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Acts Of Parliament Numbering And Citation Bill Lords

Volume 654: debated on Wednesday 28 February 1962

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Order for Second Reading read.

10.3 p.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill has three features which make it somewhat of a rarity amongst Bills. It is very short, it is wholly intelligible and it is largely uncontroversial. The one substantive provision in the Bill is confined to providing that from 1st January, 1963, Acts of Parliament shall be numbered according to the order in which they are enacted in the calendar year, so that the first Act of 1963 will be known as "1963 c. 1" instead of bearing the title such as it would at present "11 & 12 Eliz. 2, c. 11".

The present system of numbering Acts of Parliament is almost as ancient as Parliament itself. It is based upon the Sessions of Parliament described in terms of regnal years. There are three periods which are concerned in describing Acts of Parliament—the Sessions of Parliament, the calendar year and the regnal year. The present system consists of allotting them to each Session (of Parliament, described according to the regnal year in which the Session takes place, and that may consist of one, two or three regnal years.

I hope that the House will agree, without my taking any more of its time at this late hour on the fascinating history and reasons for this change, that there is everything to be said for adopting a system which is already common to the great part of the Commonwealth, to much of the English-speaking parts of the world and to all our Colonies and Protectorates, and which accords with both convenience and common sense.

Each Act of Parliament in future, therefore, if the Bill is passed, will bear simply its Short Title and a number consisting of the year in which it was passed, with the chapter number added according to the order in which, in the calendar year, the Act was passed. The result might be said, speaking in biblical terms, to convert the future volumes of statutes from the Books of Kings to the Books of Numbers.

10.5 p.m.

First, I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor-General on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. I hope that any future legislation he may introduce will be as uncontroversial as this.

I rise to express the gratitude of at least some people in Scotland for the Bill. The present method of numbering and citing Acts of Parliament by using the regnal year is, of course, a source of annoyance to those who consider that Scotland has no Queen Elizabeth II, but only a Queen Elizabeth I. By ceasing to refer to Queen Elizabeth II in the number of Acts, we shall remove this cause of irritation and annoyance to certain people in Scotland. I am sure that they will welcome the Bill on that account.

Perhaps my hon. Friend does not understand how closely Scottish people follow legislation. They are renowned for their addiction to the law. He should not think that the method of numbering and citing Acts has escaped their notice.

I have a little doubt about the wisdom of breaching an ancient tradition. This is something we should always think carefully about, particularly when it is Conservatives who are breaching an honourable tradition. Conservatives exist to preserve tradition, not breach it. However, as one not so firmly addicted to the past as hon. Members opposite, I welcome the Bill. The new method will be more intelligible, and anything which makes legislation more intelligible is thoroughly desirable.

I hope that the Bill will have a speedy passage to the Statute Book. I do not know whether it will be included among those to receive the new citation. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] That is unfortunate. However, I hope that it will get on to the Statute Book as quickly as possible. We shall do our best to speed it through the House.

10.9 p.m.

I join in welcoming the Bill and congratulating my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box.

Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis), I believe that the Bill will give a great deal of pleasure to many lawyers in Scotland. At last, after just over 200 years, England is taking a page out of the Scottish Statute Book. Before the Treaty of Union, Scottish Acts of Parliament were cited by reference to the Christian year, not the regnal year, and numbered throughout the year in which they were passed.

I congratulate the English on deciding to change their method of citation, and I commend the Bill to the House.

10.10 p.m.

I, too, should like to join in the general congratulations to the Government on introducing the Bill. I think that there are one or two Amendments that we can think of for the Committeee stage, but we can come to them later. As the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) has just said, it takes England a long to catch up, but eventually she does.

I am sure that most people who have taken an interest in this matter will appreciate that something had eventually to be done about the relictuary laws of Scotland from 1424 to 1707. The Statute Law Revision Bill was introduced in this House in 1906, and you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, will probably remember it well, because all Scottish Members of Parliament are constantly referring to it. It received the Royal Assent, and anyone who likes to look it up will discover that all those Acts of Parliament from 1424 to 1707, even when passed through all their stages in the English, or as it was by then the United Kingdom, Parliament, are in chronological order, according to the year and the chapter. I am not at all surprised that we should at last be getting up to date, but I am wondering how far we are going in this matter, and why it is taken so silently by people who worship tradition, almost to the point of folly at times.

I can remember that when we were going into the Naval Discipline Act, there were words written first, I think, by Pepys, and what a struggle there was to have those words maintained. Not a single syllable changed. Here, we are by this very simple piece of legislation saying:
"The chapter numbers assigned to Acts of Parliament passed in the year nineteen hundred and sixty-three and every subsequent year shall be assigned by reference to the calendar year, and not the Session, in which they are passed;"
All this is clear and straightforward, but let us have look at what goes before it:
"Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same. as follows:—"
We stick once again to traditional language, and yet we are prepared to throw overboard, almost with a laugh, the way in which Acts of Parliament have been numbered by the House of Commons for hundreds of years.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) said, in taking out the regnal year, we are also taking out Elizabeth II. We are taking out the name of the monarch. I should have thought myself that this was not something which ought rightly to have been done. I think that the older Members of Parliament might have been concerned about this. I am not a very old Member of the House—only fourteen or fifteen years—and I would not like to tell my colleagues how long it took me to work out this business and find the Acts of Parliament that I wanted. I am quite sure that there are young Members of Parliament who have not yet fathomed how to do it.

In making this much more simple, we are taking away one of the privileges of older Members of Parliament, because in future we shall not be able to mystify some of our younger colleagues, as we used to do. In that respect, there is a measure of regret in my mind about this.

