HL Deb 11 December 1979 vol 403 cc968-78

3.1 p.m.

Lord ABERDARE rose to move that the Second Report from the Select Committee be agreed to.

The report read as follows:


In the light of decisions taken by the House of Commons with respect to Committees, the Committee have considered again the recommendations contained in the First Report of the Select Committee on Practice and Procedure relating to Select Committees on Public Bills (H.L. (1976–77) 141) and, in particular, the proposal to appoint one such Committee experimentally. They have also considered a proposal that the House should appoint a Select Committee on Science and Technology to take the place of the Committee on that subject formerly appointed by the House of Commons.

The Committee have taken fully into account the decisions of the House of Commons in regard to Select Committees. They are also conscious of the need to make the best use of limited resources both of manpower and accommodation. The proposal to establish a Select Committee on Science and Technology has attracted widespread support both within the House and outside. The House has a great deal of expertise on science and technology and a Select Committee on this subject would fill the gap created by the decision of the House of Commons not to reappoint their Committee. In the opinion of the Committee these considerations outweigh the arguments adduced by the Practice and Procedure Committee in favour of appointing a Select Committee on Public Bills.

The Committee, therefore, recommend the creation, as soon as practicable, of a sessional Select Committee on Science and Technology with powers to appoint sub-committees and to co-opt further Lords to serve on the sub-committees. They recommend that these powers should be granted only to allow the Committee to function as flexibly as possible within their orders of reference. In view of the constraints on manpower and accommodation referred to above, the Committee propose that a single clerk should be assigned to staff this new Select Committee and any sub-committees which they may wish to appoint.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I had hoped that this might receive your Lordships' approval in the same unanimous way as the first Motion, but, as the Order Paper shows, the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, is moving an amendment, and I therefore think that it might be of some help if I were to outline the history of this matter as briefly as I can.

It starts from the appointment of a Select Committee on Practice and Procedure of which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, was the very able chairman. That committee put forward some interesting proposals for a new committee structure in their first report, dated the 26th April 1977. In very broad terms the proposal was that we should appoint sessional committees matching policy areas to scrutinise Bills and other proposals in the relevant area of each committee. That proposal was debated in this House on 5th July 1977, and on that occasion it was the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, who had a Motion on the Order Paper seeking the appointment of one or more of these committees in the following Session. He did not in fact press his Motion because he received certain assurances from the then Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Peart, which satisfied him that some progress was likely to be made in the direction that the committee had indicated.

The next thing that happened was that on 28th July 1977 the Procedure Committee discussed the situation and set up a sub-committee of its own members to consider how an experiment could be carried out in this direction. The subcommittee reported on 22nd February 1978, putting forward proposals for the setting up of one such experimental committee to look at Public Bills in this House. Their report was considered, again by the Procedure Committee, on 26th July 1978, and at that point the Procedure Committee took the view that it would not be sensible to make any final decision until it was known what action was going to he taken in another place as a result of the recommendations of their Committee on Practice and Procedure. I undertook to the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, that as soon as that matter was resolved I would refer the matter back to our own Procedure Committee. That I did, and it is the report of that meeting of the Procedure Committee, on the 20th November last, that is now before the House.

At that meeting the committee had before it, first of all, the proposals that I have already mentioned from their own sub-committee for setting up an experimental committee. Secondly, they knew by then the decisions which had been made down the corridor, and what the committee structure was to be in another place. Thirdly, they had before them a new proposal which had come in the meantime as a result of a letter written by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, and the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, proposing the appointment of a Select Committee on Science and Technology. That proposal had a very great deal of support, both from Members of your Lordships' House who wrote to me and from other, outside bodies. It was thought to be particularly appropriate, perhaps, because one of the results of the decisions made in another place was that their Committee on Science and Technology, which had done outstanding work, had now disappeared.

The committee also took into account the very limited resources that are available in this House for appointing additional committees. We are very short of committee rooms; we have a limited establishment of clerks; and many of your Lordships are already very heavily committed. In the light of all those factors the decision taken by the committee, which appears in the Paper before your Lordships this afternoon, was to recommend to the House that a Select Committee on Science and Technology should he set up in preference to the experimental Committee on Public Bills. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Second Report from the Select Committee be agreed to.—(Lord Aberdare.)

