HL Deb 13 May 1998 vol 589 cc1081-150

3.8 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

rose to call attention to the impact of the policies of Her Majesty's Government on the authority of Parliament and its ability to scrutinise and control the actions of the Executive; to the Government's duty to account first to Parliament for all their actions; and to Parliament's place at the centre of the nation's affairs; and to move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in introducing the Motion standing in my name, perhaps I may begin by saying how much I look forward to today's debate, and to the speeches of the many distinguished Peers who are to contribute, especially my noble friends Lord Biffen and Lord Dartmouth. We greatly look forward to their contributions in particular.

Much lip service is always paid to Parliament as an institution—alas, often today, I fear, accompanied by a lament deploring its decline. It is my contention that parliamentary government is indeed under attack, not from the outside but from the very government that derives its authority from being able to command the consent of Parliament itself. Were your Lordships, by some chance, to agree with that contention, perhaps your Lordships would agree also that it follows that any government that insist on behaving like that saw off the branch on which they find themselves perched.

In one of last Sunday's newspapers, Mr. Matthew Parris suggested that we should not believe everything we see on television. I believe he called it, "a medium that depends on faking it". I venture to suggest that any politician knows that Mr. Parris is right. Whether allegedly impartial or not, every television news and current affairs producer has a point of view and television is more insidious than newspapers because of its greater visual impact and its supposed impartiality.

That supposed partiality in both press and electronic media has become part of the warp and woof of the body politic. I make no complaint about that. Indeed, we all accept that a free press is an essential prerequisite for political liberty. The price we pay—as your Lordships will be aware, that is the vulgarity of The Times newspaper—is small compared to the benefit. However, the media are idiosyncratic as to what interests them. They and the public become bored with issues, however important they may be. For instance, we know that African famines are newsworthy in inverse proportion to their distance from the nearest television camera.

The press is therefore an essential partner for Parliament, but it is no substitute. Parliament alone can hold a government to account systematically and continuously rather than merely episodically. The same can perhaps be said for public opinion, which the press more often reflects than it leads. Indeed, I suspect that the public's intermittent interest in politics is a good sign rather than a bad one. Eastern and central Europe talked of nothing but politics, and often still do. That seems to me to indicate more a dissatisfaction with the system under which they live and the current state of affairs than the reverse.

It therefore follows that Parliament must remain central to our system of holding governments to account. Sadly, there are signs that whatever lip service the present Government may pay to the principle, they do not agree in practice. At least one of their Members has openly come close to disagreeing in principle as well. He said, It may be that the era of pure representative democracy is coming to an end". The Member of the Government concerned added that its place would be taken by, plebiscites, focus groups, lobbies, citizens' movements and the internet". Mr. Mandelson, for indeed it was he, was speaking to a conference in Germany in March this year. Your Lordships will agree that it is a remarkable statement by any standards. In two sentences it manages both to dismiss parliamentary government, which is the basis of our constitution, and admit that the Government will be guided by focus groups and the other entities that he mentioned.

Of course, general acceptance of Mr. Mandelson's principles would be attractive to the Government. They would avoid the rigours of parliamentary scrutiny, as I have already mentioned, and at the same time be able to claim the support of public opinion which is much easier to manipulate when it is deprived of the partnership of Parliament. Sadly, in making that remark, Mr. Mandelson was not forecasting; he was thinking about the present.

Let us consider the evidence—there seems to be a fair amount of it accumulating one way and another. For instance, the Government have used pre-legislative referendums on three separate occasions so far; that is, on devolution for Scotland, on devolution for Wales and on a mayor for London. I may be wrong, but I imagine few noble Lords will have read the Scottish Daily Express of 28th June 1996. It contains a statement by the present Secretary of State for Wales, Mr. Ron Davies, with which, rather to my surprise, I find myself wholly in agreement. Mr. Davies said, The problem with pre-legislative referendums is that there are so many questions which you cannot answer". It seems to me that Mr. Davies could have gone even further. He could have pointed out that pre-legislative referendums are a constitutional innovation in this country and that Parliament is the only institution that can examine the Government so that they answer all the questions. Only then, perhaps, after parliamentary scrutiny—particularly if the measure in question would introduce irreversible change—might there be a case for a post-legislative referendum. But to hold a referendum before Parliament examines the measure gives the Government the power to bushwhack both Houses. We have seen that happening in another place over both the Scottish and the Welsh devolution Bills. Another place was effectively cowed by the Government into accepting that the people of Wales want devolution when we all know that only 25.2 per cent. of the Welsh electorate voted "yes" while 24.9 per cent. voted "no"—in a poll in which the full weight of the government propaganda machine and much taxpayers' money was deployed on the "yes" side.

It is therefore far from clear that the people of Wales, unlike the people of Scotland, want devolution. It is, however, very clear that the Government used the Welsh referendum result to hurry the Welsh Bill through another place, not with only minimal scrutiny, but for large sections of the Bill, without any scrutiny at all. I need only refer to the questions of reform of health authorities, implementation of EU law, and loans to the Assembly. And I have no doubt that when it comes to the point, the Government will blame the usual whipping boy—the hereditary peerage—if this House tries to make parliamentary government work as it examines the Welsh Bill.

The same applies to the Scottish Bill. The people of Scotland at the moment overwhelmingly want either devolution or independence. Sadly, that is all too clear. But the Government used the fact that there are no rules in this country governing the conduct of referendums to handicap the "no" campaign and to advantage the "yes" campaign—just as they did in Wales. Not only did they rig the questions they asked, as we pointed out many times during the course of the Bill's passage through your Lordships' House, but they deprived the Scottish people of the option of voting for independence as well.

The present opinion polls in Scotland suggest that at least one-third of its people were deprived of the opportunity they would have preferred—independence—a rather higher proportion than the proportion of the Welsh people who approved of the Government's proposals for Wales. And, of course, we are likely to find, as we have with the Welsh Bill, that large sections of the Scottish Bill have not been discussed, even cursorily, in another place.

As for the Mayor of London, he—

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

Or she!

Viscount Cranborne

—or she (I stand corrected by the noble Lord, Lord Ewing; shades of our time on standing committee in another place)—may or may not be a good idea. We know for sure that 72 per cent. of 33 per cent. or, if my maths are correct, 24 per cent. of the population of London believe that he or she is.

And when the legislation comes before Parliament we must hope that it does not contain the sort of contradictions that threaten to make the Welsh, and more particularly the Scottish legislation, unworkable. Any self-respecting Parliament, even a House of Commons with as substantial a government majority as this one, would consider rejecting legislation that it might approve in principle, but whose detail made it unworkable. But pre-legislative referendums make the exercise of legitimate parliamentary government virtually impossible—and no doubt the Government realise that all too well.

If the devolution proposals do turn out to be unworkable, as I particularly fear they will in Scotland, the process by which they have been approved by the electorates of the United Kingdom will undermine public confidence in the way governments secure authority for what they do. I hope, therefore, that the Government will find themselves able to respond positively to the pleas of my noble friend Lord Mackay, my right honourable friend Michael Ancram and myself that the parties should agree, before any more are held, as to what rules should govern referendums. I am sure that they will have noted, as I have with pleasure, that this proposal received the support of the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, on the Floor of this House and, in doing so, I hope he was speaking for the massed ranks of his party. It would be a happy change to find them on our side rather than the Government's.

It is important that the Government take my plea seriously since we probably face referendums on two questions whose importance it is difficult to exaggerate; that is, proportional representation and the single currency. The single currency is not a subject for today except perhaps to say that, whatever the referendum result, I am sure no government would accept that the electorate's confidence in the way it is conducted should be put at risk. The same applies to proportional representation. Indeed, I should be interested to know what vote in the Government's view would justify a change in our voting system. For instance, would a vote of at least 50 per cent. of the electorate be necessary to introduce a PR system, since, as I understand it, the logic of the system is proportionality?

I have to say—and it will come as no surprise to your Lordships—that I am strongly opposed to changing our present voting system. Any change would encourage the growth of the power of extremist parties, as it has in France and Germany. It would, particularly on the closed list system favoured by the Government, transfer power from the constituencies to the party apparat. It would bring about the transformation of our political parties into state funded corporatist entities, in which party political campaigns and organisation are organised from the top rather than growing from the grassroots bottom. It would usher in an era of coalition politics. In short, it would transfer the forum where power is brokered from Parliament to the party leaders and their familiars. It is therefore fundamentally inimical to parliamentary government. If we are to judge the Prime Minister by his actions—after all, he has introduced a system of proportional representation for every assembly he has proposed and, indeed, commissioned the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, to act as his John the Baptist in the matter of introducing it for Westminster elections—he is seduced by the idea of proportional representation. Those of us who dislike the systems of proportional representation as a prospect for Westminster elections take this as further evidence of his desire to bypass parliamentary accountability.

There are many other pieces of evidence as well. I will not this afternoon address myself to the question of how the Government intend to abolish the right of hereditary Peers to sit in your Lordships' House. I hope the noble Lord the Leader of the House will afford us the chance to discuss our future before the Summer Recess. I would merely say here that just to remove the hereditary Peers and not simultaneously to put something at least as independent in their place would increase neither the independence nor the legitimacy of this place and so it would in itself undermine the standing and authority of Parliament as a whole.

Setting aside the vexed question of your Lordships' House, it is clear that in all kinds of other ways Parliament should be vigilant in holding this Government to account. Madam Speaker herself has reminded Ministers that they should inform Parliament of their intentions before they inform the "Today" programme. We all know that spin doctors do not shoot down a kite they have launched and which has proved to have flown.

I hope, too, that Ministers will accept in full the strictures of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee of your Lordships' House and act on them swiftly and in full, as I always insisted that we should do before the last election. We have read the committee's report on the School Standards and Framework Bill and have taken some comfort from the reply of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, to my noble friend Lady Blatch during last week's proceedings on the Bill. Nevertheless, in spite of its language the committee's conclusions were as damning as on any Bill it has examined. If the Leader of the House can reassure us today, I am sure the whole House would be very greatly relieved. Skeleton Bills and Henry VIII powers are sometimes necessary—I acknowledge that—but they can all too easily become a habit. They are fundamentally inimical to parliamentary accountability.

In the same area, the Government have now asked Parliament to consider three Bills which rely upon, and refer to, legislation dealing with the registration of political parties. Yet the Government have not even published their draft legislation on the matter, so as we consider the Scotland Bill, the Government of Wales Bill and the European Parliamentary Elections Bill we will have no idea of what the legislation they depend on will look like. My noble friends have already expressed their extreme disquiet on this issue and no doubt your Lordships will want to consider carefully how far these three Bills should progress through this House in the absence of a published Bill on the registration of political parties.

All of this creates an atmosphere of contempt for Parliament which I find disturbing. It has led to a position where the Government feel able to introduce a major part of the Budget proposals at the Report stage of a Bill in this House, making it virtually impossible for either House to subject them to even the semblance of =adequate scrutiny. It is exacerbated by the distressing arms-for-Sierra Leone affair where after one or two bosh shots, Ministers' defence in essence seems to amount to this: "We knew nothing. So we are not responsible. Civil Servants are therefore responsible and, although we want to imply that they are culpable, we also want to get any credit that's going. So since our man won, didn't we do well?" But my question, my Lords, is quite simple. Where is Parliament in all this? Before the last election there was no one more insistent on the Government's being wholly accountable to Parliament than the Foreign Secretary. Was he serious about this at the time or was he merely showing off his well-known skills as a debater, at least in opposition?

And, all this, too, at a time when the Government are setting up new parliaments and assemblies. The Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the new London body and, eventually, we are promised, regional assemblies for England. Add directly elected mayors to the picture, and poor old Westminster is getting rather squeezed at one end and local councils at the other. And I speak for a party which rather neglected local councils during our period in government. In the case of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly there is no declaration in either Bill of the supremacy of Westminster. I imagine that is partly because the Government feel that the Scots at least would not accept such a declaration. If that proves to be so, it does not bode well for harmonious relations between Westminster and Edinburgh or the clarity of the Government's accountability to Parliament.

As I say, it is not altogether a happy story. One cannot help beginning to feel that the Prime Minister would like to reduce his obligation to remain fully accountable to Parliament and is intent on rigging the system to achieve that aim. If so he is making a serious mistake. Only Parliament can provide the continuous scrutiny needed to hold governments to account—not the press, not opinion polls, not focus groups. If Parliament holds the Government to account continuously and effectively and nevertheless still supports Ministers, the government's authority to tell us all what to do is surely increased rather than diminished, for it is only from Parliament that the Government get their authority in the first place. Paradoxically, therefore, Parliament and government stand or fall together, and governments have an interest in bolstering the power of Parliament—although governments of both colours tend to forget that. The present Government seem to have forgotten it rather earlier in their term of office than most, and are trying to change the system so that they can get away with it. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.27 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I initially welcomed this debate and looked forward greatly to it. I thought that we were going to have a detailed analysis of the way in which this Government are relating to Parliament. What do I find? A few cracks about pre-legislative referenda, with which I shall deal in a moment; an attack on my honourable friend Mr. Mandelson for what he said in Bonn, of which I happen to have the full quote and which I shall be delighted to read to the House in due course; a little bit about the Scottish and Welsh devolution Bills and how they had not been properly scrutinised in the other place; and one or two cheap jibes, which the noble Viscount could not resist, at the expense of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary—although what it had to do with what he was supposed to be talking about still escapes me—after which the noble Viscount sat down.

Despite the tone of some of what the noble Viscount said I am grateful to him for giving me at least the opportunity to stand back and to put on record both the seriousness with which this Government treat Parliament and what we are trying to do to improve accountability. I hope also, together with my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey, who will wind up today's debate, to put the noble Viscount's mind at rest and settle some of the quivering unease he seems to feel.

We have heard much from the noble Viscount recently. We heard the theme again today of the "elective dictatorship". After nearly 20 years the phrase is once again occurring on the lips of Conservative spokesmen. It has had a patchy history. It was invented by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, 22 years ago. It had a good run for about three years after that. Then in 1979 something curious happened. Nothing more was heard of it from those same Conservative lips for all of 18 years. The dictatorship did not cease to be elective, but obviously it became a Conservative one. Only since last year has it made its reappearance, and that again is curiously coincident. We seem to have made a very interesting discovery about the elective dictatorship, at least as envisioned by the party opposite. It appears only when that party is not in power.

As to the substance of today's debate, I shall turn in a moment to some of the things the noble Viscount mentioned. But, first, I wish to deal with one or two peripheral matters, if I may so term them. The noble Viscount takes to task my honourable friend the Minister without Portfolio for a speech he made to a seminar in Germany on 3rd March. I thought that the noble Viscount might just do that, so I have the actual text. If the House will forgive me, I propose reading some of it so that it can be put into some kind of sensible context.

My honourable friend said this: It may be that the era of pure representative democracy is coming slowly to an end. We entered the twentieth century with a society of elites, with a very distinct class structure. In those days it seemed natural to delegate important decisions to members of the landowning élite, or the industrial élite or the educated élite. When, in Britain, Labour emerged as the party that represented the industrial working class, it quickly developed its own elite of trade union bureaucrats, City bosses and socialist intellectuals. But that age has passed away. Today people want to be more involved. Representative government is being complemented"— that is the word he used— by more direct forms of involvement from the Internet to referenda. Tony Blair's Government has already held two referenda and three more are at some stage in prospect, not to mention more citizens' movements, more action from pressure groups. That requires a different style of politics and we are trying to respond to these changes". If the noble Viscount had read that, how he could make the comments he did on that speech today is beyond me. I prefer to believe that he never read it rather than that he deliberately misrepresented it to the extent that he did.

We had a blast about pre-legislative referenda. It was all in the manifesto so the country knew that this was coming—

Noble Lords


Lord Richard

My Lords, the party opposite ran the theory of the mandate almost into the ground over a period of 18 years. It cannot really expect us somehow suddenly to give up one of the very pillars on which that party stood for that period of time. What we proposed was in the manifesto. The noble Viscount's assertions about that are absolutely ludicrous. What on earth did he mean by saying that pre-legislative referenda in any way inhibit parliamentary scrutiny? It is a fact that the House of Commons has gone through both the Scotland and Wales Bills in some considerable detail following the referenda. It is a fact that this House will be doing the same.

It is the Government's belief that on issues of such importance, particularly special endorsement is required. I also remind the House that the Opposition have committed themselves to a referendum on entry into European monetary union. I suspect that the noble Viscount's dislike of such referenda is not because they are a bad thing, but because the Opposition have lost ail of them. It seems to me that the use of pre-legislative referenda may be thoroughly justified in certain circumstances.

The noble Viscount's Motion refers to the ability of Parliament, to scrutinise and control the actions of the executive". There can be no doubt that one of the most effective weapons in the armoury of parliamentary scrutiny is your Lordships' own Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. I stress the high regard in which the Government hold that committee. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, the chairman of that committee, in his place. I am sure that the whole House is very much looking forward to his speech. I am sure, too, that it will join me in paying tribute to the noble Lord and his highly respected committee for the valuable work it does.

I hope that the House will also agree with me that this Government have a good record in responding to the recommendations of the scrutiny committee. It is more than clear that we take the work of that impartial and effective committee extremely seriously as a central contribution to parliamentary control over the executive.

The second limb of the noble Viscount's Motion calls attention to, the Government's duty to account first to Parliament for all their actions". He raised the question of Statements on government policy. This Government are committed, as all governments have been, to a greater or lesser extent, to announcing major changes of policy directly to Parliament. Our record on the number of Statements made is comparable to that of previous administrations. Most alleged leaks are either unsubstantiated or unauthorised. I have to say that they seem to have been a feature of the previous administration as well. All Statements made in another place are offered for repetition in this House. In considering whether or not to accept a Statement, I know that the Opposition exercise a certain degree of objective restraint as to whether it should be repeated here, as did their immediate and perhaps distant forebears, too.

Perhaps I may also remind the noble Viscount that immediately after the election there were rumblings from his side that this Government wanted to make too many Statements to Parliament. Noble Lords opposite cannot have it both ways. We are either making too many Statements, in which case we are over-informing Parliament, or we are not making enough, in which case we are under-informing Parliament.

As regards procedures in your Lordships' House, we are committed to this House as a revising Chamber and to the efficient and effective scrutiny of Bills that your Lordships can provide. I hope that this House will continue to show itself capable of some flexibility in that respect. I have in mind particularly that the House has a number of procedures for enhancing the scrutiny of Bills, notably the Grand Committee procedure in the Moses Room. I hope that the noble Viscount will come to see that the scrutiny provided by that procedure very neatly fits into the theme of his Motion today. Accordingly, I look forward to widespread agreement by the present Opposition to the use of that procedure throughout the long years ahead when they will continue to occupy the Benches they do.

