§ The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)
My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interests, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
§ Viscount Cranborne
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
I am extraordinarily grateful to noble Lords who are taking part in this Second Reading debate. A hot Friday in late June is hardly an alluring time to discuss any Private Member's Bill in your Lordships' House; to discuss a Private Member's Bill on Parliament and making some changes to the way it is ordered, after two full Sessions already on constitutional matters, is perhaps trying your Lordships' patience rather high. I am grateful that Peers of such very great distinction have been kind enough to put down their names to speak, including noble Lords from both Front Benches.
I hold what the Government feel to be a rather unfashionable view. I feel that the day of the nation state is very far from over. Indeed, I would go further. It seems to me that there is an increasingly clear correlation between prosperity in the modern world and nations with effective systems of representative government. Increasingly, economic growth will he stimulated within policies which allow the maximum liberty to citizens and the minimum amount of interference in the individual's affairs from the bureaucracy. This principle mirrors the nature of growth in the digital age, where an individual can found enterprises with an idea and a bit of IT alone; in an astonishingly short time, one has companies such as Microsoft, to take one example.
It seems to me that the days of feudal bureaucracies of the kinds that still exist in Brussels and Whitehall should be over. Bureaucracies can no longer pick winners; all they can do is to hold the ring and adopt the same principle that I am told Vita Sackville-West adopted for her garden; the maximum amount of informality inside the maximum amount of formality. Under these conditions, parliamentary institutions become more important than ever.
The basis of our system as it has developed—perhaps I can put it personally—is this: the reason that I do as the Government tell me to do—especially, dare I say it. when I disagree with them—is that they derive their authority from a Parliament whose dominant Chamber, the other place, the electorate has a right, to throw out 1178 at least once every five years. If Parliament holds the Government continuously and effectively to account, and the Government survive that experience, their authority is surely strengthened and I am constrained more than ever to do what the Government tell me, especially when I think that the Government are an ass. Government is rather like Antaeus, returning strengthened to the fray after contact with his mother.
For Parliament to perform its central task—giving the Government the authority to govern—it must appear to the electorate to be fully up to its own task; otherwise both it and the Government will lose the authority that they both need. My fear is that even before the communications revolution struck, Parliament was beginning to fail us; another place was already overwhelmingly and inevitably dominated by a powerful executive through the agency of an effective Government Whips' Office. During my brief time in another place, it sometimes seemed to me to be the only effective part of the House of Commons.
This House felt, and still feels, that it no longer had the authority to use its theoretical powers of delay to force another place to do its job properly. Governments crammed far too much legislation through Parliament, much of it ill prepared and hurriedly drafted, through no fault of the parliamentary draftsman. Parliament already looked unresponsive to the electorate's needs and seemed increasingly the poodle of the executive before the digital age struck. It seemed increasingly that other institutions—such as the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights—were taking its place.
With the digital world now upon us, Parliament and Whitehall look perhaps even more flat-footed and inadequate. Parliament's reduced standing is reflected in the negligible number of column inches that the press devotes to its affairs. Whitehall, which derives its authority from Parliament, as I have already said, looks to the courts and to Europe at least as much as to us, and is pleased to find itself. I would suggest with the greatest respect to the learned and noble Lord, serving a government who find it more and more possible to treat Parliament as an non-optional add-on.
The Government have said that they want to modernise Parliament. It seems to me that there is no evidence, either in their White Paper on in their various pronouncements, that they have any clear idea yet of what they think is the purpose of this place and what they want to do with it.
As for reform of another place, even Peter Riddell, who tends to speak for the Government—he is what one might call "Lord Columnist in Waiting"—in his column in Parliamentary Brief in March 1999 described the Government's proposals for reform in another place as, mainly desirable, but cosmetic.
It was for that reason that it seemed to me well worth floating a number of proposals in a Bill to stimulate debate on what is surely a central constitutional theme, but one which has rather surprisingly been neglected in the avalanche of constitutional measures that threaten to overwhelm us. The theme is how we restore the standing of Parliament in our national life.
1179 The Bill makes a number of proposals which, taken together, might begin to do so. Of course, they are far from comprehensive, however broadly they may range. Part I of the Bill contains in Clauses 1 to 12 a number of provisions, few of them original, that are designed to reduce the flow of legislation, to improve the preparation of legislation and to improve parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, so that Parliament can assess both the probable impact of legislation and how effective it has proved after coming into force.
Clause 1 provides that every Bill should be published in draft before introduction, and that the Select Committee procedure should apply unless the House determines otherwise. Clause 2 provides that the Comptroller and Auditor General should assess the possible impact of the proposed legislation before it is introduced. There are also provisions for wide public consultation on proposed legislation.
