§ APPOINTMENT OF COMMITTEE ON PROCEDURE SUGGESTED.
§ LORD MUIR MACKENZIE
My Lords, I beg to move the Motions standing on the Paper in my name to approve of certain Special Orders made by the Electricity Commissioners under the Electricity (Supply) Acts, 1882 to 1922, and confirmed by the Minister of Transport under the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1919. It has been the practice hitherto to deal with these Orders as if they were matters of course, but recently attention has been called to the fact that in each case an affirmative Resolution of the House has to be passed confirming an Order which has been made. Doubts have been raised as to whether the procedure in these cases is entirely satisfactory. Take the first Order, which is made in connection with the Borough of Andover and the rural district of Andover. Your Lordships will see that the Order was made by the Electricity Commissioners and confirmed by the Minister of the Department concerned. I can add that everything that is called for by Acts of Parliament in connection with each one of these Orders has been done in the fullest and most careful manner. The Order to which I have referred was laid on the Table on March 20, and in the Minutes of the proceedings of the House for that day a Notice appears that that Order was laid on the Table of the House. Then, on May 7, a Notice was put down in my name that after the lapse of a week a Motion would be made to confirm the Order. I might add that, by an arrangement that at present exists between my 646 self and the Department which I represent for the time being in this House, a period of not less than a week intervenes between the stages to which these Orders are subject.
I have reason to suppose that strung feeling exists on this matter in many quarters, and I should like to say that I personally feel that something more is required, where the House has deliberately put into an Act of Parliament its desire to maintain a certain control over that which happens under the authority if the Minister, and that the Minister's Orders should not come into operation until the House had determined deliberately and positively that such Orders ought to be made. I am glad to see that the Chairman of Committees is here, because I know (bar he has views upon this subject, and, while I move that this Order be confirmed and. if your Lordships agree to that, propose to move the confirmation of the others en bloc, I think it is possible that some of your Lordships may wish to say a word about the procedure before the Motion is actually put to the House.
§ Moved, That the Special Order made by the Electricity Commissioners under the Electricity (Supply) Acts, 1882 to 1922, and confirmed by the Minister of Transport under the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1919, in respect of parts of the Borough of Andover and of the rural district of Andover, in the County of Southampton. which was presented on the 20th day of March. 1924. be approved.—(Lord Muir Mackenzie.)
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for having postponed these Resolutions from the day for which they were originally set down until this evening, because as time has gone on I think that those of your Lordships who take a special interest in the procedure of the House have become a little anxious as to the method by which these Resolutions acquire the force of law. We have witnessed, in the last few years during which I have been a member of your Lordships' House, a great effort to cope with increasing difficulties of legislation. Every sort of device has been canvassed for simplifying legislation. The difficulty does not, of course, exist in your Lordships' House in the same measure as in another place, but it would not be true 647 to say that it is found only in another place. No doubt, public Bills of the ordinary legislative character go through with rapidity here, but the procedure on Private Bills or Provisional Orders, which are analogous to Private Bills, is very lengthy and, what is more, very expensive, and consequently, as Bills of importance and involving adaptations and developments have gone through, it has become increasingly usual to put in a general rules clause, or clause authorising the passage of schemes, as a short cut to legislation, and these become effective by laying Resolutions upon the Table of the House.
I need not go into the full history of this procedure, but I have over and over again taken part, as have other noble Lords, in an attempt to persuade the Government of the day to insert some such clause as would provide that the rules or schemes made under the particular Bill should not have the force of law until they have lain upon the Table of the House. For many years we were satisfied by simply laying them upon the Table of the House and allowing a certain number of days to elapse during which objection could be taken to them. Sometimes the form taken was that they should simply lie upon the Table of the House for a certain number of days.
That might have been effective so far as the House of Commons was concerned, because if, within that period, a Resolution had been passed, even if it had not a mandatory effect upon the Government, yet in practice it had an equal effect, because no Government can fail to respect a Resolution of the House of Commons. But that procedure was no use in your Lordships' House. The procedure was made rather more stringent as the evolution proceeded, and it was arranged at last that either House might pass a Resolution objecting and stopping the rule or scheme within a given number of days. Such a provision has been put into a very large number of Bills since I have been a member of your Lordships' House. I am afraid we have found, in practice, that this lying on the Table of the House is little more than a form. Nobody knew that these Orders were laid upon the Table, nobody took any notice, and it was only in eases of very considerable public interest that schemes or rules were objected to by way of Resolution.
