§ 3.9 p.m.
§ Earl Jellicoe rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the Select Committee on the Committee Work of the House (1991–92 HL Paper 35).
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, in rising to invite the House to take note of our committee's report, perhaps I may first say what a great privilege it was to chair the inquiry. I wish to thank not only my fellow members for their unstinting support during the nine months it took to give birth to our report, but all those noble Lords who gave their views. I predicated on another occasion, if I remember correctly, that our report was likely to prove a sure cure for insomnia. However, given a fair sprinkling of what I take to be mainly non-equestrian Peers who are down to speak on this Derby Day, it would seem that I was perhaps wrong.
§ First, I shall say a word about the background. Our inquiry arose from a specific difficulty over staff resources: the inability to support a proposed ad hoc committee—an ad hoc committee in which the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, was interested. It was therefore very much an inward-looking inquiry into a particular aspect of our domestic affairs. One or two pundits have criticised us for not taking a more radical look at the role and work of the House; for not considering, for example, the sort of committee structure which might emerge in a reformed House. I happen to remain, in my innocent hereditary way, as I was back in 1968, a reformer at heart. But the reform of your Lordships' House and the kind of committee structure appropriate for a reformed House were not what we were asked to consider. Ours was a much more humdrum task.
§ However, we took a wide-ranging look at many different aspects of our committee work. It was the first full dress review since committees, as we now know them, were first appointed in those dim and distant days—that dark age—when I was Leader of your Lordships' House.
§ In 1971, supported by the then Leader of the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton—I am glad to see that he is to speak—I rather tentatively asked the House to appoint our first investigative committee on sport and leisure. It was a spar, I suggest, at the time which could be rescued from the White Paper on Lords reform. We have come a long way since then. Today, our Select Committees make a vital contribution to the work of the House. But just as they have grown and developed over the past 20 years, so too have the labours of the House itself. We now sit more often and for longer hours than any other chamber in the world, with the exception, of course, of another place. That is a rather ghastly Guinness record.
§ A further relevant development is that brainchild of my noble friend Lord St. John of Fawsley—the establishment, when he was Leader elsewhere, of the 900 new and comprehensive departmental Select Committee structure in another place, now shadowing all government departments.
Our committee approached its task with these important developments very much in mind. We quickly formed the view that a thorough review was well worth while. As we say in the report, Select Committees are,
a precious resource, but they are a resource which from time to time must adapt to the needs of the House and reflect the interest and support of the House as a whole".
§ We began with some general observations. We felt strongly that our committees should continue to complement and not duplicate the work of Commons committees; we saw merit in further co-ordination between the two Houses. We were supported in that by senior committee chairmen from another place. We also took the view that the number of Lords available to give freely of their time precluded any great net increase in our committee activity.
§ We felt too that the very high standards to which our committees have come to work occasionally lead them to be at times just a trifle too ambitious. I am sure noble Lords will agree that there is much to be said for at least some reports which are short, sharp and timely. Others, of course, have necessarily to be full and comprehensive.
§ Above all perhaps, we concluded that there was a case for some widening of the scope of Select Committee activity beyond the European Community and science and technology. We considered first whether the House might appoint further sessional —that is to say more or less permanent—Select Committees. Several attractive suggestions were put to us: for example, committees on relations between central and local government, on the whole subject of justice and—not least on foreign affairs—all matters on which the House can bring much wisdom, experience and expertise to bear. At the end of the day we came down against those interesting suggestions, not because they lacked merit—they do not—but because we saw real danger in duplicating the work of the Commons departmental committees and in tying up the limited resources of this House on a permanent basis. We see no reason, however—and I underline this—why aspects of these important subjects should not be considered by ad hoc committees. Indeed, I should like to express the hope they will be.
§ What about ad hoc committees? Relatively few have been appointed in the past two decades—and none since 1988. However, virtually all the evidence we received pointed to their value and bite. For example, we heard from two former Leaders, my noble friends Lord Whitelaw—unfortunately a Derby Day absentee today—and Lord Waddington just how uncomfortable governments had found respectively the report from the Committee on Overseas Trade, that bestseller of 1985, chaired by my noble friend Lord Aldington, and also that on murder and life imprisonment, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Nathan. But our two former Leaders readily agreed that these ad hoc Select Committee reports were impressive, persuasive and influential. We were struck, too, by the impact of the narrower inquiries conducted by other ad hoc committees into specific legislative 901 proposals. Thus, that on the Infant Life (Preservation) Bill, chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, clearly made its parental mark on the subsequent Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Accordingly, we have had no hesitation in proposing that the House should be able to appoint at least one ad hoc committee per session.
§ The other area where we saw a strong case for additional committee work was, of course, the consideration of legislation. We were made very well aware that many noble Lords greatly value the Committee of the Whole House procedure. Thus, under our proposals all main programme Bills—indeed the great majority of Bills—would continue to be taken on the Floor of the House. Nevertheless, that granted, we feel that the time has undoubtedly come to experiment further in taking some legislation off the Floor—both to save time and, as I think could be the case, to improve the quality of legislation.
§ We have made three specific proposals for experiments which I now sketch in outline. The first is on Public Bill Committees. Fortified by the experience of the Charities Bill last Session, we believe that there is a case for the occasional use of such committees for suitable Bills. By occasional I do not mean one every four or five years as at present, but perhaps once or twice a Session. This would permit the procedures to become a little more familiar to us all.
§ Secondly, we propose special standing committees able to take a limited amount of evidence from interested parties and later to consider the Bill concerned clause by clause. We believe that this procedure would be particularly suitable for certain Bills, largely devoid of party political controversy, initially at least introduced in this House—that is, legal and technical Bills but nonetheless important ones such as those embodying Law Commission recommendations or dealing with intricate matters like company law. We were encouraged by the response which we received from the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and I am particularly glad that he will be answering our debate later this evening. My personal belief is that this House has an important, albeit perhaps unspectacular, role to play in this rather special area.
§ Thirdly, we recommend the appointment of a delegated powers scrutiny committee, able to give more systematic consideration to the delegated powers sought by government in Bills. We believe this would fit well with the revising function of this House and meet the very considerable disquiet about the wide and sometimes ill-defined order-making powers—Henry VIII clauses and so on—increasingly embodied in legislation these days. For this proposal we were indebted to my noble friend Lord Rippon of Hexham in the first instance. He is very sorry that business duties have called him abroad at this time. He was supported by many others, not least by one of the members of our committee, the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, who visited the Australian Senate on our behalf. He was able to study closely the work of the Scrutiny of Bills Committee in that House—a committee now 10 years old and generally considered 902 successful and influential. The then Leader of the House was really quite encouraging about this proposal; and we have sought to meet a number of the provisos which he put to us. I look forward with eager anticipation to hearing the views of his successor.
§ What now of our two particularly distinguished existing committees? In their different ways they have done a great deal to enhance, at least among the cognoscenti, the reputation of your Lordships' House. Here I should like to pay a very special tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Serota—our committee member, the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, will have an exceedingly formidable act to follow—and also to the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, the present chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee. I am not sucking up when I say that the noble Baroness and the scientific noble Lord have both done quite splendid jobs.
§ The praise from all our witnesses and in all the evidence we received for the expert and painstaking work of the European Communities Committee was unstinted. It came from many quarters. It came also from those really in the know, for example, the right honourable Tristan Garel-Jones, the Minister for Europe, to give him his shorthand title, Sir John Kerr, the UK Permanent Representative in Brussels, and last and far from least, from M. Jacques Delors himself. I have no hesitation in saying—I know that this is the view of all members of our Select Committee —that the standing of the European Communities Committee, be it in its often detailed work of scrutiny or be it through its longer, forward-looking and more strategic inquiries, for example that on the enlargement of the Community with which the sub-committee of the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, is now heavily pregnant, is without a rival in any other House in any other parliament in the Community.
§ Accordingly our recommendation that this valuable, indeed invaluable, committee should be reappointed is clear and unequivocal. At the same time we did not feel that its existing structure and working methods were necessarily sacrosanct. Thus we stressed the need for speed and selectivity given the accelerating legislative process in the Community. We emphasised the need for closer and more regular links with the increasingly influential European Parliament and perhaps for some greater promotion of the committee's reports within the Commission. We emphasised this following our visit to Brussels and what we learnt there. We also suggested that the committee structure might itself provide for an ad hoc sub-committee because many of the great issues facing the Community are not necessarily well suited to subject-related sub-committees.
§ Then there is the vexatious question of resources. At present this invaluable committee takes up the lion's share of our available committee resources both in Peer and Clerk time. Indeed, no fewer than 80 plus of your Lordships are involved in its work. If therefore, as I and our committee believe is right, this House is to widen the scope of its committee activity then it is inevitable that the share of resources taken by our admirable European Communities Committee must somewhat decrease. We accordingly recommend 903 some reduction in the number of sub-committees, perhaps by some astute amalgamation and in the number of noble Lords involved. At the same time we are quite clear that in the future each sub-committee must have the exclusive attention of a single clerk.
§ My committee was also greatly impressed by the high standing, authority and influence which our Science and Technology Select Committee has won for itself, and not only within the select confines of the science community. Although another place has sought to establish a small science and technology sub-committee we have no hesitation in recommending the reappointment of our committee. Indeed, given the fact that a Cabinet Minister now has a special responsibility for science and for the research councils, the committee's role may become even more influential in the future. In my personal view this increases the relevance of our recommendation that the Science and Technology Committee should seek to concentrate on really, vital matters—not too recondite—likely to interest both Parliament and the nation as a whole. As with the European Communities Committee, we do not think that their existing working methods and sub-committee structure are necessarily sacrosanct.
§ This then is the framework for committees, albeit a loosely structured and flexible framework—I stress this—which we propose: the re-appointment of the two existing well-proven committees on Europe and on science and technology; the ability to mount and man at least one ad hoc Select Committee a Session; the recourse from time to time to Public Bill Committees on legislation judged appropriate; an experiment with the special standing committee procedure on some legal and technical Bills starting in this House; and likewise, a trial experiment with a delegated powers scrutiny committee.
§ If it is to operate properly, this structure will need a degree of oversight and co-ordination and we propose, with the endorsement of most of our witnesses, a steering committee. The terms of reference which we suggest are to be found in paragraph 157 of our report. A key role for the proposed committee will be to take decisions on proposals for ad hoc committees, but more generally it will continue the sort of review which we in our committee have begun. It will not, I hope, need to meet frequently, save perhaps to begin with, and it will certainly not seek to intervene in matters which are properly the concern of the committees themselves, let alone dictate how they should go about their work or vet their reports. Our committee attaches the highest importance to this proposal and I hope that it will receive full support today so that the steering committee can be appointed without delay. We thought in our innocent way that the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees should perhaps take the chair but this is a matter on which we particularly welcome the views of the House.
