HL Deb 11 February 1999 vol 597 cc323-9

3.15 p.m.

Lord Chesham asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether their appointees to the Royal Commission on the future of the House of Lords represent all shades of opinion and areas of expertise.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, I believe that it would be very foolish to suggest or assert that any group of 12 people automatically embraced all shades of opinion and expertise as the Question suggests. However, those people who have been invited to serve on the Royal Commission are drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds. There s an excellent spread of experience and expertise among them. I am sure that they will all make a significant contribution to the work of the Royal Commission, and the Government are grateful to them for undertaking this important task.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, while I thank the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal for that response, she will recall her words in a debate on the future of this House: noble Lords are, after all, the experts on this House: experts on its role, its customs, its strengths and of course its weaknesses. It is right that those most affected by proposals for change should have a proper opportunity to contribute".—[Official Report, 14/10/98; col. 921.] Does the noble Baroness suggest that no hereditary Peer has that expertise?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I recall the remarks to which the noble Lord draws attention. If he looks at the context in which they were made he will see that it was the debate on the occasion that he cites and it related to all debates that I expected to have during this Session on the Bill on the first stage of reform that will reach your Lordships' House in due course. As to the membership of the Royal Commission, as it is the purpose of the Bill that is passing through another place this time to exclude the hereditary peerage from being Members of Parliament I do not believe that it would be logical to invite them to take part in considering the longer-term position of the second House.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, without dissenting necessarily from what the noble Baroness has just said, does she agree that most people might be of the view that if one planned to reorganise part of a parliament that had over 700 years to its record the kind of people one would want to provide advice would be experts on constitutional law and the history of the constitution? As far as one knows, neither category is represented in the names that have emerged so far.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I must differ with the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, not about his original premise, with which I agree, but the names of those involved in the Royal Commission. I suggest that, for example, both Professor Anthony King and Professor Dawn Oliver fall into the category he described. Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth, as a very long-standing member of the Clerks' Department of your Lordships' House, is a very appropriate person to take part in the discussion on the history and traditions of this House.

Lord Peston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the most important characteristic of anyone who sits on a Royal Commission is the ability to take evidence and consider it dispassionately? As I understand it, there is nothing in the remit of the Royal Commission to cause its members to say that they do not wish to receive sensible evidence from hereditary Peers or any other experts that anyone may want to consider. The notion that one must have expertise to be on the Royal Commission seems to me to be quite preposterous. Am I not right?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the simple answer to my noble friend is, yes. However, he is right to draw your Lordships' attention to the fact—I was slightly remiss in not mentioning it in my response to the original Question—that it is open to those who feel they have points to make, in particular Members of your Lordships' House, to address them to the members of the Royal Commission.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree with me that this is probably a once-in-a-century opportunity to examine the composition and functions of your Lordships' House, and in particular its relationship with another place? If she agrees with that proposition, does she agree equally that it is important that the Royal Commission be seen by the public to have examined the question in all its aspects; and that therefore it is important for its deliberations to be made as public as possible and for as much evidence as possible to be heard in public?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I agree with the noble Viscount's point about it being an important opportunity to discuss the matters he raised. Those are explicitly mentioned in the terms of reference of the Royal Commission.

The way in which the Royal Commission conducts its business will be primarily a matter for the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and his colleagues to decide.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, of course it will be for the Royal Commission to decide on its deliberations, but my noble friend Lord Cranborne was clear in asking the opinion of the Government. Would the noble Baroness the Leader of the House like to consider her reply? Do the Government believe that the Royal Commission should take evidence from the public; and that that evidence should be in public?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, of course the Government would be happy for members of the public to give evidence to the Royal Commission. I hope that that was included in the answer I gave to my noble friend Lord Peston. How that evidence is acquired, the form in which it is given—whether written or in person—is appropriately a matter for the chairman and his colleagues.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Baroness the Leader of the House still hoping that the Royal Commission will report by 31st December of this year? Taking into account the wide range of issues that will have to be considered, the evidence that the commission will have to take and the diversity of opinions that members may have among themselves, does the noble Baroness think that the commission will be able to complete its work by then, bearing in mind that every Royal Commission in living memory has taken longer to do its work than expected?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the intention of the Government, and the request we have made to the chairman of the Royal Commission and the members, is that they should report by the end of the year.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House help me with one of the names on the list; namely, Sir Kenneth Munro? No one seems to know exactly who Sir Kenneth is. Is it the Ken Munro who is currently the chairman of the Labour think-tank in Scotland who was formerly the European Union representative in Scotland? If so, I give him a reasonable welcome as he was a crony of mine at university and it is always gratifying if one's cronies are appointed. However, does the noble Baroness realise that if she had wished to have one of my Scottish cronies, and had asked me, I could have nominated, for example, two of her colleagues: the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, and the noble Lord, Lord Gordon? I could have nominated the former Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Office, Sir Russell Hillhouse. I could have nominated the Principal of St. Andrew's University. There is a whole list. Why not one of them? Why is it Ken Munro; and why give him a bogus knighthood?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the noble Lord having moved his seat to sit next to the noble Lord, Lord MacLaurin, I thought that they were going to ask a collective question about having some member of the English cricket team on the Royal Commission. However, the noble Lord asks about Mr. Ken Munro. It is regrettable that a press release suggested that he had been given a knighthood. The giving of the knighthood is not regrettable—I am sure he is well deserving of it. However, the press release was inaccurate. As regards the suggestions of different names from Scotland, the noble Lord will know that the system of approval and recommendation of names for a Royal Commission is not, alas, in my hands.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will the evidence be heard in public or private?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, in response to previous questions, I am sorry that I may not have made clear the position that I feel is appropriate. That is a matter for the chairman of the Royal Commission and his colleagues.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is it the Government's wish that the Royal Commission gets the matter right first time, or that it gives a rushed decision, fitting it in before 31st December in order to accommodate the Government?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I do not regard it as being mutually exclusive to reach a conclusion by the end of December and for it to be a right decision, which is what we invite.

