§ Order read for consideration of Lords Amendments.
§ 3.33 p.m.
§ The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Duncan Sandys)
I beg to move, "That the Lords Amendments be now considered."
In moving this Motion, I should like to express to the House my regret and that of the Government that there should be so many Amendments on the Order Paper for consideration. There are, in fact, 152, but as hon. Members who have studied the Order Paper will have seen, the vast majority of them are of a drafting character and embody much that was asked for during the earlier stages of the Bill in this House.
§ Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas (Leicester, North-East)
As one of the "old boys" who have been considering this Bill, I should like to welcome the new team which is appearing for the Government in debate on it. While congratulating them, at the same time I should like to commiserate with them because, as far as the Bill is concerned, those to be congratulated are those who have escaped having to deal with it any more. It is true that a large number of the 152 Lords Amendments are purely drafting Amendments, and I am obliged to the Minister for his courtesy in allowing me and my hon. Friends to have some notes which have helped us in considering them. The Amendments, however, also raise some matters of considerable substance and of controversy. They cannot be dealt with as the more numerous Amendments on the Mines and Quarries Bill were dealt with on Friday.
The drafting Amendments on the Bill are not just little things one can pass by with a nod. The drafting of the Bill raises matters of very considerable complexity, which have been discussed at great length in Committee and on the Report stage. Now we have Amendments broughts forward again for consideration—new Amendments raising new matters, new subsections and Schedules, and so on. Three Schedules which were in the Bill originally have been dropped. 784 One of those was never explained at all, for the very simple reason that it was inexplicable. It was withdrawn during the Report stage, and we now have, if not instead of it, at least another Schedule somewhat similarly headed. That again requires a great deal of explanation and consideration before we on this side of the House can be satisfied about it.
The Bill will have to be administered by local authorities throughout the country, by professional gentlemen, solicitors, surveyors and others, who are entitled to have a Bill which is reasonably understandable. The difficulty with the Bill is that it is so incomprehensible. I am sure that the former Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) will agree with me when I say that I do not think that I have ever seen a Bill which contained such a jumble of gibberish as did this Bill. An hon. Member on the other side of the House, who is extremely well versed in these affairs——
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. and learned Member seems to be straying a little from the Question, which is, "That the Lords Amendments be now considered." He is quite entitled to talk about the Lords Amendments, but not about the Bill, which has already passed through both Houses.
§ Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas
With respect, Mr. Speaker, I submit for your consideration that I am entitled to remark, not on the contents of the Bill, but on the desirability or undesirability of dealing with a Bill so soon after it comes to us from another place. I have expressed gratitude for the courtesy of the Minister in giving me notes, but this is a Bill which not only has to be considered by my hon. and right hon. Friends here but has to be considered in conjunction with local authorities and professional gentlemen who have to apply the provisions of the Bill in the country. I was addressing my mind to the peculiar quality of the Bill which makes it desirable that we should have appreciably more time for consideration, in consultation with others, before it comes to the House.
By way of illustrating that, I was remarking that one hon. Gentleman opposite, who has the respect of us all, who is thoroughly well versed in the Bill 785 and has had the assistance of professional bodies, proposed something which I have never seen done anywhere else. He proposed the omission of a Clause to achieve the very purpose which was achieved by the inclusion of the Clause as it stood. That is extraordinary. It is the kind of thing with which we have to deal in connection with the Bill. On another occasion, a Minister justified a Clause by a statement of policy which, after probing, he had to retract because it was the very opposite of the policy of the Clause which he sought to justify. I am not blaming the Minister. One cannot expect the Minister, with all his ability, to comprehend the incomprehensible, but that was the position.
Extensive alterations are brought into the Bill at this stage. It is a Measure which has to be applied by professional men throughout the country, but we have had no adequate time for consideration with them and with local authorities, who also will have to work it. The least we can do is to protest against the very little time we have had to prepare ourselves for the numerous and substantial Amendments brought forward.
§ Mr. J. A. Sparks (Acton)
I wish to support my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas). If it were in order, I should have liked to move that the Lords Amendments be sent back to the other place for the Lords to reconsider the whole thing afresh.