§ We also made a range of other recommendations on the operation of our committee system. It is my hope and expectation that these will be carefully 904 considered by the appropriate committees of the House in the coming months. I shall now only single out one or two of the recommendations.
§ We considered that there was still room for improvement—I put it no stronger than that—in the way and speed with which Her Majesty's Government respond to our reports. My noble friend gave us a fairly positive and conciliatory reply. I trust that his distinguished successor can follow suit. Likewise, we urged the usual channels to bear more in mind committee reports when arranging Wednesday debates and to set aside two Wednesdays at busy times in the Session for debates on committee reports. Perhaps a bit more controversially we recommended that the rotation rule, as it is known, should be reduced from five Sessions to three, and strictly applied, so as to encourage turnover and to introduce new blood in committee membership. I have a suspicion that there may be some reservations in your Lordships' House about this proposal. If so, I look forward to hearing them.
§ I wish to reserve my final word for staffing. I make no apology for this. We could not have operated without our wholly admirable Clerk. But he is no exception. We were deeply impressed throughout our whole inquiry by the quality of the staff who man and service our whole committee structure. These Clerks and those who help them are the linchpin of the system and I pay tribute to them. It is a principal reason why the committees of this House represent such good value for money.
§ I speak of quality. There is also the little matter of quantity. There is already strain in the system and if your Lordships accept our proposals, at least in the main, there is a clear case for a modest increase in staff to ensure that our recommendations are given proper effect to. We are not calling for any major reinforcements. We do not envisage a great array of expert advisers. Nevertheless this is a matter to which our committee attaches great importance and on which I look with confidence today for encouragement from the noble Lord the Leader of the House. On that perhaps over-optimistic note I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the Select Committee on the Committee Work of the House (1991–92 HL Paper 35).—(Earl Jellicoe.)
§ 3.28 p.m.
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)
My Lords, it is a great privilege for me to follow my noble friend Lord Jellicoe in this important debate on his committee's report on the Select Committee work of this House. I feel considerable trepidation in speaking on this issue as I am only too well aware of the vast experience of committee work held by those around me. On behalf of the House I wish to pay tribute to my noble friend and his committee for such a comprehensive, probing and provocative look at some aspects of our committee work. It is probably the first time that many, if not all, of the subjects have been examined in such depth. I am sure that your Lordships wish me to congratulate him equally on the manner in which he introduced the report today in his speech.
905 I rise to speak in a dual capacity, as Leader of the House and on behalf of the Government as a whole. My comments are very much my, and the Government's, first thoughts on the various issues. I hope that it may be helpful for your Lordships to have some indication of our initial thinking at this stage, but I should emphasise that we are here to listen to your Lordships' views. I shall wish to reflect on what is said here today before finalising my own views and reporting back to colleagues. Thereafter, I hope that with the support of the House arrangements can be made through the Procedure Committee to give effect to the Select Committee's recommendations in the autumn.
Your Lordships may find it helpful if I speak to the conclusions and recommendations in the order they appear in the report. I shall not try to cover all of them. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor will speak later on the recommendations for the experimental use of special standing committees and the appointment of a delegated powers scrutiny committee, on the latter of which, I should warn your Lordships, the Government have some reservations.
It will not be a surprise to your Lordships that I agree with the committee's conclusions as to the great contribution Select Committees have made to the work of this House, and the need to develop, without any great net increase in activity, the structure of the committee work which extends activity to areas other than the two main Select Committees. I welcome the support the report gives the view of my predecessor that there must be a clear link between committee work and the Chamber, and that committees must not become, or be perceived as representing, special interest groups. Extending the range of committee work will require effective liaison with the other place in order to avoid duplication. In my view that would be best achieved through contact between the Commons' Liaison Committee and the proposed steering committee.
I welcome the committee's endorsement of the proposal for the appointment of a steering committee. As the report points out, such a committee would be able to continue to review the committee work of the House on a permanent basis, so providing a forum to discuss the further evolution of committee activity. I also agree, in general, with the suggested terms of reference for the steering committee. In particular, I see considerable benefit in the proposed function of adjudicating between competing claims for members, staff and resources.
I am aware that some of your Lordships have concerns about the steering committee proposal. The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, expressed some of them in his evidence to the committee. I should therefore like to echo what my noble friend Lord Jellicoe said in opening. It is not my intention, nor that of the Government, that the steering committee should influence the activities of the sessional Select Committees or their agendas. The steering committee would, as I see it, have a role at one remove from that detailed work. Nor should the steering committee be 906 seen as a means of imposing solutions on the House: it would instead be an impartial vehicle in which discussion of initiatives—such as for the establishment of ad hoc committees—can be discussed. The existence of such a formal committee would represent a marked improvement on present informal channels of discussion and make more transparent the process of consultation and deliberation. Moreover, the House would still have the opportunity of reviewing the recommendations of the steering committee.
As to the composition of the steering committee, I again broadly accept the recommendations of the report. I agree that the chairmen of the European Communities and the Science and Technology Committees should receive the committee's papers, but on reflection I think that they should not be members, since one function of the committee will be to determine the appropriate resources for those committees. I note the view that the Chairman of Committees should chair the steering committee. However, in view of the composition of the committee, I believe that there is a case for the Leader of the House to take the chair—a view that was also put forward in evidence by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. I should welcome the views of other noble Lords on that proposal.
My noble friend described to the House why the committee reject the idea of establishing a third sessional committee. I agree that the case for the establishment of a third sessional committee does not seem strong enough to justify the large and ongoing allocation of resources necessary. As the report recognises, the creation of a new sessional committee would also run the risk of reducing the ability of the House to respond to new demands for committee activity as they arise.
On the other hand, I accept the case in principle for the establishment of more ad hoc committees. I note the recommendation that the House should be able to appoint at least one such committee per Session, with the prospect of three committees every two Sessions. I acknowledge that, in the past, the work of such committees has been highly influential and popular among your Lordships. But, while in principle, I do not dissent from the target of an ad hoc committee every year, I do not think that your Lordships would be well advised to be too prescriptive about the amount of ad hoc committee work. This must inevitably depend on the emergence of suitable subjects for inquiry and, indeed, on the degree of enthusiasm of your Lordships for an inquiry on a particular subject. It will not, in general, be easy to find resources to run two or more ad hoc committees concurrently. It would, of course, be a major function of the steering committee to determine subjects appropriate to be recommended to your Lordships for an ad hoc inquiry.
The use of Public Bill Committees is, if not foreign, at least rather exotic in your Lordships' House. I note that the committee see some advantage in the occasional use of Public Bill Committees to relieve the pressure of business on the floor of the House. As the committee points out, the procedures of such committees remain largely unfamiliar. I am also 907 conscious that there has been a general reluctance for Committee stages of Bills to be taken elsewhere than on the Floor of the House. However, your Lordships may agree that the most recent experience of a Public Bill Committee, on the Charities Bill, was generally deemed to be a success. Moreover, I recognise that the House must try to develop new methods of dealing with legislation if we are to reduce what, on occasions, can be considerable pressure on your Lordships. I believe that, subject to certain safeguards, increased use of Public Bill Committees for some categories of Bills may well repay further examination, and I should be interested to hear your Lordships' views on that subject.
The committee did not recommend the appointment of a committee to assess the environmental impact of Bills—a conclusion the Government welcome. We shall, however, consider the practicality of providing some form of definitive document or statement which would be both concise and informative, which would be available when a Bill is being considered. Any such innovation would, of course, also apply to Bills introduced in the other place.
The Government share the committee's opinion that the European Communities Committee has been at the forefront of the scrutiny of European legislation by a national parliament. But, as the report itself recognises, much has changed since the committee was established in 1974. The range of decision-making in the Community has increased and may increase further. Those developments undoubtedly affect the activities of that committee, and your Lordships will no doubt welcome the present opportunity to take stock of its future mode of operation.
The recommendations are largely intended to make the working of the committee more flexible. The Government welcome that, both in terms of the committee's own activities and in view of the prospect of establishing new ad hoc and legislative committees which will place additional calls on your Lordships' time and energies and the resources of the House. It would be wrong to expect that that new activity could be placed on top of that which already exists, and the report rightly recognises that the activities of the ECC will therefore need to be adjusted to reflect the new demands. I believe that a reduction in the number of sub-committees is appropriate, and I look forward to hearing your Lordships' views on how that can best be achieved.
I should also, personally, support the suggestion of an ad hoc sub-committee within the ECC and the development of closer ties between the committee and the Community institutions, subject to resource constraints. I am also pleased to report that my noble friend Lady Chalker of Wallasey will be happy to accept the committee's recommendation that she should provide regular briefing to the the ECC. She will be in touch shortly with the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, to discuss details.
Similar considerations apply to the Science and Technology Committee which has, as I am sure your Lordships will agree, provided a valuable forum for scrutiny of scientific and technical issues since its 908 inception in 1979. Again, the recommendations suggest more flexible methods that should enable the steering committee to allocate resources elsewhere when justified. I believe that these recommendations are sensible and I commend them to your Lordships.
The Government have already agreed to respond in writing to all reports of the European Communities Committee if possible within two months of their publication. We also accept that responses to reports of other committees should, in general, be made within six months of publication.
I note with interest the report's comments on the arrangement of debates on committee reports. We shall, of course, do all we can to ensure that reports are debated at times which meet the convenience of both the committee concerned and the House. But your Lordships will not, I imagine, be surprised if I say that I am a little reticent about giving any firm commitment to the arrangement of debates sought by the committee. At busy times of the year rigid arrangements could increase the pressures on your Lordships' House as Select Committee reports would displace other business from the Order Paper.
All the recommendations, taken together, would represent a significant increase in Select Committee activity in your Lordships' House. This will have two resource consequences.
First, and most importantly, it will place more pressures on your Lordships' time. I pay tribute to the many Members of your Lordships' House who devote so much time and energy to the existing work of Select Committees. But we should recognise that those resources are not infinite. It will, I believe, be an important function of the steering committee to assess the demands on your Lordships of the proposed reforms and to assess the availability of your Lordships to serve on committees.
I am glad to see this point reflected in the report. The report also recommends that, in general, membership of sub-committees of the two main committees should be limited to 12 and that for those committees the rotation rule should be reduced to three years, as it is generally for other committees of this House. While the precise numbers and term of service may be open to adjustment—and I look forward to hearing your Lordships' views on these points—I believe that the committee's proposals are very much to be supported.
