§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Melchett.)
§ Lord WIGODER
My Lords, after the somewhat contentious matters that have been dealt with this afternoon it is a relief to be able to move on to the non-controversial issues at Clay Cross. This Bill goes back to the other place in a totally unrecognisable form save as to its short Title. The Government will clearly 435 want to consider with some care what attitude they should now adopt towards the Bill in its amended form. In these circumstances, on behalf of my noble friends on these Benches I have to make two points which may perhaps be borne in mind by the Government when coming to consider what their reaction is to the amended Bill.
First, there has been a great deal said about Clause 4 in the course of the discussions on this Bill. There is some confusion about it. I want briefly to reiterate the position. The original Clause 4 of the Bill as it was unamended dealt only with 11 Clay Cross councillors. It did not affect the surcharge that they had been ordered to pay; for that was to be dealt with, we were told, by a private fund; and in relation to their disqualification of five years which had begun to run, it proposed after the 18-month period that had now elapsed, the remainder should be remitted.
By the time Clause 4 came to your Lordships' House it was something of an uneasy cross between a sitting pigeon and a dead duck. I say that for this reason. Those 11 Clay Cross councillors had incurred substantial other surcharges nothing to do with the Housing Finance Act. They had been disqualified for a period of five years recently—nothing to do with the Housing Finance Act. They had failed to appeal within the necessary time limit and therefore the period of disqualification had begun to run. In those circumstances Clause 4 became of purely academic interest to your Lordships. It was rather as if the Home Secretary, faced with the problem of a murderer who had been sentenced to death on two charges of murder, decided to reprieve him on one of the two.
I stress this point because although Clause 4 was a reprehensible clause, it was not by any means the most objectionable feature of the original Bill. I desire to stress this clause because there have been comments in the Press and there have been undertones in what was said both in the other place and by the noble Lord the Leader in this House, which rather indicated that it might be that the Government were contemplating abandoning Clause 4, which they could do now in any event since it serves no 436 purpose and that this might be some basis for compromise.
I must state on behalf of my noble Friends that it would be no basis for any acceptable compromise at all. Indeed, in the view of my noble friends on the Liberal Benches, the real evil of this Bill. far more serious than Clause 4, was the original Clause 1 of the Bill as it was first sent here, which dealt with some 400 councillors where the surcharge was imminent but had not been yet announced of people who had, in order that the surcharge should be applicable at all, wilfully defied the law. Clause 1 provided that they should be exempted from every penny of the surcharge and every day of the disqualification. That seemed to my noble friends and to me a far more evil clause than Clause 4 to which I have referred.
In those circumstances when the Government come to consider whether they are prepared to accept this Bill in its amended form or whether they desire to restore it to the form in which it first came here, I am bound to have to indicate that if the Government proceed to take that latter course we on these Benches will find it impossible to accept or assent to any such Amendments and will vote accordingly in the Lobbies.
We regard this original Bill as being a matter not simply the subject of a philosophical disquisition on the rule of law; we regard it on the particular facts of this case as being an appalling constitutional impropriety in which a Government have sought to absolve a small group of their own political supporters from the consequences of deliberate defiance of the law for political purposes, carried out at a time when the Party in Government, then in Opposition, were encouraging them to defy the law. It is in these circumstances that we take the view that if an attempt is made in the other place to restore this Bill to its original form, we have no alternative but to resist that. I need hardly say that that observation is not made in any way as a threat. It is not for minority Parties, whether they have one or two delegates at the European Parliament at Strasbourg, to make threats of that nature.
Knowing as one does that the Government are to reconsider the position about this Bill in the light of the Amendments 437 carried in this House, it seems to me to be only proper that that reconsideration should be carried out with the full knowledge by the Government of the very passionate feelings that this Bill arouses in the minds of many noble Lords in this House.
I hope therefore that the Government will be prepared to accept this Bill in its amended form, that they will have the courage to do so; and I can assure noble Lords opposite that if they do have that courage they will receive from these Benches every credit for accepting the position as it has now been sent back to them as a result of the Amendments made in this House.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, as a relative newcomer to this House I have always been told with what good sense and sensibility your Lordships consider Bills sent here from another place. I must say that it has astounded me at the amount of fuss there has been from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, and from noble Lords on the Liberal Benches about a clause which I am now told is purely academic, a sitting pigeon and a dead duck. However, I think we can safely leave it to the good sense of the elected Chamber to reinstate this sensible and conciliatory Bill to an effective form. I am glad to know from the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, that they will be able to do this without a threat from the Liberal Party hanging over their heads. I hope your Lordships will see fit to give this Bill a Third Reading in order that we may send it back to another place.
§ On Question, Bill read 3a with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.