648 In recent years we have gone one step further. We have admitted the plan of what is called a positive Resolution; that is to say, that the sanction does not depend upon the fact that neither House objects to a Resolution, but a positive Resolution must be passed by both Houses before a particular rule or scheme becomes effective. That procedure has been resorted to in a certain number of Bills in recent years. But again the same unfortunate symptom is displaying itself, and the thing is becoming a formality. Your Lordships could not have a better example of that symptom than the appearance upon the Paper this afternoon of a number of these Electricity Order Resolutions and Gas Order Resolutions, standing in the name of my noble friend opposite, which I do not suppose anybody has examined. Certainly none of your Lordships have the least idea of what is being done. That is a very considerable evil.
I took—I am sorry to say; I apologise to your Lordships for the fact—a great deal of part in passing this Electricity Bill, and at that time this particular clause was relied upon to protect private enterprise. It was said that we need not be afraid, and that private enterprise would be protected because all these schemes would be laid before Parliament and, moreover, would not become effective without a positive Resolution. When, therefore, I and other noble Lords observe that this is becoming little more than a formality, it is a great disappointment, and, I think, amounts to a mischief in our method of legislation.
A consideration which makes the matter still more important is that it will be found, I think, that as time goes on we shall be very anxious to maintain some such plan if only it can be made effective. If we do not, separate Bills will have to be introduced for each scheme. They will have to go through the procedure for Private Bills or Provisional Orders and immense delay will be involved, as well as great expense to the parties. That the expense, not only to the parties but to the public interest, is of a very material nature may be seen from the proceedings in this House only three days ago, when, merely because a particular procedure will be expensive to a very important hospital in London, the ordinary procedure of your Lordships' House was set 649 aside and a matter was decided—unwisely, as I think—on the floor of the House. It is very important, therefore, to have, if possible, a procedure by which these matters can be adjusted by means of a Resolution which will yet protect the interests involved—private interests, local interests, or administrative interests—adequately. That, as I submit, is not done at present.
I ought to say that the observations which I am venturing to make to the House do not apply merely to Bills like the Electricity (Supply) Acts or the Gas Regulation Act, but they apply to even more important Measures, because I observe that there are great Departmental Acts which have been passed, under which there is power to transfer from one great public Department to another important powers. That was done in the Ministry of Health Act recently. Those transfers are carried out by this method of positive Resolution, and if these positive Resolutions are not really a safeguard then we shall lose the value of that procedure. Then there are certain Continuance Acts supposed to be protected by a positive Resolution. Take the Mines Regulation Act. An important part of that Act came to an end unless a positive Resolution was passed. The same is true of the Emergency Powers Act—a very important Act—and lastly, we have gone as far as this, that so important a question as whether or not the Province of Burma should become subject to the new Constitution in India, instead of being under the old régime, was likewise made the subject of a positive Resolution—that is to say, it was potentially effective, but the actual decision was left to positive Resolutions of both Houses of Parliament.
Your Lordships will therefore see with what a really important subject we are dealing, and I submit that if we are going on with these positive Resolutions as safeguards there ought to be some examining authority to see, on the part of the House, that these Resolutions deal only with matters which may safely be passed without the attention of the House being drawn to them. There ought to be some method by which they shall be considered, and then, if they are found by the examining authority to be Resolutions which raise either matters of very special importance or matters which vary 650 to some extent the ordinary procedure of the House, or if in any way they are particular and peculiar, then that examining authority can bring such Resolutions before your Lordships' notice and the House can take what steps it thinks fit for the protection of the interests involved.
I have therefore been trying to acquaint myself with any precedents there may be in our legislation for the kind of safeguard which I am suggesting, and I have found two. There is, first of all, the precedent of the Church of England Assembly Act. Under that Act, as the noble and learned Lord, the Lord President of the Council, knows very well, the Measures passed by the Church Assembly become law by positive Resolution of either House of Parliament. Before they are submitted to Parliament they have to be considered by a very important Committee, the Ecclesiastical Committee, which brings in a Report as to whether the legislation suggested is expedient or not. I am not sure that it will be necessary to go so far as the elaborate machinery under that Act and I have looked for another precedent; I find it in the Ministry of Transport Act. In that Act there was a provision that where very important transactions were proposed, by way of taking land otherwise than by agreement, then that might be done upon the Order of the Minister of Transport, subject to a positive Resolution of both Houses of Parliament: but there was a further safeguard that these positive Resolutions should be submitted in the first instance to the Lord Chairman here and to the Chairman of Committees in another place, and that these two high Parliamentary dignitaries should decide whether or not the particular proposals were so important that they ought to be submitted to the ordinary Private Bill procedure before they were passed into law.