Secondly, there will be more pressure on the staff of the House, accommodation and support facilities. We shall, of course, be prepared to play our part to ensure that the reforms envisaged are not frustrated because of lack of resources.
I end by once again thanking my noble friend and the stalwarts of his committee for the sterling work they have done in preparing this report. I look forward very much to hearing what other noble Lords now have to say.
§ 3.44 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, I should like first to join the Leader of the House in thanking the noble Earl and his committee for the extremely thorough and well researched report that they have produced. It 909 is quite clear that a great deal of trouble has been taken by the noble Earl, members of the committee and the staff. The results are very impressive.
Secondly, I should like to make the point that we do not regard the report, or indeed today's debate, as a party matter. We are dealing with the procedure of the House. Therefore all that I say and all that my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey will say later reflects our own views and should be understood as such. We have gone to some lengths to consult our noble friends but, as the noble Lord the Leader of the House said, there are differing views and it is only right that they should be freely expressed. In short, there is no party line, nor indeed can there be.
Thirdly, in view of the number of speakers in the debate, I propose to keep my remarks as short as possible. I am sure that noble Lords will be relieved to hear that. In doing so it may sound as though I disagree with the report's conclusions more than in fact I do and I hope that the noble Earl will not take offence. I see no point in going through the areas in which I agree with what is said. I shall set out only points of difference.
So at the outset I should like to say that in general I and the noble friends whom I consulted agree with the general conclusion of the report that the committee work of this House is of the greatest value and should be extended. I simply add—perhaps this is a slightly discordant note on what was said by the noble Lord the Leader of the House—that we feel that if the committee work were to be extended, it should be as a supplement to the existing work and not at the expense of it.
Having made that general statement of agreement, perhaps I may turn to some of the points on which I have doubts. First, with regard to the proposed steering committee, there is no doubt that the report is right in recommending that there should be a more formalised system of co-ordination and control of committee work. But the proposed composition of the steering committee looks to me suspiciously like the usual channels wearing a different hat. Since the job of the steering committee will, in the words of the report, be to:allocate resources between different Select Committees … [and] monitor the overall Select Committee work,as well as to consider requests for ad hoc committees, there must be a worry that the effect will be that those matters will become matters to be determined by the usual channels. Consequently the House will be presented with a series of faits accomplish without any realistic opportunity for debate and challenge. In other words, there is a danger that Back-Bench influence may be stifled. I should regret that.
In the light of that worry, my own preference—I shall be honest about it—would be for a liaison committee of committee chairmen, as suggested in the written evidence from the Clerk of the Parliaments. Its job would be to avoid overlap between committees in this House or committees of the other place; but it is important that the allocation of resources between committees and selection of the subjects to be studied by ad hoc committees should be a matter to be decided 910 by the whole House on the recommendation of the Leader of the House. It should be the Leader of the House who puts forward suggestions which could then be debated. If we have a steering committee between the usual channels, it becomes extremely difficult for the Opposition from either the Front or the Back Benches to challenge the decision. It goes through without the whole House having had the opportunity to express an opinion.
I turn to the issue of whether or not there should be a third sessional committee. To my mind that is linked to the thoughts put forth in the report on the subject of ad hoc committees. I am not as hostile as the report to the idea of a third sessional committee. As the noble Earl said, a number of suggestions came up in evidence but I rather suspect that if there is to be a third sessional committee it will grow out of the result of an ad hoc committee. In other words, we should have an ad hoc committee on a topic; it would then decide and recommend to the House that the matter and its conclusions on it were so important that the committee should be put on a semi-permanent basis.
Perhaps I may give your Lordships two admittedly hypothetical examples. The noble Earl mentioned that one of the subjects for study that had been suggested (which incidentally I would support) was the general relationship between central and local government. An ad hoc committee might easily be set up for that purpose but that committee might decide that the matter was so important and so continuing that it should turn into a third sessional committee.
As an another example, which fits well with the revising role of the House, an ad hoc committee might be set up to study how a particular piece of legislation has worked in practice—not in political terms but in practice—what effect it has had, if any, and whether such effect had been intended when the Bill came before your Lordships. The results would be exceedingly interesting. It might well be as a result that a sessional committee might be set up to conduct further investigations along the same lines. I do not therefore rule out the idea of a third sessional committee. But I accept the report's view that at present there is no case for anyone saying that we should have a third sessional committee on this or that. I believe that it would evolve naturally out of an ad hoc committee. I wholeheartedly endorse what the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, and the noble Lord the Leader of the House said about the work of both sessional committees. There is no doubt about the respect and admiration in which they are held not only in this country but abroad—and that is important.
On the European Communities Committee, obviously after the result in Denmark yesterday it is difficult to see exactly where we shall go with the amount of paper coming from Brussels. I do not envisage that the amount of paper from Brussels will diminish. The Maastricht proposals may or may not be revived. We do not know; we shall have to wait and see. But the recommendation in the report that resources devoted to the European Communities Committee should be reduced to allow for more committee activity elsewhere makes sense only if the amount of paper coming from Brussels is reduced or 911 if someone else does the work that the EC Committee presently undertakes. I do not know who that someone might be.
There is no doubt that the Science and Technology Committee does valuable work. The noble Lord the Leader of the House raised the more general point about the availability of Peers to serve on committees. I rather suspect that the catchment area for, say, science and technology versus European Communities versus murder and life imprisonment versus overseas trade may be somewhat different. In other words, there will be Peers in this House who would be happy to serve on one but not on another. They would be happy to serve on an ad hoc committee but not happy to serve on a sessional committee. That makes the calculation of availability of Peers more than a matter of numbers. It is more a question of who is interested in what. To my mind that renders the whole calculation extremely complex.
While on the subject of availability of Peers for committee work, I ought to make it clear that we - and I believe that I can say "we" with confidence—are unhappy about the proposal that the rotation period should be reduced from five to three years. It takes time for a newly appointed Peer to run himself or herself into committee work and to reduce the total period of service on a committee to the three years that is suggested would in our view reduce the effectiveness of the committees. Furthermore—it is the only party point that I shall make—we on these Benches believe that we have not been equitably treated over the past few years in the creation of new Peers. I believe that that is generally recognised. I doubt whether my noble friends could be persuaded to accept the proposed rotation rule unless our numbers were substantially increased to correct the imbalance that has grown in recent times.
Having said that, I move swiftly to a non-party point. It is that the process of appointing Peers to committees seems to be shrouded in a certain amount of mystery and could do with a serious injection of de-mystification.
I turn now to the results of committee work: the reports, how they are published, where they go and how they are debated. I remain to be convinced that the proposal to engage a full-time Clerk whose sole responsibility would be to publicise the work of committees is sensible. Some of that work is liable to attract media attention. I have in mind the 1985 report of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, which was rubbished on the nine o'clock news before it was even published. That report attracted immediate media attention. On the other hand, a report on the design of ships, if I may say so, such as was debated in your Lordships' House recently, will not attract great media attention.
No one can force the media to give coverage where there is little or no intrinsic interest in their judgment. On the other hand, it is important that committee reports should reach people or institutions who are or should be interested in their findings. That should be possible under the existing machinery. I believe that it would be sensible for a press release to be issued with each report and for the chairman of the relevant 912 committee to conduct a press conference. But I make the point again that the press and broadcasters will take an interest only in what they believe is news. One cannot force them to accept something as news when they do not believe it is.
When your Lordships debate a report, I say with the greatest respect—and I speak as an Opposition spokesman who has had on many occasions to respond from this Dispatch Box—the quality of debate on those reports is to say the least somewhat variable. I am not sure that it is a good idea for Peers who were members of the committee, other than the chairman, to feel that automatically they have to speak in a debate on a report. The chairman has to set out the nature of the report and to move the Motion. Furthermore, I see no good reason why such debates should not be time limited. I am sympathetic to the arrangement whereby debates on committee reports can be merged with Wednesday party debates, as occurred recently.
Lastly, I wish to say a word about staffing, accommodation and expenses. I agree with the report, the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, and the noble Lord the Leader of the House in praising the work of the Clerks and those who assist them in servicing our committees. It is desperately important to put that on the record from this side of the House. I also agree that an extra Clerk, or possibly more than one, will be needed to service the extra committee work envisaged by the report. As I hope that I have made clear, I hope that that would be a Clerk who could service committees rather than just a publicity Clerk.
Accommodation is always a vexed matter. It seems to me that thought should be given not just generally to rooms in which committees may do their work but also to those Peers who serve on the committees. Peers who serve on committees often have an enormous amount of paper to read. In my experience there are plenty of people who do not have desks or lockers; they have nowhere to read the papers. It is important to ensure that Peers who take the trouble to do that very hard work on committees, as the noble Earl said, should have proper facilities.
The same comment applies to subsistence and day travel allowances. Many Peers on committees work extremely hard, as indeed do a number of Peers in the Chamber. It has always seemed odd to me that there is no distinction between hard-working active Peers and Peers who attend only for a short time. Having said that, I shall pass on quickly to my next point.
Your Lordships will be aware that I have said nothing about committee procedures for Public Bills. That is not because I believe the subject to be unimportant. In the light of the Jopling Committee and the proposals of the Select Committee on Procedure in the House of Commons it is of the highest importance. However, I have spent what I believe is my proper time and my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey will deal with the subject when he winds up. Your Lordships will not therefore be deprived of the views from this Dispatch Box.
In finishing I begin where I started. We welcome the report that the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, has introduced with efficiency, eloquence, thoroughness 913 and dispatch, as we would all expect. If I have offered some difference of opinion on certain matters, I hope that your Lordships will accept that any and all suggestions that I have made are made in a spirit that its wholly constructive. It is in that spirit that I not only welcome the report but look forward to the remainder of the debate.
§ 3.58 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, perhaps I may begin by expressing, like the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, our gratitude to the noble Earl and his committee for the thoughtful and constructive report which they have produced. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, that there are no party points involved in our debate today. I agree with him on one further point. It is on the reduction of the rotation period. What he said in relation to the creation of new Peers on the Benches that he occupies could be emphasised even more strongly from the Benches on which I sit. I hope that that particular matter will be taken into account by the Government.
I speak today largely for myself although I am aware that on a number of issues I probably have the agreement of my noble friends. However, on one issue certainly I do not have the agreement of all my noble friends. It relates to my views on the European Communities Committee.
