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Statute Law (Repeals) Bill Hl

Volume 417: debated on Tuesday 10 February 1981

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2.54 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Your Lordships will be aware that one of the functions of the two Law Commissions—that is, the Law Commission for England and Wales and the Law Commission for Scotland—is to promote

"the repeal of obsolete and unnecessary enactments, the reduction of the number of separate enactments and generally the simplification and modernisation of the law".
For that purpose they have presented to Parliament a number of reports with draft Bills attached. The Bill with which your Lordships are today concerned was annexed to the tenth report in this series, which was laid before Parliament in December last year. The nine previous reports have resulted in the repeal of over 2,000 enactments, including 947 whole Acts; the present Bill proposes the repeal of 119 whole Acts and the removal of redundant provisions from 123 others.

Those of your Lordships who have read Part IX of Schedule 1 to the Bill will see that one of the Acts amended is the Lord Chancellor's Pension Act 1832. Last December, when I was moving the Second Reading of the Judicial Pensions Bill, I explained that it was hardly necessary for me to declare an interest, because the pensions of Lord Chancellors are unaffected by that Bill since they are granted under the Act of 1832. For completeness I should perhaps now say that the amendment proposed to the Act of 1832 in no way affects the pensions of Lord Chancellors, past, present or to come, but merely recognises that there is now no separate holder of the office of Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

A Bill of this nature inevitably awakes memories of historic facts. The Unlawful Oaths Act 1797, which is to be found in Part I of Schedule 1, is the very Act under which, in 1834, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced to seven years' transportation for administering oaths of secrecy to members of an agricultural workers' trade union which operated legitimately by virtue of the Combinations Act 1825. The accused were subsequently granted a free pardon and brought home at public expense, and the Act of 1797 appears to have slept peacefully ever since.

I am sure that the House would wish me to express to the two Law Commissions the appreciation of Parliament for the valuable work which they are doing in this particular, if somewhat recondite, field. If this Bill is given a Second Reading, it will be referred to the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills in the usual way. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a .—( The Lord Chancellor.)

3 p.m.

My Lords, I am sure the House will join with the noble and learned Lord in thanking the Law Commission for continuing the admirable process of removing obsolete dross from the statute book. This bag—if I may so describe it—of interesting relics from our past is a good example of the value of the work. I am particularly glad that it has fallen to the noble and learned Lord to refer to the fact that we are, at last, repealing the abominable legislation under which the agricultural workers of Tolpuddle were made martyrs. It is a piece of interesting historical irony that it should fall to a Conservative Government to remedy this ancient injustice.

Its quality as a piece of legislation is reflected upon in the appendix to the report of the Law Commission with a quotation from The Times of 1st April 1834, following the conviction of the agricultural workers in that case. The decision in the case caused a public outcry, one reason being a suspicion, as The Times reported it, that,
"advantage has been taken of the letter of the law by prosecuting a man for one offence, in itself a matter of little moment, as the only means of ensuring his chastisement for another offence, morally and substantially of a graver character, which it may be thought desirable to punish … The dilemma in which the prosecution stands is this:—the crime which called for punishment was not proved; the crime brought home to the prisoners did not justify the sentence"—
a noble statement on a piece of monstrous injustice. The noble and learned Lord has said that the men concerned were granted a free pardon and were properly brought home at the public expense, but after much suffering in a case which has taken a memorable part in labour history.

The Unlawful Oaths (Ireland) Act ought perhaps, also, not to be passed by without notice. That corresponds substantially with the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797, but the main difference is that the penalty provided under the Irish Act was transportation for life, instead of for a mere seven years. It is reassuring to read in the report that the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland agrees to the proposed repeal.

There are other matters of interest which well merit the attention of noble Lords, because this is an admirable insight into much of our great island story. The noble and learned Lord has drawn attention to a matter to which I gave more than passing notice myself; namely, the Lord Chancellor's Pension Act. Does this mean that now, finally, the office of Lord Keeper of the Great Seal has been abolished? I never suspected that any part of my vast remuneration arose from the fact that I was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, but it would be interesting to know. I think that the Act of 1562 was repealed in 1969, but it would be interesting to know whether the responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal have now terminated. It was a responsibility which led to difficulties for some of the noble and learned Lord's predecessors, one of whom, unfortunately, lost the Great Seal, and another threw it in the river—practices which in recent times, I am happy to say, have not been repeated.

My Lords, I am terribly grateful to the noble and learned Lord for the gracious way in which he has received this humble offering in the legislative field. I do not think he should express surprise that it has fallen to me to repeal the Unlawful Oaths Act. It is always left to a Conservative Government to do really useful work which is left undone by its Labour predecessor.

As regards the office of Lord Keeper, yes, it has been abolished, I understand, but the Lord Chancellor's office intrinsically involves keepership of the Great Seal. It has a curious and rather involved history. The noble and learned Lord will remember that Queen Elizabeth I was very reluctant to call Lord Chancellor the persons, to whom she entrusted the Great Seal, though they had ordinarily been called so from time immemorial. She therefore began calling them Lord Keeper. Nicholas Bacon, the father of Francis Bacon, was such a Lord Keeper and it was not until she became slightly attracted, I think, to Christopher Hatton that the office of Lord Chancellor was, after a period, restored. So I do not think that the keepership of the Great Seal is in question. It is only the curious and obsolete title of Lord Keeper that has gone.

Incidentally, the House might like to know that my brother and I tried to persuade my father to accept the office of Lord Keeper of the Great Seal in place of that of Lord Chancellor, in order to prevent him from taking a hereditary peerage, which it would have successfully done, but unfortunately the old gentleman was not to be persuaded. So I am in the happy position of having held the office which my father once held. I am grateful to your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read 2a , and referred to the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills.