HL Deb 11 December 1979 vol 403 cc987-94

Debate on the amendment resumed.

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, I do not know whether it is your Lordships' wish that we should continue the debate which was initiated by the Chairman of Committees and the amendment which has been moved by my noble friend Lord Northfield. May I say to my noble friend Lord Shackleton that I fully endorse the proposal of the Procedure Committee for the setting up of a Select Committee on Science and Technology. I believe that this is one of the crucial areas. However, having recognised the importance of this committee I should have hoped that we could be a little more generous in our support of the committee.

My noble friend has moved his amendment and if he is going to divide the House I shall join him. However, I should like to ask him whether that is the wisest course to adopt at this moment. My memory goes back a few years to the time when the noble Lord, Lord Maybray-King, introduced a report from the European Economic Scrutiny Committees. Your Lordships' House then expressed concern about manpower: whether there would be sufficient Members of your Lordships' House to support those committees. Those fears were of no consequence; we have managed to support those committees in a most admirable way. Concern was also expressed about accommodation: where were those committees going to sit? Accommodation was found for them.

There was a third issue, and I touch upon it quite deliberately: what were to be the terms of reference of those committees? If the officials who were advising the Leader of the House of the day had had their way, we should have had terms of reference which were identical to those in the House of Commons. The reason why the committees of your Lordships' House have been so successful and so admired is that your Lordships' House insisted on wider terms of reference. It was because of those terms of reference, so drafted, that the committees have been so successful.

When, therefore, I see in the report that the Procedure Committee gave the balance of advantage, on grounds of accommodation and manpower resources, to the setting up of a Select Committee on Science and Technology as opposed to the proposals relating to my own Select Committee on Practice and Procedure, I do not find them to be very convincing. I believe the truth to be more fundamental than that. I believe it to be a natural and understandable desire on the part of those who sit on the two Front Benches—and I have spent a few years sitting on one or other of those Front Benches so I know what that desire is—not to see too great a change. The desire is for the power of Members not to become too enlarged—to become too free from the control of business and the way that business is conducted. I believe that this is a fundamental and an understandable reason.

May I ask the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, to cast his mind back to one of the reasons why the Select Committee on Practice and Procedure was set up. It was set up after 1975 and 1976—years of horror, as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, referred to them, when this House was asked to take an ever-increasing quantity of legislation, mainly at the end of the Session. There was deep concern throughout your Lordships' House that we were passing legislation that had hardly been examined either in Committee or at Report. There can be no question at all but that it was that sense of unease which brought about the Select Committee on Practice and Procedure.

If the two Front Benches are against the proposals, I can only say that four ex-Leaders of your Lordships' House sat on my committee: the noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel, the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, and myself. Most of the committee members had had experience over a wide period of time, both in your Lordships' House and in another place. If one were to look at the list of membership of that committee one could hardly believe that they were a bunch of fundamental radicalists. We all sought to meet a problem.

I would say only this to my noble friend: that this may not be the time for him to press his amendment. I think that the resistance of the two Front Benches is such that whatever may be done it will be very difficult for the House to prevail. At the moment it is easy for there to be a touch of complacency. The House is sitting on three days a week and is able to take debates on the reports of the European Scrutiny Committees in a leisurely way and at the right time in the afternoon—not late at night, at 11 or 12 o'clock, as was the case in 1975 and 1976. I wonder what the Chief Whip of the Opposition foresees the position will be at the end of the Session.


Chaos, my Lords!


I believe, my Lords, that we shall be in a similar or even worse situation than in 1975 and 1976, and that Members of this House will be saying, "We are passing legislation under great pressure, legislation which has hardly been examined. We, as a revising Chamber, are once again failing to perform our real role as a revising Chamber." May I say to my noble friend that at the end of this Session memories of 1975 and 1976 may come back and that those noble Lords who have only recently joined your Lordships' House will recoil with horror and dismay at what the situation will be.

Reform comes when there are pressures for reform. I do not think those pressures exist at the moment, but they will come. It may well be that the proposals which were made by the Select Committee on Practice and Procedure will be taken up because there will be a groundswell of feeling in your Lordships' House. So I would urge my noble friend not to press his amendment today. I think that the battle will be won and that reform will come. I do not think he will get his amendment today. Nevertheless, I believe it will be inevitable. In any case, I hope that the House will agree to the setting up of a Select Committee on Science and Technology.

4 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, invited me to join in this debate, and the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, asked me to cast my mind back to 1976. I do not mind saying that I do so with a certain modest hesitation in view of these new-found responsibilities and the evident controversy of the particular subject; but I know that my noble friend the Leader of the House would have wished to say a word about the view of the Government and his view as Leader of the House.