I am sure that today there will be agreement on at least one proposition; that few of us would wish to create a situation in which debates on the Floor of the House become secondary to the work of our committees. Such criticism has been directed at the new procedures in the House of Commons and certainly we do not want that here. It would fatally undermine our position as a revising Chamber. That is particularly important given the fact that a great deal of legislation that we have each year has been guillotined in the House of Commons and therefore the only debates of substance on many important issues take place on the Floor of this House.
However, the proposals put forward by the noble Earl and his colleagues do not remotely create such a risk. They are fairly modest and none the worse for being so—far more modest, for instance, than those put forward by the Practice and Procedure Committee in 1977. It recommended seven or eight committees to cover particularly areas of policy and to examine all Bills, all White Papers, and all Green Papers.
But while the report which we are debating is more modest than the 1977 report it proposes a number of important changes concerning the work of the House and its committees. I propose to discuss those now. First I shall deal with the investigative Select Committees; namely, those relating to Europe and to science and technology. No one would question for one moment the quality of the work of the European Communities Committee. It has won a formidable reputation within government and Whitehall generally and also in Brussels and Strasbourg. As the report states, more detailed attention is paid to reports of that committee than to those arising from any other legislature in the Community.
914 However, it creates heavy demands on resources, absorbing the work of 80 Members of the House and a substantial number of the staff of the Clerk of the Parliaments. While the committee's work will increase in importance I believe that the noble Earl and his colleagues are right to ask whether it is now desirable to modify its structure in some degree, appointing fewer sub-committees and avoiding the repetition of a situation in which, due to the pressure of work facing the committee, some reports are produced far too late to be influential.
We must also face the reality that unless there is some redistribution of work within the European Communities Committee we shall find it difficult to free the necessary resources to establish more ad hoc committees as recommended in the report which we are debating. I strongly favour the appointment of at least one ad hoc committee each year and arguably at least three during a period of two years. I find it disappointing that there has been no ad hoc committee since the appointment of the Committee on Murder and Life Imprisonment in 1988. I had the good fortune to be a member of that committee. We were unanimous on our two most important recommendations and on a third we had only a single dissentient. Our recommendations were unusually supported by every quality newspaper in this country. Furthermore, when the amendments incorporating our recommendations were put to the House during its debates on the Criminal Justice Bill we were supported in the Chamber by the then Lord Chief Justice and in the Division Lobbies by significant majorities. I understand that the general view of the committee is supported by the new Lord Chief Justice.
Subsequently, the Government used their majority in the Commons to overturn those decisions. However, one of the most important was retained in the Bill and few of us doubt the inevitability of the incorporation of our other proposals in a future Criminal Justice Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, gave evidence to the noble Earl's committee. That was relevant because he was Home Secretary at the time of the argument between the two Chambers. In relation to the work of the Committee on Murder and Life Imprisonment he said that it excited the interests of the whole of the House. And, I believe, many outside too. Therefore, let us have more of such Select Committees. I make a personal plea that I hope we shall have at least one on criminal justice policy. There is a formidable amount of expertise on that subject in this House.
I turn to the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham. It is for a scrutiny of Bills committee to examine all Bills and to report on any provisions which appear to seek inappropriate delegated powers. The noble Lord the Leader of the House said that the Government had some hesitation about the matter and I understand the reasons for that reluctance, although I hope only at this stage. The noble Lord, Lord Rippon, has spoken in this House on the matter on a number of occasions and in our view has done so most persuasively. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, gave evidence when he was Leader of the House and indicated that he was minded to 915 agree, subject to some form of limited experiment, to see whether such a committee would work effectively. I hope that that will be the Government's final decision. I believe that given the amount of anxiety expressed in all parts of the House it is most important that we should have such an experiment.
I now turn to the question of Public Bill Committees and special standing committees. I favour both. Of course it would be absurd to send highly controversial Bills to Public Bill Committees. However, as the report before us indicates, a clear majority of those of us who served on the committee on the Charities Bill believe that the experiment was successful. In political terms the Bill was almost wholly non-controversial. It is true that the Government were defeated on five occasions. However, the issues related primarily to detailed questions of administration. All Members wanted the Bill and wished it to pass as speedily as possible. On only one issue of some importance did the Government at Report ask the House to reject the view of the Committee.
Despite the fact that the Charities Bill contained more than 70 clauses it occupied only one and a half days of parliamentary time when the House discussed the matter on Report. That appeared to indicate that the experiment had been a considerable success. Furthermore, it was clear that if the Bill had not been considered by a Public Bill Committee it would not now be on the statute book. Therefore, it is highly desirable to see whether we should move in that direction, subject always to the fact that highly controversial Bills are inappropriate for such procedures.
Similar questions have been raised about the appointment of special standing committees. Given the composition of the House the Government would not have a majority and therefore it would be inappropriate for controversial legislation to be considered by that means. However, there are immense disadvantages in such a procedure. I believe that the view of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, as expressed to the noble Earl's committee, is right and that a free exchange of views at the evidence-taking stage would in most cases allow a consensus to emerge from the committee.
The most obvious candidates for such a procedure are Bills arising from recommendations of the Law Commission. It seems to me deplorable that there remain 39 unimplemented reports from the commission, most, although not all, with draft Bills attached. The commission is an independent body, so of course not all its reports have secured the approval of the Government. But the overwhelming majority have. It seems a great pity that many worthwhile Bills on law reform have been gathering dust in Whitehall pigeonholes solely because it has not been possible to secure parliamentary time in which to deal with them. If we agree to establish special standing committees, that problem may be removed. I hope that this reform of our procedures will be agreed.
There is only one other recommendation as regards committees; that is, the appointment of a steering committee. The case for that is self-evident and we 916 support it, although, with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, I should like to have another look at the proposed membership of such a committee.
Finally, there is the question of accommodation and staff. As we are all aware, many of us daily, our space in this House is severely limited. If there are to be more committees, there will have to be more accommodation. I am aware that some staff from the Lord Chancellor's Department will be moving from the Palace of Westminster. Given our shortage of space, I welcome that. I should be most grateful if we could be told later in the debate when we may be able to obtain the additional accommodation which the proposed changes in our committee system will undoubtedly involve.
There is then the question of staff which was touched upon by the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, when he spoke earlier. Even with some possible redistribution of staff in the European Communities Committee, it is clear that the workload on the staff of the Clerk of the House would increase significantly if the proposals of the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, were finally approved by the House. I hope that Ministers accept that it would be quite wrong simply to load a still heavier burden of work on to the shoulders of the existing staff. It would be unacceptable to allow a situation to arise, as it undoubtedly has in some government departments, of major new responsibilities being piled on to the desks of officials without any anxiety for, or even understanding of, the serious situation being created.
Therefore, if those important changes are to be made, let us ensure that adequate resources are made available to the authorities of the House. With that, I conclude. As I have made clear, I regard the report as excellent and I hope that its recommendations will be supported by the House.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Wilberforce
My Lords, I am extremely happy and privileged from these Benches to give a sincere welcome to the splendid report which is now before the House. Unfortunately, although faithfully and dutifully in my place at 3.45 this afternoon, I shall be unable to stay for the rest of the debate on account of an engagement. I hope that the noble Earl will accept my apologies.
The report deals with many topics which are of great interest to all of us. I should have liked to speak on three of those: those which relate to the European Communities Committee; delegated legislation as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham; and the suggestion that there should be an ad hoc justice committee. All those matters are of great interest but I shall leave those to other speakers. I shall concentrate for a short time on one subject on which perhaps I made a modest input into the committee's discussions and on which it was good enough to accept some of my views.
A year ago, on the debate on the Address, I ventured to draw attention, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has just reminded us, to the very great lack of progress on Law Commission reports. Not only have they not figured in the legislation 917 brought before the House, they have not even been mentioned in the Queen's Speech or any proposed programme. I hope that some procedure might be found for dealing more expeditiously and simply not only with Law Commission reports but generally with reports or proposals relating to law reform coming from whatever source.
I ventured to comment also at that time on the unsatisfactory procedure which now exists in this House for consideration of legal Bills in Committee on the Floor of the House. They often involve discussions late at night when it is impossible for amendments to be moved and when, in effect, the revising edge of this House is somewhat blunted.
I need not labour that because those points have been taken up by more powerful voices. The noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, took up that matter in his speech on the Address, and other witnesses before the committee have endorsed the point. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, as is recorded in the report, expressed a qualified approval of some procedure for dealing with Law Commission reports, company law reports and financial services reports. At paragraph 132 the committee gave a somewhat cautious endorsement to the proposal for special standing committees and used the formula: a few Bills of a technical character by way of experiment. I hope that when the noble and learned Lord replies to the debate he may be able to reiterate his support for a special procedure and perhaps with somewhat less caution attached to it than we find in the body of the report.
Where do we go from now? I should like to make a preliminary point; that is, we are not concerned here only with saving legislative time or, to take up an expression from the noble Lord the Leader of the House, reducing the pressure on business. Of course that is an important consideration, particularly for the business managers. However, a parallel objective must be to improve both the quality and the quantity of legislation. Indeed, if the proposal for a special mechanism is accepted, the result should be—I hope it will be—that it will allow more Bills to be presented. That would be a kind of Parkinson's Law in reverse —the more time there is, the more Bills. Time will not be saved, but it will be used more profitably for the production of a better product.
The second point is really in the form of a question: how do we proceed to select the Bills for the special standing committee procedure? That is not an easy task at all. Your Lordships will find in the report an extremely intelligent analysis of the kinds of legislation which might come up in the evidence given by Professor Philip Norton of the University of Hull. One puts aside immediately party political Bills or what have been called main programme Bills. Nobody suggests that they should be dealt with other than as we deal with them now—by Committee on the Floor of the House. Even when you have disposed of them, there are considerable differences. Not all Law Commission reports, by any means, or law reform measures are uncontroversial. I give some obvious examples: marriage and divorce, fertilisation and 918 embryology. Those and many other subjects are such that the House as a whole would wish to have an opportunity to discuss them.
In the report the committee refers to,one or two bills … of a technical nature".That again invites distinction. There are some Bills of a technical character which require discussion on the Floor of the House. One thinks instantly of the Bill on data protection—brilliantly handled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone—and the subject of copyright, which is of immense complexity and does not admit of any simplified procedure. On the other hand, if we confine ourselves to simple, easy, technical Bills, there will not be many to deal with. One must accept a mixed system.