3.6 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, to leave out ("agreed to") and insert ("referred back to the Select Committee for their further consideration"). I hope I shall be able to tempt the acting Leader of the House, despite the short notice he has had of this matter, to intervene, because I think the reply can best come from him in view of the events which I shall hope to relate this afternoon.

My Lords, I move this amendment because an undertaking was given to the full House, and was accepted by the House in good faith, no less than two and a half years ago, and this undertaking shows no signs of being honoured; and because the Procedure Committee, despite what the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has said, shows little sign—no clear sign, at any rate—that in this lengthy period of two and a half years it has been doing the limited task (as I shall indicate it is) which the House in effect asked it to undertake in fulfilment of the undertaking given to the whole House. Since it is such a long time ago that this unhappy story starts, and despite the fact that the noble Lord has mentioned it briefly, I must myself give my own description in order to refresh the memories of your Lordships of the promise of the Leader of the House on 5th July 1977. In effect, in my view, the House reached a decision on that day, and it is still not carried out.

The Select Committee on Practice and Procedure reported in April 1977. Part 3 of that report dealt with these fresh ideas about the consideration of Public Bills. It suggested that several committees based on policy areas, as the noble Lord, the Chairman of Committees, has recalled—things like trade and industry, environment and home affairs are examples which come to mind—be set up to deal with legislation only. I emphasise that point: they should not be confused with Select Committees dealing with policy and administration. Those are a very different kind of animal, and form no part at all of the Practice and Procedure Committee's proposal in 1977. The suggested legislative committees, as they were, would watch Bills, pre-legislative Green and White Papers and delegated legislation, very much as the European Committee does in another sphere, and would be free to take some outside evidence where appropriate. Before a Second Reading, these committees would report on the features of the Bill and also on areas of it that had perhaps had little scrutiny in the House of Commons, on undertakings given in the Commons about further amendments to be introduced in the House of Lords, and so on. Thus the committee would help to focus noble Lords' attention in the full House on the areas most suitable for revision and deeper study.

After the Second Reading in the House, the same committee would take the Committee stage of appropriate Bills—I shall come to what was meant by "appropriate Bills" in a moment—and would be able to take more evidence if it wished. For this work at a formal Committee stage, as a Standing Committee, the committee would of course be enlarged; Members and Ministers would be added, and in any case, of course, all Members can attend such committees and move amendments.

As the Practice and Procedure Committee clearly indicated, and as was firmly understood when the report was debated in the House, such a system would not be suitable for very controversial Bills which would remain on the Floor of the House for all stages. There would be nothing automatic about the proposed legislative committees. Equally the suggested committees would not necessarily deal with all possible amendments. On the pattern of what we are learning all the time in the European Communities Committee, it would reserve difficult amendments for the full House to take at Report stage. That was the proposal of the Practice and Procedure Committee.

I was a member of that Practice and Procedure Committee and took some interest in these proposals. In my view, if I may humbly say so, after nearly 30 years in Parliament, many of them concerned with procedural matters, there can be little harm and perhaps a lot of good in some limited experiment to see whether the House could perform better the function which it now claims to fulfil. Following its reduction in powers and its search for influence instead, the House claims to be a revising Chamber. But most Public Bill procedure here dates from the time when the House was equal in powers and authority with the House of Commons; and most of the Public Bill procedure remains a mirror image of the adversarial confrontation system practised by the House of Commons. The European Committees indeed commented to the Practice and Procedure Committee that the House did not seem to be learning the lesson of their successful break-out from the old system.