I would have liked to say something about the modernisation of Parliament in the other place. Perhaps I may give one example and that is the Select Committees. Our accountability to Select Committees in Parliament is demonstrated by the more frequent appearances of Cabinet Ministers to give oral evidence. As at 6th May this year, there have been 51 such appearances at 160 sitting days. That amounts to three such appearances every 10 sitting days, which is 20 per cent. higher than the average for the past seven Sessions. It does not seem to me that that is an example of a government deliberately avoiding Parliament.

I have only nine minutes. I would have liked longer. Nevertheless, I hope that I have given a clear indication of the importance which this Government attach to the role of Parliament. All governments need to be held to account and it is the job of Parliament to do it. In our approach to Westminster we look for every sensible opportunity to modernise and renew our institutions and procedures and to open up opportunities for our citizens.

This Government have already returned more power to the citizens in their first year than their predecessor did in nearly 20 years. We mean to continue with that process. I look forward very much to lively and vigorous debate in this House and in another place as Parliament examines questions and, I trust, approves the way in which this Government are promoting democracy for the future. We have done a number of positive things in the past year to improve accountability to Parliament. We have done so as part of a wide-ranging commitment to institutional reform and renewal. I only wish that the same could be said about the activities undertaken by the previous administration in 18 years. I suppose that that is now history.

3.39 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I look forward eagerly to the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, and the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth. When I published my first book a good many years ago, on the strength of a quotation from a remark in another place in 1628 I gave it the title, The Crisis of Parliaments. One of my friends congratulated me on choosing an eternally topical title and, similarly, I must congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, on introducing an eternally topical Motion. With a small change of language appropriate to the period, it is just about the same Motion as the famous one from the reign of George III, that the power of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. That Motion, like this, came from a party which had been in for so long that it had grown moths, and then found, to its great surprise, that the view looked different when it was out.

When was the golden age to which the noble Viscount's Motion refers, when Parliament had the central place in the nation's life, when it genuinely did control the Executive and place and displace governments? The golden age was 22 years long. It ran from the fall of Sir Robert Peel to the beginning of the first prime ministership of Gladstone. It was the period when the party structure had collapsed and the Government in the Commons suffered 112 defeats in 10 years. The politicians hated it.

This debate runs the risk of becoming a pot-and-kettle debate. I hope that it will not because two points need to be made about the story of the pot and the kettle. First, they both wore black. Secondly, why were they not using smokeless fuel?

There have always been considerable limits to the effectiveness of Parliament. Those limits have often been set by the power of government patronage, which was why, for example, the stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds was made incompatible with membership of the House of Commons.

That trend has got worse in recent times for a number of reasons which are not entirely under our control and some of which we would not want to control even if we could. The first is the change to a mass electorate, to which the noble Viscount and the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal referred. The second reason is the introduction of salaried MPs who make their living from their profession. The third reason is the vast increase in the press of business and information. The late Richard Crossman once remarked that not more than six Ministers actually controlled their departments. The same argument must impede our power to control Ministers. The fourth reason is the continual increase in government patronage which, like the power of the Crown, has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. The fifth reason is that the sovereignty of King, Lords and Commons used to be a power-sharing arrangement as much as any that is proposed in Northern Ireland.

When Bishop Williams, Lord Chancellor, opened the Parliament of 1624—a 17th century Mr. Williams—he said that the first Parliament was when the three members of the Trinity said, "Let us make man"; and it genuinely was a power-sharing arrangement. When Lord Montagu, the author of our standing order on asperity of speech, looked at the beginning of the Civil War, he observed that the body which remained at Westminster was not a parliament; it was only the Lords and Commons. That is a perfectly correct constitutional observation, but increasingly now, King, Lords and Commons—or Queen, Lords and Commons—is, in effect, the power of the majority in the House of Commons. I do not think that we can reverse any of those trends, so we must think about damage control.

By introducing the Bill to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights, this Government have attempted to strengthen judicial control over the Executive. That may well prove to be the most welcome and the most important of the Government's constitutional reforms because the judiciary have always had the power to call Ministers before them as a higher authority and to compel answers to questions, and they have had the benefit in the common law of a system of law which does not result from parliamentary sovereignty.

However, that is not an alternative to scrutiny by Parliament; it is a complement to it. They are two different types of control. Any government need both. So, we need to ensure that Parliament is able effectively to do its job, just as much as we need to ensure that the judges, under the Human Rights Act, will be able to do theirs. Stopping the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack from having to walk backwards is no substitute for ensuring that Parliament can actually call Ministers to account.

We have all the usual parliamentary troubles. I shall not waste time on them because noble Lords know my views. The problem of drafting statutes is particularly visible in the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, with the Humpty-Dumpty clause which says, "Words mean whatever I say they mean", the Cambyses clause which says, "The Secretary of State can do whatever he likes", and our old friend, the Henry VIII clause. We have the usual problem of regulations, which looks to me very much as it always has. The standard of Answers to Questions in this House is sometimes a good deal better than it has been and I should like to offer personal thanks to a number of Ministers in that regard, but that is not yet uniform. Overall, the position looks very much as it always has.

The one point where I really do see ground for regret and particular anxiety is the standing of Government Back-Benchers. Parliament has two potentially conflicting responsibilities. It has to sustain the Government and it has to call the Executive to account. The people who hold the beam even between those two responsibilities are, and must be, the Government Back-Benchers. It is their duty to decide which of those roles they have to put first on each particular occasion or, in many cases, how they can make a blend between them. That is where the skill of the job resides and that is what makes Parliament work.

In that context, I was a little disconcerted to hear the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, refer to the noble Lord, Lord Ewing of Kirkford, as having condemned himself to exclusion. I was reminded of General Stockwell, the commander of the Suez invasion, regretting the number of casualties in Port Said and saying that it was because the Egyptians would defend themselves.

We are getting fewer speeches and fewer amendments from Government Back-Benchers, although the contribution of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, on the Social Security Bill was a model of how a Government Back-Bencher should operate. It was both constructive and helpful, and I am sure that if the relevant Minister were still in her place, she would probably agree with that description.

However, there are grounds for anxiety. This morning's Guardian contains a report by Simon Hoggart of yesterday's debate in another place. It states: The Labour back benchers were unanimous on all points, no doubt because of an extraordinary event which occurred at 3.29 pm, precisely one minute before Mr. Cook began. There was a mass bleeping, or rather a mass vibration of bleepers. It must have felt like the early tremors in a Japanese earthquake … Like participants in a Moonie wedding, every Labour MP simultaneously reached for his pager to read what he ought to be thinking. It appeared to be roughly on the lines of: 'We need take no lessons from the other side about the morality of arms sales …' since about 76 of them made that identical point". They could have thought of that for themselves.

3.50 p.m.

Baroness Warnock

My Lords, we must all be brief and disciplined this afternoon, but I take time to thank the noble Viscount for introducing this debate, thus enabling your Lordships to discuss openly a serious issue that goes far beyond the walls of this House. One must not believe everything that one reads in the newspapers. But there is no doubt that there is a general feeling in the press and among strong supporters of the Labour Party, including my children, that there is something amiss with the relationship between Parliament and government at the present time and that that is increasing.

If it is widely perceived outside this House that the, central place of Parliament in the government of the country has been weakened and its authority is being disregarded or not exercised it is not a matter of party politics—although one may be forgiven this afternoon, for believing that it is—but a new political philosophy which may gradually, not at once, emerge in a new constitution.

Last week's higher education supplement of The Times contained a report of the Prime Minister's long discussion with certain academic political theorists in 10 Downing Street about the nature of the state and the present relationship between it and the individual—very proper philosophical subjects. I have no doubt that the Prime Minister listened carefully and responded with talk about freedom and the necessity to refrain from eating beef on the bone, but here and now the relationship between the state and individual—that fine old philosophical topic—is being changed. There are referendums and numerous ways in which the individual is being approached and given a voice. So far this has been good and forward looking, but it is no good using these methods if the powers of Parliament are eroded. Although a referendum appears to be a useful idea, it is almost bound to fail as a serious means of government because of the extreme crudity of the question that must be asked particularly before legislation and debate.

The link between any government and the individual is and must be through Parliament. It is totally understandable that to a government with a huge majority Parliament should become an object of contempt. If one knows for certain that one can get one's way—for example, that one can overturn all of the amendments to Bills that go from your Lordships' House to another place—there is no need to think of Parliament as an independent power with its own will. There is evidence that the will of Parliament is no longer thought of or that perhaps it no longer exists. If Parliament is held in contempt it is easily forgotten that Ministers must be accountable to Parliament for every one of their decisions. Why should they bother?

We hear much about a new style of government. Much is made of the spin-doctoring activity of improving, changing or presenting a style of government. I do not believe that this is a matter of style but that it has become a matter of substance. We have heard many accusations and denials on each side of the House, and we shall hear many more during the course of this afternoon. I beg your Lordships not to forget history or to regard constitutional change as just another change, for example like changing the hours when Parliament sits or setting up a parliamentary crèche. Innovation with regard to the powers of Ministers and their responsibilities is not to be introduced without reference to where those powers come from or to whom those responsibilities are owed.

I believe that we should all attempt the most difficult task of standing back and considering what we are doing and what is being done to us. In this debate it is very difficult to remain, as I would wish, independent, but if the kettle to which the noble Earl has referred is in reality black, then independence demands that we should say so whatever our colour.

3.55 p.m.

Lord Biffen

My Lords, I have been a Member of this House for approximately one year. During that period I have undertaken a good course of silence and been on a learning curve that has taken me round the gastronomic centres of your Lordships' House, ending with office accommodation in the form of a 50 per cent. share of the desk occupied by my noble friend Lord Howe. I cannot think of a better form of tuition than to occupy such a seat.

I very much endorse the points made at the beginning of the debate. They demonstrate just how widely this whole topic can range. I should like to pick up one particular matter raised by my noble friend Lord Cranborne. There have been substantial changes relating to Scottish and Welsh devolution and the mayoral arrangements for London but there are certain underlying assumptions. First, it is assumed that they will bring about a degree of settlement, not necessarily certainty, for the decades ahead and will receive the support of the population that they are supposed to serve. One does not say that those reforms cannot be achieved but that they impose a great constraint in both Houses of Parliament, in particular in this House, on the co-operation that I believe to be absolutely essential to reach some kind of consensus as a prerequisite of success.

It is very tempting to look at the immediate short term public opinion polls in Scotland, and I have done so. However, having looked at them, one should be very cautious about what can be done over what timescale and with what objective in order to make it a success. Above all, it must embrace every aspect of our body politic.

The situation in Wales is rather different. Unlike Scotland where there was a significant vote for change, in Wales the vote was narrower but it was nonetheless a vote for change. I have spent most of my politics under the shadow of the Breidden Hills. I do not pretend that I have any special feeling for the Welsh situation because of that proximity, but I have a touch of scepticism about what may be gained quickly. If one proceeds on a narrow vote one needs to be careful to build up and consolidate general support for what are intended to be more permanent changes.

Finally, one considers the future of London. Of course, this is much more a matter of public fascination than what I referred to hitherto. I do not believe that one can have a shred of history, whether it be Herbert Morrison or George Lansbury, without realising that there is a rich radical tradition in which London is the anvil on which to forge a future. I am not impressed by the smallness of the vote. What impresses me is the potential to be derived from that vote.

I strongly endorse the point that is made. I endorse it as somebody who is regretful that the unitary state is disappearing, but I accept that. We all together have to work for a different future and move towards a future also outlined by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. We want to see that something can be done about Dunning's famous Motion on the power of central political forces being increased and which ought to be checked. I was delighted to be taken back to Gladstone. I was cheerfully prepared to carry on but we may have to part at some stage.

Nonetheless, the truth is that, in a modern political context, a progressive reduction in the centralising power of government, to my mind, is essential to hold the line for democracy.

I shall conclude briefly. One instance I remember from the 1966 Labour Government is that an attempt was made to expand power by the use of a so-called voluntary system for pay control which simply disregarded the use of law. In the process it brought into conflict the use of law and, above all, proved to be ineffective. Any remarks or prejudices I have on this point are overshadowed by the noble Lord, Lord Orme. There comes a time when, however clever, however élitist, there are hard rock situations that have to accommodate these matters. If they require economic policies, then economic policies there must be. To try to masquerade them under legal policies does harm for Parliament and it does harm for government.

I should like to thank your Lordships for the patience with which you have listened to me and, alas, my infelicity in trying to grasp names. I shall now retire for a period of Trappist consideration while I improve my use of nomenclature.

4.2 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, there is a pleasant convention in this House that one congratulates the maiden speaker. But it needs no convention to guide me to congratulate the noble Lord. I have always been interested in the noble Lord—but have never had the pleasure of meeting him—partly because I had a great deal to do with one of his assistants who described him to me, time after time as one of the kindest of men. While eloquence and eminence are thoroughly acceptable here, kindness is perhaps valued most of all.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, tells me, in his own expression, that the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, is one of the nicest conceivable men on the Opposition Benches. I suppose that is a guarded compliment. Also, I suppose one has to make some allowance for the fact that the noble Lord comes from what he calls the shadow of Wales. Be that as it may, it was a delightful speech. I am aware that at one time it was thought he might become Prime Minister. Then I gather he and Mrs. Thatcher disagreed. To quote a famous expression, they all had noble ideals. Let us leave it there and look forward to hearing from both of them. If the noble Lord promotes himself a little or moves downwards, he will find himself, I hope, in an enjoyable relationship with the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, for many years to come on the Front Bench opposite.

This debate in a sense asks us to consider the whole nature of Parliament. The authority of Parliament cannot be discussed without asking ourselves what is this Parliament. I assume it will be a two-Chamber Parliament—that at least. We have had very instructive leadership from, we might say, two representatives of the two most famous political families in the country, the Cecils and the Russells. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, is one of six Cecils, five of whom have been Leaders of this House. He has also served in both Houses, which is more than I have done. The record of his family from that point of view is a little ambivalent. His great-great-grandfather resigned from the Cabinet in 1867 because the working classes were being given the vote. That did not prevent that great-great-grandfather from being Prime Minister for many years after the third Reform Bill. So the noble Viscount stands for all that is most traditional in British politics. He is a great addition to this place now.

I submit three propositions about the House of Lords. On the one hand, the constitution is indefensible. What is indefensible cannot be maintained for ever without reform. On the other hand, it is a wonderful place. Nearly all of us who come here, particularly those who have been here a long time, consider that here, in this House, collectively we perform a service of great value to the nation. Thirdly, whatever reform takes place, let us not undermine that value to the nation. Let us start from those propositions.

Why are we so proud to be Members of this House? It is a lovely club, with very fine company, unique service, a staff of quite exceptional kindness and a general atmosphere of friendliness. That is one reason that makes it the best club in the world. But, to take the grandfather of the present Leader of the Opposition, there was an occasion when a Labour Peer, at a time when I was Leader of the House, sitting there made remarks about the Leader of the House in his absence which were thought to be disparaging by noble Lords sitting over there. Some of them felt they had to walk out. That was not a very dignified exercise, but still they stumbled out. However, the noble Marquess, the ancestor of the noble Lord, met the Labour Peer in the Corridor and said, "I gather some of our fellows did not like what you said about me. If that is what you thought was right, you were quite right to say it. This is not a club, it is a House of Parliament". So that is the tradition established for all time by the ancestor of the noble Lord.

But if it is not a club and it is a Parliament, what features does it possess? I think we can fairly say that we have intellectual distinction here unequalled anywhere in the world: many Bishops, many professors, many Law Lords, leaders, including two former Prime Ministers, leading trade unionists and leading businessmen. There is certainly no Chamber in the world which could equal this place for intellectual eminence and distinction.

But it is not only that. Everyone who comes here notices something else about the debates apart from the intellectual quality. When I say intellectual quality, I think that we have the best debates in the world and possibly the worst voting system. But apart from intellectual quality, what do we have? We have a courtesy, a civilisation and an essential decency which never fail to impress visitors from this country or from abroad.

The question is whether that owes anything at all to the hereditary element. That is something that cannot be proved one way or the other. I would say it owes a great deal to the hereditary element. That does not mean that because one has inherited a title, one's family should go on inheriting it for ever. But one should be very careful in reforming this House—one should be very careful before one just dismisses all the hereditary Peers and forgets about them. I speak as dispassionately as anybody could, having been given a title and inherited one. But, leaving that aside, the question is how we can maintain the traditions of this House which render it admired by everybody who comes here from all over the world without breaking what must appear to be rational discourse, without breaking reason, abstract reason, political reason. How can we do it?

Thirty years ago, when I was Leader of the House, I suggested that hereditary Peers, in their lifetime, should speak here but not vote. That was not my brainchild. It was the brainchild of Henry Burrows, the then Clerk Assistant at the Table. It was accepted by the leaders of the political parties here and in the other place but sabotaged by cross-Bench activity in the House of Commons. I still believe that that is the best—indeed only,—way of providing an answer which maintains tradition and continuity and yet does not define democratic principles.

I do not know whether it will happen. I shall not go into the tactics of it and whether or not hereditary Peers will vote or what will be done about that. More important people, like my Leader, in conjunction with the Opposition, will work that out. Therefore, I shall not go into the tactics at all. But if we want to have a House which commands moral, political and intellectual approval, that was and remains the only answer.

4.10 p.m.

The Earl of Dartmouth

My Lords, first, I should like to say how honoured I am to make my maiden speech in this House. Long ago I did have some political experience in a small way. In February and October 1974, I stood as a Conservative candidate for the House of Commons for Leigh and Stockport South. But as has been pointed out to me elsewhere in no uncertain terms, all that is now more than 24 years ago. I hope that noble Lords in this House will not judge me guilty of paying them a back-handed compliment if I say that it is very refreshing to sit in an assembly where direct front-line electoral experience of 24 years ago can be regarded as virtually current.

Although I was very disappointed at that time not to be able to put those letters "MP" after my name, because, unfortunately, the good electorate of Stockport South decided by 4,000 votes in October 1974 something different, I subsequently attended the Harvard Business School and I have been able to put the rather different and lesser letters of "MBA" after my name.

My late father, the ninth Earl of Dartmouth, who like myself was a chartered accountant, worked for 44 years in the City and retired only when he was 70. In consequence, my father never made a maiden speech in this House. However, lest it be thought that I come from a long line of backwoodsmen, I should say that other members of my family have played a significant role in this House and in Parliament.

Specifically, the seventh Earl of Dartmouth was Lord Great Chamberlain from 1928 to 1936 and assisted Black Rod in running this House. In fact, if he were alive today, he would probably have said that Black Rod assisted him. Also, the seventh Earl of Dartmouth, as Viscount Lewisham, had previously been Conservative Member of Parliament for West Bromwich and it is a chastening thought for those of us on this side of the House to consider just when, in the future, West Bromwich will return another Conservative MP.