There are many Bills, such as the Charities Bill, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, are basically uncontroversial but contain in them elements of controversy. It then becomes a matter of nice judgment whether they are treated as matters for the Floor of the House or whether they can be safely remitted to a special standing committee. In the words of Professor Norton, the answer is not to put the Bills into a straitjacket. We must exercise a certain amount of flexibility and take a certain amount of risk. We must risk making mistakes, as in the case of the pilotage Bill. The House thought it perfectly all right to send the Bill upstairs, but it then became involved in immense controversy and difficulty and the House regretted what it had done.
How does one select the candidates for that procedure? At one time I was thinking in terms of waiting until Second Reading when one could see from the speeches made the likely degree of controversy—whether it was the kind of controversy which would have to be dealt with on the Floor of the House or the kind that could safely be left to a committee. However, the committee's report and the evidence before it convinced me that that is not a practical solution. Why not? Because one must plan one's legislative programme in advance, at the beginning of a Session. Indeed, though I am a novice in these matters I believe that one would not be able to secure a place in the legislative programme unless, at that stage, the Minister concerned is able to give an assurance that this or that Bill is suitable for special standing committee treatment. One must therefore deal with it in advance. Only then is one able to select the noble Lords who are willing and able to sit on whatever committee is set up.
In the end, though there are obvious objections to it, I see no alternative to the committee's suggestion in paragraph 132(iii), that the Leader of the House should propose a certain Bill or Bills at the beginning of a Session for special standing committee treatment. It sounds rather like the "usual channels" as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said in his evidence that at the end of the day it comes to the usual channels, with a nudge from here and a nudge from there. Very pragmatic; very British. It may be the way that things work.
Whatever procedure is admitted, I do not believe that from these Benches I should make suggestions on the composition of the steering committee. Something 919 of that kind is obviously necessary. We shall no doubt find out how it is to be set up with recommendations from the Leader of the House. I would hope and expect that there will be a direct input into that committee, in the case of the Law Commission reports, from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor or, in the case of suggested legislation coming from the Home Office or Department of Trade and Industry, from those departments. Otherwise, the committee will be groping in the dark and will not be likely to reach a sensible conclusion.
In the end it will be a matter for consensus. We shall not get the procedure working unless, broadly, everybody agrees. I hope that the sieve will not be too fine and that we do not limit ourselves to just one or two Bills. I hope that the committee's report will be given a fair wind and I wish it every success.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ Baroness Young
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Jellicoe and his committee for this comprehensive and thorough report. They looked at the whole of the present committee structure of the House which, like Topsy, has just grown into today's position. In saying that, I would be the first to acknowledge the enormous importance of the committee work of the House, its contribution to political thinking and to the way in which the House of Lords is perceived in the country at large as well as in the European Community. I should like also to thank the staff of the House. On many occasions I have had reason to be grateful for their help. I am pleased that a warm acknowledgment of their work is given in the report.
There are so many speakers listed today that I am immediately reminded of the committee's suggestion in paragraph 29 that Peers should exercise restraint in speaking. Therefore, if I do not comment on all aspects of the report, it is not that I have not read it or indeed thought about all the issues in it, but because time really does not allow. I shall therefore choose a number of issues which are central and important.
That said, I believe that the report is timely and that we should discuss these matters at the start of a new Parliament. In another sense it is necessary now that another place is looking at its procedures which will inevitably affect our own. Central to the report is the proposal that there should be a steering committee. Paragraph 157 sets out its terms of reference. I wish to say at the beginning that I agree with that proposal. I have no doubt that there will be debate both with regard to its terms of reference and specifically to its composition, as we have heard today, and the whole question of its chairman.
I listened carefully to what my noble friend the Leader of the House had to say on the matter. I can see that there is merit in having the Leader of the House as chairman of that specific committee, which would be central to the affairs of the House. But I have no doubt that there will be much discussion. To have a committee with the opportunity of reviewing the work of the House will give the House what the report says is necessary; that is, much more flexibility in the programme of committee work.
920 I welcome the proposals on ad hoc committees. It was certainly my experience when I was Leader of the House that there were demands for a great many ad hoc committees. Perhaps I should say in parenthesis that I shall not forget that in 1981 the ad hoc committee was concerned with unemployment. Governments of the day may not always like the outcome of the deliberations of ad hoc committees. Nevertheless, they are an important aspect of the work of the House and one that is greatly valued.
It is right that the House should have more opportunity to address issues of topical interest. The proposals in paragraph 125 should give it the flexibility to do so. Such an arrangement as suggested by the report should meet the wishes of all those who want more sessional committees. Indeed, there has already been some discussion in the debate on that matter. It will enable the House to address issues without duplicating the work of another place. For example, if one looks at the proposed subject of the economics of sustainable development, that is an issue which the House has the expertise and the time to consider in depth. It will be something that is important and topical with the Rio conference just starting. It seems that the proposals on the ad hoc committees would give the flexibility that the House has wanted and make it possible for more consideration to be given to topical issues. I recognise that although that is possible it is now very unlikely to happen. The matter is well worth pursuing.
I turn to what I believe will prove to be the most contentious part of the report—the proposals on the two Select Committees, the European Communities Committee and the Science and Technology Committee. I am very conscious of the importance of the work of the European Communities Committee, first because I have the honour of being a member of it, and secondly, because when I was a Foreign Office Minister I knew only too well of the high regard for its reports both in this country and in Europe. I do not by any means go along with all the proposals that the report makes out. I share the view of those who say that three years is too short a time to serve on a committee. I believe that one would get into a position where all its members would either be coming or going. The five-year rule makes much more sense. A committee of 15 would not be too large.
The much more difficult aspect of the proposals is the reduction in the number of sub-committees of the European Communities Committee. I can quite see that there is a balance to be struck between having more ad hoc committees and considering the accommodation, staff and the number of Peers who are available to take part, notwithstanding the very interesting point made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. Therefore we have to consider how the balance will fall. I can understand why the committee would feel that the European Communities Committee should perhaps give up some of its sub-committees.
One thing is certain: it is a very moving and changing world in the European Community as the news received last night made only too plain. That 921 may help us because it shows that things are going to change and that perhaps we should review what we do in the light of that change.
I certainly support the proposals in paragraph 144 on links with the European Parliament. I am sure that it is right to look at new ways of keeping our Parliament informed of what is happening in the Community. In many ways I believe that the most important part of the whole report is concerned with committees on legislation. I recognise that the experience of taking Bills at Committee stage off the Floor of the House has produced mixed results. Much depends on the Bill chosen and the real commitment of the House that all the arguments will not be repeated at Report stage. That said, I do not believe that it should prevent the House from looking very seriously at taking suitable Bills off the Floor at Committee stage.
I welcome the suggestion about the special standing committee. I listened carefully to what my noble friend the Leader of the House said and support what the committee says about a delegated powers committee. That has been a contentious issue in your Lordships' House, as recent experience on a number of Bills has shown. Our experience with the Charities Bill suggests that it is possible to make the system work well. It may be that in that instance there was much agreement on all sides of the House about the need for the Bill and perhaps the imminence of the general election concentrated everybody's mind. That said, I still believe that we should look further at suitable Bills. I shall listen with great interest to what my noble and learned friend has to say on this matter and on the prospect of taking Bills of a rather technical nature off the Floor of the House to a committee.
At the end of the day what is important is that the House should be able to continue to regulate itself. We must be able to take politically contentious Bills on the Floor of the House and give them adequate time for debate. We need to look realistically at the best way to use the hours that we sit. It would surely be a most bizarre situation were another place to manage to reduce the number of hours it sits while we only manage to extend ours. That is something which we should think through very carefully.
My noble friend Baroness Faithfull, who regrets that she cannot be present today, has asked me to say that before the introduction of the Children Bill into this House a number of contentious issues were settled by cross-party meetings with the civil servants involved, and also with the great help of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. It may well be that that practice is something which could usefully be employed again. It seems to be one which is well worth looking at.
I am conscious that I have not commented on very many aspects of this wide-ranging report. For example, I support the proposal to have someone responsible for relations between committees and the media. I hope very much that as regards debates on reports we can consider looking yet again at more time-limited debates. Those are some of the most effective debates that this House conducts. As it is, it 922 is right that we should take an overview of the present committee structure. It is right to seek more flexibility, bearing in mind the time available in the House and the time of its Members. We should look at the way in which we deal with our legislation in that context. As others have said, I very much hope that this excellent report will commend itself to the House and that its proposals will be implemented.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I shall follow the example of the noble Baroness and confine myself to a few specific points. I see that the first injunction to myself written in large letters is "Keep it brief". I intend to do just that. I compliment the committee on the quality of the report and the chairman on the clarity with which he introduced it. Those of us who have been serving on committees for a number of years have begun to realise that the machinery is getting a little creaky and that it is high time that we had a new blueprint.
Like every other speaker so far, I support the recommendation for a steering committee. It is the best way to achieve a balance in the allocation of resources. As the noble Lord the Leader of the House said, it would provide a channel for Peers who wish to have investigated a subject which is outside the areas of the present sessional committees; for example, foreign affairs, trade and industry or the environment. An examination of the concept of sustainable development would be most useful, but there is no obvious way to get it on the agenda. As we have heard, the present system is haphazard and important subjects are overlooked because of the lack of consultation. That could not happen if we had a steering committee.
I take up the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce. With ad hoc committees we have to be careful that they do not become the creatures of the various departments. When we have them they and the subjects they examine will have to stand in their own right. If in order to operate a steering committee there has to be some rationalisation of the work of the existing committees, that, to coin a phrase, is a price worth paying. The recommendations in paragraphs 195 and 196 should not cause any difficulty to the Science and Technology Committee. As I understand it, the composition of the steering committee is in question. At this point I wish to urge that its membership should include the Deputy Chairman of Committees because his or her knowledge of the workload of the European Communities Committee would be very valuable in allocating resources.
I support the use of ad hoc committees as against the setting up of a third sessional committee. It makes better use of resources and avoids the main hazard of sessional committees—that is to say, at times when there is a gap in the queue of subjects needing attention the committee will search around for work in order to justify its existence. I am not suggesting that that happens at the moment but it is a danger with sessional committees.
923 Ad hoc committees would also allow flexibility in the use of the expertise available in the House, especially in the case of Peers who cannot make a three or five-year commitment. At this point I should mention that I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in that I hope that the suggestion of three-year appointments to committees will not be adopted. It takes at least a year for a new member of a committee to become accustomed to the ways of that committee. I believe that the committees should be smaller. I disagree with the noble Baroness on that point. I believe that a committee of 12 is quite big enough; and therefore there is an even greater reason for having a slightly longer period of service for each member. Four years might be a useful compromise. It is, after all, most of the period for which a Parliament runs.
