HL Deb 27 October 1986 vol 481 cc501-5
Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will review Parliament's legislative procedures and the quality of the laws which emerge from them.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, Parliament's legislative procedures are a matter for the two Houses, and are reviewed from time to time by the Procedure Committee in each House. The legislative procedures of this House were last subject to far-reaching scrutiny in 1977 by the Practice and Procedure Committee, but our sessional Procedure Committee also reviews and suggests improvements to our procedures. If it is the wish of the House that they should do so again, in the light of our experience in this past Session, I should be happy to ask them to do so.

The quality of law making was subject to a thorough review by the Preparation of Legislation Committee in 1975, under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Renton.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, while I have a measure of gratitude to my noble friend for that rather cautious Answer, may I remind him that over 70 Bills will have received the Royal Assent by the end of the Session and over 1,000 Statutory Instruments, most of these emanating from government sources? May I ask him two particular questions, neither of which relates to the purpose and need for legislation but simply to the intelligibility, clarity and bulk?

First, would it not be appropriate that those engaged in the forming of statute law should have at least a passing thought for those outside who are deeply affected by it, but uncertain as to what is expected of them as a result of the stream which winds its way stickily through your Lordships' House? Secondly, does he not think it would be appropriate that those who seek to impose improvements upon others should seek to make better their own processes, not merely to eliminate the tedium attached to those processes but also to improve the intelligibility and diminish the quantity of what we annually add to that great heap of material laughingly described as the "statute book"?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, first my noble friend says that I made a cautious reply. Of necessity it is cautious because I am the servant of the House and it is not for me to make pronouncements. It is for this House and for its Procedure Committee to decide. If I were to make far-reaching announcements straight out this House would properly regard me as having behaved most improperly.

So far as my noble friend's particular remarks are concerned, those who are engaged in forming the statute law believe, I am sure, as they go through the process that they are thinking of those outside. They could be reminded again that they should do so. Therefore, the answer to that question of my noble friend is, yes.

Is it appropriate that those who are so often seeking to impose improvements on others should make improvements about their own procedures? Yes, my Lords, that is our purpose. That is what we have our procedure committees for. If, of course, there are any noble Lords who feel that they could improve, perhaps by speaking at shorter length, or whatever it may be, no doubt they should be able to do so.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, as apparently nearly a decade has passed since this matter was last examined by the appropriate committee, and in view of the shambles—if that is not putting too high a word on it—in the shape of recent legislation, late amendments and the rest of it and the intolerable burden that has been imposed on this House, would it not be timely for an appropriate body to have another look at our procedures?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, while of course no one likes to admit that they have presided over a shambles—and therefore the noble and learned Lord would not expect me to do that—I shall of course discuss this point through the usual channels and, if necessary, bring forward the appropriate committee for consideration of the matters in hand.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, does the noble Viscount think that there is any chance that we might have a six-month holiday from legislation? This would be immensely popular in the country and would give the Government an opportunity to put their house in order.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, that is an interesting suggestion, and it might be popular in the country, except among the many people who approach your Lordships from time to time demanding legislation on all sorts of different subjects. Would not many of those people who are constantly demanding more laws for this, that and the next thing be extremely upset if they were always replied to in the negative?

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is it not a fact that it is not so much the quality of the legislation but the quantity which constitutes the problem? Is not that a matter over which my noble friend has considerable influence?