Equally, Clause 4 gives noble Lords the power to remove excessive delegated powers from any Bill. Clause 5 gives your Lordships the right to express an opinion on excessive delegated powers in any legislation proposed in any of the three devolved assemblies. There are provisions in Clauses 6, 7 and 8 to prevent the hurried introduction of secondary legislation before extensive consultation, and before reporting to Parliament the results of that consultation.
There are two other areas in Part I to which perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention—Clauses 9 and 10 on Community legislation and Clause 3 covering Bills affecting the constitution. On Community legislation, the Bill, if passed, would probably conflict with the doctrine of the acquis communautaire in that Clause 9 provides for no new Union directive to be moved by a British Minister unless he has consulted widely on its provisions, and that it cannot come into effect until Parliament has approved it.
Clause 10 provides that any gold-plating of Community legislation by Whitehall—a source of great muddle when apportioning the blame for increased bureaucracy—should be embodied in legislation separate from that strictly confined to implementing EU directives.
As far as concerns legislation affecting the constitution, Clause 3 gives this House the power to delay the bringing into effect of Bills which substantially alter the constitution—it will be for your Lordships to decide whether or not the alteration is substantial—until such Bills have been approved by a referendum (to be held under the rules of the Neill Committee) after their passage through Parliament, but before they have received Royal Assent.
Part II of the Bill gives the Comptroller and Auditor General, and therefore the House of Commons, a more powerful droit de regard, if I may put it that way, over matters supervised by the Audit Commission, a body which, as your Lordships will know, reports to the Secretary of State. I believe I am right to say that about 25 per cent of public expenditure is local government expenditure, and that more than 80 per cent of that expenditure is nowadays centrally funded. It seems to 1180 me odd that another place does not take a greater interest than it does in local government affairs and in the expenditure of centrally provided taxpayers' money.
Clause 14 provides for a number of important Crown appointments, to be made only after appointees have appeared before parliamentary committees and a resolution of both Houses of Parliament has been passed, in effect giving approval to those appointments. I have no doubt that this provision would be strongly resisted both by Sir Humphrey and Mr Jim Hacker. Perhaps that is reason enough for giving favourable consideration to the suggestion. It has some merit, in view of the experience of the United States in a similar case.
Parts III and IV are closely interlinked. I am convinced that our public administration is excessively cumbersome and serves very ill both its customers and those it employs to provide its services. It institutionalises public squalor at enormous public expense. It ensures that the poorest have a sad view of what the public purse does for them. As a firm sceptic on the introduction of any kind of gizmo, it seems to me that in this case the use of technology—both ancient and modern—should be able to make enormous improvements to public administration, particularly if applied with imagination and ruthlessness. For example, I am told that simply by making its social security and benefits payments available through the commercial banking system, New Zealand cut its social security administrative costs by around 75 per cent. By those and other more elaborate devices, we could reduce the size of the Civil Service and amalgamate a substantial number of departments of state which are at present engaged primarily in supplying government services.
That idea will initially be extraordinarily unpopular with civil servants and, I dare say, with Ministers, for obvious reasons. However, once it was accomplished, those who remained would be far better paid, which should be of some attraction to them; more concerned with policy—a perennial complaint of civil servants, as those of us who have been Ministers know—and they would be able to spend more time in providing sensible and helpful advice to the Government's customers of both services. The customers themselves would be better served, and would certainly feel far less the victims of a vast system that is unresponsive to their needs.
Both the previous government and this one have tinkered with these ideas, primarily through the central IT unit of the Cabinet Office, an organisation for which I briefly had some tangential responsibility. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, to whom I am hugely grateful for his kindness in taking part in this debate, knowing how extraordinarily busy he is, will take the opportunity to acknowledge that the recent White Paper was as disappointing in that regard as our own performance was in this area before the last election.
In that respect—and perhaps one of the main reasons why Parts III and IV of the Bill are so closely interconnected—the House will be aware that any Government Chief Whip in another place will acknowledge that a smaller number of government 1181 departments, and therefore a smaller number of Ministers, also provided for in the Bill, is a disaster from his point of view. How is he to satisfy the rows of eager Back-Benchers panting for office, and so keep them untainted by thoughts of rebellion? For that reason alone, he would strongly disapprove of Clause 18 of the Bill, which among other things reduces the maximum number of serving Cabinet Ministers to 15—in spite of the fact that the Cabinet would function far better as a result.
