Skip to main content

Parliament Acts (Amendment) Bill Hl

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2001

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

8.19 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—( Lord Donaldson of Lymington.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[THE DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (The Viscount of Oxfuird) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

moved Amendment No. 1:

After Clause 1. insert the following new clause—


(". Nothing in section 1 shall reduce the steps or the time required for the House of Commons to overrule a legislative decision of the House of Lords.")

The noble Earl said: I would never dream of entering into a debate with some of our legal pundits, but a question of principle appears to be involved—I do not say that it is definitely involved, but it appears to be on the face of it. The Explanatory Notes—issued, I understand, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson—say that one indirect effect of the Bill will be that in future the House of Commons will only have to pass a Bill twice instead of three times before overruling us. We are also told that it will take the House of Commons only one year instead of two before achieving that result. I may be told that that is a misunderstanding but, as it is in the Explanatory Notes, it needs clearing up.

I must say two or three words about why I object so strongly to the weakening of the delaying power of this House. I do not say that it should be strengthened, but it should stay as it is now. There are not many noble Lords who want to stay to hear my reasons, but I can explain how I see the relations between the Houses by telling a short story. In 1946, when Lord Montgomery was Chief of the Imperial General Staff and I was Under-Secretary for War, he took me to the staff college at Camberley. Like everyone there, he was in uniform, while I was a wretched civilian, cowering on the platform. He finished his speech, "Well, gentlemen, you must never forget the politicians. They are our masters". There was loud laughter. He went on, "But we must also never forget our duty to lead them up the garden path".

That is how I see the relationship between the two Houses. In the end we have to give way to the Commons, but we do not want to allow them to overrule us without any delay. We do not want them to reduce the delay that we impose, because we have a higher intellectual and moral standard than they have. Anybody knows that perfectly well. However, we know that self-government is better than good government, so we have to give way to them in the last resort. However, we must be in a position to make our opinions widely heard throughout the country and exert our full influence. Once our delaying power is tampered with, that influence will be diminished. I therefore strongly object to any provision that could possibly reduce our delaying powers. I beg to move.

I regret to have to say that the noble Earl has wholly misunderstood the purpose of Clause 1. He has misread the Explanatory Notes, which I am confident accurately express the purpose and tenor of Clause 1. In the circumstances, I hope that I may be forgiven for referring to the Explanatory Notes. They read:

"Clause 1 of the Bill deliberately avoids the necessity for Parliament to express any view as to the validity of the 1949 Act by providing that it and those acts passed in reliance upon it, shall be 'confirmed"'.
The 1949 Act, of course, purported to reduce the period between two readings in the other place and the number of occasions on which the Bill had to be passed by the other place before the will of this House could be overridden. The Explanatory Notes continue:
"This is the appropriate term"
that is, "confirmed"—
"if the 1949 Act, and consequentially the War Crimes Act 1991 (the 1991 Act), the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999 (the 1999 Act) and the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 (the 2000 Act) would otherwise be invalid, or if the four Acts are, and always have been, valid and all that is required is a stilling of unfounded doubts. Its purpose is not only to place the validity of the 1949, 1991, 1999 and 2000 Acts beyond question. but indirectly to affirm that in future when using the Parliament Act procedure the House of Commons need only pass the Bill on two occasions (instead of three) and that the time required to elapse between second reading in the Commons in the first of these sessions and its final passing by that House is one year (instead of two)".
That has been accepted as the position since 1991, which was the first occasion on which that view could have been challenged. However, there are three views among the legal fraternity and others. The Attorney-General believes that no action is needed, because everybody knows that the 1949 Act was validly passed by the other place to amend the 1911 Act. Others take the diametrically opposite view that the other place had no power to change the constitutional arrangements. The third, and I hope not insignificant, group, of which I am one, does not know the answer. Not only do I not know the answer, I do not want it to emerge as a result of what the media will portray as a clash between the courts, the judiciary and the legislature. The Bill is designed to still doubts or to confirm the Attorney-General's view. At any rate, it would put the issue beyond controversy.

If the amendment were accepted, we would have the astonishing position that, in the event of a challenge to the validity of any attempt by the other place to pass, say, the Hunting Bill—I take that as an example, although other occasions may well arise—within the reduced time limits, the courts would have to ask whether this Act, as it then would be, reduced the terms required for the passing of Acts by the other place without the consent of this House.

The courts would have to resolve the question that Clause 1 is designed to remove from the arena. They would have to ask whether, without the amendment, the clause reduced the relevant periods. The Attorney-General would say that of course it did not. Others would say that of course it did. I would say that I do not know. As a result, we would have a potential collision between the courts and the legislature, which is what the clause was designed to avoid.

I say with some confidence and all the emphasis that I can command that the amendment would wreck one of the primary purposes of the Bill. I hope that the noble Earl will withdraw it.

It is with both delight and regret that I find myself responding on behalf of the Conservatives to the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Longford. The noble Earl's proposition appears to be that nothing in the Bill should reduce or limit the existing powers of your Lordships' House. It is a real pleasure to have that perspective advanced and maintained by such a senior and respected Member of the Government Back Benches. I take this opportunity to ask the Attorney-General whether he is prepared to endorse that view on behalf of the Government.

We agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson. Furthermore, we do not believe that anything in Clause I as drafted would have the effect that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, fears. To that extent, while we welcome the underlying principles and sentiments of the amendment, we do not believe that it is necessary.

I understand the motive that the two noble Earls have addressed. It may be useful if I spell out the Government's position. We maintain the view that the Parliament Act 1949, the Salisbury/Addison convention and the convention that, after discussion and consideration of the views expressed in this House, the Government will get their business through, provide a proper and satisfactory working basis for the relationship between the Houses. I respectfully agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington, that nothing in the Bill as drafted would have any effect on this House's suspensory veto.

Perhaps I may give a crumb or two of further comfort to both noble Earls by indicating the unanimous view of the report of the Royal Commission, chaired so well by the noble Lord, Lord Walceham. I shall give the quotation, which is from Recommendation 3, paragraph 4.12 of the report:
"The second Chamber should continue to have a suspensory veto of the present length in respect of most primary legislation".
I believe that that is the point which my noble friend Lord Longford made. The qualification refers primarily, of course, to the two special cases. The first relates to extending the life of Parliament, and the second—I am very glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, in his place—concerns money Bills. Therefore, I respectfully agree that this provision is not needed. However, if the opportunity were there to be taken, I hope that I have clarified the position so far as concerns the Government.

8.30 p.m.

I do not find the answers given so far very convincing, although I welcome all the kind things said from the Opposition Bench. Why were those words included in the Explanatory Notes when, at the very least, they were liable to mislead? Certainly they misled me. Nevertheless, I am glad to have raised the matter because it is set out in black and white. On the face of it, anyone would conclude that the Bill would weaken the delaying power of this House. For that reason, I am glad that I raised the matter. No doubt we shall hear more on other issues. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, commands such enormous respect that I timidly suggest to him that the Explanatory Notes should be revised before they are published again. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 2 and 3 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.

House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes before nine o'clock.