Viscount Whitelaw

Yes, my Lords, there is no doubt that quantity is a major factor in the problem we are considering. The fact is that again the quantity is not dictated because of course governments can stand against it, but I have to say that pressure for more legislation on a wide variety of subjects is something of which every noble Lord in this House knows very well indeed.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, the Leader of the House will know that I have at least some knowledge of parliamentary legislation and its pitfalls. Can he assure me that there has been an improvement in regard to parliamentary draftsmen? The trouble we found in the past was that we had so few, and they were so poor, that the quality of legislation was inevitably pretty rough.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I accept at once that the noble Lord has some passing knowledge of procedure and practices from his time in another place. I suppose the same could be said of me, though people will begin to wonder more and more whether I have. So far as the work of parliamentary draftsmen is concerned, the fact is that the enormous amount of legislation which has come forward in recent years from all governments places a considerable strain on the parliamentary draftsmen. I believe they do an extremely good job for us, and that ought to be accepted. But if one presses them too much, as I believe all governments have in recent years, inevitably it detracts from the standards they have set themselves.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, as one who has been in this House for some years, may I ask the noble Viscount the Leader whether he is aware that great improvements in legislation in recent years have been caused by the addition to our House, first, of Life Peers who are eminent in their various walks of life, and, secondly, of the ladies? In my experience, this has made an enormous improvement to the House. Will the noble Viscount consider carrying this policy considerably further, if it is possible to do so?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, naturally I accept what the noble Viscount says. I should be very unwise if I did not do so. Whether that situation will he improved and carried forward in the future is not for me to say.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, will the noble Viscount accept from me that, referring to one of his own comments, nobody in this House would accuse him of any impropriety and therefore no one in this House would seek his resignation on any cause whatsoever? Is it nevertheless not the case that there is a discernible trend for more and more legislation? There is always pressure: there has been pressure for very many years. Is it not the case also that, so that people may understand these things, the noble Viscount is doing the nation and Parliament a great service by continually stressing that the pressure for more and more legislation comes more from outside Parliament and outside government than from within it? Is it nonetheless not the responsibility of a government to resist such pressure when the result would be more than Parliament can sensibly digest?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for what he said at the start, and I entirely agree with what he said at the end.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the noble Viscount agree that it is not accepted by this House that undue criticism of parliamentary draftsmen should go unanswered? Does he agree that so often it is the fault of a Minister who does not give clear instructions about what he wants in a Bill?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I hope that I said nothing that did not show considerable appreciation for parliamentary draftsmen. I am grateful to the noble Lord, with his considerable experience in these legal matters, for having come forward to say so. Of course, the answer is that the Minister who brings forward legislation is responsible for it, and frequently there is no doubt that either he or his department have failed to make themselves entirely clear in the first instance. Having been a Minister and having brought forward legislation. I am quite certain, whatever else I may be guilty of, that at one stage in my life I was certainly guilty of that.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, will my noble friend the Leader of the House agree that it is improbable that our Procedure Committee or a special committee could do much about the volume of legislation, but that it is important to see that we make the best of the legislation that comes before us? In that connection, will my noble friend agree that there are few legislative bodies in the world that command the range of expert knowledge that this House does, and even fewer which make so little use of it through their own procedures, notably what has now become the totally impracticable notion that the details of long and important Bills can satisfactorily be considered in a committee of the whole House?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I entirely agree with what the noble Lord said about the ability available to this House to act, as it is expected to do in our constitution, as a revising Chamber. If we think we are not using that ability to the best effect the remedy lies in our own hands. We can look to the Procedure Committee to decide how better we could use the ability which I think everyone would recognise lies in your Lordships' House.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, will the noble Viscount agree that the maintenance of quality under conditions of more and more legislation would be promoted if people would make shorter and shorter speeches?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, as always I must hesitate in saying so; but if the noble Earl says so I think I am entitled to agree with him.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the noble Viscount be good enough to reflect further upon what has been said here in your Lordships' House today, and particularly to have in his mind the fact that the Government, for good or ill, are the major source of legislation? I am not seeking for one moment to blame parliamentary draftsmen.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Yes, I shall certainly do as he says. I accept the Government's responsibility. I am sure also that your Lordships will understand and appreciate our own responsibility in these matters to make sure that we, as a revising Chamber perform our role to the very best advantage. That is where some review of our procedures is perfectly possible and may be in order.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, will the noble Viscount care to pay tribute to the parliamentary draftsmen also for the enormous amount of work they have put in on the consolidation of the statutes, cutting out the dead wood in the statutes of years gone by? This is an enormous task for them and it does an enormous amount of good.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, as I rose I heard the Chief Whip say, "That was very wide of the Question". However, I trespass on that point just for a moment to say that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, before him, have done a considerable amount in regard to consolidation measures. They are owed a great debt of gratitude for the work they have promoted in that way.

Back to