The Procedure Committee had to consider whether to proceed with an experimental committee along the lines suggested in Recommendation 16 of the Practice and Procedure Committee and what response to make to the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, and the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, that a Select Committee on Science and Technology should be appointed. Serious doubts had been expressed, not least by the Leader of the House and by his predecessor the noble Lord, Lord Peart, about the viability of the proposed experimental committee and about the series of committees for which it was intended to pave the way. These doubts will not be diminished by the decision of another place to set up 12 committees to scrutinise the work of all the main Government departments. On the other hand, the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, and the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, which the Procedure Committee decided to support, was, of course, for a Science and Technology Committee—a subject which is not the responsibility of a single Government department, and one which is not within the remit of a Commons Committee, and yet one which is a subject of the first importance for this country and which is a field in which this House can boast a great deal of expertise and experience.

The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, reminded us that some 80 Members of your Lordships' House have experience in this field. He said that 13 Members are Fellows of the Royal Society, among them its president, the noble Lord, Lord Todd. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, that I doubt whether there is any other legislature in the world which could boast such distinction in the field of science. As a member of the Government I am bound to say that I for one would not relish the prospect of an experimental committee which would pave the way for a whole series of committees which would place a considerable additional burden on Government departments and which would lead to a considerable increase in the staff of your Lordships' House. The House would perhaps have forgiven my noble friend the Leader for a slight bias on this point as he has spent some considerable time since early May, since coming into office, in looking for ways of doing just the reverse and of trying to reduce the cost of the public service. Of course he did not allow this to sway him unduly and, as Leader of the House and as somebody coming in with a fresh eye to the problem, he felt that the kind of committees that were proposed would place an unreasonable burden on the House, which is already required increasingly to operate like a full-time Chamber, which of course it is not.

In addition, as I have mentioned, serious doubts have been expressed about the practicality of the scheme from a procedural point of view. When he came to weigh all these alternatives my noble friend reached the firm conclusion that in his view the interests of the House could best be served by the appointment of a Committee on Science and Technology as an alternative to the experimental committee, both on the grounds of the suitability of the policy area for the proposed committee and in order to make the best use of the time that your Lordships can give for the extra work which would be involved. A desirable and, from the Government's point of view, a not insignificant consequence of this course would also be that it would require only a modest addition to the permanent staff of the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Northfield, said that there was a question of good faith concerned in this. But there is not in fact an issue of good faith here; it is really a question of the best way forward for the House and the way to respond to changing circumstances. What one might describe as the Shackleton-Sherfield proposal was made only relatively recently, and therefore I hope that the House will feel that the sensible course will be to agree to the report of the Procedure Committee so that progress may be made with the Science and Technology Committee; and I hope too that the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, will consider that this particular bird in the hand is worth quite a lot more than further deliberation on the subject and the possibility of more flocks of birds but in the very much more distant future.


My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down will he just explain one thing before I decide whether or not to withdraw my amendment? Is he now saying that he and his noble friend the Leader of the House want finally to bury the proposal of the Practice and Procedure Committee by postponing it indefinitely? Is he saying that the agreement reached on the 5th July 1977, is not now to be honoured? If I may quote him, the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham said: I am willing to rest on the good faith of the Leader of the House that he will carry out this experiment".—[Official Report; 5/7/77, col. 265.) This is a very deep matter of honour in this House, and before I decide my course of action I should like to know exactly what the noble Earl is now saying about the fate of that agreement reached in July, 1977.


My Lords, it is not of course a question of my noble friend the Leader of the House burying the report or the decisions. The decisions are a matter for the House, and all I can do is to say what advice my noble friend has to offer in the changing circumstances. His advice is that we should go for a Science and Technology Committee.


My Lords, the reply given by the noble Earl puts me in a most grave situation because it seems to me, with great respect to him, that his words are meant to cover up the fact that nobody here has any intention at all of honouring that agreement of July, 1977. That is the inference that one must draw from what has been said today.


My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord, he says it is the inference that no one has any intention of honouring the agreement. The only way in which any kind of procedure can be advanced is by the approval of the House as a whole. It is up to the House to decide what to do. All I can do is to give the House the benefit of my noble friend's views.


My Lords, the noble Earl still leaves me in a difficult situation. I shall beg leave to withdraw my amendment but it will be with a considerable feeling of betrayal of the work that we did over the years. The way of parliamentary reform is a difficult one. I was chairman of the House of Commons Procedure Committee for many difficult years. We have to fight over years; much depends upon coming back again and again. I also recognise that saying to this House that there are matters of good faith at stake is not very pleasant, or to challenge whether we are doing our job properly. I accept all those difficulties in my path and I fully understand that the House may be uneasy at my pressing the matter unduly. I shall withdraw my amendment, but I shall return to the matter because I do not think that honour is satisfied.

It is clear to anyone who reads that debate of July 1977 that the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, withdrew his Motion that a single experiment should take place and the implementation to be referred to the Procedure Committee because, as he said, he had the support of his own Leader, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington; he had the offer from the Government Front Bench, from my noble friend Lord Peart, of an experiment in the following Session. That was a clear promise to the House, as we understand it, in the way that understandings are reached across the Floor of this Chamber. I state again: it will be a bad day for the House if we reach the point when undertakings and understandings of that kind are subsequently broken. It will make our business impossible if clear undertakings of that kind are not honoured.

With that protest, my Lords, and with the promise that I shall insist on returning to this matter every time the Procedure Committee reports, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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