HL Deb 15 June 1948 vol 156 cc756-61

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I rise to move that the Bill be now read a Second time. In July last I told your Lordships that we were gravely concerned about the chaotic condition of the Statute Book and that we had under consideration plans for trying to improve it. I told your Lordships of the steps being taken to press on with the preparation of Consolidation Bills and added that, in addition to the progress in consolidation, the Statute Law Committee were considering arrangements for the publication at the earliest possible date of a new edition of the Revised Statutes. The Bill which I now commend to your Lordships is the first step in this task of bringing the Statute Book up to date.

The existing Statute Book consists of twenty-four volumes of the Revised Statutes, dating from the year 1235 down to the year 1920, and thirty-one volumes of Public General Acts for the years since 1920; so that there are fifty-five volumes. These fifty-five volumes contain over 40,000 pages and this mass is growing every year at an average rate of about 800 pages. I need hardly tell your Lordships that the fifty-five volumes contain a very high proportion of matter which has been expressly repealed, in addition to the large amount which has become obsolete since the volumes were published. The purpose of this Bill, which covers the period from 1235 to 1800, is to cut away this dead wood and so enable the next edition of the Revised Statutes to be contained in considerably fewer volumes than at present. The Bill follows the form of the various Statute Law Revision Acts which were passed in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. The important part of the Bill is the First Schedule, which contains particulars of about 750 Acts which it is considered should now be repealed, either in whole or in part. The Second Schedule continues the process commenced by the Short Titles Act of 1896 of giving short titles to many early Acts which have at present to be cited by their full title on the somewhat rare occasions on which it is necessary to cite them at all.

Your Lordships must not expect too much of the Statute Law Revision Bill. Those of your Lordships who have troubled to read Clause 1 will see that it is not proposed to introduce any substantial or serious modifications in existing law. For instance, the removal from the existing Statute Book of the Act of James II to attaint James, Duke of Mon-mouth, of High Treason will not have the remarkable effect which some correspondents in the papers seem to think. It is really a Bill to render it unnecessary to include all this dead wood in a new edition of the Revised Statutes. If your Lordships give a Second Reading to this Bill, as I am sure you will, I shall in due course put down a Motion to refer the Bill to the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills, in order that they may go through it carefully. This Bill has some little interest as a piece of legal archaeology. I confidently recommend it to your Lordships as the necessary first step to reducing our Statute Book to somewhat more manageable proportions. I beg to move.

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

2.42 p.m.


My Lords, I think the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor is much to be congratulated on having been able to introduce this Bill. I have no doubt at all that if his intentions, as expressed in the Bill and in his speech, are carried into law, a most useful reform will take place. The fact is that in this country in the matter of the revision of Statutes, we have not hitherto proceeded in quite the way in which, for example, progress has been made in Canada. I know there are volumes that are called the Revised Statutes, which are issued, and issued with authority, from our Stationery Office. But nobody arguing a case and referring to the law (I speak subject to correction by the Lord Chancellor, but I think I am right) would produce a volume of the Revised Statutes and read from that. He would read from the original Statute, observing that certain parts of it had since been cut out by the Statute Law Revision Acts.

As I understand the Lord Chancellor, what he is hoping to do now is to achieve two purposes, which can, of course, be achieved only by steps. The first is to cut out, by this very elaborate Bill, a vast amount of matter contained in Statutes which have been passed by Parliament but which matter has become entirely dead wood, It is the commonest experience of those who have to argue or to deal with the law that they have to remember—or they are reminded—that particular sections of the Statute to which they are referring have been removed by the Statute Law Revision Acts. As I understand it, what the Lord Chancellor is now proposing is that we should do as a preliminary what this Bill does; and then produce something which will itself be cited as the Revised Statutes of this country. That is done in Canada. If I recollect rightly, they have there a Standing Commission which is constantly engaged in gathering together the references to matters which have become dead wood, with a view to their being cut out. If I remember rightly, the Governor-General of Canada has authority to produce the result in the form of what are called Revised Statutes of Canada, of various years, which themselves receive the authority of the Canadian Parliament.