When committee members are being appointed, it is not unreasonable for whoever makes the appointment to find out whether it is the intention of that member to attend regularly. Some committees suffer a little from the fact that some of their members appear only rarely. The report gave one example of a committee member who had not appeared at all. It is not unreasonable therefore to seek a commitment from the incoming member.
The value of the European Communities Committee is unquestioned and it well deserves its high reputation nationally and internationally. I agree with the suggestion that it should examine its sub-committee structure. Of course it is for the committee to decide how it will arrange its affairs. I merely point out that during my service on the environment sub-committee and the agriculture sub-committee there were times when it was impossible to separate the two subjects. I felt then, and I still feel, that perhaps a single sub-committee might be more effective. But I bow to the authority of the committee in making its own allocations in that regard.
My biggest disappointment in the report was the rejection of a committee to assess the environmental impact of proposed legislation. The present fragmented use of environmental impact assessments is not satisfactory, even where they are provided, and they are not always provided. The quality of the information is variable and is often suspect. One frequently finds that the information in the environmental impact assessment is tailored to achieve the objective of the piece of legislation. That simply will not do. We must face up to the need to look at legislation against the background of environmental protection. I hope that the Government will agree to think again about this issue. I note that the Leader of the House made a suggestion about a definitive document. I do not quite know what that means and I look forward to hearing more about it. But at least it means that the Government are not entirely satisfied with the present situation.
Underpinning all our aspirations for good organisation, as other speakers have said, is the availability of suitable staff. The noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, paid his tribute, and so do I. We enjoy support of the highest quality. All committee members would agree that a large part of the production of an 924 effective report is due to the dedication and expertise of the Clerk and his supporters. They are shamefully overworked at the moment. I have heard tales of weekend working, which I think is entirely unfair and should not be supported. We cannot allow it to continue. We must therefore expand this resource, but it must be done in a way that does not jeopardise the prospects for career advancement. It would be disastrous for all our hopes if we were unable to recruit or to retain staff of the right calibre. I hope therefore that when discussions are taking place about expanding staff resources some regard will be paid to methods of achieving continuing career prospects for them. Perhaps there could be a system of secondment or something of that kind.
I have just about run out of the time that I allowed for my speech. I shall therefore conclude by saying that I hope that the report will not be shelved. I get the impression from the speeches I have heard today that it is being taken seriously and that the Government intend to do something about it. It behoves all of us to see that it does not go on to a shelf to be forgotten. We can work at changing those parts which need to be changed but there are large parts of the report which are acceptable as they stand. I hope that they can be implemented as soon as possible.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Lord Ezra
My Lords, I should like to join with other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, whom I have had the honour of knowing for many years, and the members of his committee on their valuable report. It represents, as other noble Lords have said, a very timely and positive examination of the committee work of the House. I intend to restrict my remarks to a few of the general issues raised but to comment in particular on what is said about the European Communities Committee, with which I have been associated for a number of years.
I support in principle the concept of a steering committee but I would prefer it to be called something which appears to be less obtrusive. Perhaps it could be called a co-ordinating committee. We need to keep away from the prospect of an overall committee intervening in the affairs of the other committees. I believe that that is not the intention of the noble Earl's committee. It is right that the committee work of the House should be kept under continuous review and that there should be evolutionary change. Like other noble Lords, I am concerned about the proposed membership of the committee. It seems likely to be overweighted by the usual channels. I should like to see many more Back-Bench Peers involved. I do not believe that the chairmen of the two sessional committees should be excluded. They could make a large contribution to the deliberations of the committee. I hope that on reconsideration they will be included as members.
I support the prudent approach of the committee on the subject of the Committee stage of Bills. I am among those, I believe a majority of respondents to the committee's questionnaire, in favour of the Committee stage of Bills being conducted on the Floor 925 of the House. I believe that this makes for greater continuity in the consideration of Bills and enables the House to discharge its revising function more effectively. The committee has not given a definitive view on how it would like this matter to be dealt with so far as concerns Public Bill Committees but it feels that there might be scope for occasional references to such committees. I trust that the Bills submitted for this treatment will be selected with great care. It would be wrong, as is generally recognised, if they were Bills of a controversial nature. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, referred to the special standing committee procedure and also raised the problem of the selection of Bills to be referred to these special committees.
I am glad that the proposal for a delegated powers scrutiny committee put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham, has been recommended by the committee. There is much concern at the growth in delegated legislation which in some cases can materially affect the substance of a Bill and thereby unduly diminish the role of Parliament. I am glad too that the committee supports the reappointment of the two sessional committees—the European Communities Committee and the Science and Technology Committee. I was among those who suggested that there might be a third sessional committee to deal with economic and social affairs. It seems to me that, while there is much legislation on these matters and many debates on them, there are from time to time broad underlying issues which could best be considered in depth by a specially appointed Committee—issues such as the economics of sustain-able growth, as put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers. I trust that the proposal for the more regular appointment of ad hoc committees will fill that gap.
As I said earlier, I wish to make particular comment about the recommendations in relation to the European Communities Committee. I should like to join with other speakers in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, for the most effective manner in which she chaired that committee. In my personal experience, much of the value of the work undertaken by the various sub-committees has been due to the skilful guidance received from her. I wish the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, every success in taking over as chairman. I am glad that the important function of scrutiny of European Community developments has been recognised and that it is accepted that it is likely to increase in importance in the future. The role of the European Communities Committee, as possibly reorganised in the light of the recommendations, will, in my opinion, undoubtedly grow in the years ahead.
The problems now arising from the Maastricht conference and the possible enlargement of the Community will raise a whole range of new issues which will require to be carefully scrutinised and deliberated upon. Therefore, I was more than a little surprised to read in the report that it is proposed that the resources made available to the European Communities Committee should be reduced. It seems to me that that is the reverse of what we should now 926 be doing. In taking up that view, I demonstrate that this is a non-party debate by taking a different view from that of my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich, who spoke a few moments ago. I recognise that the Select Committee recommended that we should undertake additional committee work. I fully applaud many of the proposals made for that additional work. However, I fail to see why this should be subjected to a Procrustean-bed technique; in other words, that we should start form a limited resource and then fit everything we want to do into it.
In following that up, I was interested to see what is the estimate of expenditure on our committee work. I recall to your Lordships that we represent a major legislative assembly in a major democratic country, deliberating on matters of substance and strategic interest to the country. The net cost of our committee work in the year 1991 (at page 207 of the report) was less than £500,000. Half a million pounds is nothing when compared with what a major industrial concern spends on its public relations alone. Therefore, I beg your Lordships to consider first what are the priorities for our committee work and then decide how we should meet that expenditure. I was much heartened by what the noble Lord the Leader of the House said in his concluding remarks. He said that he hoped that the committee work of this House would not he frustrated by lack of resources.
I was also somewhat surprised at another recommendation in relation to the European Communities Committee; namely, that the committee should not seek to consider Commission proposals before they are finalised. The whole purpose of scrutiny is to consider proposals before they are finalised. Indeed, the whole object of this House is to consider Bills proposed by government before they are finalised in statutory form. Therefore, I found that a little surprising. It was contended that the time taken by us to consider such matters was so long that the result of our deliberations did not have much impact. Well, we can always alter the situation and speed up our process. However, I ask your Lordships to reconsider the recommendation that we should not consider proposals put forward by the Commission. If we follow that recommendation, what will scrutiny be about? I fully accept that we should also discuss broader issues; but our scrutiny in these Houses of Parliament—whether in this or in another place—must refer to proposals put forward by the Commission in Brussels, especially when they are of a major nature.
The Select Committee made a number of other recommendations about changes in the subcommittee structure, in the number of Peers who should participate and in the rotation. I hope that those recommendations are very carefully considered before they are implemented. I trust that they are guidance and that as a result of our debate today they are not likely to be laid down as something that we must do without further consideration. There are many doubts in my mind about the detailed proposals that have been made. I am not necessarily in favour of reducing the number of Peers who participate in debates and in discussions on European matters; 927 indeed, I should like to see more and not fewer involved. Europe will become a much more important issue. Therefore, why should we reduce the number of Peers participating in these affairs from 80 to 60? What is the magic about 60? How was that figure derived? I should like to see the figure 80 increased to 100 or more because such matters are of great importance. I very much hope that we shall be able to look at all the recommendations in greater depth before they are adopted.
I should like now to draw attention to a particular aspect in which I am personally involved. At present, I am chairman of Sub-Committee B which covers energy among other issues. There is much of a fundamental nature affecting energy which is currently being deliberated within the Community; for example, the role that energy will play in the single market, free access to energy sources, and so on, and of course the environmental implications in the use of energy. I believe that it would be important under the revised sub-committee structure for energy to be included. I say that all the more so as there is a likelihood in another place—the noble Lord the Leader of the House will know all about this from his previous activities—that there will no longer be a Select Committee on Energy in view of the merger of the function of the Department of Energy into other departments. Therefore, the question of energy in the environment is one which should continue to exercise our interest in regard to the European Communities Committee.
I welcome the Report. I believe that it has stimulated much thought. However, I hope that we will have the opportunity of further deliberating among ourselves about how we implement a number of its recommendations before we adopt them.
§ 4.57 p.m.
§ Lord Flowers
My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, for introducing the debate and for the care with which he and his colleagues have studied and reported upon a most important part of the business of the House. If I may say so, the ensuing report was clearly written, fair and, for the most part, helpful to all concerned—although I say those things without prejudice to what I shall say later.
I am particularly glad that it was decided to give the report prime time for debate today and not to rush unduly our consideration of it. As Voltaire once remarked:There ought to be moments of tranquillity in great works".I also welcome the decision to keep before us in the Minutes of Proceedings the reports of Select Committees which have yet to be debated. That will undoubtedly encourage us to debate them.
In view of the number of speakers, I shall comment only on the recommendations affecting the Science and Technology Committee, which are in any case enough for me to think about for the moment. I am of course delighted to find that our activities have met with such warm approval and that the broad applicability of our work has been recognised. The 928 noble Earl was most generous in what he said about us, as were other noble Lords. Nevertheless, there is an implied criticism; namely, that the committee sometimes undertakes inquiries that are not of the widest interest. That is true. Although the committee has broad terms of reference to consider science and technology and that is all, we do have three main themes of very wide interest. They are the organisation of government for dealing with science and technology; the contribution of research and development to the renewal of British industry; and, finally, the continuing health of basic scientific research.