Although this is a maiden speech, I hope that I may be permitted to make a few relevant observations on this Motion. On 1st May last year, the Labour Party achieved a greater electoral victory than in 1945 and as a democrat and a long-time aficionado of such matters, I must congratulate them. But it has been said and written frequently that the 1997 Labour victory, unlike that of 1945, did not have a big idea driving it. Certainly in terms of economic policy, that is entirely true. If one makes a comparison with 1974, back to the days when I stood for the House of Commons, when Labour stood for, among other things, "seizing control of the commanding height of the economy", and so on, there is mercifully very little economic change in prospect.

However, just when we all thought it was safe to go into the water, if one looks at Labour's constitutional plans, there is a big idea, indeed, a whole series of big ideas. Perhaps I may mention a few of those. The Government are committed to home rule for Scotland, to restructuring local government and incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into our domestic law. That means, in effect, an activist and interventionist judiciary, as there is in the United States. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, regarded that as a very good thing. For anyone who believes in parliamentary democracy, it is a very bad thing. The Government are also committed in principle to abolishing the pound.

Each one of those changes represents a leap in the dark. Taken together, they represent the biggest change in our constitution since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which, as most of us will know, established, seemingly once and for all, the supremacy of Parliament. As the Motion states, those changes had the effect of making the Executive comprehensively less accountable. But those proposed constitutional changes which I have enumerated and other changes will be justified, indeed have been justified on the grounds that, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, the Government are returning power to their citizens.

I make this point and it is my only substantive point. As well as making the Executive accountable, the historic role of Parliament has always been to redress grievances. Parliament, by definition, cannot redress grievances if the powers to redress them have already been fully transferred elsewhere.

I would hope that noble Lords on all sides of the House would agree that the supremacy of Parliament has been the source of our almost unique stability as a nation. As someone who has spent many years of my life overseas, I understand and recognise that. To transfer and dissipate powers of Parliament severs the link between the Executive and the people. I referred earlier to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which established the supremacy of Parliament. I humbly express the hope that there will not be an inglorious revolution of 1998 which destroys it.

4.17 p.m.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure on behalf of myself and on behalf of the whole House to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, on his excellent maiden speech, even if it was not wholly uncontroversial. We look forward to further contributions from him in the future. His experience in accountancy and business will undoubtedly be of value to our future deliberations on many matters with which we shall contend.

I note that the noble Earl had a run-out in the general election in Stockport in 1974. As I have lived there for nearly 20 years, that is one link between us. Another link is that we both have addresses in the north of England. That must be of some asset to this House. Once again, I offer the noble Earl hearty congratulations on his maiden speech.

Like my noble friend Lord Richard, I was expecting a much more illuminating address by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, regarding this debate, which was, after all, introduced by the Opposition. Nevertheless, be that as it may, I appreciate that the Opposition must oppose. I know that an Opposition must draw to the attention of this House responsibilities which they feel the Government are not observing or, indeed, responsibilities which the Government are neglecting. But this afternoon I feel that the Opposition have gone over the top, at least in introducing the terms of this debate, if not in advancing strong arguments in support of it. At the very least, they are exaggerating in their criticism of the Government and, in my view, are somewhat guilty of "the kettle calling the pot black". But I shall come to that a little later.

First, perhaps I may remind the House that after 18 years of unbroken Conservative government, Labour was elected last year with a landslide victory. It was a victory that resulted in every Tory seat in Scotland being lost; a victory that resulted in every Tory seat in Wales being lost; a victory that resulted in Tory seats in England, which it was thought impossible to lose, being won by Labour; and it was a victory which has resulted in large areas of England now being without Tory seats.

Yet noble Lords opposite, it seems to me, speak as though their party still claims to be the custodians of the interests of British people, despite being thoroughly rejected by the electorate at the general election.

I shall draw the attention of the House to some of the measures which the Labour Government have introduced in order to modernise and to make parliamentary democracy stronger. I shall outline what has been done to take democracy out to the British people so that democracy is closer to the people and that their representatives are more accountable to the people. And all this has been done in 12 short months after languishing in opposition for nearly two decades.

This Government believe unequivocally in the central importance of Parliament. That is integral to their approach to the reinvigoration of the democratic process. They want our citizens to feel that they have ownership over decisions affecting their lives and to enjoy improved access to official information. The Labour Government want the House of Commons and the House of Lords to be modernised and for local democracy to be made stronger. To this end, they have introduced very many positive measures already to improve government's accountability to Parliament.

Some of those measures are very important; some are less so. In this House, for example, the Ceremony of Introduction of Life Peers, although continuing a tradition of the House, has been updated, bringing about a change which was agreed. The Grand Committees on Bills in the Moses Room offers the opportunity for close scrutiny and has been successfully used in this Session. In the other place, the Government proposed an all-party Select Committee on Modernisation. That has led, for example, to proposals for the explanatory memorandum to a Bill to include notes on clauses and for some Bills to be drafted in advance and laid in the Session before they are debated, possibly with pre-legislative scrutiny in a Select Committee. Again, this Government use far fewer guillotines as compared with the average of the last 10 years under the Conservative government. Select Committees have been strengthened, including a joint committee on parliamentary privilege, and Cabinet Ministers appear more frequently before them.

Those new developments take their place alongside existing forms of scrutiny whose importance the Government recognise. For example, the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee does valuable work which gives Parliament a ready and respected source of reference on secondary powers and whether they are appropriate—

Earl Russell

My Lords, am I right in believing that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham, under the previous government, as was the Moses Room procedure?

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, it is certainly being reinforced by the present Government. With regard to Statements, the number made by Ministers in this Government is comparable to previous ones. At the outset of this Parliament there were, indeed, noises from the Opposition that the Government were offering too many Statements.

Additionally, the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly will not be a restriction on our parliamentary democracy but an extension of our nation's democracy. And when the English regions have assemblies, that again will be a further extension of our nation's democracy. These are the means of taking democracy to the people and for representatives to be more accountable to those who elect them.

I do not have a great deal of time, but I wish to draw to the attention of the House the fact that under successive Tory governments there was a failure to consult Parliament over many issues. Action was taken and business was conducted through the media and by way of Statements. Suffice it to say, there are a number of examples such as the Gordon Downey Report, the basic pension plus, the Scott Report, the egg industry support, the Guildford and Woolwich bombings, the community care White Paper and the poll tax fiasco. All are on record. There has been much discussion of them in the other place and the Speaker has made reference to them on occasions.

I know that perfection there is not. But the record of this Government in their efforts to increase and extend democracy, to modernise and make more effective our parliamentary procedures and to establish greater accountability to the British people in just one year far exceeds anything done by the government supported by noble Lords opposite during the long, long 18 years they were in office.

4.25 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, reminded me of the contributions we used to hear from the old Labour Back Benches in days gone by. Perhaps he will forgive my saying so. In view of the way he expressed himself, I do not believe he should have said that the Opposition had "gone over the top" in raising these important constitutional matters. I believe that my noble friend Lord Cranborne has done a valuable service by raising them. These matters are fundamental to our parliamentary democracy.

Before referring to them, I pay tribute to both maiden speakers. My noble friend Lord Biffen, spoke with the advantage of distinguished and wide experience not only as a Member of another place but in the Cabinet, in not too distant times. He made a scintillating speech after being a Member of your Lordships' House for one year. I hope that he will not delay his next speech for another year.

My noble friend Lord Dartmouth adds to your Lordships' House the kind of experience and expertise which makes the House so valuable. He referred to the victory of the Labour Party last year and said that it was the greatest since 1945. In fact, it was the biggest landslide victory since 1906. I am glad he mentioned that because it is the factor which dominates the present constitutional situation. We can learn a lot from what happened in 1945 when I was first elected to another place. Although the Labour landslide was not quite so large as last year's, the party was led by Mr. Clement Attlee who confessed himself to be a Fabian Socialist, one who wants socialism to come gradually. In four-and-a-half years, with Mr. Attlee as Prime Minister, the Labour Government rushed through as much nationalisation and state control as could be done in that time. One wonders why Clem Attlee put up with it and why he did not resign. Almost certainly it was because he knew that if he did resign he would be replaced by some extreme socialist.

I invite your Lordships to apply that example by analogy to the present situation. The Prime Minister is said to be a very moderate socialist; in fact, we have heard him described as a crypto-Tory. I have no doubt that he is moderate by socialist standards. That is why he conceived the idea of New Labour, and this purports to be a New Labour Government. But the landslide resulted in a vast number of "Old Labour" Members being elected to Parliament, and sooner or later they may try to force his hand by getting him to put the clock back, to a greater or lesser extent, to accord with their view of socialism. That would be anathema to Mr. Blair, I believe.

The landslide was due really—let us face it—to the first-past-the-post system. It occurred in spite of the fact that the New Labour Party got fewer votes on 1st May last year than the Conservative Party got in 1992, five years previously, but which gave it only a very moderate majority. That is one of the strange ways in which the first-past-the-post system has worked.

This extreme landslide may be the reason why the Prime Minister is now keen to have proportional representation of some kind and why he has appointed a bunch of people under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who, as a Liberal Democrat, is committed to proportional representation in one form or another. Meanwhile of course that will not stop Old Labour from asserting itself. We shall have to be very vigilant in this House when it tries to force the Government to do things which the more moderate Mr. Blair may not wish to do. It is a strange thought that we may have to come to the support of the Prime Minister, but it would not surprise me if that happened.

I come to the important part to be taken by your Lordships in present circumstances under our constitution. We all accept that the democratically elected House of Commons is answerable to the people and must therefore have the last word on decisions taken by Parliament. However, it is essential—it is vital—that your Lordships should have the opportunity with your independence (and I mean being independent of, and above, party politics) of putting the national interest first. Whatever our party may be—and if we belong to no party it is perhaps much easier—we should have the opportunity to get the Government and the House of Commons to think again.

When the last government were in power, some of us, although Conservatives and keen supporters of the government, never hesitated to vote against the government if and when it seemed to be in the national interest to do so. I was MP for Huntingdonshire for 34 years until we got a much better Member who became Prime Minister in eleven and a half years, which is a record in this century. Once, at a great gathering in Huntingdon when he was Prime Minister he teased me by asking why I had voted against the government a number of times. The answer that I gave him was, "I felt obliged to do so to save the government from their mistakes" but I added, I hope tactfully, that they were not always mistakes made by Ministers. They were sometimes the mistakes of civil servants and others who advised them—mistakes which Ministers were too busy to detect. It is a fact that in the vast mass of legislation during recent years Ministers have not always been able to master all the detail for which they are responsible.

During our 18 years in power your Lordships made about 2,000 amendments a Session on average when you asked the Government and the House of Commons to think again, and 98 per cent. of those amendments were accepted year by year. I ask the Government to bear that in mind, and I particularly invite the attention of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, to this because his performances, if I may say so, from the Front Bench—and he has a tremendous load put upon him—are something which we very much admire. We appreciate the open-mindedness he so often displays. However, I would ask him on behalf of the Government to bear in mind that all that would not have happened if this House had been democratically elected, by whatever means, whether directly or indirectly, or if a majority of it had been democratically elected, because, if so, we would have become a mere party political rubber stamp for another place. That is something that must be avoided in the years to come.

There are no Scottish or Welsh Conservative Members of Parliament in the other place but a highly representative gathering of Peers exists in this House who know Scotland and Wales well. They have a special responsibility. I hope that the Government will bear that also in mind.

4.36 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, this promises to be a great reforming Parliament but it is important nevertheless for us not just to implement reforms but to pause and reflect at regular intervals and to ponder what of the old is having to yield to the imperatives of the new. It is for this reason that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, is to be congratulated on initiating this debate.

The Motion draws attention to the growing ministerial practice of announcing policies outside Parliament. That is not unique to the present Government, as has been pointed out. It is a practice which started long before and was caused eventually by the advent of television news and the need to catch lunchtime headlines. The remedy perhaps lies with Parliament itself in adopting sensible working hours with morning sittings.

There is, however, a much deeper problem. Much is said, usually in nostalgic if not atavistic terms, about the increasing threats to the sovereignty of Parliament. Usually such things are said in relation to the European Union or, more recently and indeed in speeches today, about the consequences for Westminster following the creation of a Scottish parliament and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland. I, for one, am not worried about what I regard as these wholly welcome developments. They are long overdue reforms which, for the most part, bring the twin but conflicting principles of efficiency and democracy into a better and more modern set of arrangements.

I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to a more recent and growing phenomenon, which seriously constrains Parliament's ability, in the words of the Motion, to scrutinise and control the actions of the executive". I refer to the remorseless creation of a plethora of what have come to be known as quangos and other such para-state agencies. They are designed to make government more efficient by introducing flexibility and expertise into its workings. They are part and parcel of the modernisation of government and, as such, are to be accepted as a practical necessity. Nevertheless they do pose very real problems for democratic accountability. The mushroom growth of such agencies under the previous government made it almost impossible to render them systematically accountable and to keep track of their activities.

This growth continues apace under the present Government. We should note, however, that there have been some perceptible mutations away from quangos in favour of what are now styled variously as task forces, review bodies and so on. They are fast becoming one of the distinguishing features of the present government.

The phenomenon is, of course, all part and parcel of the discretionary role of ministerial action. They offer flexibility, secrecy if necessary, and are governed by few known rules, all of which can be circumvented if it suits Ministers or officials. Scarcely anything is known about the roles and functions of these review bodies—for example, how members are appointed, how long lived they are, how they fit in with central and local government, how open they will be and how they are to be made accountable.

We do not even know how many there are; nor do the Government. In February, the Government issued a list of 164 bodies (112 "reviews", 29 "task forces", 12 "groups" and 10 "exercises" described severally as "working parties", "forums" or "audits". The thesaurus is exhausted.) Professor Tony Barker of Essex University and Mr. Stuart Weir, director of the think tank Democratic Audit, also based at Essex University, have assiduously detected a further 63 bodies, making a working total of 227. That is not stop press news, it has doubtless increased since then.

As I have indicated, I am not a constitutional Bourbon. I accept the need for augmenting existing Civil Service expertise and government capacity, the better to improve policy making. However, the scrutiny of the activities of these proliferating bodies is increasingly difficult. Perhaps we need to invent some protocols governing them, including regularly updated lists. There may also be some merit in incorporating the American device of so-called "sunset laws", whereby such bodies automatically cease to exist after a specified time, unless formally reconstituted for a further set period.

The modern in me accepts the rise of these para-state agencies as necessary and expedient: the ancient in me does not hark back, calling for a renewal of traditional conventions—even if that were practical—no, the ancient in me calls for the creation of new devices designed to ensure a relevant system of checks and balances in our parliamentary arrangements. As the German philosopher Thomas Mann once sagely remarked, form is no mere formality".

4.41 p.m.

Lord Dean of Harptree

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition for introducing this immensely important debate on the future of parliamentary government. My noble friend said that Parliament is under threat. I should like to give your Lordships a few examples of where I believe that to be the case.

The first is ministerial statements of great importance being made outside Parliament rather than within Parliament itself. Successive Speakers of the House of Commons have had cause to reprimand Ministers for this. I admit that it sometimes happened under the previous government; there were occasional lapses from parliamentary rectitude. But in this case the Government seem to be making a habit of it. It is fundamental to the principles of our constitution that the Government are accountable to Parliament, that the Government must retain the confidence of Parliament and that the Government can be dismissed by Parliament. Parliament cannot do its constitutional job effectively if it is going to be bypassed in that way. Of course, that applies both ways. If the authority of Parliament is undermined, then the Government lose their firm base and their legitimacy.

The second development that worries me is the proposal from another place for the carry-over of government Bills from one Session to another. I realise that the original proposal has been somewhat modified, but I still believe that it will be bad for Parliament. One of the most effective checks that Parliament has on the Executive is that if the Government cannot get their Bill through by the end of the Session, that Bill falls. That is an immensely important power and I would very much regret it if we were to see Parliament surrendering it. Further, it is good discipline for the Government to know that their time is limited. If we were to have carry-over as a principle, there is a risk that Governments would be tempted to introduce still more legislation in the knowledge that if they could not get their Bills through by the end of the Session, they could always carry them over to the next. Surely we want fewer and better Bills, not more.

My noble friend Lord Renton, who spoke a moment ago, paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. I should like to echo that tribute. Indeed, the noble Lord treats the House with great courtesy and pays keen attention to all points that are made. He is also able to cover a wide range of issues. Therefore, on this point, I wonder whether the noble Lord will give the House an assurance that when a proposal like that for a carry-over system, which affects both Houses individually, is brought forward, there will be adequate consultation with this House before any changes are made. I suggest that the proposal should go before the Procedure Committee of our House, that the committee should report on the matter and then, if necessary, that there should be a debate before any changes are made. I am glad to see that the noble Lord is nodding his head. I hope that that means that there will be a favourable response in due course.

Another point which worries me is the recent use of the guillotine in another place for constitutional Bills. It has been a strong convention for a great many years—certainly since the Attlee Government immediately after the war—that the Committee stage of constitutional Bills in the other place should take place on the Floor of the House, without a guillotine. That convention has been broken by the Government as regards both the Scottish and the Welsh Bill. I know that the noble Lord will probably say that the Opposition agreed to it. However, the Opposition had no choice. They realised that, had they not agreed to those Bills being guillotined, there was a very good chance that an even tougher guillotine would have been forced through by the huge majority that the Government have in another place. I greatly regret that this important parliamentary safeguard with regard to constitutional Bills has been removed. I fear the worst; namely, that it will now be used as a precedent for other constitutional Bills.

It is not, of course, all gloom as far as concerns Parliament; indeed, there have been some good developments in recent years. We now have an increasing number of Green Papers and White Papers being presented to Parliament, which gives us an opportunity for debate before government policy is crystallized. In another place there was the reform of the Select Committee procedures in 1979 which has meant that many of these Select Committees are now as effective in influencing the Government and public opinion as Select Committees in your Lordships' House.

I also welcome the fact that we are now developing pre-legislation procedures in that the Government are introducing draft Bills. I believe that these are all to be welcomed because they allow for debate before Bills are actually set in concrete. However—and this is a bad point—in recent years we have seen skeleton Bills increasingly being introduced, and so-called Henry VIII clauses—regulation-making powers in the hands of Ministers. For today's circumstances, I admit that some of those developments are probably inevitable, although they are regrettable.

I have the privilege of serving on the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. However, in what I am about to say, I speak purely for myself and not for the committee or, indeed, for our chairman, who is to speak shortly. In the face of those developments, I believe that we need to tighten up the procedures for earlier scrutiny. This is a matter which I hope will be considered by both Houses. I say that because it concerns both Houses, and I believe that there would be a very valuable development in this respect if both Chambers were to look at such propositions together.