We have never gone so far as that in practice. I believe the Lord Chancellor is perfectly right when he says that we ought to go further. Our Statute Law is necessarily very complicated and detailed. I remember a noble Lord opposite holding out the hope, in connection with the Bill dealing with the nationalisation of the railways, that after it was carried we should not need to know a great deal about railway charges, as they would be on two sides of a piece of paper which we could take out of our pocket. That is an aspiration yet to be attained. It certainly will not be true about our Statutes, because they deal with all manner of subjects and must necessarily be very complicated. Nobody, lawyer or layman, would claim to know the total result in his own mind. If we can produce a series of volumes which have full statutory authority, and which are called the Revised Statutes of this realm, so that one has not to look back through the present enormous number of volumes, a great result will have been achieved, both for the effective administration of the law and for the purpose of enabling people themselves to see how the law stands. Therefore, I respectfully venture to say that this is a most valuable proposal, and I am sure every man acquainted with the administration of the law in this country will wish the Lord Chancellor nothing but success in the great enterprise upon which he is engaged.

2.48 p.m.


My Lords, I think it would be right for someone on behalf of the laymen to thank the lawyers for introducing a measure of this character. I would congratulate the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor on being in a position to present this Bill to Parliament. This is a class of legislation which brings no immediate visible or practical results. It is a case in which the labour of preparation is an example of virtue being its own reward. In this country we are accustomed to say that we greatly love our traditions; there is almost a certain prejudice against touching any old institution, even though it be a Statute Book full of obsolete laws. But that love of tradition, surely, should never lead us to go so far as to leave untouched excrescences which are useless and, indeed, obnoxious. That would be what I might describe as the "cult of the cobweb." This Bill is a Bill to clear away cobwebs.

I have only one observation to make upon one particular Act. Glancing through the list of titles at the end, it occurred to me that the repeal of one measure might have some indirect effect upon the results of domestic controversies which have taken place in the Liberal Party during the last fifteen or twenty years. Perhaps the noble Viscount who has just spoken may be in a special position to express a view upon this matter. It is the second Act on page 144: I Will. & Mary c. 16. An Act that the Simoniacall Promotion of one Person may not prejudice another. I shall not be surprised to be told that my fears are unfounded, and that the repeal of that Act will not have the effect to which I have referred. If I can receive that assurance, perhaps later from the Committee to which this Bill is referred, I shall have great pleasure in supporting this Bill through all its stages.


If I may be permitted one further sentence, I would point out that the sin of simony did not begin with myself!

2.50 p.m.


I want to add only a few words to what has been said, because, of course, every lawyer must approve this measure, and I was very glad to hear of the steps which the Lord Chancellor told us the Government is about to take with regard to the further facility for ascertaining what is the law in relation to Statutes. The comment I wish to make is that at present I am not sure that the proviso at the bottom of page 1 of the Bill may not be a little unfortunate. The words are: Provided as follows: The repeal of any words or expressions of enactment described in the said schedule shall not affect the binding force, operation,"— I leave out the words "or construction"— of any statute, or of any part of the statute … I am not quite sure whether that is intended. A great many of the Statutes—in fact, I think practically all the Statutes mentioned in the Schedule—are completely obsolete, and if these words are to be maintained without any qualification, it might be held that they still have binding force in some respects. Even in an obsolete Statute one may sometimes find a clause which could be applied at the present day. The other provisos on page 2 of the Bill are perfectly correct, but I am not quite sure that the first does not go a little too far. All I am asking now is that the Lord Chancellor should see that my observations are considered by the proper people.

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, as a layman and a Scotsman, may I congratulate the noble and learned Viscount upon this Bill? He has at least relieved two towns in Scotland from an obvious injustice. I find on page 90 that an Act of George II will be repealed. It is: An Act for continuing a Duty of two Pennies Scots … upon every Scots Pint of Ale … sold within the Town of Linlithgow…. Then, on page 91, it mentions: An Act for enlarging … an Act for laying a Duty of two Pennies Scots … upon every Pint of Ale … sold within the Town of Montrose…. I do not know how long it is since that particular Act went into disuse. I do not even know whether it is still in disuse. But the residents of Montrose and Linlithgow will be exceedingly relieved to know that that burden, at least, has been taken off their shoulders.


They have to pay even more now!

2.53 p.m.


My Lords, may I express my gratitude to your Lordships and give the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, the assurance he wants? If the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, turns to page 92 of the Bill he will see that my gratitude to Scotsmen is even greater than he realises. He will see that I repeal a like Act relating to the town of Irvine, and a little lower down to the town of Glasgow and then, at the bottom of the page, I repeal the Lobsters (Scotland) Act. I will certainly ask the Committee to consider the point the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Maugham, made. As he knows, those words are found in every Statute Law Revision Act. I believe the history is that they were invented by Lord Westbury, but I think it is desirable that the Committee should see whether they could be modified in the way suggested.

On Question, Bill read 2a.