So for that reason alone, it would be sensible to help the unfortunate patronage secretary and reduce the number of Members of another place as well. Some mauvaises langues have suggested to me that for a Member of this House to suggest the reform and composition of another place in this particular Session of Parliament is descending to mere brawling. But I am sure that that is not right. There are already far too many MPs, particularly now that the Scots and Welsh among them have very little to do. With better public administration as a result of Clauses 15 and 16 of the Bill, all MPs will have less to do. As a result of Clause 20, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs will have even less to do, since they will not be allowed to vote in another place on matters which in their own countries are devolved to the local Assembly or Parliament but which are not devolved in England.
Noble Lords will have noted that the reduction in numbers is to be achieved gradually, at a rate that is slower than the average rate of retirement of Members of another place over the past 50 years. That gradual approach might just persuade turkeys to vote for Christmas.
Perhaps I may mention two other clauses. The first, I suggest, will also be most unwelcome to all sitting governments. Clause 20 provides the admirable practice, discontinued in 1926, of forcing a newly appointed Cabinet Minister to submit himself to re-election by his constituents in a by-election, but in a slightly different form from that faced before 1926. There is method in this madness. The noble and learned Lord may disagree, but he, like me, has no need to submit himself for re-election—although that time may come.
As the 20th century has developed, the Prime Minister has had far too much power over his Cabinet. He is no longer primus inter pares, but increasingly presidential. Not unnaturally, all Prime Ministers tend to behave accordingly, however charming and modest they may be in private life. This provision would discourage frequent reshuffles and give much more power and endurance to the Cabinet in consequence. It would rebalance the situation in a highly desirable way.
Finally, the digital revolution should enable all of us to watch both Houses of Parliament on television on dedicated channels. Clause 21 so provides. I am the first to admit that, initially, the audiences would be minuscule. But that would enable those policy wonks and political freaks who were interested enough to watch to see us in all our glory, unedited. If the Bill were to become law, I believe that the viewing figures 1182 would increase, thereby showing that its provisions were achieving their objective in making Parliament more effective and stimulating more interest outside.
We should be holding the Government better to account. We should legislate better. As a result, our respect as a nation for government itself would increase. I submit that that is a worthy cause, even for a Friday morning in June, and one that is well worth supporting in principle. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Viscount Cranborne.)
§ 11.26 a.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, not for the first time your Lordships are deeply indebted to the noble Viscount for bringing forward a Bill of profound constitutional importance in a constructive way and for explaining it with exemplary clarity. In the noble Viscount, we have the advantage of a former member of the Cabinet, a former Leader of the House and, particularly important in this context, a former Member of another place. I do not suppose that he will expect all of us to agree with everything in his Bill. That is hardly necessary to secure a Second Reading. Indeed. I shall be anxious to see how far my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor is enthusiastic about the preamble, or the proposal that newly appointed Cabinet Ministers should submit themselves to a by-election. That was formerly the practice, and it provided a great deal of innocent fun—fun that was not always so innocent, as it was a wonderful opportunity for the electorate to give a jolt to a government.
Parliamentary representative government is not, as I have ventured to submit in discussing the House of Lords Bill, the sole method of democracy. The great achievement of the previous government was their vindication of the market economy, whereby every shopping day is a general election, every shop a polling booth, and every penny laid out on the counter a vote for the various candidates for custom.
Nor is one limited to the economy for democracy. If the decision which affects the individual can be vouchsafed to the individual, if we vindicate the old proverb that every Englishman's home is his castle, if we can vindicate subsidiarity, which was the great achievement of John Major, inscribing it in the Maastricht Treaty, if we can apply subsidiarity, like charity, to begin at home, we shall have gone a very long way towards establishing a democratic society.
But that is not to say that representative government is not important. It is true that there are many things the individual cannot decide himself. The late Lord Jay was probably right when he said that the man in Whitehall does know best. However, there is one thing the man in Whitehall does not know: it is where the shoe is pinching when other people are wearing it. That is why we give influence in politics not only to the mandarin on his high horse, but also to the footsore pedestrian. We do it by representative democracy.
1183 The preamble indicates a number of concerns about the way representative democracy works at the moment. The noble Viscount mentioned the Glorious Revolution which we celebrated a decade ago. The revolution was glorious because it vindicated parliamentary government against executive government. The modern equivalent is presidential government. The Glorious Revolution managed to see off a government that legislated by ordinance, by decree, by executive order. The noble Viscount's Bill deals importantly with that matter. Today a great deal is done by subordinate legislation. There have been notorious examples with this Government, but perhaps the worst was the Child Support Act of the previous government, which was virtually a skeleton Bill and worked out disastrously.
The noble Viscount puts us in a debt by bringing forward in a constructive way various methods by which representative government can be improved. It would not be right to be entirely pessimistic. There have been some valuable and positive developments; the select committees in the other place, the development of judicial review, and so on.