As has been mentioned on a number of occasions, particularly from these Benches, the present Government's attitude to Parliament is disturbing. The Government have a huge majority in another place. As my noble friend Lord Renton said, that means the role of this House is that much greater. We certainly do not want a quango dependent on the patronage of the Prime Minister and shorn of an independent element. We were ticked off by the noble Lord the Leader of the House for resurrecting the phrase, "an elective dictatorship". If we are to avoid an elective dictatorship, we need a one-stage reform which will produce a House which is strengthened and invigorated to enable it to play its traditional role in the checks and balances of parliamentary government.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, the review committee chaired by Lord Home of the Hirsel reported in March 1978 that the provision of some measure of constitutional protection and safeguard was one of the functions of your Lordships' House. That is perhaps part of the value of our House to the nation, as was expressed in the masterly speech of the noble Earl, Lord Longford.

Whilst associating myself with personal tributes that have been paid to certain noble Lords opposite, I have to say that this administration is overtly authoritarian. They fail to honour the traditional relationships between government and parliament. This has been mentioned by many noble Lords, by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and in the remarkable speech of my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree. That was a most important speech on aspects of abuses of procedure, the "carry over" and the plea for earlier scrutiny.

The Government seek to use delegated legislation to create an unprecedented ministerial power. They have adopted the presidential style of bypassing Parliament. That is deviant from the traditions of our constitutional monarchy under the Queen in Parliament. Although as yet there is no imposition of absolute power—as under the reign of King Henry VIII—we are moving in that direction, as we are reminded from time to time by the Select Committee of your Lordships' House. One of the problems is that even in debate in your Lordships' House the manifesto myth and the electoral landslide are often invoked as justification. Does one not detect a whiff of arrogance somewhat reminiscent of that ill-fated and much regretted vaunt of triumph, "We are the masters now"?

A most disturbing feature of this new style of governance—that is what it is—is resort to primary legislation to create by regulation a nebulous ambit of ministerial power to impose the will of government in the light of circumstances as they evolve. This is in total derogation from the authority of Parliament and it inhibits the ability of Parliament to scrutinise and control actions of the Executive. For it is common ground that examination of regulations is all but perfunctory in another place. In your Lordships' House the custom is to decline to exercise our entitlement to pray against, amend or reject secondary legislation—a situation worthy of reappraisal on any proposals for reform for at present there is no effective parliamentary control or scrutiny. As my noble friend Lord Biffen said in his remarkable and authoritative maiden speech, control of the power of government is essential for democracy. This lack of control over the Executive is compounded by a wholly misplaced reliance upon an opinion of the Appellate Committee of your Lordships' House in Pepper v. Hart which is ill used for a purpose for which it was not intended. Ministerial assurances are offered as to how regulations may be implemented, in substitution for the drafting in primary legislation of the nature, purpose and scope of delegated powers. I hope your Lordships will allow me to mention a pretty horrifying example.

On 5th May in the Committee stage of the Fireworks Bill, my noble friend Lord Renton—the mildest and most measured of men—was constrained to say that he had never seen a Bill like this during his 53 years in Parliament, save in time of national emergency. He said that the Bill was without precedent. The Bill defined "fireworks" with reference to a specification; would-be fireworks were not defined. It was stated that this definition, or non-definition—which governed a whole panoply of diverse regulations; eight of them in that skeleton Bill—could be amended by regulation subject to annulment. That is a gross abuse. Naturally amendments were tabled to rectify that state of affairs. The amendments were opposed by the Government, who supported the Bill as drafted. They gave a ministerial assurance that this power to amend primary legislation by regulation is, a power that we should expect to exercise only narrowly to make marginal adjustments to reflect the understanding at the time of what a firework is … this power would be used only in the most restricted circumstances".—[Official Report, 5/5/98; col. 562.] Such verbiage has no meaning. It lacks legal efficacy. It affords no protection to the subject as the courts are obliged to implement regulations unless ultra vires. It serves as no substitute for the proper drafting of primary legislation under which delegated, ministerial power is conferred.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, must have his fun and that is fair enough, but the reason he had his fun, using the concept of the elective dictatorship, is because he knows that now the prophetic wisdom of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, in this regard has come home to roost under this administration.

4.59 p.m.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, under the terms of the Motion of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, we are today discussing, Parliament's place at the centre of the nation's affairs". That is why I welcome the noble Viscount's decision on behalf of the Opposition to introduce this debate today. I regard that as crucially important to democracy.

That said, I hope that the noble Viscount will not think me unkind if in his absence I describe his speech as similar to a sermon by Satan on sin. It is almost as though this were the only Government in history who leaked aspects of policy to the press before Parliament was informed. That has been going on almost since the day Parliament was created. I do not condone it, but it has become built into the parliamentary procedures and democracy of this country.

On the basis that confession is good for the soul, the noble Viscount confessed that in government his party had neglected local government. I wish that were true. Far from neglecting local government, the past government damaged local government almost to the point of destroying it. Anyone who examines the record will be clear in his mind that the Greater London Council, for example, being seen as a threat to government, was abolished. The metropolitan counties throughout England were seen as a threat to government and were abolished. Legislation was introduced for anything seen as a threat to the Conservative Government of that time and the threat was abolished. The substantial reduction in the powers of the trade union movement was in order to remove what the government at that time saw as a threat.

Noble Lords opposite have referred to the question of Scotland and Wales. Although I am interested in Scotland, I shall not refer to that issue because we shall have an opportunity to deal with the Scottish position in some detail after the Whitsun Recess. I was interested to note that almost every noble Lord who spoke in the debate gave the impression that Parliament is only about the Government. Parliament is not only about the Government; it is about the Opposition too.

I understand that noble Lords opposite do not wish to mention the Opposition. If I were part of that Conservative Opposition, I should keep it as quiet as I could. It is the weakest and worst-led Opposition that we have had in parliamentary democracy since the Second World War. It is one of the great problems for Parliament at present. If anyone wants an example of the weakness of the Opposition, he need look no further than yesterday. Over three consecutive days, there has been a great build up on the radio as to how the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Howard, was going to destroy the Foreign Secretary on Sierra Leone. Yesterday the Shadow Foreign Secretary was wiped away like crumbs from the rich man's table. That is one of the best examples of the weakness of the Opposition. As we say in Scotland, "Put your own house in order before you start trying to tidy up anyone else's mansion". The Opposition, too, have a role in parliamentary democracy.

That brings me to my abiding interest on the relationship between the Back-Benches of both Houses and the Executive. For the past 25 years the Executive has had a stranglehold on Parliament. We have to consider how that came about. When I came to Parliament in the early 1970s, Back-Benchers could table two Oral Questions to government Ministers. The net effect was that groups got together using one of those Questions to conduct campaigns and the other for constituency issues. But that became a problem for the Government. The 1970–74 Conservative Government abolished that system.

When I came to Parliament, one could ask the Speaker of the House of Commons to count the House. If there were not 40 MPs in the House of Commons, the Government lost their business for the whole day. But that became a problem for the Government, so the Conservative Government abolished it.

When I came to Parliament, the quorum on any committee was 13, not including the chairman. It was easy to have a committee adjourned because there was no quorum. But that became a problem for the Government, so the Conservative Government reduced the quorum from 13 not including the chairman to 6 including the chairman. With a government Bill one had two Ministers for the department responsible for the Bill, and a Scottish or Welsh Minister. With three Ministers, one Whip, the chairman and one ambitious Back-Bencher—I have no complaints about anyone with ambition, and there was no shortage of ambitious Back-Benchers—one had one's quorum. Almost everything that became a problem for the Conservative Government was changed by them. So the relationship between the Back-Benches and the Executive was weakened considerably.

Having divided noble Lords, perhaps I can bring us all together again. It is in all our interests that Back-Benchers in both Houses of Parliament are given back their former powers in order to call to account the Executive on any occasion when that is necessary. Noble Lords may ask, "What about the Select Committees?" I recall a debate in another place when Select Committees were being established. Those of us who were not in favour of them argued that they would become a battle between the civil servants on the one hand and members of the Select Committee on the other. That is precisely what happened. The power and effect of the Select Committees was completely nullified because of the expertise and continuity involved.

I hesitate to mention this matter with the rumours of reshuffles, but Ministers do not last in perpetuity. However, civil servants seem to last a fair number of years. The battle between the Select Committees and the Civil Service has been damaging to the relationship between the Back-Benches and the Executive.

In conclusion, I am strongly in favour of the Motion calling attention to the need to restore Parliament to the centre of this country's affairs. But we have to find ways and means of doing so. There is no point in criticising the Government because they have a large majority; the people gave them a large majority. Perhaps I may say this to the noble Lord, Lord Renton. I suspect that the reason Clem Attlee never thought of resigning was that he was desperate to have the legislation creating the National Health Service on the statute book. We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Health Service, introduced by the Labour Government of which Clem Attlee was Prime Minister. I mention that as an aside because the noble Lord, Lord Renton, referred to it.

We have to return to a more civilised relationship between the Back-Benches and the Executive; and we have to find ways and means of doing so.

5.8 p.m.

Lord Alexander of Weedon

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition for initiating the debate. I admire the way in which he consistently upholds the role of Parliament in our society. From my personal dealings with him on behalf of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee I know the importance he attaches to parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, and his encouragement, support and backing within government were of the highest value to the work of the committee. I am glad that the trend he set has been endorsed by the similarly highly supportive approach which his successor as Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, takes to the work of our committee.

I believe that all of us would readily accept, simply as a proposition, that Parliament ought to be at the centre of the affairs of the nation. We may not have a formal constitution, but we would subscribe to the importance of the three-fold separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary. We tend to vaunt particularly our doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament. But the reality is markedly different. The modern system in which general elections are increasingly presidential, and where the parties within the House of Commons are heavily whipped, has brought us very close in recent years to the "elective dictatorship" against which my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham rightly warned us 20 years ago.

I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, describe the Executive as having "a stranglehold" on Parliament. That trend was noticeable during at least two parliaments of the previous Conservative administration, and has never been more marked than since the last election. It is reflected in the slightly muted and unreal spirit in which the work of this House is currently conducted. Noble Lords know that they may argue powerfully and convincingly, and sometimes successfully, in favour of amendments to legislation. However, there is something of an air of unreality about it all. For it is widely recognised that such amendments will, whatever their merits, generally be reversed by the Government using their juggernaut majority in the House of Commons. That devalues the work of this House, and the very ability of a government fiat to command the will of the legislature shows that Parliament has become ever less independent, ever less influential.

The erosion of meaningful parliamentary checks on the Executive increasingly leaves our independent and able judiciary as the sole check on the misuse of power. That is one reason why I supported the incorporation into our domestic law of the European Convention on Human Rights. I pay tribute to the skill, determination and promptness with which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor piloted the Bill through this House.

There is obviously a good deal that can be done to improve the work of the House of Commons. Recognition of that by the modernisation committee is welcome. Not least is the scrutiny of legislation. We in this House know how much legislation has come to us in the past relatively poorly thought out and ill-digested. The proposals first made by Mr. John Major when Prime Minister for greater pre-legislative consultation and scrutiny are valuable. The trend towards early consultation must ensure better considered legislation. Indeed, that is recognised in the deregulation Act, which provides for widespread prior consultation by government departments before ever a deregulation proposal is put forward for scrutiny by both Houses of Parliament. That procedure works well and merits wider use in pre-legislative scrutiny. I agree with every word said on this point by my noble friend Lord Dean.

Clearly, too, the way in which the House of Commons is composed determines its representative quality and the vigour of its work. However, I do not want to say much about that today. I am a member of the Independent Commission on Voting Reform—which has been quaintly described by my noble friend Lord Renton as, "this bunch of people"—chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. Our task is not to decide—I emphasise "not" to decide—whether there should be an alternative voting system. That is rightly for the people to decide. Our role is the more limited one of making recommendations as to the best form of alternative voting system, taking into account various criteria including broad proportionality and extension of voter choice. The intention, as I understand it, is that voters will then, through a referendum, decide whether they prefer that there should be change or that the existing system should be kept. The arguments will no doubt be strong and vigorous both ways. But what is important is that the people should be given a clear opportunity to decide how they want the Parliament, which after all represents them, to be made up.

Perhaps I may say a few words in conclusion about the long-trailed proposals for reform of this House. Change has been talked about for most of this century, and was famously foreshadowed in the Parliament Act 1910. It now seems to be high on the agenda and contemplated in earnest. I find it an immense privilege to take even a small part in the work of this House. A lot of valuable work is done here, particularly in the traditional role of the House as a revising Chamber. This work has proved remarkably durable in the 130 years that have passed since Walter Bagehot described the House as "a second-rate force".

But it seems increasingly hard, and I sense that at least some colleagues feel this, to sustain the notion of a second Chamber with a large element of hereditary membership. Nor is it easy to see how a Chamber which has in practice an inbuilt Conservative majority, whatever the complexion of the party in power, can carry long-term credibility. So I favour some change precisely in order to legitimise, underpin and support the work of this House.

What I do not like is the apparently piecemeal, or indeed salami slicing, approach to change. As I understand it, the likelihood is that the Government will seek to abolish the voting rights of hereditary Peers, but will not at the same time enact a total package for the revised composition of the House. I find that wholly unsatisfactory. I believe that the right course for the good of this House would be for a joint committee of all parties and Cross-Benchers to be working constructively together to come forward with all the changes that are needed to strengthen our work. However, I get the impression that neither the Government nor my own Front Bench are particularly keen to engage in such discussion. I am glad to see my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition indicating that I may have it wrong—because what I should like to suggest to the Leader of the House is that any failure to have a joint committee working on a package is deeply disappointing, and I passionately believe that it is wrong.

In the past, fine statesmen such as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Earl, Lord Home, were able to come forward constructively with a package which would have enabled valuable change to be made at a single stroke. We need that vision, and we need that wisdom now. I do not believe that it is for the good of this House to have a Bill that simply abolishes the voting rights of hereditary Peers and does not decide what to put in its place. Surely, every single one of us would agree that the importance of the proper composition and role of this House far transcends party politics.

If that is so, I would ask the Leader of the House—and perhaps the noble Lord the Minister will respond to this point, as he always responds directly to points put to him—to ask the Liaison Committee now to establish a committee of this House to come forward with a comprehensive package of reforms. I am encouraged from the indications given by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition during this debate to feel that he would place his authority and the strength of view of our party behind that approach.

This is an immensely important topic. The future is precious. Let us have a sensible way of deciding it once and for all.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, I have never fully understood the workings of the "usual channels" in arranging lists of speakers. However, I note that, whatever the subject, I am always the 15th speaker. That gives me considerable latitude in deciding with which noble Lords I will disagree. On this occasion the choice is marked.

I shall begin, if I may, with the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, who referred to his belief that the Opposition in another place were extremely weak. I do not believe that he can have attended in recent times Prime Minister's Questions. If he had, he would have seen Mr. William Hague run rings around Mr. Tony Blair. That is not surprising since Mr. William Hague secured a first-class degree and Mr. Blair a second. Though I have no commitment to Papal infallibility, the infallibility of the Oxford examiners is unquestionable.

Again, because I do not wish to make this an occasion for party dispute, I disagree with my noble friend Lord Renton. My noble friend seems to be worried that under the façade—or whatever it may be called—of New Labour there lurks the monstrosity of socialist old Labour. I disagree with my noble friend, because if I had to choose between old Labour and New Labour, my sympathies would undoubtedly be with old Labour. In every advanced democratic society there ought to be a party which puts at the forefront of its consideration the betterment of the less well off. That, whether or not one agrees with the methods, was the prime moving force that created the old Labour party.

The trouble is—this is why I link this with the problem of New Labour—that we do not know what New Labour is all about. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, referred to a seminar in Downing Street at which the Prime Minister was interrogating various second-rate dons and chaps from think-tanks in order to discover what it was all about. I would rather he had the company of dons than drug-addicted pop stars, so that is an improvement. But after a year in government the Prime Minister ought to know what it is all about.

That leads me to a suspicion that there is indeed a governing idea; but the idea does not relate to matters of policy, foreign or domestic. It relates solely to changes in the constitutional structure which would guarantee a permanent Labour Government.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to the golden age of mid-Victorian Britain. However, he may agree that if we take a slightly longer stretch of Victorian history—say from the first reform Act to the second—we will find that it was a period of great change, with many important reforms in our constitutional, administrative, domestic and social arrangements. All of those were the fruit of long and continuous debates in the House of Commons. Nothing was rushed. Items would appear on the agenda and be put back for a year or two while the House and the people became accustomed to the notion. What worries me about the present spate of constitutional reforms is that what in the Victorian age was put into a generation we are asked to accept within a matter of 12 months.

It may well be that the Prime Minister—I can see his difficulty—does not have a House of Commons which could, in the same way as the Victorian House of Commons, criticise, debate and consider issues of policy which demand a certain degree of intellectual concentration and perhaps a certain amount of time. As several noble Lords mentioned—I believe the noble Lord, Lord Davies, was the first—the House of Commons, as it is now constituted, was constituted by a landslide. What happens in a landslide? As we saw on television, in tragic circumstances, it deposits a great deal of mud. Looking at the Government Benches, as I frequently do—I spent two hours yesterday in preparation for this debate watching the House of Commons proceedings—one can see that not all Members would figure prominently in the kind of House which was available to the noble Earl's ancestors.

So these changes are made and they are dressed up in different ways, including, I must say to my noble friend Lord Alexander of Weedon, the disastrous notion of proportional representation in any form. In my lifetime I have seen two results of proportional representation which no one can doubt. It killed the Weimar Republic and brought Hitler to power; and recently it killed the peace process in the Middle East and put us all on the verge of another war in that region. I should have thought that by now people would think that proportional representation was to be avoided like the plague.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will the noble Lord consider the possibility that the disasters to which he referred, especially in Germany, are the result of a large anti-democratic party? That is disastrous in any system of representation, whether proportional or otherwise.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, I did not batch the full import of the noble Earl's question. Will he kindly repeat it?

Earl Russell

My Lords, I was asking the noble Lord to consider that what happened in Germany was a result of a large anti-democratic party and not of its system of proportional representation.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, clearly if there had been no Nazi party it would not have been able to come into power. But what made it impossible for democratic leaders in the Weimar Republic—I was in Germany at the time in the Weimar Republic and these matters are within my memory—was the fact that they could not, because of the proportional system, assemble a stable government to deal with the admittedly serious problems of that time.

Unlike the Leader of the House, I have considered in detail what Mr. Mandelson said. It illustrates my point exactly. If we believe in focus groups, citizens' juries, the odd plebiscite and the odd this and that, we are trying to build up a system of power in which a single party will nominate all those people, control their membership and decide their agenda. In fact, we are making way for what I believe to be the purpose of New Labour; that is, New Labour indefinitely prolonged.

5.28 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate, which everybody will agree is important and topical. I believe that openness in government is of paramount importance and I believe that to be the view also of the Government. That includes openness in relation to Parliament.