That seems to me to be a very valuable precedent. I suggest to your Lordships—and if I get any support I am prepared to submit a Standing Order to that effect—that we should lay it down that every positive Resolution, whether it be of the nature of these positive Resolutions which are at the moment being considered or such as I have described under the Mines Regulation Act and the Government of India Act, or other Acts, should all go in the first instance before the Lord Chairman and the Chairman of Com- 651 mittees in another place, and that upon their decision it shall rest whether they be submitted forthwith to either House of Parliament, or shall be examined by a Private Bill Committee in the usual way.
Whether my particular examining authority is the better one or not, your Lordships are much better judges than myself. What I do urge upon you is that if we are going to use this very valuable method of abbreviating the stages of legislation in these important Bills, and yet preserve the necessary safeguards for private rights, local interest, etc., then we ought to have some examining authority before a positive Resolution is laid before Parliament, in order that no mistakes may be made. Then we can go forward with a light heart. When we have Bills to pass through Parliament we may safely assure the House and the country that the necessary protection is given to those interested, by means of a positive Resolution. If, however, we go on as we are doing now, and these positive Resolutions are thrown upon the Table without notice and without any examination, then Parliament and the public will get to distrust them, and this very valuable method of shortening legislation will be destroyed. I hope your Lordships will forgive me for having detained you on this very important matter but, as the House is aware, I have for many years taken a great interest in the matter of procedure, and I earnestly hope that I may obtain the support of noble Lords in all parts of the House in securing some method by which these measures may be made effective.
THE EARL OF BESSBOROUGH
My Lords, I apologise for detaining you longer at this late hour upon what is a rather dry subject, and of which the ground was so broadly covered by the noble Marquess. My excuse is that I took some interest in these Orders so far as the Electricity Special Orders are concerned when the 1919–1920 Acts were before the House, and I have also ventured, as have one or two other noble Lords, to take exception to the procedure carried out as a result of those two Electricity (Supply) Acts. I have no objection to make to the Special Orders which are on the Paper this afternoon, but I would like to make a few remarks upon the procedure which brings them forward. I should like in that connection to express 652 my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Muir Mackenzie, for informing me that this debate was to be raised this afternoon. I say that the more particularly that I am afraid I do not at all agree with the concession which the noble Lord has proposed. The noble Lord suggests. I understand, that these Orders should lie on the Table for a week before a Motion is made. As I hold that the whole procedure is anomalous, faulty, unsatisfactory, and capable of acting unjustly, I cannot possibly see what advantage is gained by leaving the Orders lying on the Table of the House. The procedure remains exactly the same, with the objections which, as I hold, that procedure has.
As your Lordships are fully aware, before the Electricity (Supply) Act of 1919, these matters had to come forward in the ordinary way, like questions of gas, water, and so on, in Provisional Orders, confined within the pages of Bills, which enabled people who had perfectly legitimate objections—companies, corporation", local interests, and so on—to present Petitions to Parliament to appear in opposition, and the matter had then to be threshed out in a Committee. Since the Act of 1919 the whole, of that protection to the opposition in electricity matters has completely gone. It is perfectly true that these Orders have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament, but I submit that individual members of the Houses of Parliament are in no position to deal with these questions on their merits, when put forward. How is a noble Lord to become seised of the complicated and technical merits or demerits of such matters as appear on the Paper this afternoon, and on many other occasions, under the name of Lord Muir Mackenzie? And, supposing that any noble Lord were by accident to become seised of all the details of these very complicated matters, in order for his opposition to become effective he has to persuade the majority of your Lordships' House. In another place the procedure works even more unsatisfactorily, because there these Orders, being under the special protection of a Government Department, have the whole weight of Government authority behind them. The Government Whips can be put on, and members are no more in a position to deal with the Orders on their merits than are noble Lords in this House, because the Government have only to put on the 653 Whips, and these Orders go through without anybody in the House having the slightest idea even of what they are about. Therefore I suggest that there is a case, not for delaying the moving of the Orders, but for altering the procedure altogether.