However, in order to grapple with those broad themes we find it essential to examine a number of particular cases in greater depth than is likely to command the widest interest. We must continue to do so in order to avoid superficiality. But we shall do whatever we can to relate our specific findings to matters of wider interest. For example, on 9th July we shall invite your Lordships to consider our report on systematic biology in the more general context of bio-diversity.
The noble Earl is in favour of shorter and sharper reports; so am I. But I suspect that his committee rather had in mind shorter and sharper inquiries. Of course, a study should be focused, if it is to be useful, and as short as possible. But focused too finely and it again becomes superficial, or is biased towards a particular outcome, or is a matter for the executive rather than for the House anyway.
Most of our work is concerned with sorting out confusions between policy objectives for science and technology. We find that these confusions are usually long and blunt, their treatment requiring sustained attention.
There is a suggestion, although not a recommendation, that our general purposes sub-committee should be wound up. Although my distinguished predecessors, especially the noble Lords, Lord Sherfield and Lord Shackleton, found it a useful vehicle for settling policy issues, I am happy to part with it, and we did so voluntarily in our meeting yesterday.
On the other hand our inquiries are almost all conducted by sub-committees, of which there are two. I am not at all happy with the suggestion that we should from time to time have to operate with only one. A fearsome list of pressing topics is before us. We are already engaged in a major inquiry into the recent misfortunes of forensic science; while preliminary studies are just beginning—if it does not stretch the formidable abilities of our staff too far—with a view to one or more becoming major inquiries later in the year, of intellectual property rights and the water shortage (in so far as these two subjects lie within our terms of reference) and of the criteria to be applied to the support of basic research now that the research councils have just been transferred to the Cabinet Office. I am grateful for the noble Earl's encouragement there. All of these are topics in which there is a great deal of interest and experience in this House and much concern outside.
Of course it is a matter of setting priorities, and it may occasionally be decided that there are even more 929 pressing issues outside the remit of the sessional committees for which ad hoc committees are the usual vehicle. I am conscious that it was in part a suggestion of my own for an ad hoc committee that led to the appointment of the noble Earl's committee, as he himself reminded us.
May I say with respect, however, that I was disappointed to find that the list of proposed topics for ad hoc committees was in general unconvincing, showing, I thought, considerable overlap with established activities of the Commons or of other statutory bodies. It did not suggest to me—and I regret this—that there would in practice be great competition for resources, and I agreed with the noble Lord the Leader of the House in this respect.
Be that as it may, I do not think that it should automatically follow that these occasional studies, however important, should be at the expense of the sessional committees. The committee work of the House has steadily grown in public esteem and, I believe, in its usefulness to others. It represents excellent value for money in the opinion of the noble Earl, and perhaps one should therefore be prepared to pay a little more for it. Is it clear, for example, that the committees of the Commons always achieve as much as the committees of the Lords? I doubt it. It is also possible that other recommendations we are considering today will lead to matching economies in our legislative activities. Like the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, I think that in any case we are not a lavish Parliament.
I am also concerned at the recommendation that the rotation period for committee membership be reduced from five years to three. Five years loosely applied is too much; five years strictly applied is acceptable. Three years is simply too short a time to become acquainted with the nature of the work, at least in science and technology, and it simply could not be strictly applied without creating havoc.
I have already explained that the most important issues may emerge only after a number of particular cases have been studied in depth. That argues for a certain degree of continuity. With great respect to the noble Earl's committee, I think that this particular recommendation was ill-conceived and should be rejected.
My chief concern, however, although I speak personally, is with the proposal that there should be a steering committee. It commonly happens that a review body recommends that its work should continue on a permanent basis, but that does not make it right. The Leader of the House, with the usual channels, and the Clerk of the Parliaments, with his staff, do an excellent job between them. Why should we reduce their powers? Why should we interject another level of administration? An adjustment here or there to their job description by an offspring of Jellicoe about every decade is all that is needed. If a steering committee is appointed, no matter what its terms of reference, in due course it will begin to steer, whatever the initial intentions may have been. The most powerful steering wheel is the power of the purse. Faced with a proposal that two studies are called for, one costing more than the other, the steering 930 committee merely has to agree to the less expensive of the two and it has pre-empted a decision that it is the duty of the sessional committees to take for themselves.
If the steering committee is to monitor the work of the committees, including the setting up of ad hoc committees, possibly at the expense of the work of existing sessional committees, how can it do that except by examining the work they do and forming judgments about its worth? We need none of that, in my opinion; that is for the House itself—and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams. Let the usual channels have confidence that we have confidence in them and all will be well.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Lord Pym
My Lords, I find myself in this debate sandwiched between the speech that we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, the distinguished chairman of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, who until the dissolution of Parliament was the distinguished chairman of the European Communities Committee. They both produced very powerful and valuable evidence for the Select Committee. Obviously their contributions to the debate this afternoon will be extremely important.
I shall not detain the House long as I was privileged to be a Member of the Select Committee. Like all my colleagues, I appreciated enormously the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Jellicoe and the leadership that he gave us. I certainly endorse all he said about the Clerks and the staff and the way in which our committee was serviced.
I should like to say too that I am grateful to my noble friend the Leader of the House for the broadly favourable reception he gave to the great majority of our recommendations.
The setting up of the committee arose from the limitations of existing staff resources and there was felt to be a need to take a fresh look at the committee work of the House as a whole. As has been said, that committee work is an extremely valuable and scarce resource. In recent years it has been devoted almost exclusively to the business of the European Community and the field of science and technology.
Both those sessional committees do an excellent job and, as we discovered more and more as we took evidence and travelled, their work is universally admired and respected worldwide. It enhances, in a remarkable way, the reputation of the House. But the question is: is the concentration on those two areas the best or the right use of the scarce resources of the House? The answer we gave was a qualified no. No one had the slightest hesitation in saying that that work must continue. Whether or not everyone likes it, the European Community will become ever more significant for all of us, and the development of science and technology is the driving force of the massive changes taking place worldwide that affect the lives of all peoples everywhere.
Clearly those committees must continue, but they should not do so to the exclusion of almost all else. As has been said, the European Communities Committee 931 already takes the great preponderance of the resources available to the House. In fact of course each of those committees could greatly increase its work, and that would be valuable; but if that were to happen many other areas of policy and activity which would benefit equally from attention would be neglected, and that does not seem to be right. In the evidence which noble Lords will have read, all sorts of suggestions were made for additional sessional committees and for the examination of other subjects.
As the House will be aware, we came down against more sessional committees because resources are limited and we do not want to lock up more of them in that way. Also, there seemed to us to be a real need for a more flexible approach to the committee work of the House—an approach that can take account of new issues and new situations as they arise, as they always do and perhaps more frequently than ever—and can respond to them appropriately. Hence the committee's view that ad hoc committees should become a regular and permanent feature of the committee work of the House.
As there will never be any shortage of candidates for consideration, the concept of a steering committee emerged. We were not too happy with the name either, I might say to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, but it is extremely difficult to find one with which everyone is happy. That committee would maintain an overview of the committee work of the House, allocating available resources as it judged best, of course, in consultation with the chairman concerned, and make recommendations to the House as to the selection of subjects for ad hoc committees. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, that it would be better done by the Leader of the House. If preparation and consideration were given by the steering committee beforehand, I do not believe that that would inhibit any noble Lord from raising a query or putting forward an alternative proposition as to what subjects might be discussed.
The concept of that committee seems to us the most efficient way in which to provide a structural framework for Select Committees and to maximise the effectiveness of their work. I believe that to be the right aim for the House. We also see the steering committee keeping in close touch with its equivalent in another place (the Liaison Committee). There is of course already much close liaison, but we in this House cannot be too careful to avoid duplication and to see that our committee work is complementary to that of another place.
Our recommendations on the handling of legislation are modest. Of themselves they will save virtually no time on the Floor, although they would facilitate the consideration of Law Commission reports and law reform Bills for which now there is often no time; but before any substantial changes in procedure are made it is wise to experiment. I hope that the House will find ways of taking much of the scrutiny of legislation off the Floor. I know that many —perhaps most —noble Lords prefer the present system, but no one can deny that it wastes a great deal of time for many of your Lordships. In any case, we shall soon have to consider that question especially 932 carefully in the light of whatever changes another place makes in its present procedures. I understand that the Jopling Committee proposals will be considered soon.
As my noble friend Lord Jellicoe said, that other place is the most time-consuming assembly of its kind in the world. Clearly it wants to cut its hours and find less wasteful ways of fulfilling its legislative functions. This House is the second most time-consuming assembly of its kind in the world. It would seem pretty odd if we too did not cut our hours. Evidently I feel the same as my noble friend Lady Young on that point. A rethink of our legislative procedures seems to me desirable, indeed necessary anyway. We are about to be provided with a tailor-made opportunity to do so. I hope that we shall make the most of it.
On delegated powers, I hope that the House will decide to set up the scrutiny committee proposed in the report. Such scrutiny is a wholly appropriate role for the House, where, as we know from recent debates, there is widespread support for it, including from some of our most experienced colleagues. Ministers and departments may be reluctant to agree because it has been so easy and so convenient for them to put those powers into Bills. If they are reluctant—if they have reservations, as my noble friend the Leader of the House expressed it—to set up such a committee, it can be only because they realise they may not be able to justify all the delegated powers that they seek, which is of course the precise reason for establishing the committee. If the powers sought can be justified, there is no problem, and everyone is content; but if they cannot be justified, then they should not be granted. Surely that is how it should be —a very proper function of scrutiny.
There are just two other points I would mention. All on the committee thought that the rotation rule of five years' service was too long. From the point of view of harnessing the available talent to best effect and creating opportunities for Peers to serve on a variety of committees, a shorter turnaround seemed to us desirable. Difficulties about that have been raised this afternoon; so perhaps it should be thought about again, but we were unanimous that five years was too long. On reflection, noble Lords may feel that it is a long time to go without change.
Finally on publicity, we all also thought that more positive action is needed because we live in an age when publicity matters far more than it ever used to. If a product is not presented professionally and sold positively, no one will buy it. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, pointed out that the media are interested only in what they are interested in. That is true, but it helps to keep them in touch with what debates are going on and what subjects are being tackled and to make more contact with them because our Select Committees should present results and conclusions of most of their deliberations to a far wider public. They are certainly worthy of that. That requires expertise and a great deal of time in establishing the right relationship with the media. It would be a full-time job for someone, and such expenditure would be worth while and justified from the point of view of this House and Parliament as a whole.
933 Having had the privilege of serving on the committee, I am as interested as anyone in the views of noble Lords on our report. I can say only that I hope that it will point the way and lead to some acceptable and worthwhile changes.