The promise of transparency and openness was one of the pledges made to the electorate at the time of the general election. Despite some difficulties, the Government have honestly sought to carry that out. And in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said, devolution was intended to widen and deepen democratic participation. It was thought about and discussed for many months, indeed years, before being put into the party manifesto. As for referenda, they are intended not to replace Parliament but to add to the parliamentary process.

Of course, there has been a rather different view expressed today from the Opposition, notably by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. It was expected that the Opposition would make much of Sierra Leone. And not just today; the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, rather went over the top, if I may use that phrase again, when moving an amendment to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill last night. What his speech had to do with the amendment was rather difficult to see. However, I would emphasise that we are still at the stage of allegations being tossed about, and we have been promised an inquiry—in fact, two inquiries. I should have thought it advisable to postpone judgment until those have taken place.

Certainly, when in government, the Opposition took that view in relation to a number of embarrassing incidents in which their Ministers were involved. One has only to recall the affair of "arms for Iraq" and the "Pergau Dam affair". I remember so well how we queued up for our copies of the report of the Scott Inquiry—queued up at the Printed Paper Office for our copies of the massive report only to find that there was hardly any time to digest its contents before the debate took place. That was scarcely an example, I should have thought, of open government.

There has been an attempt in some newspapers to compare the call for an ethical foreign policy with the Conservative disaster of Back to Basics. In fact, the problem for the former government was that Back to Basics ran against the grain of public thinking at the time. Young people in particular made it clear that they were not having politicians telling them how to run their private lives, which was how it was widely interpreted. Then, when several MPs were caught out behaving in much the same way as large numbers of the public do anyway, including, probably, the journalists who were reporting, it simply gave the media a field day pursuing those unfortunate individuals, and the policy, if that is what it was, collapsed.

The attempt to follow an ethical foreign policy is, however, a very different matter. Very few people would quarrel with that as an aim. It is a popular objective and a start has been made with the ban on land mines. There are and will be difficulties. Situations are rarely black and white. There will be hard choices. Nothing could apparently be more unethical than the arms trade—the sale of arms often to leaders and governments of doubtful legitimacy—and the pursuit of an ethical policy could perhaps sometimes damage employment prospects in this country. Nevertheless, the aim is an entirely laudable one and I should have thought that the Opposition would have been fully in support of it.

It is not easy to bring some openness into the job of governing and legislating, particularly when the culture has clearly been somewhat different in the past, and restoring the powers of Parliament which have been undermined in the ways indicated so graphically by my noble friend Lord Ewing in his remarkable speech. But a start really does seem to have been made. In the other place there are proposals for explanatory memoranda to Bills to include Notes on Clauses and for some Bills to be drafted in advance and laid in the Session before they are debated to allow for greater pre-legislative scrutiny. Everyone has been demanding that there should be much more detailed scrutiny. Surely that is a good idea. The Select Committees have been strengthened, as my noble friend Lord Davies of Coity said, and Cabinet Ministers appear before them more frequently. There has been a greater number of Statements, with the Government utilising them as a means of giving more immediate information to Parliament. These are moves which everyone should welcome.

We live in an era when the media have become all powerful. There has been a cultural change in the past 10 or 15 years. There is enormous competition for readers leading to a constant search for sensationalism. Much of the low esteem in which politicians of all parties are said to be held by the public derives from the way in which what is done is filtered through the media. As we all know only too well, the reporting of what is actually done in Parliament has now diminished until it is practically non-existent. That used not to be the case. Nowadays, the press is interested in disputes, rifts, sensations, scandals affecting individuals and not much else. That makes the job of government very difficult.

In the circumstances, I think the present Government seem to be doing rather well. They clearly still retain their popularity and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister seems to have kept his amazing lead in the polls. In ways that I believe to be important, he has refused to be blown off course by attempts in the press to rubbish certain of his Ministers. His predecessor famously declared that he would not let the tabloids choose his Cabinet and then he seemed to do precisely that, since resignations often followed some alleged exposure in the press. The present Prime Minister clearly will make up his own mind about the competence of his Ministers and will not allow the press to dictate to him as a result of campaigns of character assassination. Anyone who cares about the dignity of Parliament should commend him on that. The Opposition certainly should.

So, my Lords, the Government have made a good start. They continue to deserve their popularity.

5.35 p.m.

Baroness Blotch

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cranborne for initiating this debate. My noble friend has a record on both Front Benches in this House and in my view has gained the respect of the whole House.

Representative democracy and accountability are endangered species under the present Government. We are witnessing on a daily basis serial abuse of the authority of Parliament and it is becoming endemic. I make no apologies for repeating the quotation used by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition of Mr. Mandelson when he said: It may be that the era of representative democracy is coming slowly to an end". He also said: Democracy and legitimacy may be crucial concepts in political theory but they are not the common currency of the practising politician". There is no doubt in my mind that those comments throw just a little light on the Government's real agenda.

The Government have a tendency to avoid taking policy decisions by instead using plebiscites and referenda, a technique used either by weak governments who wish to avoid making hard choices or governments who wish to use such devices to avoid addressing the detail of policy, where we all know the devil resides, and to sideline Parliament and the parliamentary process. We are also witnessing the sidelining of the Civil Service by resorting to the use of an unprecedented number of political advisers.

The use of pre-legislative referenda, the prolific use of Henry VIII clauses and the presentation to Parliament of skeletal Bills resulting in discussions and deliberations taking place in a vacuum are now daily occurrences. Examples include the referendum Bills for Scotland and Wales, the devolution Bills for Scotland and Wales, the Competition Bill, the National Minimum Wage Bill, the Teaching and Higher Education Bill and, more recently, the Social Security Bill where the Government inserted a whole new section on national insurance and taxation at Third Reading in this place which denied Committee and Report stage discussions in this place and Committee, Report and Third Reading stages in another place. My noble friend Lord Higgins has done an outstanding job by exposing the objectionable practice of inserting what he described as a Bill within a Bill at such a late stage in the procedure. More than 160 amendments will be presented to the House of Commons, including this Bill within a Bill, which will have an extremely limited time to give full and proper consideration to such important issues.

The scrutiny report on the School Standards and Framework Bill, already referred to, was the most severe that the committee has produced to date. Although only one recommendation of the report has been accepted by the Government, perhaps I may repeat the question posed by my noble friend Lord Cranborne. Will the Minister give an undertaking that each of the recommendations will be accepted and will be acted upon?

When in government, my party, and I as a part of that party on the Front Bench opposite, honoured every single recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. Indeed, I am on record as saying that as a Minister I found the scrutiny reports incredibly helpful not only to our deliberations in this House but in strengthening the hand of Ministers when dealing with civil servants in the department.

Another worrying feature of business in this House is the way in which Ministers avoid full answers to questions by professing that the subject at issue is not on their portfolio or that the subject is a matter for another parliamentary colleague and therefore not their responsibility in this House. It has been the convention of this House that when Ministers respond at the Dispatch Box they do so on behalf of the whole department and all their ministerial colleagues.

An even greater concern is the quality of Answers to Written Questions. I shall give two recent examples. I tabled Questions on two occasions for information about the number of applications for education action zone status and the nature of the leading applicant—whether it was an LEA or non-LEA interest. On both occasions I was refused the information only to discover that all the applications, in full, had been made available to a public body. I await an explanation as to why that happened. How can the Government justify such contempt of those of us in Parliament and in particular those of us who must meet our responsibilities as Members of the Official Opposition?

My other example is a Question I put to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. I join with all those on both Benches who have praised the effectiveness of the noble Lord in this House. I speak also of the occasions when I had to spar with him across the Dispatch Box when he was on the Opposition Benches. I could not have wished for more effective co-operation from an Opposition Member of this House nor could I have wished for a doughtier opponent in this House. Nevertheless, when I asked for a list of policy presentations that had been made in public in the past year and their cost I was told that to get the information would be disproportionately expensive. I merely say this: in the space of one year have there been so many without regard for costs?

It was once described to me that this Government act as though they surf on the rim of issues. Where they come across a body of opinion desirous of something they want, then the Government provide warm words and promises to respond positively. Where they come across a body of opinion disgruntled about something, promises are made either to ban and/or legislate against it as and when possible. A government can only court popularity in such a superficial way for so long. In the end hard choices have to be made and challenges have to be met.

As to House of Lords reform, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, the Lord Privy Seal, misses the point entirely. Should there be a need for reform—personally, I am not entirely convinced that that is the case—it should be approached in the context of Parliament as a whole. Assuming that there is to be a second Chamber, then its powers, functions and its relationship to another place should be determined. Then and only then the issue of composition should be addressed. Whatever is decided, the second Chamber should retain a substantial independent element.

However, what we are faced with is reform based on two things. First, this House is seen as opposition to Mr. Blair's Government and therefore it must be emasculated. Secondly, there is the long-established old Labour politics of envy. House of Lords reform is being used as a piece of raw meat—and, I might say, off the bone—to toss to the unhappy old Labour bunnies on the Benches in another place as a peace offering.

One has only to observe the serried ranks of obedient, passive, politically-neutered Members of New Labour on the Benches in another place to realise the influence of Messrs. Mandelson and Campbell on the executive. It is a matter of public record that the Prime Minister spends little of his time in Parliament. He has the poorest of voting records—another example of contempt for Parliament.

I, for one, do not underestimate what could be the outcome of the current legislative programme, skeletal, piecemeal and ill thought through though it may be. There is the dismantling of our constitution and, among other things, devolution for Scotland and Wales, London and the regions, and House of Lords reform. There is the assault on Oxford and Cambridge universities; the demise of grant-maintained schools and grammar schools; and a massive increase in bureaucracy and central control. There is the weakening of Parliament and its processes; the lessening of the influence of our Civil Service by political advisers; and the manipulation of the media—all culminating in strengthening and giving more power to No. 10 and the executive.

If that all adds up to Cool Britannia, I want nothing of it. I agree with Frederick Forsyth who said in a recent article in the Sunday Telegraph: I sniff the night wind and I smell something deeply dangerous. The source of that smell lies right at the heart of Downing Street". My appeal is, wake up Britain before it is too late!

5.45 p.m.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, I wish to concentrate on just two issues, but I shall make one or two general observations before I go into a little detail. First, I believe that it is no surprise to Members of your Lordships' House that my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition once again made the point in this Chamber that he has made outside: if the hereditary Peers are to go from this House it is incumbent on Her Majesty's Government to have an open debate on what the options for change shall be. I fervently hope that the words of my noble friend Lord Alexander of Weedon will have been taken on board by the Government Front Bench.

Secondly, the Leader of the House highlighted the fact that 51 Ministers had attended the Select Committees, presumably in the past year, and that this was a 20 per cent. improvement on the figures for the previous government. I am not here to challenge his statistics; I am sure they are right. However, I suggest to your Lordships that the interpretation which is placed on those statistics needs a little examination.

For a start, it is normal at the beginning of any Parliament for there to be a substantial number of Ministers to attend the Select Committees. I do not know whether the 20 per cent. increase was made at the beginning of those Parliaments. Furthermore, it suggests to your Lordships that if the whole drive of the communications policy of the Government is to suggest to Ministers that they should attend the Select Committees and that suggestion is put to the clerks and the chairmen of the Select Committees, it is not surprising that they are invited and they turn up. So I do not believe that one should give too much credence to the number of Ministers who have attended the Select Committees.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Surely the point is this. How can he say that we are treating Parliament with contempt when Select Committees of the House of Commons ask Ministers to attend and they do so in rather greater numbers than under the last administration? That is clearly the point.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, that is not quite the point that the noble Lord made in his introductory speech. If he wishes to change the ground on which he is now making the point, I will listen to him. But I have not made that assertion and I do not believe that the noble Lord can accuse me of having done so.

I move to another point that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, made. He said that the format of the Government making statements through the media is nothing new; all governments have done it and it is part of the normal form. Nobody in this Chamber today worked closer than I did with Madam Speaker in the previous Parliament for the whole of their five years. I admit that there were times when the previous government transgressed what was appropriate and they were duly taken to task by Madam Speaker. But the number of times they were taken to task in the whole of those five years bears no relation at all to the number of times she has had to take the present Government to task in the past 12 months.

I do not want to be party political this evening. I wish to look at two aspects of the control by Parliament of the Executive. I ask noble Lords to cast their mind back to 1983 when in another place—and it is 15 years ago now—we debated a Private Member's Bill called the Parliamentary Control of Expenditure (Reform) Bill. Noble Lords may have forgotten that Bill. It is now the National Audit Act. I had the privilege of being the Whip on that Bill. It was not a particularly easy task because—the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, will note that this aspect of the other place has not changed-100 Members are required to be present on a Friday to consider Private Members' Bills. I am pleased to report that 110 Members were got to the House on that Friday in January.

I do not need to remind any of your Lordships that for the best part of 700 years the key debate has been about who controls the expenditure of public money. I submit that until that Act was pushed through—it was piloted through the Commons by one of the current Members of your Lordships' House—the ratchet had never before been pulled back in favour of Parliament bringing the Executive to task.

That Bill established three provisions of importance. It made the Comptroller and Auditor General responsible to Parliament rather than the Executive. Secondly, it gave Parliament the right to scrutinise all—or almost all—public expenditure. The Bill as originally drafted sought the right to scrutinise all public expenditure, but a little acquiescence had to be granted to the government of the day and we lost the right to scrutinise local government expenditure to the Audit Commission and we lost the right to scrutinise the expenditure of the nationalised industries to themselves—or, rather, to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Perhaps that is not such a great loss now as there are not many nationalised industries left.

That Act regained for Parliament the opportunity to question and to audit the Executive. But that was 15 years ago, and I wonder whether the time has not now come for that to be reviewed across the Benches to see whether future reforms should be undertaken to improve the operation of that practice.

The second area where I believe that there should be joint activity relates to the nature of legislation. All of your Lordships will know as well as I do that the nature of legislation has changed. I entered Parliament in 1974. At that time, there were just over 2,000 statutory instruments to be considered each year, of which about 700 were considered by the joint committees. That in itself was a substantial task. If your Lordships look at some of the papers produced at that time, you will find that even then Members of Parliament were questioning their ability to scrutinise that number, but because governments—all governments—have found the wonderful vehicle of enabling legislation, the number of statutory instruments and pieces of secondary legislation has increased dramatically. We now have well over 3,000 statutory instruments a year, of which well over 1,000 have to be considered by the joint committees. I do not believe that the honourable Members who attend those committees, diligent as they are, are able properly to scrutinise all that is before them. I submit that we need further reform in that area.

If there is to be change, modernisation and a move to bring Parliament closer to the people or, as I think the Leader of the House said, to return power to the people, I ask as a parliamentarian whether all that activity is to help the representatives of the people—that is, the Members of Parliament in the other place—better to control the Executive or to devalue or circumnavigate the role of Parliament or to find some other way to ensure that the role of Members of Parliament is changed. I ask that because, as far as I can see, there has been no move by the present Government to improve Back-Bench control, particularly of the Executive. The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, was right to pick up that point.

We as parliamentarians forget at our peril that it is Parliament's task, primarily through Members of Parliament, but with us as a revising Chamber, to report on how well, how competently, how efficiently and how honestly that power and authority are being used by the government of the day, whoever they may be.

5.54 p.m.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie

My Lords, I begin with an apology. I hope that it is not taken as a discourtesy to your Lordships' House, but it has not been possible for me to be present throughout the debate. I have been present only intermittently and I may have to leave before the end, due to urgent personal business. I apologise for that.

I was, however, able to hear the opening speech from the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I was not surprised, but I was slightly disappointed, that the noble Viscount used his speech and this debate largely as a stick with which to beat the Government. Several other speeches have also been in that vein. There is rather more to this issue than that.

It is a pleasure, however, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, because I was present in another place on many occasions when he acted as Deputy Speaker. His knowledge of the other place is much greater than mine and I noticed that his remarks were much more measured and that he did not seek to secure party advantage.

I should like to make two basic points. First, it is unfair—indeed, it is inaccurate—to characterise this Government as one who have lessened the control of the Executive by both Houses of Parliament. It is true that there will be greater constitutional change in this Government's first Session than perhaps in any other, certainly in my lifetime. It is important for the constitution to be reinvigorated and updated. In a sense, this House has shown itself willing to participate in that process, with the recent agreement on the Ceremony of Introduction for Life Peers. That shows not only the importance of this House updating its procedures, but also that it can do so. The use of Grand Committees in the Moses Room—I was present during deliberations on the National Lottery Bill—is an important way of improving our ability to participate.

In the other place, the Government have established the first-ever Select Committee to consider modernisation. That must be welcomed. Many of the traditions of both Houses are as they have been for many years, but simply because they have always been so does not make them right as we approach the 21st century. I welcome the modernisation of our procedures.

The way in which the Executive is held to account is dependent not only on what happens in the two Houses of Parliament. It is also important that accountability is measured by the extent to which ordinary citizens of our country can participate in the process. That does not mean merely placing a cross on a ballot paper once every four or five years.

I welcome the number of referendums that have been held and the fact that there will be more. That is an important part of the process of linking the citizens of this country, or of the various countries which make up the United Kingdom, with the democratic process. There have already been such Bills on Scotland, Wales and London and we shall shortly have one on Northern Ireland.

Having been an elected Member of another place for eight years, I know that it is impossible for anybody to stand as a candidate in any election on a manifesto with which they entirely agree. The electorate is, however, offered the opportunity only to accept or reject a party's manifesto. It is all very well for a government to say, as this Government say, "We were elected on a mandate and this measure was part of the manifesto", but I remember a famous court case relating to the "fares fair- policy of the Greater London Council, as it then was, when the judge said that nobody really expects any government or any local authority to carry out what it said in its manifesto.

That approach is perhaps too cynical, but it is not possible for individuals to say, "I like this part of the party's policy, but on the other hand I am quite attracted by what another party is saying on a similar matter". It is important that on major issues, particularly constitutional issues, we have referendums to make it quite clear whether the Government have the support of the people for what may be fundamental changes. No change is more fundamental than that which was offered in my own country of Scotland, and the referendum gave it overwhelming backing.

The referendum has also invigorated the political process in Scotland. There has never been such a lively political debate in Scotland. That is largely the result of the legislation that is passing through the other place which will shortly arrive in your Lordships' House. That is an important part of it. But the very fact that the Scottish people believe that they will have a direct say the running of their country for the first time in 300 years is also very important. A referendum enables people to participate directly in the debate in a way that they cannot do other than by sitting in the Gallery of your Lordships' House or another place. While that has importance, there is no means of participating directly in the discussion. It is for that reason that I welcome the referendums that have been conducted.

I do not believe that referendums undermine the role of elected Members or your Lordships; they are complementary and should be seen as such. I am sure that many of us become involved directly in referendums to ensure that we are in touch with what people think or say about very important matters.