We spent a considerable time in Standing Committee trying to understand the very complicated Clauses and principles embodied in the Bill. We thought that, as a result of our deliberations, the right hon. Gentleman would be able to have many of the difficulties we faced in Standing Committee very much simplified when the Bill was in another place. Instead of the Bill coming back in a more simplified form, we have 152 Lords Amendments to consider which, in the opinion of many of us, makes the Bill much more confused and complicated than ever before.
To allocate to this House roughly three hours to consider the implications of 152 Amendments to an almost unintelligible Bill is really inadequate. I am very disappointed that the Lords did not considerably simplify the provisions of the Bill and send us Amendments which would have achieved that purpose. We should 786 be prepared to send the Lords Amendments back again and to ask for an entire simplification of the Bill.
§ Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)
The House is called upon to perform three rather different functions. First, it has to try to understand the Amendments which have come from another place, then to understand what affect an Amendment has on the Clause in the Bill to which it relates, and, thirdly, whether or not it agrees with that intention.
In the short time I have had to look at the Lords Amendments, I have not yet succeeded in discharging the first function. In many cases I have found it extremely difficult to understand what the proposed Amendments mean. When one goes through the Amendments in the hope of getting some enlightenment by looking at specific Clauses of the Bill, one finds the position even worse, because one has a comprehensive footnote to something which is already incomprehensible. It becomes even more difficult to make up one's mind whether or not one agrees with what it is proposed to do.
In judging whether or not one has had sufficient time to look at the Amendments, it is only fair to take into account the background of the Bill and the background against which it has been discussed. We started with the Second Reading when the only person who professed to understand what the Bill was about was the then Attorney-General. When we went into Committee we found that the then Minister appeared to understand more and more about the Bill as time went on, while the right hon. and learned Gentleman seemed to understand less and less as we went along. Whether or not the new Solicitor-General will be any more successful in expounding quickly what these Amendments mean than the previous Law Officers were is a matter on which one can only speculate.
The substantial point of complaint is that when, previously, we were discussing the Bill we were able to learn what it was all about only by reason of the fact that we were able to get advice from people outside the House—specialists practising in town planning, members of 787 learned associations of surveyors, solicitors, and so on. For the ordinary hon. Member it was possible to have available a background of specialised expert criticism. Now we are faced with a proposal to alter the Bill and, I suspect, in many cases to make some major alterations. That is only a matter of speculation because it would be most rash and imprudent for anyone to say that he understood what the Amendments would do.
Not having been able carefully to examine the matter and have the advice of people outside who might have had an opportunity of making representations, it would be most wrong at this late stage to make major alterations—alterations about which if we are honest with ourselves we all have to admit we have not the slightest idea whether they would improve the Bill or make it worse. We shall have to move in the dark with an occasional glimmering of light which may come from the Law Officers and such advice as we may have been able to get in the short time which has been available.
If the House is to behave in a responsible way—to accept responsibility for the legislation it passes and the burdens it places on the public—it should at least take the trouble to find out what it is doing. I do not believe that anyone can honestly say that he understands what the Amendments are going to do. We shall be merely groping in the dark. We may reach conclusions which prove unworkable or which make the Bill better—I do not know—but very few hon. Members are quite sure what to do. It would be very imprudent and most irresponsible to go on to deal with the Bill at this stage.
§ Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)
I want to reinforce what has been said about the time which has been available for consideration of these Lords Amendments. I do not think anyone on this side of the House would object if the Amendments were largely drafting Amendments. Quite a number of the Amendments are drafting Amendments, but there are some very important ones; introducing changes of substance. There are two new Clauses, the contents 788 of which I should be out of order in discussing, but both appear very considerably to extend certain financial obligations on the Government and local authorities.
We have not had a chance to consult the local authorities, who are keenly interested and who, in the case of one Amendment, will have to find the money. It seems wrong to treat the Opposition and authorities throughout the country in this way and to give so little time for this very important subject. We had no fewer than 16 sittings in Committee in trying to put the Bill into some sort of order.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
My hon. Friend was lucky; we had only six sittings on the Scottish Bill.
§ Mr. Skeffington
I dare say that the Scottish Bill was even worse than the English version.