Without detaining your Lordships for too long, may I take one small example that might have had the new procedure: the Race Relations Bill of 1975–76. Its non-political and technical qualities would have made it, I firmly believe, a most interesting candidate for particular care with revision. Clause 25 about discrimination in clubs and associations cried out for dispassionate study, possibly with witnesses. Clause 65, a very important clause, was deleted, if noble Lords will look in Hansard, after one political speech from the Front Opposition Bench, one in reply and a simple party vote. I do not call that revision. I do not believe that that is a proper fulfilment of the revising role which this House clearly claims to undertake nowadays. The element of proving intent in cases about incitement to racial hatred that was dealt with in the Bill would have benefited from relaxed study and help by witnesses. There are half a dozen, at least, of such issues where the House failed, in my view, to perform the function of careful revision.

I come finally to 5th July 1977, when the Practice and Procedure Committee's recommendations—which were, by the way, unanimous—were debated by the House. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, who unhappily cannot be here today, moved a Motion for one or more such legislation committees in the following Session. Although several noble Lords were suspicious and some confused the proposals with those for the investigatory type of committee, there was considerable support for an experiment. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, from the Front Opposition Bench said quite clearly (in col. 179): I, for one, certainly approve of an experiment on the lines that my noble friend Lord Windlesham is suggesting". In col. 180 he said: I should be in favour of a single experiment in a policy area". The noble Lord, Lord Denham, now Government Chief Whip, gave his blessing to the proposals; the noble Lord, Lord Byers, took a similar line and so did the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, from the Cross-Benches. After a full debate, again with reservations, the noble Lord the Leader of the House, then my noble friend Lord Peart, said (in col. 261): … I echo the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Byers, in saying that I am prepared to accept the proposal for an experiment…"; and, most important, that the proposal should go to the sessional Procedure Committee for the detailed technical implementation to be worked out.

The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, withdrew his Motion with the words that he was willing to rest on the good faith of the Leader of the House". Lord Windlesham must be reflecting ruefully that he might have done better to press his Motion which was set fair to win that day after that debate. It would certainly have been carried, and there would have been no further possibility of doubt or of unnecessary delay in starting the experiment.

I come, then, to the present report from the Procedure Committee that we are discussing today. For two and a half years it has failed to report on the technical implementation of the experiment effectively endorsed in principle by the full House on 5th July 1977. Rumour has it that the Procedure Committee debates the principle of what was decided rather than the implementation and rather than its technical details—completely to the contrary of what was understood when the matter was debated. There was, first, the excuse that at the time they were waiting for the new Commons committee system. On that I would make two comments. First, as in the European Communities Committee system, this House has not shirked going ahead with its own system, quite different from and in advance of that of the House of Commons, when it suited the House. We do not always wait for the House of Commons. We gave a lead in the European Communities system. Secondly, the Commons committee system is now established for all to see. So why are we still waiting for the Procedure Committee?

The present excuse which the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has made might look rather suspicious in the light of the history that I have recorded. It is the excuse that we are short of clerks; we have clerks for only one experiment; and the claims of the Select Committee on Science and Technology come first. I have one major comment to make on this. Do we really want to go on delaying an important experiment that goes to the heart of our role as a revising Chamber because we need one more clerk? We have 19 clerks, most of whom are engaged on committee work. We do not begrudge any number of clerks to the European Communities Committee; but when a matter goes to the heart of our role as a revising Chamber we are arguing and delaying over one more clerk—although the work of the European Communities Committee, of course, is peripheral to our main activity in this Chamber while the Public Bills Committee system goes to the very heart of our role. We are liberal with one and we begrudge the other. This, in my view, is quite misplaced. As far as the proposal of my noble friend Lord Shackleton is concerned, the Science and Technology Committee, of course, is important; but it is different in nature and we should make room for both if this Chamber and this House need these activities to take place.

So, my Lords, I move my amendment. Two and a half years, I think, is long enough. The Procedure Committee should be requested in all courtesy to report on the technical implementation of the agreement on the experiment agreed in 1977. The House should decide on any amendment to the principle if staff demands are thereby intolerable. With great respect to the Front Benches, issues of good faith are at stake and those of us who toiled on the Policy and Procedure Committee and accepted the July 1977 undertakings are beginning to feel betrayed. Indeed, I hope that the outcome of today's discussion might well be that the Procedure Committee will withdraw its Motion of today, enabling me also to withdraw my amendment, and will volunteer—as has been expected of it, if I may say so—without unreasonable delay, to report further on the technical implementation of the agreement reached on 5th July 1977. My Lords, I beg to move my amendment.

Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, to leave out ("agreed to") and insert ("referred back to the Select Committee for their further consideration").—(Lord Northfield.)

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, I do not know whether I am depriving the acting Leader of the House of his first opportunity to speak in that capacity; but perhaps I may make a few comments which could be of help. I have a good deal of sympathy with my noble friend Lord Northfield. As someone who is also familiar with procedure in both Houses of Parliament, I believe that my noble friend is incorrect in assuming that the Leader of the day gave a binding commitment. He could not have given such a binding commitment, because in the last resort it would have been for the House to decide. Nor could he bind the House in regard to the following Session. Even if the Motion had been carried—and I admit that undoubtedly I would have supported it—it would still have been left for the Committee on Procedure and subsequently for the House to take decisions.

As a member of the Practice and Procedure Committee, I feel rather sorry that my proposal to the Committee on Procedure should have had this effect. However, I am bound to make the following comments: first, it was a deliberate decision that the Practice and Procedure Committee's recommendations would be considered in the light of a decision in another place. The analogy with the European Committees is not a valid one because they were both seeking to go their separate ways. We decided to wait. As a result, we were confronted with a situation of a decision by another place to set up department committees and to abolish their subject committees. It is not for us to comment on the wisdom of their decision, but I am bound to draw the attention of the House to the very considerable criticism which arose both in scientific and indeed other circles, in the Press and elsewhere, at a time like this that Parliament should be left without a specialist committee which would cross the whole broad issue of science and technology.

It was in these circumstances that we considered the matter in the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee of which the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, is a past president and I am the current president. It was on the initiative of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee some years ago—and nearly 100 Members of your Lordships' House are Members of that committee—that the original Select Committee was set up in another place. Many of us were dismayed when this decision was taken. The reason that we were dismayed was that whereas I, for one, would not wish to suggest that the department committees are not valuable, there are certain subjects which are very much broader than any single department.

May I give your Lordships two examples. First, there was an excellent report by the Select Committee on Japanese research and development. This crossed many subjects which would not have been appropriate for a department committee. Another example: a recent but not wholly finished report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology in another place deals with the very delicate question of recombinant DNA. Your Lord- ships will be aware that this strikes at the very roots of life and raises profound issues. At least six departments could be involved in this matter. It could be the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science, which should be concerned with research. It could be the responsibility of the Department of Industry because of its impact in industry. It certainly could involve agriculture; it could involve the Department of Employment; and it could involve other departments.

This is a broad subject which is not appropriate for a single department committee. The case for a Select Committee on Science and Technology was a very strong one. My noble friend has not seen fit to challenge that. I accept that he is in favour of this. However, we were concerned with urgency. We were also aware that your Lordships' House is uniquely qualified, in a way that no other parliamentary chamber in the world is so qualified, to deal with this particular issue. Not only do we have 13 Fellows of the Royal Society, but we have countless technologists, scientists and engineers. All my predecessors as presidents of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee supported this—Lord Zuckerman and others. For that reason, we felt that the matter was so urgent that we pressed for an immediate setting up of this committee. We therefore found ourselves with something of a difficult choice. We were advised that it was not going to be possible to set up two committees, for various reasons. Therefore I hope that your Lordships, however sympathetic you may be to my noble friend Lord Northfield, will not reject the original proposal. This is a battle which may need to be fought again.

I should remind your Lordships that the House still retains powers to appoint Select Committees to consider particular Bills. It has done so: I remember that it was on my Motion that a Select Committee was set up to consider a Bill concerned with equal pay. Your Lordships took evidence and did a very good job on it. I hope that my noble friend will withdraw his amendment. He will have the sympathy of the House. He will certainly be hesitant about any assurances that he may feel he is to be given. My Lords, I hope that we will pass the original Motion.

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