It is appropriate to point out that unlike other royal commissions—for example, on the criminal justice system or the one commission currently reporting on long-term care for the elderly—the basic arguments that the Royal Commission will need to discuss are well known. They have been under discussion since 1911. The necessity for original, primary research is much less than in some other royal commissions.

Lord Richard

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the composition of the Royal Commission is reasonably well balanced? Mr. Ken Munro will make an excellent member of it. I heard the answer my noble friend gave twice in response to questions from the Opposition. However, is she aware that it is important that as much evidence as possible is taken in public by the Royal Commission? After all, I had always understood the object of the exercise to be that between stage one and stage two there was to be a major exercise in public consultation. That was one of the reasons that the Government, I think sensibly, moved away from a joint committee to a Royal Commission. While my noble friend cannot commit the Royal Commission, can she give a gentle steer, in her usual elegant and gentle way, in the direction of evidence being heard in public?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am happy to respond to my noble friend's kind remarks. I am glad he supports the appointment of Mr. Ken Munro and others who have been suggested for the Royal Commission.

I believe that vie may be making slightly heavy weather of the question of evidence. There is no reason why oral evidence in particular should not be held in public. If that is the wish of the chairman and his colleagues, nothing I can suggest would inhibit him from so doing—not least any negative position from the Government.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House confirm that the terms of reference are sufficient to enable the Royal Commission to consider the powers of the new second chamber as well as its functions and composition?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, perhaps I may quote directly from the terms of reference. It is for the noble Lord to interpret them. They seem quite clear to me. They are: Having regard to the need to maintain the position of the House of Commons as the pre-eminent chamber of Parliament and taking particular account of the present nature of the constitutional settlement, including the newly devolved institutions, the impact of the Human Rights Act and developing relations with the European Union to consider and make recommendations on the role and functions of the second chamber; and to make recommendations on the method or combination of methods required to constitute a second chamber fit for that role and those functions".

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, the noble Baroness has not answered the question.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, implicit in the answer given by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, is the presumption that the Royal Commission will come up with "the right answer". What happens if it comes up with "the wrong answer"? How can the noble Baroness be so confident?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I was only confident in suggesting to the noble Countess that it was perfectly possible to get to an answer which could be rightly described (in quotation marks) as "the right answer" within the period of time we have suggested is appropriate. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, asked about the period of time rather than any specific answer. The noble Lord will be aware that no government can make a commitment to accept all the recommendations of a commission of this kind.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, will the noble Baroness say why Scotland and Wales are represented but not Northern Ireland?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the point is not that people are represented. Individuals with, as I said, particular expertise and experience which we thought relevant, were invited to serve on the commission.

Earl Russell

My Lords, no one dissents from what the Minister said about another place remaining the pre-eminent Chamber of Parliament. However, does she agree that active membership of this House involves a great deal of work and the reason many of us undertake that work is the hope of occasionally inducing the Government to change their mind when they are, conspicuously reluctant to do so?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I entirely accept that point, but I do not believe that it is particularly related to the Question.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, does the Minister believe that a completely elected second Chamber would undermine the supremacy of the other place?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, it will be most interesting to see what discussions the Royal Commission has and what are its responses to particular questions of that type.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that what she regards to be the right answer would be an effective second Chamber which is able to challenge the elected Chamber, challenge Executive power and ensure that we do not have an authoritarian government who are able always to get their own way?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness has read the White Paper on the House of Lords, which we will have the opportunity to debate at some length next week. I am sure that she will recognise that within that document there is a requirement that the second Chamber, however it is constituted and with whatever role and function, should be effective.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, in view of the Minister's reply about a member with experience of life in Northern Ireland, can she say whether the Government believe that experience and understanding of the situation in that Province within the United Kingdom has nothing to do with the work of the Royal Commission?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, no, that was not the answer that I gave nor the suggestion that I made. In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I said that no one had been appointed to the Royal Commission as a representative of any particular body. It is true that there are members who are in a sense related to different parts of the country and have other expertise and experience to bring to the commission. It is, of course, relevant that those devolved assemblies and institutions which are included in the terms of reference are considered appropriately, and that would obviously include that in Northern Ireland.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, may I respectfully ask the Minister to answer my question?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sorry, I thought that I had answered the noble Lord's question.