This Bill affects the future development of communities all over the country. It is a matter of major importance; not a trifling, twopenny-halfpenny matter. It is a matter of great principle and I cannot understand the rush to deal with the subject in this pell-mell fashion. I am glad to see the Leader of the House present. I hope that even at this stage he will indicate that further time for the Bill might be made available. [Laughter.] This is not a laughing matter; many local authorities will have to face fresh financial burdens as a result of the proposed new Clauses, which we are seeing for the first time. We have had an opportunity of looking at the matter only since last Thursday evening. That is not long enough even for a simple Bill, but wholly inadequate for one of the most complicated pieces of legislation ever introduced by any Government. I hope that further consideration will be given to the question of affording more time both to the Opposition and to local authorities and professional bodies outside.
§ Mr. M. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)
I do not propose to ask the Leader of the House to reconsider this very important question of time in relation to the large bundle of Lords Amendments. I do not ask him to reconsider it because I appreciate that he knows nothing about it; and in that respect he does not hold an uncommon position, because there is no one else who knows anything about 789 the Bill. When the Bill left this House for another place it was complicated enough. Since it has returned it has made confusion more confounded.
We are asked to consider seriatim all this body of Amendments, and I have calculated that to do so we should have to pass one Amendment per minute. That is an athletic feat which the House of Commons ought never to be asked to perform. If it did, it would certainly achieve a record. We have, as serious people with a responsible task in these legislative matters, to consider whether it be right that the House of Commons should be called on to perform a heavy function of this kind, especially as the Bill itself relates to most complicated and important matters.
For instance, one aspect of the Bill is getting as near to confiscation as any thing can be. The position in regard to compulsory purchase, and in respect of which it makes a modification of the law, is that an owner of land, willy-nilly, has to give it up under terms which are confiscation——
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman should defer his argument on the merits of the proposal which he is now discussing until the House has agreed, "That the Lords Amendments foe now considered" and we come to the specific Amendment with which he proposes to deal.
§ Mr. Turner-Samuels
But with respect, Mr. Speaker, and, of course, with no intention for a moment of doubting your Ruling, is it not right, on an occasion of this kind and by way of preliminary, that the House should consider whether the Bill as it has come back is a better or a more satisfactory Bill? My comments are merely directed to that end, because my submission is that here the House is being asked to legislate in a fog. That is what this Bill constitutes. It is so complicated, and the time at our disposal to consider these fundamental changes is grossly inadequate. However, in order not to trespass on your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, and while reserving such further criticism and comment as I should like to make as the Amendments pass in parade rapidly before the House, I will satisfy myself with what I have said.
§ Mr. C. W. Gibson (Clapham)
I wish to follow the point made by my hon. 790 and learned Friend the Member for Leicester,- North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas) about what, I think, is the contemptuous way in which the Government are expecting us to deal with a huge list of Amendments to a Bill which, everyone admits, was already sufficiently complicated. The fact is that none of us has had time to consider these Amendments. On Thursday I received a copy, supplied by the Minister, of the notes sent out by his Department. Most of them did not in any way refer to the Amendments in detail. I noticed that one of them had a reference to one of the new Clauses to the effect that it bore little relation to the old Clause. There is more than one Amendment of that kind which should be given full consideration.
During the Committee stage of the Bill, I, with others, had the advantage of being advised by people expert in local government about how they thought the Bill could work. I must confess that sometimes my advice was, apparently, completely contrary to the way in which the Law Officers thought it would work. But, at any rate, we were then given that advantage. Now, with these 152 Amendments—many of which are, I admit, purely drafting Amendments, but some of which raise issues of first-class importance—we are expected to get through the business before dinner-time this evening. That seems to me to be quite unreasonable and the House should not be put into such a position.
I do not see why this matter needs to be rushed. I admit that we are near the end of a Session, but there is to be a new Session in a few days. Surely it should then be possible to go through the proceedings again. At any rate, that would be fairer than to expect us to deal with this enormous mass of Amendments in the short time available this evening; and without the slightest opportunity, not merely of understanding them from our own study, but of obtaining advice from those people who will have the job of operating this Measure when it finally becomes an Act of Parliament. I consider that we are entitled to indicate our strong displeasure at the way in which this mass of Amendments is being rushed through.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Lords Amendments considered accordingly.