I am also attracted by the arguments about pre-legislative scrutiny. When I was in another place I participated in the Licensing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, which was a fairly minor measure. I believe that that was the second Bill to be taken round Scotland in a series of meetings at local town halls, council chambers or whatever that individuals could attend. There were about seven or eight such sittings. The Bill was in the end much better for having been subject to that kind of consultation and scrutiny. It is suggested that that may be one of the roles of the Scottish parliament. I welcome that. If a Bill is printed and debated at Second Reading and so on there is a natural reluctance on the part of any government to amend it. Often, to amend it is an admission that government got it wrong first time round. Although that is understandable, if a draft goes out and is subject to comments from people round the country, which may well be different from Members of both Houses' reading of the particular Bill, that should be regarded as an important adjunct to our democracy. I welcome that and do not see any threat in it whatever.

In conclusion, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made one comment which I found rather strange. She spoke of the likely intentions of the Government to remove voting rights from hereditary Peers as some kind of peace offering to Back-Benchers in another place. Surely, it is much more important than that. This has been the subject of discussion for a considerable time and is perfectly in tune with the comments of noble Lords that it must be subject to wide debate. I hope that various aspects of it will be open to debate and I believe that that will take place.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, also referred to the voting record of the Prime Minister. That is a strange way in which to measure the accountability of the Executive. The Prime Minister is now subject to questioning by a method that is every bit as rigorous as that which was applied to any of his predecessors. The timing may have changed but the method of questioning remains the same. There are often very good reasons why the Prime Minister is somewhere other than in another place listening to debates, in which he can in any event participate only rarely. I do not believe that that is a weakness of our democracy or the accountability of another place.

This debate has identified some very important areas in which accountability is moving on and is being modernised and improved. I do not believe that the doom and gloom that we have heard from the Benches opposite to a considerable extent bears close scrutiny.

6.4 p.m.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, having heard some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Cranborne for giving me this chance to get a word in while I have the opportunity to do so.

It is clear that we live at a time when constitutional change is in the air. If from the perspective of history one looks back to the last third of the 20th century the two most significant changes are likely to be devolution and the development of the European Union. Although sometimes they are bracketed together as part of the process of erosion of the position and power of Parliament, there is one important difference. As far as devolution is concerned, Parliament at Westminster—save in as much as it is the United Kingdom Parliament—ceases to have day-to-day parliamentary responsibility for activities transferred to the assemblies. This contrasts with the European Union where, even under the revised co-decision procedure in the Treaty of Amsterdam, the United Kingdom Government as member of the Council are the main player to secure the United Kingdom's interests. This is not to denigrate the role of Members of the European Parliament. They are important but nevertheless secondary in the overall scheme. I believe that this is as it should be in a union that is not running pell-mell towards a centralised, homogeneous, unitary European state which is not wanted on these Benches, this House, this Parliament, this country or elsewhere in the Union.

I confine the remainder of my remarks to the relationship between the Government as member of the Council and Parliament through whom the Government's democratic legitimacy is derived. Perhaps the single biggest weakness in the EU system as it affects this country is the relative decoupling, and ensuing relative alienation, of Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Needless to say that in this context I welcome the protocol on national parliaments contained in the Treaty of Amsterdam.

In this House I speak on European Union matters with some trepidation because of the very considerable expertise among noble Lords. However, as I prepared my speech it occurred to me that in the past five years I have been a Member of the European Parliament; that in the previous government for a time I answered for the Government from the Dispatch Box on European Union matters in the absence of my noble friend Lady Chalker; that for nearly two years I attended the EU's Culture and Audio Visual Council; and that since the general election I have been a member of Sub-Committee F of the European Select Committee of your Lordships' House. Therefore, I have considered these matters from a number of different perspectives.

Many distinguished Members of this House denounce the fact that so much of our business is decided across the Channel. I understand it and emotionally I sympathise with it. I also respect that point of view. But to drink to the king across the water never brought him back. In their remarks I hear the tunes of Jacobitism. In a world of the mobility of people and goods, improved telecommunications and electronic commerce and service delivery governments can exercise sovereignty—by which I mean political control over the forces that affect our lives—only in concert with others. I believe that the big issue is how to do it.

Today in Western Europe we have two systems: for military and security purposes it is based on NATO and for most other purposes it is based on the European Union. I believe that if these systems change or collapse it will be because of internal problems or contradictions, not because of the leverage of external forces. The whole point about the, European Union, beyond the fact that it exists, is that while it has good points it has also some very bad features. I believe that these can be tackled only by reform from within and not by "copping out".

Against such background, how does Parliament scrutinise the Government's activities in the Council? Arising from the Foster Report, the answer lies in the two systems of complementary Select Committees of the two Houses. Because the European Communities Act moved much law-making away from this country no doubt that process of scrutiny is legislation and topic-focused. Yet if that particular focus was applied to this Parliament it would not give the complete picture. I believe that legislation is the endgame of the political process where the stakes are highest. Negotiation is absolutely crucial to a successful outcome in the Council.

I do not believe that it is in this country's best interests to have the kind of Danish system of parliamentary mandate that is given by the Market Committee of the Folketing. That would mean that our players in the Council would play with their cards face up when all the other members would have their cards face down. I do not believe that that is a recipe for success.

Parliament's role is not merely legislative. It should debate, question, hold the Government to account and, if it is sufficiently dissatisfied with the Government's performance, it should express no confidence in it. If we look at those aspects in the context of European Union business we see that in the Statements made after significant meetings of European Council. Equally, there is frequent questioning of the Government in the run-up to, say, the IGCs. I recall receiving some robust questioning from the present Leader of the House.

It is fine as far as it goes. But as any reader of the Sunday Telegraph will know from reading Christopher Booker—it is a pity he napalms his subject matter with anti-European bile—it is often the apparently smaller issues (the decisions, which when they were taken may not have seemed to be important) which cause most angst, trouble and concern.

Perhaps your Lordships will forgive me for being anecdotal. When I was a member of the Council of Ministers, I dealt with a number of matters which in the overall scheme of things could be considered to be minor. But one was of genuine widespread significance; it was the revision of the Television Without Frontiers directive. I recall that the only account that I gave of what I was doing was to the Secretary of State in her private office. That was excellent for me as a member of the Council, but I do not believe that it was in the wider public interest, or in Parliament's interest, to be so little informed of what was happening. I believe that the Leader of the House will support the sentiment that there is a strong case for Ministers who regularly attend meetings of the Council of Ministers—say once every six months—to give committees of both Houses a general account of what is happening and how it is dealing with matters on the agenda. It is not a question of giving a factual report—that can done by publishing a document—but they must convey a feeling for the context, resonance and politics of what is happening.

Recently, I was asked by an old friend and neighbour—an extremely distinguished Member of this House who has been unwell and unable to attend much recently—whether I would tell him the gossip. He realised that the gossip is at least as important as reading Hansard in understanding what is going on here. Without the gossip, or what we Cumbrians call "the crack", the picture is incomplete. When scrutinising our Ministers and what they are doing in the Council, we need that gossip in addition to dry, stand-alone facts. Its absence is a significant reason for the distance that has grown up between Parliament as a whole and the Council of Ministers. That chasm has damaged Parliament, our country and the European Union.

6.12 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, here we are in 1998. In 1978, 20 years ago, the Spanish rewrote their constitution. In 1958, 40 years ago, the French rewrote theirs. The new French model was devised by a government working party with no MPs. Occupants of the overseas territories voted in the referendum. In mainland France, 85 per cent. of the electorate voted, 79 per cent. voting in favour. I am surprised that we change our constitution with just a simple majority, especially in the light of legislation coming forward for union representation for millions of workers requiring a 30 per cent.—probably a 40 per cent.—yes vote in order to change union law. Why is union law so much more important than constitutional law?

In France, there is a National Assembly and a Senate. The President appoints the Council of Ministers which forms the government. The President has enormous power, but if his supporters become a minority in the National Assembly he has to appoint a Prime Minister from the majority parties. The National Assembly is made up of deputies elected for five years in single member constituencies using a system where, if no one has an absolute majority in the first ballot, there is a run-off. In fact, they changed to PR for the 1986 elections, but after a taste of it they reverted in 1988. The Senate is elected for nine years by an electoral college made up largely of local councillors—roughly the equivalent of our county councillors.

In contrast, Spain has an affirmed monarch as head of state and the country's highest representative in international affairs. The Congress of Deputies represents 50 electoral districts and serves for four years. Voting is for parties, not for individual candidates. The Senate is the chamber of territorial representation.

I am sure that other noble Lords will cite other constitutions. Many systems are in operation and there are various routes for selecting the chosen one. However, the approach of many countries—France, Spain, the USA and Croatia to name but a few—has been overarching, cohesive and concentrated on finding a solution applicable to the country as a whole. I fear that that cannot be said of the UK. We have a Welsh assembly in discussion and a Scottish parliament in the making. There is speculation on regional assemblies in parts of England and there is the Northern Ireland position. What of the UK as a whole? Where are we going? Is there a master plan or even a drawing on the back of the proverbial packet? Are we to end up with a different voting system in different parts of the country? Are we to have different voting systems for different types of election? Are we to enter the voting booth with instruction manuals for each and every type of voting? Where do the people fit into all this? In his famous speech in November 1991, Tony Benn warned us that: Unless we can offer people a peaceful route to the resolution of injustices through the ballot box they will not listen to a House that has blocked off that route". Voters need to feel that their elected representatives are accountable for their actions in an immediate rather than a remote sense. Abolishing the first-past-the-post system will not encourage the man or woman in the street to believe that they are.

It has been said of a certain TV personality, Joanna Lumley, that she is the thinking man's crumpet. Well, proportional representation is the ambitious politician's job ticket. It is questionable whether PR will benefit the person in the street. If any one of us here has a problem with a local authority, a hospital or an erstwhile public utility we can obtain almost immediate access to a responsible official because we know our way around and their officials and their secretaries know who we are. The ordinary citizen does not have our advantage. The ordinary citizen finds it hard to obtain a hearing. The ordinary citizen has to have recourse to a third person, often his MP. MPs are faced with surgery queues and huge weekly postbags because they "belong" to their constituencies. It is common for local people of all political persuasions to vote to keep their MP simply because he or she is doing a good job. Equally, supporters of a sitting MP will refuse to back him if it is felt that he has been less than able in the challenges facing him.

A constituency not far from my home suffered thus when the sitting MP, widely acknowledged to he first-class and with a solid majority, lost his seat because of the threatened closure of the local hospital. Under PR, ordinary citizens may well lose their ability to hold their MPs accountable. PR is an electoral system which may strike—

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Does he understand that PR is not a single system? Whether the effects he fears come about depends on the type of PR that is adopted.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for pointing that out. Perhaps I should have explained myself more clearly. I refer to representatives similar to the 20 out of the 60 we are suggesting we might find in the Welsh assembly. Those 20 are totally unrepresentative of the electorate, and it is important to point that out. I am sorry if I did not make that clear.

PR is an electoral system which may strike the party organisations as being fairer than the first-past-the-post system, but it is loaded against the ordinary citizen. They no longer "own" their MPs, especially in the case of the Welsh assembly representatives on a party list. To whom will they write when driven to sick despair by the injustices of bureaucracy? At whom will they rail when decisions of government are seen not to be fair? Who will they hold accountable for the local failure of national systems?

Moreover, there exists the upper Chamber, which I should like to speak briefly on now. The upper Chamber acts as a check on the machinery of government. Forty per cent. of the upper Chamber are non-party. With great respect, I have to disagree with my noble friend Lord Alexander of Weedon. I believe that there is no one party which has a majority in the House. We are not, on the whole, professional politicians. It has also been described with approval by the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal as effectively the only place in which the legislature can curb the power of the Executive. I believe that its members should not be dependent upon political favour and must be as near incorruptible as is possible for an institution to be. Some will say that it should tread gently in the face of acknowledged hostility from another place. But it owes a duty to the people of this nation to continue to monitor the actions of the elected leaders and to speak out without favour or bias when it feels that they are to the detriment of the country.

If I may borrow a phrase from the sphere of education, it has a role to play as an assembly of "critical friends". This particular critical friend finds himself in sympathy with Horace Walpole, who wrote in January 1770: Everybody talks of the constitution but all sides forget that the constitution is very well and would do very well if they would but let it alone". If the Government decide to change this constitution, let us hope that they will come forward speedily with their reforms and complete reforms for this House as part of a comprehensive package for their reforms of the constitution; and pray they may "let it alone".

6.22 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, just as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, has a fixed place in any debate, I am always put as last on my side, in a sort of Franz Beckenbauer sweeper role. We have had a wide ranging debate about many topics, not all of them on the Motion on the Order Paper. We have discussed constitutional reform, we have had complaints about referenda, and various other matters have been mentioned. By and large, there have not been many "hits" at the Government. I am sure my noble friend Lord McIntosh will have a light task to answer, with one exception, if I may say so. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, always gets her hits in and she strikes.

The heart of this issue is not a matter of Labour or Conservative but it is a structural problem in the British constitution. It was pointed out by Tom Paine about 200 years ago that an executive which commands a majority in the House of Commons will always have excessive power because we have a unicameral system in all practical senses. While we are a very good Chamber, a scrutinising, revising Chamber, we do not really matter unless the House of Commons agrees to take our opinion into account.

Therefore to some extent the effectiveness of opposition, at a time when the party in power has a large majority, depends upon the quality of opposition. There, I fully endorse what my noble friend Lord Ewing has said. The Opposition in another place are on the lower part of a steep learning curve. That is when we begin to be unhappy about the effectiveness of Parliament.

The problem is not just the quality of opposition but the fact that we do not have an effective second Chamber. I shall not say anything further about that because, as some noble Lords may know, along with the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, I wrote a pamphlet on this about two years ago. I have said all I want to say in that.

However, there is an important point about the reform of the House of Lords which has nothing to do with the quality of hereditary Peers or the quality of life Peers. It has to do with the fact that a second Chamber in the British constitution has no bite unless the House of Commons prefers to be bitten. Therefore we will always have the problem that an executive commanding a large majority in the lower House will be able to do almost whatever it likes—but not quite. Very often, and I am sure the party opposite knows this better than I, the effective opposition to the Government comes from its Back Benchers. Not always, not perhaps in the first year of government or the first two years of government but eventually Back Benchers, who may start innocent, learn the tricks. That is where much of the opposition in our system has come from. These are early days yet and there are some Back Benchers in another place who will learn a few tricks. Nobody has mentioned this, but on the vote on the lone parents' order, although the Government won, they changed their mind when they saw the size of the opposition and abstention. So I think this is a learning Government. This is not a Government who are carried away entirely. I do not often stand in praise of my Front Bench, but the Back Benchers there are learning—thank God for that! I welcome that.

It would be too easy to romanticise our democracy as depending entirely and solely on parliamentary opposition. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, that lovely romantic picture of Parliament acting as the guardian of national interest was perhaps once true in the 19th century. But today, especially since universal franchise came in the 20th century, there are extra-parliamentary channels of opposition. I remind the House that the community charge, as it was then called, or the poll tax, was removed not because of parliamentary opposition but because of the riot in the streets. That riot in the streets meant that a major piece of legislation, a flagship in the party manifesto of 1987, was enacted and abolished within a single Parliament.

We must not forget that there are people out there and unless they address the people as well as Parliament, governments can get into trouble. We do not quite admit to ourselves that this extra-parliamentary opposition—the people's opposition, if I may use that New Labour cliché—is as important as anything else. This Government so far have not encountered people's opposition. I hope they will not, but I think it would be very restrictive of us to imagine that we are the sole guardians of the constitution: we are mere representatives. The people out there will look after themselves if any government get out of hand.

I come to my final point, which many noble Lords have made. We have a Parliament and parliamentary arrangements which are suited to a much more leisurely age when the state was small and people had very little to consider by way of legislation. We have, without changing our practices, increased the amount of legislation that must be scrutinised. The Government may have information technology but Parliament does not. We do not use any information technology in our proceedings. We use very old-fashioned methods. We are then obviously short of time. Therefore, unless we think of our working practices and how to make better use of technology which we have in the House as well as outside it, we shall have the problem that governments will always have far too much legislation for Parliament to consider; Parliament will not have time; Ministers will have far too much to do and will not have time to come to Parliament; there will be dissatisfaction all around; but, so long as there is a majority, the ruling party will get away with murder.

We should take advantage of the Motion which the noble Viscount has tabled to think much more thoroughly about a total reform of parliamentary practices. We should not say, "You did not do such and such when you were in power" and so on. Those stories can go on but they are not very helpful. Great as this Parliament is, it has structural defects which we have not thought about removing. One of the opportunities for doing that will be when we consider the reform of this House. But that is for another occasion.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, all those hours ago, my noble friend Lord Cranborne referred to what Mr. Mandelson said and the noble Lord the Leader of the House said that that was just fine. I am sure that my noble friend and those noble Lords who have had the opportunity to study some of the research and literature on which new Labour's planning, before the election, was based are not surprised by this Government's style.

The use of focus groups, the 100 and something review groups, the use of articles by senior Ministers in the newspapers, all brought together under the unified heading of modernisation, are currently fashionable ways to proceed. They can be very effective too. There is nothing wrong with them. One has only to glance across the Atlantic to see that. That the Government are using those measures is not at all surprising.

What is surprising is that, apparently, the Government do not see the danger of constantly communicating directly with people, as one can nowadays, while at the same time leaving elected MPs out of it, operating Parliament so that it is thoroughly left out, and legislating in a manner which deliberately reduces their input.

It is surprising, too, that the Government do not see the danger which has been referred to by a number of noble Lords of treating the advice of this House simply as a nuisance to be politely disregarded or to be automatically "put right" in another place. Moreover, there is a hint of trivialisation of the third part of Parliament—the Crown. I suspect that that is beginning to happen.

In this country we are unselfconsciously but deeply democratic and people understand well how the system works for them. Focus groups may well be saying that Parliament is being held in less regard than it used to be. If that is so—and I think it possibly is—it is reason for change. But change must come through the proper use of the checks and balances of Parliament that we have now. If the Government forget that, they are in danger of getting the legislation wrong; of upsetting a lot of people in the process; and thus losing the wonderful opportunity which the electorate has given them.

A major example of how things can go wrong is already revealing itself as the Government's constitutional proposals unfold. I suggest it all began in Scotland when, long before it was elected, the Labour Party began communicating directly with the electorate by, along with the Liberal Democrats, setting up a constitutional convention. Over seven years and without reference to the rest of the United Kingdom—because it was not required to refer to the rest of the United Kingdom—it drew up plans publicly, and to considerable general satisfaction, for a Scottish parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, played a great part in that and we all congratulated him on it.

When elected, the Government accepted the plan virtually as it stood. It was plain they could scarcely have done otherwise, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, indicated. The result of the referendum was a foregone conclusion and the plan went into the Bill.

