My Lords, as we made clear last week before the Joint Committee on Conventions, the Government have no immediate plans to legislate in that way. We wish to await the proposals of the Joint Committee before making any decisions. The Government's interest is less with the method and much more with the objective of the 60-day proposal, which is to ensure that the consideration of government business in this House takes place within a reasonable time.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for that reply. Does he agree that Bills that have taken more than 60 sitting days in this Session have done so more for the—wholly legitimate—convenience of the Government's business managers, rather than because of any prolonged proceedings in your Lordships' House or disagreements between the two Houses? The Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill, the Fraud Bill and the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill are all cases in point, as is the Charities Bill, which passed its proceedings here at the beginning of last November but has still not had a Second Reading in the House of Commons. In the case of the Company Law Reform Bill, 887 amendments were made, 779 of them by the Government. Does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor agree that rushed legislation is unlikely to be better legislation and that the public interest is likely to be best served by retaining the maximum flexibility in our proceedings?
My Lords, I agree with the first part of the noble Lord's proposition: often, Bills go over a reasonable time because Governments delay them. We have done it, and other Governments have done it in the past. The noble Lord, as a former Chief Whip in another place, will be aware of that. If one seeks to identify a time that equals a reasonable time, that will deal just as much with the problem of the Government delaying Bills as with other people doing so.
I emphasise that the purpose of the proposal is not to restrict discussion to something less than a reasonable time; it is to ensure that there is a reasonable time. Bills delayed by the Government are one example; another example of where there is a problem relates to what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—who, sadly, is not in his place—said in September 2003. He said that, if we introduced a particular Lords reform Bill, we would have trouble with the rest of our programme. Again, that is a wrong approach. The other area comprises cases such as the Animal Health Bill, which came to this House in December 2001 and, as a result of a dilatory Motion supported by the Opposition Front Bench, did not get out of this House for 11 months.
The one thing on which, I think, we all agree is that we should give Bills a reasonable time for consideration. If there are problems such as those to which the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, referred, threats such as those made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, or the proposition that occurred with the Animal Health Bill, we should seek to address them. That is what our proposal is intended to do.
My Lords, would not the case for criticising the Government be stronger if our procedures did not allow for so much extraordinary repetition of the same point made under different headings, which is often a substitute for debate rather than a reinforcement of it?
My Lords, I do not seek to say that people in this House filibuster. I am always admiring of people in the House, who are very keen to ensure that the point made by the previous eight speakers should be properly understood by the other three speakers left in the House. I do not think that it is repetition; it is getting one's message across.
My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that any pragmatic combination of the reform of composition and the internal procedures cannot in any way be accompanied by a reduction of the powers of this House?
My Lords, the 60-day proposal is not intended to reduce the powers; it has no effect on the ability of the House to change legislation that comes from another place. Nor does it affect the amount of time that Parliament as a whole needs to scrutinise legislation. It is not about reducing powers. We do not want to reduce powers. We want to give effect to what I think everyone believes is the convention in this House; that government business should be considered within a reasonable time.
My Lords, when the noble and learned Lord mentions the errors, omissions and sins of previous Governments, will he please ensure that he agrees that that is a rotten excuse for doing wrong now? Many of us fear that this Government consistently aim at reducing what used to be known as the sovereignty of Parliament.
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will accept that, in accepting the criticisms made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, I included this Government as well as previous Governments. My remarks were addressed to the Opposition in relation to what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said. I also wish to make it absolutely clear that we do not remotely wish to reduce either the powers of this House or the powers of the sovereign Parliament.
My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that in the House of Commons time is used as a weapon to force the Government of the day to make changes? If we make the mistake of doing the same here, we risk becoming a carbon copy of the House of Commons. The strength of this place is good scrutiny, which does not necessarily take masses of time, as it occasionally does in the House of Commons.
My Lords, I certainly agree that time is used as a weapon in the other place. In the proposals that we make, we wish in no way to reduce the time that it takes properly and reasonably to scrutinise a Bill. The proposal seeks to deal with the three areas that I have identified. It would make the Chamber more efficient, and in no way restricted, in dealing with those issues.
My Lords, would the noble and learned Lord concede that one of the problems of legislation these days is its sheer volume and complexity and that the proper scrutiny of voluminous and complex legislation necessarily takes more time? Would he also be so good as to give us another example of unreasonably long consideration here, besides that of the Animal Health Bill?
My Lords, I agree entirely with the first proposition. As Bills become more complex, they need more time to be considered. The Company Law Reform Bill is a good example of a Bill that takes considerable time to scrutinise. That is why the proposal focuses on what is a reasonable time. The longer and more complex the Bill, the longer it will take to scrutinise.
My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord say one way or the other whether the Government want to legislate on the 60-day limit or whether it is an aspiration? It occurs to me that there could be priorities and emergencies, even under the most splendid and perfect business management, which mean that legislation has to be delayed.
My Lords, I could not agree more. Any scheme that involves setting a time limit must be flexible for precisely the reasons given by the noble Lords, Lord Shutt of Greetland and Lord Phillips. In our manifesto, we said that we wanted to legislate on this, but we said in our evidence to the Joint Committee what I say today: if there is a way of achieving this end by other means, we will certainly listen.
My Lords, I think that we all agree that repetition is boring, and we are glad that the Government are now apparently postponing or shelving this proposal. However, I cannot understand from the noble and learned Lord why the proposition was ever made in the first place. The Opposition have no interest in pursuing Bills beyond a reasonable time. We are not interested in that procedure at all; indeed, it has never been our practice. As the noble and learned Lord and others have recognised, Bills are often delayed as a result of a vast range of government amendments and vast complexity, or are deliberately shelved by government business managers. What is the point of removing flexibility? Why not let the whole matter drop completely?
My Lords, I do not think that we want to remove flexibility, but, with great respect to the noble Lord, he did not deal remotely with the problem raised by his Leader, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. He did not deal at all with the position on the Animal Health Bill. As part of his Front Bench, he supported a dilatory Motion in respect of a government Bill that could have been amended if this House had thought that there was something wrong with it. No consideration was given to it for 11 months, so the noble Lord does not deal with that point. Nor does he deal with the point about government Bills being delayed.
My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor realise that his original Answer will give satisfaction in so far as he said that the Government did not intend to include any limitation? Does he not agree that, if the Government were to do that, it would introduce a guillotine in your Lordships' House? For all the reasons that have been given in the questions, that would be highly undesirable.
My Lords, it is not remotely sought to introduce a guillotine. The debate, I think, is one in which we could engage constructively. I have identified the three specific sorts of problem that we seek to deal with. Everyone in this place should think about how we deal with such problems. That is what we are trying to do on a cross-party basis.