My Lords, I am pleased to bring forward this Bill, which continues to make further progress in the modernisation of the statute book by removing obsolete legislation from it. The Bill was prepared by the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission in fulfilment of their ongoing statutory responsibility to promote the repeal of obsolete and unnecessary laws.
Over the past 43 years the law commissions, which are independent statutory bodies set up under the Law Commissions Act 1965, have published 19 reports on statute law repeals, with draft Bills attached, that have been presented to Parliament. The 18 previous reports have resulted in the repeal of 2,300 whole Acts and the part repeal of thousands of others. The present Bill proposes the repeal of more than 800 whole Acts and the part repeal of 50 others. This makes it the largest statute law repeals Bill that the commission has ever produced.
The repeals are set out in Schedule 1 to the Bill. They are in 11 parts and cover a diverse range of subjects, from poor relief and lotteries to turnpikes and Indian railways. As always, the law commissions have uncovered areas of some historical interest and antiquity. For example, the earliest repeal is from around 1322—the exact year remains uncertain—and concerns the working of the old Exchequer Court. Other historical curiosities, no doubt important in their time, include an Act of 1696 passed to fund the rebuilding of St Paul’s cathedral after the Great Fire of 1666; an Act of 1800 to authorise the holding of a lottery for the £30,000 Pigot diamond; and 38 Acts passed to support various railway companies operating in British India and the wider East Indies. However, not all the repeals involve ancient law; the Bill includes the repeal of a number of unnecessary tax provisions, the most recent of which were enacted in only 2010.
Your Lordships will wish to know that there has been full consultation by the law commissions with interested bodies on all the proposed repeals, and there are no outstanding objections to any of them. I am sure that your Lordships will wish to join me in paying tribute to the two law commissions for their very thorough and painstaking efforts in this important work of modernising our statute book. I should also thank those who have been consulted by the commission for their contributions.
Finally, because some of the repeals relate to devolved matters in Scotland, a legislative consent Motion has been lodged in the Scottish Parliament in accordance with standard practice. If your Lordships are content with the Bill at Second Reading, it will be referred to the Joint Committee on Consolidation, a committee on which I had the honour to serve some 30 years ago. This will be considered by that committee in the usual way. I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, I join the Minister in thanking and commending the Law Commission for the huge amount of work that has gone into bringing forward the Bill. As winter perceptibly draws upon us, the Minister appropriately comes to us in the guise of a sort of Autolycus manqué; in his case disposing rather than snapping up unconsidered legislative trifles accumulated over, as he said, many centuries.
I do not know whether the Minister has read the 365-page report of the Law Commission. I confess that I have not done so, but my eye caught some of the matters to which the noble Lord referred. In particular, I noticed that there were some Acts of Parliament affecting Newcastle, of which, of course, I am a resident and, still, a member of its council. It is striking how much detail has gone into the work of the commission, looking at some rather obscure provisions. For example, in Part 1 group 11 in the report, there is reference to two Acts of Parliament concerning Newcastle hospitals. The first is the Holy Jesus Hospital; the Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Act of 1947 dealt with that. These were hospitals built as alms houses in the 1680s. This one later became a museum and harboured something called the “town hutch”. The town hutch did not in fact contain rabbits; it contained the cash of the city council. The hutch is still preserved. Given the declining resources of the city council, they might well find it easier to accommodate them in the hutch in future, rather than the banks in which we are presently depositing our moneys.
Another Bill affected a different sort of organisation, the Mary Magdalene Hospital, a real feature of the city’s history. It is 900 years since a leper hospital was founded just outside the then city boundaries. Later it changed its character, and a new charter was granted in 1611, to provide housing for,
“three poor single or unmarried brethren”.
Brethren of whom it was not quite clear, but the trust still works. It still provides a very successful sheltered housing scheme, which is very popular and well managed, and resourced by the trust’s substantial landholdings in the city.
On another front, Part 5 of the report contains reference under the rather misleading heading of “Northumberland” to another Newcastle piece of legislation. The Explanatory Notes contained in the Law Commission’s report say:
“In 1688 a sizeable proportion of the population of Newcastle-upon-Tyne were poor artificers and labourers who found it extremely difficult and costly to recover small debts”.
I can assure your Lordships that, unfortunately, still a sizeable proportion of the population of Newcastle is poor. I do not know whether artificers are around, and do not know how many are labourers, but there is certainly a significant proportion of people who are poor and who find it difficult to cope with such legal matters as dealing with their debts. To resolve the situations 300 years go, a local court was created under the wonderful title of the Erecting Newcastle-upon-Tyne Court of Conscience Act 1688; that is a wonderful description. The court was to provide a local recourse because the cost of starting and conducting cases in London was too great. We therefore had effectively a small claims court where creditors could pursue debts of up to all of £2 locally.
The Minister has some responsibilities for courts now. We are seeing something of history repeating itself, given that we now have a single national county court with local branches. However, all proceedings have to be issued not in the locality but through a single court centre in Salford. Huge problems have been engendered by that process. I am not entirely sure that the Minister would countenance the creation of courts of conscience all over the country in order to promote the disposition of claims. But, as history seems to be repeating itself, it may be that some such recourse will have to be held.
These two examples of arcane and interesting legislation clearly have run past their sell-by date. We are certainly happy with the work of the Law Commission. We commend it for its work and commend the Government for bringing forward this Bill. I suppose that we can look forward to receiving another 365-page document in a few years’ time to dispose of many more pieces of legislation. Of course, I hope that much of the present Government’s legislation will be off the statute book before we get another Law Commission report and that a change of Government, as this side of the House certainly hopes, will happen soon.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for that response and for his ingenuity in managing to get a political point into the reply. In some ways, I am much relieved that more noble Lords did not delve into the support papers—they are absolutely fascinating. I live in St Albans where the court house Act in 1829 enabled it to build a beautiful building in St Peter’s Street, although it is no longer used as a court house. It is interesting that an Act of Parliament was needed to build it.
Another thing which caught my eye was the reference to finance Bills. There is always the complaint that such Bills are too large and too complicated. The value of the Law Commission is given to us. I am a great fan of the Law Commission and its work. I am very pleased that this House, through its new, expedited procedures, brings more Law Commission work through Parliament. It set out on a massive task of looking at finance Bills between 1950 and 2010. Over 14 years, five major consolidations were produced, which must have been an amazing labour of love by the members of the Law Commission who combed their way through successive finance Bills, sifting out the unnecessary.
I also asked which is the oldest statute still active. It is the Statute of Marlborough 1267, which is an omnibus Bill covering distraint on goods without the permission of the courts, tort waste and the suing of outgoing tenants to maintain a property in good order. Dealing with these Bills—starting with Marlborough in 1267 and ending with the electoral boundaries Bill—underpins the sense of history and continuity in the work that we do every day in these two Chambers.
As I have said, with great confidence I will send it to the Consolidation Bills Joint Committee. As a junior member of that committee 30 years ago, I remember the thoroughness with which it does its job. I commend the Bill to the House.
Bill read a second time.