What is only now dawning on Members of another place, as can be seen from recent debates on the Bill on Report, is that the Scottish proposals for lop-sided legislative devolution are likely to create huge tensions in relation to funding, who pays for what, who may vote on what and who negotiates on devolved matters in Europe. It is dawning on MPs that such tensions are likely, quite quickly, to bring instability and the outcome may well have to be more balanced devolution. That may happen sooner rather than later.

The outcome may well have to be some kind of federal arrangement with an English Parliament with powers similar to those proposed for the Scottish Parliament, presumably a uni-cameral parliament relating to the human rights legislation as is proposed for the Scottish parliament. Should that be the case, is the Government of Wales Bill the right Bill? Where does it leave the House of Lords? The noble Lord the Leader of the House talked of long years ahead for the House of Lords. Will that role merely be one of scrutinising social security, defence and foreign affairs matters? What about the Good Friday settlement and, indeed, the Human Rights Act?

To construct a well-fitting jigsaw puzzle, you begin with a whole picture and then design the parts, not the other way around. When the Labour Party embarked on its extra-parliamentary Scottish enterprise, I wonder whether it realised where that was likely to lead. If it did, why, now that Labour is in Government, has it not shared its thinking with Parliament about the whole picture it intends to draw?

The noble Lord, Lord Desai, said he thinks that this is a learning government. There are indications of that. We have seen it in the work on several Bills. But neglect of Parliament is dangerous at all times. As has been said, the last government neglected it too. But neglecting Parliament as this government are doing at the same time as communicating directly with the people in every way that they can is very dangerous indeed, especially when changes to the constitution are under consideration. I wonder whether, when the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, replies, he will be able to agree with that.

6.40 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, we are all very grateful to my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition for initiating this debate today with his depth of knowledge and his usual scintillating rapier wit. Speaking as the "afterthought" and at the end, I do not feel so much embattled as my noble friend Lord Beloff does; nor do I feel myself to be a "sweeper" like the noble Lord, Lord Desai. I feel more like a coot skittering over the surface of a lake, below which lie deep and unplumbable depths of wisdom. It is much the same feeling as one has when entering Westminster Hall. History is all around one, beneath one, below one, behind one and indeed before one, if one thinks of the title of T.H. White's book about King Arthur, The Once and Future King.

History and change are so continuous and so much a part of the present as of the future that whether history exists in a straight line or in a circle is a philosophical question which I shall not attempt to delve into. My noble kinsman Lord Russell spoke about the golden age of Parliament. The trouble about a golden age is that it is never now. However, looking round this Chamber, full of glittering gold, and at all my noble friends on all sides of the House—many of them hereditary—I cannot help feeling that the golden age is now.

My noble friend the Leader of the Opposition quoted one of my favourite journalists, Matthew Parris, who said that we must not believe all we see on television. I have a journalist friend in Istanbul, who once said, It must be true because I read it in the papers—and what is more I wrote it myself". My dear and noble friend Lady Blatch referred to hereditary Peers as being "beef off the bone", to be tossed to the envious. Although I agree with her, I do not think she has got it quite right. We hereditaries are "beef on the bone"—British bone, born and bred. Our Parliament is part of our constitution and our constitution is different from others because it is not written. It evolves. It is a constitution admired and copied all over the world.

Both Houses of Parliament, together with the executive and the Crown, are about power and about sovereignty which, under an absolute monarchy, are the same thing as they are under a dictatorship. But our monarchy has changed, and so has the nature of our two Houses of Parliament. First, the monarchy's powers were clipped by the barons under King John with Magna Carta. This was a change, but a non-violent one. With the Civil War, violence erupted. It was a very non-British affair. Both the King and the Parliament were right; power had already shifted from King to Parliament. Part of our great British evolving was taking place. But the fact that we had a civil war of such bitterness left a nasty scar on our nation's history.

It is said that Britain is governed by the weather. It is never the same two days running; nor in two places. So we basically remain temperate people and when in doubt we talk about the weather. Perhaps there was an El Niño about during the time of the Civil War: signs and portents in the heavens. However, since that time our constitution has continued to emerge and to change slowly. We have come to rely on the importance of a democratically elected Parliament, with slight checks from an upper House, which is answerable in the main to its own conscience.

This Parliament is very dear to us all. It is the one block against a dictatorship. Perhaps the time has come once more for the barons to defend our freedom and our democracy, as they did at Runnymede.

Lord Renton

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, would she agree that she has given very powerful reasons for this Parliament to be called the Mother of Parliaments?

6.43 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I was tempted to follow that exchange about mothers and barons but I should like to feel that our parliamentary democracy is defended by the whole nation, even if this House and another place give leadership from time to time.

I want first to say how much I welcome the Motion in the name of the noble Viscount. Lord Cranborne, as a good perennial subject to discuss. However, I hope he will allow me to say that all the evidence as displayed in his speech suggests that, having put down the Motion, the noble Viscount became a little nervous of what he had done. Indeed I think there was evidence of plain schizophrenia in his approach towards this debate. Was it to be—and this is a clear possibility on such an occasion—a frontal attack on the Government or was it to be a thoughtfully partisan discussion of constitutional affairs? In the end I think it was neither, but a mixture of both. In that sense I think it set the pattern for our whole debate.

I have to say that I agree with something said by almost all those who have contributed to the debate, but disagree equally with something in almost every speech. However, the debate has given us many thoughts to reflect upon in the time ahead if we set aside those remarks which will turn out to be ephemeral.

The whole House, I think, welcomed the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, and the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth. It is almost 15 years since I last heard the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, speak in Parliament in another place and I now realise what I have missed during that interval. Today he was thoughtful, provocative, with a wry sense of humour and above all was independent-minded. If there is one quality which the House will have recognised today to be essential in those who choose to be its legislators, it is the independence of mind of those who come both to this place and to another. I hope we shall hear more of him soon. As for the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, he made a very powerful and plainly committed speech. What Stockport missed 24 years ago we are now fortunate enough to enjoy. Again, I am sure we shall hear from him in a very forceful way in the debates that lie ahead of us.

However, I think the happiest man in your Lordships' House today must be the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. He has been mercilessly flattered on all sides, and I see that many of his colleagues are green with envy. I certainly share—I flatter him further—the recognition of the qualities which have been attributed to him but I would warn him that from now onwards it must be downhill all the way!

A curiosity about this Motion as a vehicle for a partisan attack has been pointed out in many speeches during the course of the debate. During 18 years of Conservative government—and I now look at the Motion—was Parliament encouraged to scrutinise and control the actions of the Executive"? I certainly never noticed it, and I do not believe that will be the verdict of history. Did Ministers account first to Parliament, setting aside all others, including the radio and television? It is not in my memory. And did we all feel that Parliament was unequivocally put at the centre of the nation's affairs? If I may coin a phrase, "No, no, no".

Governments learn inevitably from their predecessors and if this Government has sins and shortcomings—and it certainly has some—they are as much inherited, which should make them popular with the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, as newly acquired. If I had to choose an analogy I would say that where Alistair Campbell barks, Sir Bernard Ingham growled—but they are much the same animal.

The other consideration which I think must lie behind all our discussion is that although we would all like to see Parliament at the centre of the nation's affairs we have to keep things in perspective. As my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton said, the role of Parliament in every generation must be seen against technological, economic, social and cultural change. Parliament has been affected—this again has been referred to in the course of our debate—by our international commitments and obligations, most obviously in the European Union, for better or worse—I put it in a very balanced way; but also in NATO and in virtually every other international organisation.

It has also been affected by domestic factors: by the influence of television and its ability to reach directly very many more people than even ever did the full reporting of Parliament, which has long since died. Again, we must look to ourselves and admit that not only do Members of Parliament leap at an invitation to Millbank as an alternative to a speech in the House, but, indeed, we must confess that some of us do it almost as much.

Then there is the growth of professional lobbying, which is perfectly legitimate. Most of it is entirely acceptable with much of it now being non-commercial from organisations like Friends of the Earth, Transport 2000, Justice and voluntary organisations of all kinds. Such bodies are not only consulted by Opposition parties, they are also consulted by Ministers and civil servants as never before when policy is being made and legislation drafted.

We may not like such changes—or, indeed, all of them—but there are many others. We must come to terms with them. Parliament shares power as never before. That is the reality and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, I share with noble Lords many of their hesitations and anxieties about the changes. I agree very much with what the noble Viscount said about the growth in the habit of making major policy statements outside Parliament. But this, too, has been incremental. The fault certainly does not lie principally with this Government: they learnt it from the previous one and it is unlikely to be reversed.

Then there is the proliferation of executive agencies—138 in all. I believe that my noble friend Lord Smith referred to "para-state" agencies. I entirely accept that many of them serve a most useful purpose at an arm's length from Ministers. For example, that may be true of many of the agencies which are attached in that loose way to the defence department. But there is no doubt at all that the growth of executive agencies represents a diminution of parliamentary control. There is much to be said for the view that they are inadequately accountable, as we have seen in the debates about the Prison Service and as witnessed by the huge failure of the Child Support Agency.

Another new development has been barely noticed and is one that has not been referred to in today's debate. It is something which is entirely in the hands of Members of Parliament to resist. I have in mind the use of the chairmen of Select Committees in another place as spokesmen for their party when in government when the very nature of such committees is that they should be cross party. That is something which needs to be examined—although not in the case of your Lordships' House where I like to believe that our record is impeccable—when perhaps others reflect on the way that Select Committees are working, whether or not they have achieved their objectives; and, indeed, whether the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, and I see their objectives in quite the same way.

There have also been references to the use of referenda. I shall say only that I was very wary when the development occurred in the 1970s. I have not entirely changed my mind. We must be careful that they do not undermine representative government, however justified they may be in special circumstances. I have no criticism whatever of the way that they have been used in recent constitutional change. Finally, if it is reasonable to say so, I believe that the House of Commons is too large and that 500 Members instead of 659 would serve the country just as well. Moreover, I believe that government, instead of providing employment for up to 100 people, should perhaps be cut by a quarter—that is to say, 20 to 25 in this House, which would be comforting to the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal because that is almost as many as he has at present. So there would be little change here, but substantial change elsewhere. I would not mind if this turned out to be a case of "Work to Welfare".

I turn now to my main concern to which I can only refer briefly; namely, the future of Cabinet government. If Cabinet government works well it can do much to relieve our concerns. But here also, inherited and incremental factors are plain. The role of Cabinet as the essential policy-making forum of government was diminished by Mrs. Thatcher and has not been restored by Tony Blair. The same applies to the role of Cabinet committees. The No. 10 policy unit, and the political staff around the Prime Minister overseeing each department, has strengthened presidential government and diminished the role of departmental heads. I have to say—and here I chime with what others have said—that the over-reliance on political appointees can alienate and demoralise the career Civil Service which is talented, loyal and essential in the long term to effective government. I make no judgment as to whether this has yet happened.

Those are considerations for this Government as they ought to have been for the previous one. Some good things have emerged. I believe that the role of task forces across departments in problem solving is probably right. I welcome the development, which is quite outside government and long term, of judicial review. That represents a further way of controlling or helping to control the Executive. I welcome those changes. However, overall, I believe that much attention must be paid to the central question of whether or not Cabinet government is working adequately and, if it is not, how that can be put right.

We have discussed a whole range of changes today, many of which deserve further serious consideration. In my view, as I reflect on some time in both Chambers of Parliament, there is no alternative—and I return now to something referred to by my noble friend Lord Russell—to independent-minded Back-Benchers who know that loyalty does not always lie in saying "Yes" to their own government; to an effective Opposition, which the noble Viscount's party is certainly not providing at present; nor, indeed to strong Cabinet Ministers in command of their own departments and of the House.

This Government now appear to have abandoned the stakeholder society for the middle way—a name that I associate mainly with the first Earl of Stockton in a notable book that he wrote 60 years ago. But whatever the Government's economic and social objectives may be—and we shall have to discuss those on another occasion—I believe that they are more likely both to succeed and eventually leave our parliamentary system stronger after their period in office if Cabinet government itself is strengthened.

6.56 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the main charge that has been made in today's debate is that the Government do not know where they are going; that their policies on constitutional reform, radical though they may be, are a poor substitute for a carefully thought out programme of change; and that, as the Government do not know where they are headed, those policies will have far-reaching and unintended effects which will be felt by every person in this country.

We have listened to many good speeches this afternoon. I should particularly like to draw the attention of the House to the maiden speeches of my noble friends Lord Biffen and Lord Dartmouth. It falls to me to draw together some of the themes that we have heard today. I do not find that to be a difficult task because what we have heard have not just been some very wise words but also a very serious criticism of the Government's record so far, their intentions and the impression that they give of the kind of relationship they want with Parliament.

The Government have taken us on a journey of radical constitutional change: that is beyond doubt. Let us look at their record so far. Within weeks of the election a referendum Bill for Scotland and Wales was rushed through Parliament, incidentally—and crucially—without the benefit of a White Paper explaining the Government's policy on devolution. If that is not avoiding parliamentary scrutiny, I do not know what is.

In his introductory speech, my noble friend Lord Cranborne dealt with all the inadequacies of pre-legislative referendums. Therefore, I shall not go over that ground again. But, what else have the Government done in the past 12 months? They signed the Amsterdam Treaty; they agreed, without question, to join the social chapter and got nothing in return. That was truly an historic capitulation by the Government. We have the Human Rights Bill before Parliament, together with the Scottish and Welsh devolution Bills and an independent Bank of England. We now look forward to a mayor for London. I shall return to some of those points in a moment.

The question that is so often posed is: where are all these changes leading us, and are they connected? The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, tried to answer that question in what at times was an over-enthusiastic speech, although one that I enjoyed, even if he got some of his facts wrong. I should tell him that the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee and the Moses Room procedure, otherwise known as the Grand Committee, were not inventions of New Labour but inventions of this House. No government takes ownership of that.

This evening I want to examine these questions and to press the Government on what all this means for this representative Parliament of the United Kingdom. As we have heard today, what all these changes to our constitutional arrangements have done is to weaken the authority of Parliament, to reduce its powers of influence and in effect to lessen the ability of Parliament to question the executive. "I do not know" or "I am not responsible" or "That has nothing to do with us any more" is the cry we hear and will continue to hear too often when Ministers are questioned. That is all the more extraordinary as the Labour Party worked so tirelessly to win the general election. Since then it has methodically divested itself of as much power, authority and responsibility as possible. I ask myself continually why that is the case. It would be good to hear some answers today from the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey.

While I am on the subject, I join those who have paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, who carries such a substantial burden across so many departments. I am rather pleased about that, because it means that he does not have so much time to be Deputy Chief Whip and as a result we have won rather more Votes than I had originally anticipated. I know that the noble Lord is an avid parliamentarian. I have seen him in action often enough in government and in opposition to know that. Indeed when we were in government he was always the first to react, often forcefully, if he thought that Parliament, and in particular this House, was being ignored. Often he was right, although not always. I hope he feels that we always bent over backwards to make sure that proper scrutiny could take place.

Today I wish to find out the answer to one central question. Have the Government started down this path of constitutional reform by accident or by design? My noble friend Lord Beloff put a similar question rather more eloquently. It is worth looking briefly at a Bill which will reach this House soon—namely, that on the Scottish parliament. The history of devolution is reasonably well known and I shall not bore the House with its repetition. But what are less well known are the Government's motives for making devolution such a major plank of their programme. It was a simple wheeze on the part of the party opposite, an easy and bankable no-cost objective that would forever give power to the "people's party" in Scotland and—this is the important part—it would stop the forces of nationalism in their tracks.

This policy has been an abject failure. Support for the nationalists has soared and the Government of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, have thrown fuel on the fire of nationalism and separatism, and all on a false premise which was to give Labour power and stop the nationalists. The noble Lord, Lord Ewing of Kirkford, is one of many who carry a particular burden and responsibility for this policy. This policy, which removes power from this Parliament and creates yet another competing body has, scarcely before the ink has dried on the Bill, been a Labour Party disaster of epic proportions.

In his introductory speech my noble friend Lord Cranborne spoke of the London referendum. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, knows more about Labour Party politics in London than I do. But surely no one can take any comfort from a decision to go ahead with a major constitutional change with so little detail of what it is all about in the first place and on such a small turn-out. Your Lordships quite rightly asked the Government to separate the two questions on the ballot paper. The Government refused. The result was an appalling turn-out; two-thirds of Londoners turned their backs on the idea.

Moreover, there is an even more disturbing feature of the London scene. Those who voted "yes" to a mayor will no doubt get their wish, if the pressures on next year's timetable allow that. But now, what do we hear? The Prime Minister is so concerned about the risk that Mr. Livingstone might win the support of Labour voters that he is searching for ways to stop him. Therefore Londoners will not choose, not even members of the London Labour Party; the Prime Minister wants to choose. That action seems central to the development of the Labour Party. It is part of a contradiction that goes to the heart of the debate. Why is the Labour Party devolving power to all kinds of different and competing bodies while at the same time centralising its own party machine so as to exercise more control over who is elected? The Prime Minister wants to "fix" the system to stop Livingstone and he wants to choose the members of the European Parliament by imposing an alien system of PR that will put the party above the individual and for the first time take away the historic right of the British people to send an individual to a representative assembly. The same thing is happening in Scotland. The Labour Party will have its candidate and policies for Scotland's parliament vetted by those who inhabit Millbank Tower, not by members of the Scottish Labour Party.

Is this the fate the Prime Minister has in store for this Parliament—Members plucked from a secret party list in another place, and an army of Prime Ministerial nominees on these Benches here? If that happened it would be the final subjugation of the greatest independent Parliament the world has known, the gathering of more power of patronage over party and legislature alike than any person has had in this country for centuries.

We have seen some extraordinary examples of innovation in parliamentary procedures in the short time since this Government came to power, and no doubt we shall see more. This is not the way to treat Parliament. If the Government find they have overloaded the programme—as we warned them last summer they were doing—that is no excuse for cutting corners or demanding extraordinary hours from your Lordships or another place during the course of this summer. The proper response would be to defer a measure, or to extend the Session to allow due time.

The Government appear to believe that Parliament has five Chambers, of which your Lordships' House and another place are the least significant. The others are the studio of the "Today" programme, the office of Mr. Alastair Campbell, and, for matters of privilege, the bar of the Red Lion in Whitehall! The noble Lord, Lord Ewing of Kirkford, says this has always been so, and therefore so what? I trust that any announcement—

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, the noble Lord misrepresents me; I did not say, so what? I believe I was keener than anyone who has contributed to this debate to find a way to balance the rights of Back-Benchers with the executive. I hope the noble Lord will correct what he has said.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am delighted to accept that correction. I say to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that I trust that any announcement on the future of this House will be made in this House and not in an interview with a journalist, or in a conversation in a pub, however close the proprietor may be to the Prime Minister.

