Wednesday, 28 November 2007

This Day Six Months....

The House of Lords is changing one of its procedures which has confused some...the amendment to the motion to give a bill its second reading by replacing the word now by "this day six months". On the face of it there is only a postponement, but in reality it is the killing of the bill.

Lord Brabazon of Tara (Chairman of Committees) explained

"Finally, I turn to ... the time-honoured formula, “this day six months”. We recommend that it be replaced by a form of words which means what it says—namely, that this House declines to give a Bill a Second Reading. It may be helpful if I outline for noble Lords the various ways in which Second Readings may be opposed. Essentially the Companion describes three forms of opposition: first, a dilatory amendment—in other words, the “this day six months” amendment, which we are discussing today; secondly, and now very rare, there is the reasoned amendment that sets out the reasons why the House declines to give the Bill a Second Reading; and thirdly, and rarest of all, the Question that the Bill be read a second time may be negatived, although this is to be deprecated as, in the interests of good order, notice should be given on the Order Paper of any intention to oppose Second Reading. I must emphasise that all three forms of opposition are fatal. If any is successful, the Bill is automatically rejected and removed from the list of Bills in progress.

What the Procedure Committee proposes will not in any way limit the existing rights of Members to oppose Bills on Second Reading in the ways that I have just outlined. All we are doing is recommending that the wording be changed for the first of these procedures so that, instead of a dilatory amendment, which appears to postpone Second Reading for six months, we have a clear decision that this House declines to give the Bill a Second Reading.

It may interest noble Lords to know that the form of words “this day six months” became fixed in convention in the first half of the 19th century at the same time as the convention was established that parliamentary Sessions should also last six months; from February to August. The point of the amendment was therefore not to invite the Government to bring back the Bill in six months, but to ensure that the Government could not bring it back until after Parliament had been safely prorogued.

The first example of the six months amendment being used that we can find dates back to 9 April 1832, when an attempt to kill the Great Reform Bill on Second Reading was defeated. Clearly, the opponents of that Bill were not asking the Duke of Wellington to come back with a revised proposal in six months: they wanted to stop reform dead in its tracks.

Let us be clear about the significance of “this day six months”. If such an amendment is passed on Second Reading it means and has always meant that the Bill is dead, as when the Opposition successfully killed the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill in March this year.

Unfortunately, the natural conclusion reached by those outside the House, who are less familiar with our proceedings, is that the six months amendment means that the Bill can be brought back six months later. That was very evident at the time of the Second Reading of the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, in 2006, when the Information Office and the Public Bill Office were bombarded with calls from members of the public who were confused over the significance of what had just happened."

The motion to agree to the Procedure Committee's proposals was agreed, after a short show of resistance.