I am very much confirmed in my opinion that the procedure is faulty by this fact, and I call the Chairman of Committees to witness. The Lord Chairman is, after all, the very special protector of procedure in this House, and I call him to witness, because he himself has shown that he takes grave exception to this procedure. Two years ago, in August, 1922, the Lord Chairman actually put down a Motion on the Notice Paper, proposing a new Standing Order. The new Standing Order, as far as I remember, proposed that in the case of these Special Orders, both electricity and gas, Petitions might, be presented, petitioners might appear to oppose as in the case of a Private Bill, and that an opposed Order should be referred to a Select Committee. It is perfectly true not only that that suggested Standing Order never was passed, but that the Lord Chairman never moved it, and it disappeared from the Notice Paper. I am not in a position to know either the motives that prompted the Motion by the Lord Chairman, or his motives in removing it. But the fact that the Lord Chairman put down such a Motion shows that in his judgment there is something wrong with this procedure. Not being fully in possession of the arguments which prompted the action of the Lord Chairman, I am not going to express any opinion as to whether the action proposed in that Standing Order is necessary, or the only and best method of meeting the difficulty. There is the alternative method now before your Lordships' House, proposed by the noble Marquess. All I do say is that some amendment is necessary.
It may seem to noble Lords looking down these Orders on the Paper that they are unimportant and trifling matters. Some of them are, but a great many of them are not. Under the procedure which governs these special Orders the Electricity Commissioners are empowered to set up huge electricity districts, to appoint joint electricity authorities for them, to give these authorities financial powers involving millions of pounds, and, in fact, to empower them to set up completely new organisations for the develop- 654 ment of electricity in large areas comprising several counties. The noble Marquess will remember how we raised this point during the passage of the Bill. Personally, I cannot believe that Parliament realised at the time the great importance and magnitude of the schemes which would go through under the Special Orders. I say that because Parliament has entirely reversed the procedure which it laid down under the Electric Lighting Act, 1909.. In that Act, long before these vast electricity schemes were thought of, Parliament expressly excluded cases of magnitude and importance from the scope of Provisional Orders. Now, under the Act of 1919, enormous schemes for the supply of electricity in bulk come forward in Special Orders, where opposition has no voice or authority to appear at all In those circumstances I trust that the Government will agree to some modification of the procedure beyond that already proposed by Lord Muir Mackenzie, on the grounds not only of convenience, and not only of proper and good administration, but even of justice.
§ LORD PARMOOR
My Lords, in reference to the admirable speech which, we have just heard, I should like to make a suggestion to the noble Marquess, than whom no one has more knowledge of the procedure in this House. The Government would support him if he put down a Motion on the Paper, so that everybody could know it was coming up, to the effect that a. small Select Committee should be appointed to consider the important matters of procedure to which he has called attention. I offer that as a suggestion which I think might assist us to come to a proper determination on this very important question. I will not go into the old controversies that we heard when the new electricity procedure was under consideration—I was in agreement with the noble Earl in those days—but if the noble Marquess would move for the appointment of a small Select Committee I am sure that the Government would give every assistance.
THE CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (THE EARL OF DONOUGHMORE)
My Lords, I am exceedingly grateful to all your Lordships who have joined in this discussion this afternoon. The matter has been in my mind for two or three years, and I have been very anxious about it. 655 My noble friend Lord Muir Mackenzie, in making the first Motion, characterised it us typical of the others on the Paper. It is true that it is owing to his vigilance and to the action which he took that we now have adequate Notice that these things are coming on. That is a reform for which we have to thank my noble friend, and as I look round the House I think that everyone present will agree with me, except perhaps my noble friend Lord Burnham, that nearly every little scandal in Parliamentary procedure that has arisen of late years can be traced back to the time of the Coalition Government. This is one of them.
I have in a file which I keep largely for my own information several cases in which Motions confirming these Orders were put clown on Tuesday evening—that is to say, they were handed in at the Table on Tuesday evening—and we have seen nothing of them until Wednesday morning and they have been passed on Wednesday afternoon. That procedure in many of these cases might be perfectly harmless, but in a few of them it might lead to unfortunate results. That is the reason for my anxiety and for my view that something ought to be done. I quire appreciate the point raised by my noble friend Lord Bessborough, his chief interest being the Electricity Acts. Under the Electricity Acts we have, at any rate, one safeguard in that all the Parties become aware of the fact that the matter is in the air. If I read the Gas Act correctly, however, I believe that it is quite long enough if the Order lies on the Table of the House for half a minute, and that you can then move a confirming Resolution. That might cause great injustice in certain circumstances. I am not saying that it is likely, or even probable, but I think the position ought to be safeguarded.