My noble friend Lord Alexander of Weedon made a powerful intervention. I say to him that both my noble friend Lord Cranborne, and for that matter the former Prime Minister, John Major, have asked publicly that a Select Committee of another place should be asked to report on what that House wants in terms of a second Chamber.

The sum total of this Government's policies so far has been the removal of power from Parliament in a piecemeal and haphazard fashion, with no recognition or seeming awareness of what the effects of those policies will be. I return to my question: has this come about by accident or by design? It would be unforgivable if all this came about by accident. However, it would not be too late to stop and think again, to re-examine the Government's objective and to decide what part Parliament should play in the nation's affairs, indeed even to know in what kind of nation, if any, this Government envisage this Parliament having a role at all. If it is all by design, matters are even worse, for nowhere have the Government explained what their great plan is, or what my noble friend Lady Match called the real agenda. If it is part of a grand plan, does not the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, think that the people have a right to know what it is?

Every step of the way, this Government have sought to weaken Parliament and to reduce its authority. The Prime Minister is a magpie. He has picked up President Roosevelt's immortal phrase about the New Deal, but he seems to have forgotten Roosevelt's other memorable idea—the "Four Freedoms". The Prime Minister offers not four freedoms but four fiddles: the fiddle of a closed list system of PR which will take from the British people the right to elect a Member of the European Parliament of their own choice; the fiddle of holding on to a disproportionate number of seats in Scotland while removing the powers of the rest of the United Kingdom to vote on Scotland's affairs; the fiddle of pre-legislative referendums in which the votes of a minority are used to constrain Parliament; and the fiddle of a whole House of Parliament over which he or his agents would have the power of nominatim. It is not so much a new deal as a dirty deal designed to increase the power of the Prime Minister and his party apparat over Parliament and all its affairs.

We have used this last Opposition day of the Session to bring these matters to the attention of Parliament and the people. The Government have a duty to respond. In this debate we have sought to underline the importance that your Lordships attach to the role of Parliament. I have no doubt that in the months and years ahead your Lordships' resolve will be sorely tested.

7.10 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I love responding to debates initiated by the Conservative Opposition, in particular when they fall so calamitously flat on their faces as they have today. To hear the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip thrashing about, as he has for the past 13 minutes, only confirms the intellectual, political and parliamentary confusion into which the Opposition have fallen in the past 12 months. To some people it would be a tragic sight. To me it is more amusing that tragic.

My noble friend Lord Desai said that I would have a light task in responding to the accusations being made from the Opposition Benches. I have to confess—I say this to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in view of his comments at the beginning of the debate—that I was quite defensive in my thinking at the beginning. I had thought that I would have to adopt the position that cet animal est méchant; quand on l'attaque it se défend. As the debate has gone through, I have found myself preserving those pages which put positively the position of the Government on the issues with which the debate is concerned and throwing away enormous numbers of pages described (as noble Lords who have been in government will know) as "defensive." The accusations have not been made, because the accusations cannot be made.

Of course there have been benefits from the debate, none greater than the excellent maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, and the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, came to one of the induction sessions for new Peers where I speak as objectively as I can on conduct in the House. I plead with new entrants to the House to speak with as few notes as possible or with no notes. The noble Lord, Lord Biffen, has the seal of honour. He made his maiden speech in the time allocated, fluently, incisively and without a single note. I congratulate him. I hope that others will follow his example. The noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, has ancestral reasons for being effective in this House. He has shown that he will fully live up to the experience and wisdom of his ancestors. We are glad to have him with us.

Let us turn back to what has been happening over the past 12 months, and the positive steps which the Government have taken to improve accountability of the Government to Parliament and to the people. I insist on those words "and to the people" because I shall refer to them at the very end. On terms of accountability to Parliament, one of the Government's first actions in Parliament was to establish an all-party Select Committee on modernisation of the House of Commons. That led to a number of measures which will improve the scrutiny of legislation in both Houses. For example, I refer to the explanatory material for Bills. From the next Session, and indeed for draft Bills for the next Session produced in this Session, all government Bills will be accompanied by a new style of explanatory memorandum containing notes on clauses. This will give Members a clearer description of the purposes and implications of legislation considered by both Houses.

The noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, made reference to that point. I am grateful for his comments. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, said that nothing more had been done to improve Back-Benchers' control. I suggest to him that Back-Benchers' control is improved if government take the initiative in helping to explain what legislation is about and how it works. All those who have had to deal with unsatisfactory notes on clauses produced for Bills in the past will know that something seriously needed to be done. I accept that the test will come when they are produced. However, that is the firm intention of Government.

We come to the issue of pre-legislative scrutiny. I was glad to have the support of a number of noble Lords, notably the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, and my noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie, for improvements in pre-legislative scrutiny. In the first Session of this Parliament, and despite other heavy legislative commitments, the Government agreed that some Bills should be drafted in advance so that they could be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny this Session before being introduced, it is to be hoped, next Session. Bills on freedom of information, food standards, limited liability partnerships and pension sharing will be published later in the summer. The draft Bills will be subject to outside consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny by Select Committees in the Commons. I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Dean, that there could well be pre-legislative scrutiny in this House too. I have no doubt that the usual channels can consider that point.

As a number of noble Lords said, the quality of legislation is still not good enough. It is still true that some Bills are skeletal and contain too much regulation power, including still some Henry VIII powers—and that fact is as dangerous as it ever was. But let us look at the issue in context. This Parliament deals with legislation which gives firmer directions for the implementation of the wishes of Parliament than any other parliament in the world. Look at any European parliament, my Lords. Look at the projets de loi which are put before the French assembly. Those are skeletal—sketchy in the extreme. Civil servants do all the work. In this Parliament we try to do it in the legislative sphere. I acknowledge that we do not always succeed. But some noble Lords on other sides have acknowledged the quality of recent legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, said that about the Human Rights Bill; the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, said it about the Crime and Disorder Bill. All I can say is that we shall continue our efforts to ensure that legislation is clearly and properly drafted.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said that the scrutiny of statutory instruments was perfunctory. The system of a Joint Committee of the two Houses is in existence. It has not been created or removed by this Government. It is still there. For affirmative resolution there is still the opportunity for debate and for votes in the House of Commons. Nothing has changed as regards that matter.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, nothing has changed, but if the system was not any good and was unsatisfactory in the past, what is the use of keeping it in the future?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I may he wrong, but I did not hear the noble Lord saying that when his party was in office. If it is unsatisfactory, let us hear some positive suggestions for improvement.

A number of noble Lords referred to the use of guillotines in the Commons. That has been a feature of parliamentary activity over many years. However, we have been able to improve on the situation by programming proceedings by agreement on several major Bills on the Floor of the Commons. As a result, the Government have had to use guillotine Motions only three times: on the Finance Bill, the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill last year, and the European Communities (Amendment) Bill before Christmas. Those who sat through the European Communities (Amendment) Bill in this House might have felt that the availability of a guillotine would have been no bad thing.

The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, said that we guillotined the Scotland and Wales Bill. We did not; there was an agreed timetabling Motion.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. The point about the use of the guillotine was made in relation to matters of constitutional importance; it was not that it had been used only three times in relation to three Bills. I regard the Finance Bill and referendum Bills as constitutional matters.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have to disagree. The referendum Bill is a paving Bill for the real constitutional Bills, which are the Scotland and Wales Bills. Nobody has ever suggested to me before that the Finance Bill is a constitutional Bill. However, it is a fact that the use of the guillotine has declined since the previous government left office.

There has also been reference—my noble friend Lord Richard referred to this—to the improvements in the Select Committee procedure in the House of Commons. I was glad to have that confirmed again by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree. We have two larger committees, each with two sub-committees, to monitor the work of the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. We have a new Select Committee on Environmental Audit and a Public Administration Committee which brings together responsibility for the public service and the work of the ombudsman.

There was some reference to the Prime Minister's attendance in the House at Question Time. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to it. I have to tell the House that the Prime Minister has spent longer in the House at Prime Minister's Questions than his predecessor did during the same period, and that his record of attendance in the House stands up very favourably when compared to that of his predecessor.

Lord Naseby

My Lords—

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, this is a timed debate. I will give way to the noble Lord, but I cannot continue to give way.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, just to correct the record, when the noble Lord checks Hansard, he will note that I did not make one mention of that fact.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am delighted to have that on record. If I am wrong, I apologise to the noble Lord.

One of our manifesto commitments was to improve the scrutiny of European Union legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred to that point. We have already agreed to extend the terms of reference of the Commons European Legislation Committee to include subjects dealt with under the inter-governmental pillars. The scrutiny reserve will be extended to political agreement at European Councils. The modernisation committee in the Commons is considering the examination of further changes. The House of Lords European Communities Committee, whose reports have consistently drawn deserved praise, has produced a report on the scrutiny of the third pillar which is due for debate in this House, and I hope that that will be soon. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, will, I hope, forgive me if I do not go into the wider non-parliamentary issues that he raised.

In relation to parliamentary Questions, I was grateful for the comment of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that the quality of Answers has improved. I acknowledge the point he made that they have not improved enough—for him at any rate. But we do try. We have certainly not been doing any less in quantity, if not in quality. For example, the Prime Minister has dealt with 40 per cent. more written parliamentary Questions than occurred under the previous administration. The extent to which my noble and right honourable friends have been willing to answer questions that were previously pushed aside has been remarkable.

I now turn to parliamentary privilege and delegated powers and scrutiny. As the House will know, the noble Lord, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, has been appointed to chair a joint committee on parliamentary privilege to address such issues as the prosecution of MPs for bribery and modernising parliamentary privilege.

There is much debate on delegated powers and deregulation. I have tried to find specific allegations about delegated powers and deregulation and whether we have been negligent or shown in our reaction to the reports. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, claimed that the previous government always obeyed the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. Perhaps I may remind the noble Baroness of just one example; namely, the Railways Act 1993. The Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, as it then was, called for consideration of the exclusion of the hybrid process—an absolutely essential element in the Railways Bill—and said that the House should think most carefully before allowing that to take place. "Most carefully", in the wording of the scrutiny committee, is a very serious criticism. In reply, for the Government, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, opposed the amendment to give effect to the report of the committee. The Government whipped against it, and the amendment was defeated by six votes.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, referred to criticisms of the Fireworks Bill. What he neglected to say was that the form of words was approved by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to the answers given by my noble friend Lady Blackstone to questions on education action zones. It is my duty to reply to that. I can confirm that she will be in a position in June to announce which zones will start in September and which next January. At present, teams from the standards and effectiveness unit are visiting applicants to test the quality of their applications. In April, the 60 applications received were initially appraised by an advisory panel consisting of DfEE administrators and advisers, Ofsted, the Government Offices in the regions, and representatives from the standards task force, a head teacher, the director of education of an LEA and a business representative.

Before the advisory panel was established, the Local Government Association sought involvement in the assessment of the applications. The department's view was that it would not be appropriate for it to have formal representation; however, it was agreed at official level that we would let its offices see copies of the applications and would take note of any comments they offered. In the event, no comment was forthcoming. So there was no inconsistency. No final decisions have been taken, nor will be taken until well into June. As soon as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State takes decisions he will inform both this House and another place.

The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, made reference to the National Audit Office and the remit of the Public Accounts Committee. Certainly, we must all be concerned to see that that remit is not in any way reduced. However, this Government have increased the remit of the Public Accounts Committee and the NAO to include royal expenditure and lottery funding through Camelot. I hope that that will, if not satisfy, at least please the noble Lord.

A number of noble Lords referred to the comments of Madam Speaker made on a number of occasions about the need to make statements to Parliament first rather than to the press. Madam Speaker has said that, and a number of noble Lords have acknowledged that previous Speakers have said the same thing. Madam Speaker said it about the previous Conservative government. I am not attempting to shift responsibility by saying that it has always happened. It has always happened, but it should not happen at all. However, I have gone through Madam Speaker's comments with great care. Her responses to Opposition complaints are always a general statement that it should not happen rather than an agreement that it has happened in a particular case. Of course it should not happen and we must continue to give the same care as we always have to ensure that it does not.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made a specific complaint about not receiving an answer on the costs and number of policy presentations. The excessive cost referred to in the answer she was given was the cost of providing the information to her; we are not talking about the excessive cost of policy presentations. I am proud of the policy presentations we make. It is a proper role of government and I am sorry that it was not possible, within the rules of answering parliamentary questions, to answer the specific question of the noble Baroness.

We heard the usual comments in regard to spin doctors and in particular in relation to Mr. Peter Mandelson. I will not add to the full answer given by my noble friend Lord Richard in relation to Mr. Mandelson's speech, except to say—since it did not seem to sink in—that when he talked of other democratic means he did not mean instead of Parliament; he was saying specifically that other means of communication are complementary to Parliament. That was the essence of his speech. There was no detriment whatever to Parliament in what he said.

I felt that my noble friend Lord Desai was a little unfair. He criticised the use of information technology in Westminster. If he looks at the parliamentary website now he will see that it is the most comprehensive in the world.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I was actually saying that we should have more information technology in Parliament, not less.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, of course. But the implication was that we do not have enough. I was attempting to explain that we are rather better than other countries in that regard and, for the information of noble Lords, the parliamentary website is the best in the world. For example, it includes the text of Hansard, of all Bills and of all committee reports among many other matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, made a valid series of points in relation to quangos. He will be aware of the Government's consultation document produced at the end of last year opening up quangos. It outlined the steps that the Government have taken and propose to take to ensure that they are fully accountable in their role and operation. One of the most important elements is that appointments to quangos are now made according to the Nolan principles rather than by the bad old method of going round to the Whips' Office to see whether there is a Conservative loyalist in the area who might be suitable for appointment to a paid job.

We are committed to keeping the total number of quangos under control. However, there are circumstances in which a body with independence from Ministers will be the best way of delivering specific functions. We plan to publish our response to the consultation process soon.

I must disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, about executive agencies. He describes them as being a diminution of parliamentary control. That is not the case. Executive agencies have to publish annual reports; they have to set themselves targets. This is not a party political point. Executive agencies were set up by the previous government, and they are judged on whether or not they achieve those targets. It is an effective form of public and parliamentary control and I welcome it. Also, I am not ashamed of the number of task forces and reviews. I gave the first Answer to Parliament on that. I was pleased to see almost all of the reviews I listed in my Answer and I am willing to accept that many more have been identified since then. It is right that the Government should go to outside expertise for advice on issues of public policy.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, made a comment which I believe he has made before in relation to the overload of Parliament as though that is a criticism. He will know, as we all know, of the additional burden being placed on Parliament—thank goodness!—by the need for legislation in Northern Ireland. Of course we will have to adapt and work harder; the noble Lord will have to work harder too and I hope he will support us in getting that legislation through when, as we hope, the referendums go well on Friday of next week.

There was specific criticism in relation to the idea of a carry-over. It is not a device to provide injury time. It is an idea with a good pedigree. It came from the Hansard Society Commission chaired by the late Lord Rippon. The Procedure Committee in the Lords will shortly consider a unanimous recommendation from the all-party Commons Modernisation Committee that in certain circumstances and with general consent a government Bill might be carried over from one Session to the next in the same way as private Bills may be. That procedure would avoid the end of Session rush and ensure that any such Bill was properly considered. But there would be no change without consultation and debate.

In view of the time, I am inclined to skip the arguments in relation to the reform of the House of Lords—not that I am in any way afraid of them. However, we are to debate them in full at another time.

Lord Alexander of Weedon

My Lords, cannot the noble Lord briefly respond to the clear suggestion that he asked the Liaison Committee to establish a joint committee to come forward with a package to safeguard and enhance our future?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I can respond, but I cannot respond positively. Our commitment in the election manifesto was that there would be joint action by both Houses of Parliament to consider the second stage of reform of the House of Lords. That is a better proposal than the idea of the Liaison Committee setting up a special committee in this House alone. It is a matter for Parliament as a whole.

In view of the time, unless I am challenged on any other points—that was a perfectly valid challenge by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon—I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I do not go into that topic in more detail.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I rise simply to question the noble Lord on the answer he gave in relation to the Local Government Association having copies of the applications for action zones. I understood the noble Lord to say that it is involved in the assessment process. That was not made clear to the House. It was not made clear in any supporting paper and has not been made clear anywhere. Can I say also that the Local Government Association has written to councils of all party political persuasions. Is the noble Lord saying to me that as a Front Bench Member of the Opposition in this House I have a lesser entitlement than a councillor on a county council?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, let me be precise because I read out what I said. I said that the Local Government Association sought involvement in the assessment of applications. The department's view was that it would not be appropriate for the Local Government Association to have formal representation on the advisory panel. It was agreed that at official level we would allow the officers to see copies of the applications and would take note of any comments they offered. I cannot go further than the information I have from the department. I am sure that Ministers concerned will be in touch with the noble Baroness if she has any further problems.

I want to say a brief word about devolution. One or two noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in particular—appeared to think that somehow devolution undermines the authority of Parliament. I remind him that Parliament is using its legislative authority to decentralise power in accordance with the wishes of the electorate demonstrated both in the general election and the referendums.

Parliament retains its legislative sovereignty and could repeal the devolution Bills if that were thought appropriate. I am grateful for the number of noble Lords, on both the Labour and Liberal Democrat Benches, who recognise that it is an extension of democracy rather than a reduction.

Finally, I want to refer to two items which seem to me to be the most important initiatives which this Government have taken which received no comment whatever in the debate. The first is the Human Rights Bill—the implementation in this country of the European Convention on Human Rights. That is a huge increase in democratic accountability of this Government to their citizens, and I should have thought that those concerned with the subject matter of this Motion would agree with that. The second is the White Paper on freedom of information, which is due to be published as a draft Bill this summer. If we had done nothing other than incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights and freedom of information into our legislation in the course of one or two Sessions, that would have been enough to be proud of. I hope I have shown that we have done a great deal more that we can be proud of and that we have no fear of the strictures of the Opposition.

7.40 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I am particularly grateful to my two noble friends who entertained the House with notable maiden speeches. I should like to associate myself with the adulatory remarks made by various noble Lords on this side of the House to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. I do so with some trepidation—

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Viscount will get me fired!

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord has anticipated my explanation of why I did this with some trepidation. We would all hate to lose him and I am sure that the fastest way of losing him would be to praise him too highly from this side of the House.

I was particularly interested by the noble Lord's waving, at the beginning of his remarks, of a massive sheaf of what he described as defensive briefing. I could only conclude that he thought there was a great deal to be defensive about.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, a large number of answers were given to attacking points which were not made!

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, circumlocutions of that kind are certainly circumlocutions we have heard from various members of Her Majesty's Government, but, I am glad to say, very rarely from the noble Lord himself. I merely note that he preferred to ignore a number of the more serious charges which we attempted to lay at the door of the Government. But, if I may say so, he did so with his usual good humour and elegance. Therefore, I hope your Lordships will support me in begging leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.