating the work which this House has already entrusted to the Joint Committee.

Accordingly I could not agree to that being done without further consideration of the matter. Whether, at some later stage, this House desires to establish an ad hoc committee in order to examine these proposals is entirely a matter for the House. I apprehend, without any provision by this House or any undertaking by me at this stage, that if the House thought that its rights were being abused in any way by this procedure, it would be able to establish an ad hoc committee to examine these memoranda a month before they came to be examined by the Joint Committee. I would venture to express the hope that the House would have sufficient confidence in its own representatives on the Joint Committee to be quite sure that the establishment of an ad hoc committee to do their work for them before it came to them to be considered at all would be wholly superfluous.

I venture to remind the House also of Clause 1 (5) which says:
"The Joint Committee shall not approve any corrections and minor improvements, and neither the Lord Chancellor nor the Speaker"—
Mr. Speaker is of course assisted by his counsel in these matters—
"shall concur in approving any corrections and minor improvements under this Act unless they are, or he is, satisfied that the corrections and minor improvements do not effect any changes in the existing law of such importance that they ought in their or his opinion, to be separately enacted by Parliament."
There are thus three bodies who direct their minds specifically to the point whether or not an amendment proposed for removing doubt, or whatever it may be, is of such significance and importance that it ought to be the subject of separate enactment. If the Joint Committee, the Lord Chancellor and Mr. Speaker, having come to the conclusion that the amendments are not of such a kind, this House none the less wishes to express a different conclusion, it will have two opportunities of doing so, first of all on the Report stage and secondly on the Third Reading, by opposing further stages of the Bill.

I would only add to what the Attorney-General has said that the five-fold safeguards provided by the Bill are not all available for statutory instruments. While I agree with the Attorney-General that an ad hoc committee is not necessary, I would draw the attention of the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) to the fact that in the case of statutory instruments an unofficial committee exists on this side of the House to watch them. It is called "The Active Back Benchers" and is commonly known as "the A.B.B." I suggest to the hon. Member that the Labour Party might take a leaf out of the Conservative Party's book and set up a similar unofficial committee for the purposes of this Bill when it becomes law.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Remaining Clauses ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed, without Amendment.