There are two reasons why I think that ought to be done. First of all, we ought to be certain that the Order comes within the Act under which it purports to be made. I may be told that we must rely on the public Departments for that. But, thanks again to the vigilance of my noble friend and his brother Whip, if I may use the expresssion, your Lordships recently passed an Act which was necessary because it was found that for ten years Government Departments had been making under an Act of Parliament Provisional Orders which were undoubtedly ultra 656 vires. Of course, that ought to have been noticed before and I must admit that it took me some years to realise the position. Therefore, it is not sufficient to rely upon the Government Departments. Secondly, the parties who are affected must not lose their right to appeal to Parliament for protection merely because the thing is rushed through without adequate notice being given not only by which your Lordships will know what is going on but by which the public will know what is going on.
That was the reason for the new Standing Order of which I gave notice in 1922. I think I am breaking no seal of confidence when I say that I did not proceed to move the adoption of that Standing Order because I became aware of the fact that the Government—I think it was the Coalition Government—were opposed to it. I had come to an agreement with all the public Departments except one, but that Department was very strong and declared themselves in the course of negotiations (not in your Lordships' House) to be in strong opposition to the proposal that I should put a curb upon them, which I thought was particularly needed in their case much more than in the case of the other Departments. Nothing will induce me to offer any means of identifying that Department. That is why I did not proceed further with the matter.
I am convinced that some action must be taken at your Lordships' convenience in order that we should avoid doing something for which we should be sorry. I was particularly glad therefore to hear the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord, the Lord President of the Council, to the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury. If some such step could be taken as the appointment of a Select Committee to consider the whole matter, I think it would be very easy to find a solution which ought to be found for a matter of that sort.
§ EARL BEAUCHAMP
My Lords, this discussion has been of a very satisfactory character and I shall not detain your Lordships with any lengthy contribution to it. We have every reason to be grateful to the noble and learned Lord, the Lord President of the Council, for the suggestion he has made, and which I hope the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, will see his way to accept. It is 657 clear that something ought to be done in this matter. There is nobody who is really responsible in this regard to your Lordships' House. I think the noble and learned Lord opposite would find himself in a difficulty if I were to cross-examine him with regard to one of the Orders which are referred to on the Paper—namely, that with regard to the Marple Urban District Council—to ask him why Clause 20 on page 11 is to be left out of that particular Order. Whenever your Lordships' House is asked to assent to anything of that kind we ought to know why the alteration is being made. Unfortunately, there is at present nobody who is really responsible in the matter.
The discussion in which your Lordships' House was engaged just prior to this one indicated, I think, another direction in which a little care ought to be taken. Under these Electricity Special Orders it is possible to disfigure the landscape to an almost incalculable extent. Enormous iron and steel standards carrying the overhead cables are put up under these Orders, and I think there ought to be some machinery by which anyone objecting to the disfigurement of the landscape should be able to bring his objection before some such tribunal as your Lordships' House, or one of the Committees of your Lordships' House, or some other competent tribunal. The Lord Chairman, of course, suggests himself to one because he has a number of competent officers to assist him, but whether it is the Lord Chairman or somebody else I am perfectly certain that the Committee suggested by the noble and learned Lord President will be able to find some solution of the problem.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friends for urging these considerations upon your Lordships and also to the Lord President for the suggestion he has made. Needless to say I shall gladly avail myself of it, but if he will permit me I will confer with him upon the terms of Reference and the proper constitution of the Committee, and place a Motion upon the Paper forthwith.
§ LORD MUIR MACKENZIE
My Lords, after the debate which has taken place and in view of the remarks which have 658 fallen from my noble friend the Lord Chairman, I feel some diffidence in moving the Motions in their present form. Nevertheless, I will have the audacity to move that all these Orders be confirmed by your Lordships.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ Moved, That the Special Order made by the Electricity Commissioners under the Electricity (Supply) Acts, 1382 to 1922, and confirmed by the Minister of Transport under the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1919, in respect of the urban district of Maesteg, in the County of Glamorgan, which was presented on the 20th day of March 1924, be approved.—(Lord Muir Mackenzie.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ Moved, That the Special Order made by the Electricity Commissioners under the Electricity (Supply) Acts, 1882 to 1922, and confirmed by the Minister of Transport under the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1919, in respect of the parish of Cockington in the rural district of Newton Abbot, in the County of Devon, which was presented on the 1st day of April 1924, be approved.—(Lord Muir Mackenzie.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ Moved, That the Special Order made by the Electricity Commissioners under the Electricity (Supply) Acts, 1882 to 1922, and confirmed by the Minister of Transport under the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1919, in respect of the urban district of Hitchin, in the County of Hertford, which was presented on the 8th day of April 1924, be approved.—(Lord Muir Mackenzie.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.