I agree that this will give some lawyers in Scotland pleasure. It is amazing how many lawyers there share this feeling of nationalism, when they are getting rid of something which many of us always thought was rather offensive. We bow to no one in our loyalty to the Crown, but in Scotland we never had an Elizabeth I. I reckon that at least one Secretary of State certainly let us down in that respect. We remember the instances of the pillar boxes, and I can remember some people in my constituency being concerned in removing the figure "II" from dies applied to petrol pumps and being very determined in doing it.

I do not think that it has been the desire to get rid of that which has prompted this Bill. I think that it is something much more sensible, but if I may I should like to make one suggestion, which will help us in remembering Bills which have been speedily rushed through the House.

If, after each Bill dealt with under the Guillotine procedure, we put the letter G it would be helpful to everyone interested. It would highlight this factor, so that, in future, the Government would not readily use the Guillotine procedure, as I understand they are threatening to do again during the coming days. There is no reason why we should not have the designation "1962, chapter 5 (G)." Then we would know that the Bill concerned was obviously defective.

Would it not also be helpful to have an indication that the measure was passed by a Tory Government?

Order. We are straying into Committee points. This is a Second Reading debate.

This is a very complex Bill. I do not think that there is harm in suggesting that it could be further improved in Committee by giving effect to my suggestion and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East.

As the question of the Committee stage has been raised, we might be told where the Committee stage will be taken. Owing to the interest in the Bill in Scotland, it might be advisable to send it to the Scottish Grand Committee, which could, no doubt, spend many happy hours discussing it. Summer would no doubt be far advanced before we passed it

Far be it for me to try to teach the Leader of the Liberal Party about the rules of procedure, but the only things which go to the Scottish Grand Committee are the Second Readings of Bills which are wholly concerned with Scotland. I understand that there is a certain amount of concern about the Bill in England and Wales as well. It is certainly desirable to give it careful scrutiny, and we could find many ways of amending it, although I doubt whether the Government would appreciate our services and attention.

With these comments, I welcome the Bill and join in the congratulations to the Solicitor-General on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box.

10.17 p.m.

Just to remind the House that this is not necessarily a Scottish Bill—although one would think it was after listening to the hon. Members for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) and Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis)—I point out that what is involved here is the regnal year as well as the name of the monarch, but that it would not matter which Elizabeth it was, for, presumably, she would come to the throne in the same year in each country.

I am not sure why the Bill is being introduced—for good filing purposes, or as a sort of bargain to placate our friends north of the Border, which I would not necessarily disagree with. If it is because of good filing, this could be the first of a long stream of such changes, affecting also the use of archaic language. I should be sorry to see that language go. I am sorry to see this Bill.

I, too, congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. He cannot have had much to do with this Bill. It must have been dropped into his lap. I regret the Bill, however. The day that this House turns itself into a machine and ceases to have anything archaic about it, the country and ourselves will be the poorer. I do not want to see archaic things which cannot be understood, but I want to see archaic things which can be understood. It should not be hard for hon. Members to work out that from 1952 to 1962 is ten years, and I thought that by now the argument about whether Her Majesty is the second Elizabeth in Scotland would have died down.

Why should our friends north of the Border take credit for the Armada when they had nothing to do with it?

I am serious about my remarks.

Finally, this is a most important matter to me. I do not regard myself as an old Member of the House either in age or in the number of years that I have been here, but if we continue, as I trust we shall, to require Her Majesty's or His Majesty's assent to Bills before they become law, it does not appear to me to be incongruous to keep her name and regnal year on them.

10.21 p.m.

I add my congratulations to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor-General. I like and respect him for everything but his views, which, fortunately, do not appear very much in this Bill.

May I add one serious word? This Bill is removing an ancient practice which is really inconvenient and troublesome, and I am glad that it is being done. But I am sorry that we do not get more opportunities in the House to pass pieces of law reform—that is what this is, on a very small scale—which are uncontroversial and which would do a great deal of good in the country. They get pushed through by Private Members' Bills, which is a very good thing as far as it goes, but no Government—this is not a party point—seems to be able to find time to give effect to the recommendations, for instance, of Law Reform Committees, which call for a great deal of skilled and voluntary work on the part of those learned in the law.

I wish that the Government, having gone into travail, had produced a litter of mice like this or, perhaps, one or two rather larger animals, always of a non-controversial nature. I hope that the Bill will be passed, and passed quickly.

10.22 p.m.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. But I ask myself what has he said. What is the Bill for? The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) said that it would cause a great deal less trouble in the country. What trouble has been caused in the country by the method of numbering Bills which has been adopted up to now? Who asked for the Bill? Why are we wasting our time at this hour of night on this sort of thing? I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will take the Bill upstairs and will cut its throat.

10.23 p.m.

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) has said. May I say this on a rather more serious note?

We take great pride in the fact that our Parliamentary system consist of the monarch, the Lords and the Commons "in this present Parliament assembled." The monarch is definitely part of the legislative process. It is part of the dignity which this House has acquired over the centuries that the legislation which we pass should be linked closely with the name of the monarch at the time that it goes through Parliament.

Many arguments can be adduced about the convenience of hon. Members. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) had to be in the House for fourteen years before he could find a way to get a Measure to which he wanted to refer. I see no reason why we should not have a sort of official title or wording for a Bill, using the regnal year as has been done in the past, and some simple vocabulary in the Library which will enable rather simple hon. Members to find their way about Measures more easily.

I deplore that, in a lighthearted way, we are letting something go which has existed for probably 700 years. We are parting with part of the fabric of the legislative process of this nation and something from which a good deal of the dignity of this House, of which we are all proud to be Members, stems for the sake of the convenience of the modern age.

I have no intention of trying to divide the House, but I do not think that there is a demand for the Bill. It may be convenient, but I think that the House will be the poorer by the passing of it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[ Mr. M. Hamilton.]

Committee Tomorrow.