§ 5.18 p.m.
§ Baroness Serota
My Lords, I, too, must first join with all other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, and his colleagues on the committee on their comprehensive review of the committee work of the House. It was undoubtedly a time-consuming exercise and, as he indicated in his opening remarks this afternoon, perhaps rather longer and deeper than originally envisaged.
I join in the tribute he paid to the Principal Clerk of the Committee Office who assisted the committee in its task so soon after taking up his new responsibilities. I must also thank the noble Earl for the generous recognition in the report and in his speech of the standing of the work of the European Communities Committee and for his courtesy to me when I appeared before the inquiry.
In view of the marathon debate in which we are now engaged, I shall try to concentrate my remarks on the recommendations of the report affecting the role and structure of the European Communities Committee. I should have liked, with other noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon, to support, for example, the suggested appointment on an experimental basis of a delegated powers scrutiny committee, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham. I should also have wished to support the proposals of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and several other noble Lords to facilitate the introduction of the law reform and Law Commission measures on which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, spoke so effectively this afternoon.
I also welcome the committee's recommendations in paragraph 80 that the House should be able to appoint, at least in the first instance, one ad hoc committee per session. The experience of ad hoc previous inquiries, notably those on unemployment and overseas trade, is that they have received much interest throughout the country and have made a major public impact. They have done so in a way which I believe the House would wish to see continued in the future on the lines of the suggestion made by the committee. I believe that there would be no shortage of Peers to take part in such time-limited inquiries provided the topics were worth while.
However, I must try to impose a self-denying ordinance this afternoon in discussing these and the other important proposals in the report and concentrate on the recommendations affecting the work of the European Communities Committee. They were examined by the committee of the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, in considerable detail, both in oral and written evidence.
As I explained to the committee in my letter of 12th June, published in the report and enclosing the report of the working group of the European Communities 934 Select Committee on its working methods, and again in oral evidence, the Select Committee's working group was set up in October 1990. This was after one of the heaviest sessions in 1989–90, even compared with the previous peak under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Llewelyn-Davies in 1985–86.
It was a session in which 28 reports were produced, including the major inquiry into economic, monetary and political union under the chairmanship of, I think I can call him, my noble friend Lord Aldington, which was produced before the intergovernmental conferences at Maastricht after 21 meetings between May and October that year. The causes of the increased activity —namely, the speeding up of decision-making in the Community following the passing of the Single European Act, the avalanche of proposals required to complete the single market by the end of this year and the series of important constitutional proposals in the run-up to the Maastricht conferences—are now well known to Members of the House. The Select Committee also sought to identify whether any changes were needed in the light of external developments, notably potential changes in the structure and decision-making procedures of the Community following the intergovernmental conferences and the recent changes in scrutiny procedures in another place.
But one of the greatest factors in the minds of the Select Committee, and especially of the sub-committee chairman and myself, in deciding to set up the working group was the strain of a continuous heavy workload, especially on the staff of the committee office. Fortunately, the strain seems to have eased a little this last year in terms of the number of reports that have been produced. These dropped to 17 in 1990–91 and will probably reach only 14 in the current year due to the hiatus caused by Dissolution.
Thus the starting point both of the Select Committee's inquiry into working methods and of the Select Committee of the noble Earl was the same; namely, the pressures of work on the staff of the House whom we all hold in such high regard. I can assure the House that the members of the Select Committee are not complacent about their working methods unless they have changed in the new Parliament. That was certainly true in the last Parliament and I am sure it will be equally true in this. Indeed, they have had to operate flexibly over the many years of their existence within the broad terms of reference which the House so wisely set some 17 years ago and which the Jellicoe Committee does not now seek to change.
However, I find it difficult to accept the suggestion in paragraph 139 of the report that the Select Committee should now adjust its working levels and sub-committee structure because of the recent changes in the developments within the Community—which I quite understand—including the Maastricht agreement and,because of our belief that the House should undertake some limited committee work in other areas".This seems to me a strange moment of time to recommend a reduction of European Community scrutiny when the Community's activities are 935 expanding, with a long list of policy objectives far wider than the present competences, coupled with the proposed three-pillar structure to include intergovernmental co-operation on a common foreign and security policy and on judicial and home affairs. Moreover, the need for improved scrutiny by national parliaments and the closer working relationships with the European Parliament were fully recognised in the Declaration to the Maastricht agreement. It was an inclusion which to our great credit was successfully initiated by the British Government.
I submit that it does not necessarily follow that any decision that the House should do committee work in other areas—which I have already indicated I favour—must inevitably lead to a major reduction in the systematic scrutiny of European Community proposals. I was encouraged to find a similar view clearly expressed by a number of senior Members of this House in oral evidence, notably the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, and my noble friend Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos.
The committee also recommended that the scrutiny function should be exercised with greater speed and selection, concentrating on wider areas of Community policy. We all accept that timing is the essence of scrutiny. The weekly sift is completed every Monday by one o'clock when the House is sitting on the basis of the possible legal, financial or policy implications of the proposals. It is then for the sub-committees to decide whether to undertake further scrutiny of the proposals referred to them on that basis and to decide in what depth scrutiny should operate.
It is true that there are times when a busy sub-committee either has to give time at the end of an evidence session or leave scrutiny to the end of its current inquiry. This can cause delays. However, I believe that the sub-committee chairmen are well alerted by their efficient Clerks to any urgent matters for scrutiny. Timing is always an element in the decision on whether or not the scrutiny function should proceed further according to the current workload.
The introduction of letters to Ministers, which was mentioned in the noble Earl's report—the letters are published every six months—was intended to help with timing difficulty and to deal with specific points of practice. It has been used to good effect, for example, by Sub-committee E on legal points and when the treaty basis of proposals is being called into question.
I understand the attraction of concentrating committee work on the wider areas of Community policy. We all find it easier to discuss broad policy issues, but the distinction between broad-ranging inquiries and specific and highly focused inquiries is not always easy to draw. For example, subcommittees will examine the broad lines of a framework directive or an action programme and then will need to follow up and examine the specific nitty-gritty legislative proposals which will affect the work of industry or commerce or the daily lives of individuals or consumers.
936 The recommended reduction of scrutiny would undoubtedly also affect Peer involvement as well as staff. The present size of the Select Committee—namely, 24 members—is rather large. It is not a self-perpetuating oligarchy but is appointed by the House every Session on the basis of the recommendations of the Committee of Selection. I had always assumed that the size of the Select Committee was designed originally to reflect as broad a range as possible of opinion within the House. It is also desirable for at least two members, one of whom is the chairman of the sub-committee, to serve on the subject sub-committees.
There are already some Members who for various reasons do not serve on sub-committees, so the concern of the Jellicoe Committee expressed in paragraph 146 that non-members of sub-committees would bring a more critical approach to reports is already met. It would certainly be perfectly possible to reduce the number of Peers on the Select Committee and the sub-committees, although I submit that this does not necessarily mean that they would be available or attracted to other work in the House. In my experience, it is the subjects under consideration that attract Peers, and Europe has understandably been high on the public agenda in recent years.
We have to remember that Peers are volunteers. I hesitate to think what it would cost to recognise the services of so many experienced and expert Members at current market values. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, reminded us of the value we receive from the work of our Select Committees and of how relatively small the overall costs were. I was interested to note in the report that Peers' expenses amount to only 6 per cent. of the total cost of Select Committee work. I also suspect that if we had to recruit our staff from the private sector the costs would be even higher.
In my view, continuity as well as timing is an important element in scrutiny and it seems to take even the most distinguished and experienced Peers, even ex-Ministers and ex-Permanent Secretaries, for example, just a little time to become accustomed to the form and nature of the work of our committees. I believe that every noble Lord who has spoken so far, possibly with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Pym, has objected to the reduction of the rotation rule from five to three years. I liked the comment made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, when she referred to Members constantly coming and going if the rotation rule was reduced to three sessions. For my part, if the rule has to be reduced at all, I would certainly not reduce it by more than one year.
Finally, I welcome the Select Committee's acceptance of the working group's recommendation that the nature and the volume of sub-committee work is now such that each sub-committee requires the services of one Clerk. However, my main concern is the suggested reduction of the present number of sub-committees from six to three, plus possibly one ad hoc, and a consequential reduction in the committees' resources.
The question of how to deal with the proposed two new pillars was left, perhaps wisely in the present circumstances, to the longer term. However, such a 937 major reduction in sub-committee structure would undoubtedly cause a consequential increase in the workload of our Clerks, who would presumably be responsible for constantly monitoring a large number of proposals on behalf of the sub-committees. We would thus really be back to square one, because if one reduces the number of sub-committees from six to three the terms of reference of each sub-committee would be vast. The subjects will not go away however we seek to deal with them.
While there may well be a case for holding an ad hoc cross-border inquiry from time to time, a standing ad hoc committee, which is perhaps a contradiction in terms, would lack the continuity which is such a valuable element in scrutiny. I was also surprised to find no specific provision in the report to cover the existing terms of reference of Sub-committee E on law and institutions which up until now has always been chaired by a Law Lord and which has examined UK law and questions of vires and treaty base.
Article 3b of the proposed Maastricht Treaty was for the first time to have enshrined the general principle of subsidiarity in Community legislation. That proposal was welcomed widely on all sides of the House when we debated the Maastricht agreement last December. Subject to what eventually emerges—we are now all waiting patiently for the Statement—subsidiarity will undoubtedly become an important element in scrutiny alongside the present legal, financial and policy implications of proposals—in my view the present three criteria would grow to four—and I believe it will require constant vigilance of the kind that Sub-committee E has until now so effectively exercised with the expert advice of our legal adviser, Mrs. Denza.
I recognise that some of the points I have made are only suggestions at this stage but they come before the House with the weight of a Select Committee behind them, so I hope that when they and the other contributions to this long debate are considered by the proposed steering committee or by the liaison committee—like my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel, I would greatly prefer the latter form of committee—great care will be taken not to reduce drastically a structure and a set of well tried working relationships which have stood the test of time and have brought great credit on the House and which I believe are still needed in a rapidly developing situation. As the Select Committee has pointed out, the European Communities Committee is continuing to review its working methods in the light of major developments in the Community. I suspect that that committee may prefer to maintain its need for an additional Clerk rather than the suggested specialist assistant which the Jellicoe Committee recommended.
I hope therefore that the House will share my belief that it would be extremely regrettable to take any decisions now which would reduce the quality of the inquiries and the reports the Select Committee produces which are apparently so highly regarded both in this country and in the wider Community.