On the other hand, there is the deplorable but characteristic example of the European election measure. It was deplorable in two ways. First, the party list meant that power was in effect taken away from the electorate and vouchsafed to the party managers. Secondly, a whip was imposed in the other place and afterwards the Parliament Act was invoked. Many Members of the other place who disagree entirely with the party list method must have been profoundly disturbed by what was done. They were whipped into the Lobby, and the Parliament Act was imposed on a measure for which it was entirely inappropriate.
Having said that, there is much in the Bill which is of value. I attach great importance to the proposals on subordinate legislation. It is now so important that Parliament should have the power to amend it. I imagine that that is a breaking point with the Civil Service. On the other hand, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has achieved a way of getting round it; and, having conceded his method, we may as well face directly the right of Parliament to amend subordinate legislation.
This is not the time to go through the Bill in detail. I regard with some hesitation the proposal not only that Cabinet Ministers should submit to re-election but also that senior civil servants and the very senior part of the judiciary should go before a parliamentary committee and be approved by the committee. It is limited to the Appellate Committee of your Lordships' House, the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. Even so limited, it would be deplorable if our judiciary felt that they were being subjected to a political test. One saw the damaging and humiliating experiences of two judges, candidates submitted by the President for the American Supreme Court. One had to withdraw his candidature after a press campaign against him. The other, Justice Thomas, went through a most excruciating and improper grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
1184 Despite all the hesitation on detail, we can wholeheartedly welcome the proposals which the noble Viscount lays before us, which will be a valuable source of discussion.
§ 11.40 a.m.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, has given us the advantage of his judicial experience and constitutional wisdom. I do not believe that I have ever said—I should have done—that I and members of the Committee on the Preparation of Legislation, of which I had the honour to be chairman, are deeply indebted to the noble and learned Lord for the way in which a quarter of a century ago at this time of year he welcomed the report of that committee and has supported it frequently ever since. His reference today to the Preamble to this Bill reminds me that what we most wanted parliamentary draftsmen to do was to state the purposes and principles of Bills so that the contents could be better understood by everyone and more easily interpreted by the courts.
The Preamble to the Bill states vividly the purposes as matters of principle. We have not had Preambles as a regular matter for over 70 years. However, I believe that in this particular case it has been an advantage to us to have the Preamble. One hopes that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, with whom one disagrees on some matters but who has some good ideas about the drafting of legislation, will bear in mind that advantage.
My noble friend Lord Cranborne, who was an admirable Leader of the House and Leader of the Opposition, has done valuable service to our parliamentary democracy by introducing this Bill. I need hardly mention, although we should bear in mind, that we have a flexible and "unwritten" constitution. I put that word in inverted commas because parts of our constitution have passed into statute and therefore can be said to be partly written. That differs from so-called "written" constitutions which, thank God, we do not have. It is difficult to reach agreement on their amendment and they fail to keep up with changing times, and if possible we should avoid them. Our constitution, being flexible, can change as experience requires or public opinion desires. By proposing various detailed changes my noble friend's Bill would help to bring our parliamentary government up to date.
Clauses 1 to 12 in Part I aim to improve our primary, devolved and delegated legislation and give us the control that we need over Community legislation. Those changes will no doubt be discussed in detail in Committee, but perhaps I may make a general comment. Our legislation needs to be improved in the way suggested by my noble friend, and the Government should seriously consider that. I draw attention only to Clauses 6 to 8 which suggest ways in which subordinate legislation should be considered. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said, the Government use delegated legislation more than it has been used in the past, certainly, as far as I can remember, since World War II. In war time it must be used; it cannot be avoided. But it is most unfortunate that neither House of Parliament has power to amend 1185 delegated legislation. The practice in both Houses is to debate these matters either late in the day or early in the night when they have much less chance of being properly considered; and they cannot be amended.
In Part II Clause 13 proposes some useful strengthening of the powers of the Committee of Public Accounts to consider recommendations of the Comptroller and Auditor General. I regard that as one of the most important provisions in the Bill. But, alas, as I have told my noble friend, I cannot agree with Clause 14. That clause requires parliamentary approval of a wide range of important public appointments, including Law Lords, ambassadors and chairmen of many important public bodies. For years all of these appointments have been made by members of the Cabinet, each with his own responsibility, who happen to be politicians. But those appointments are made after consultation with civil servants and others who can give advice as to the best people to fill those posts. Some of the appointments require Royal approval. I consider that the present system works well. If party politicians, especially those in another place, had to give their approval all kinds of undesirable pressures would arise, and that is something to be avoided. The administrative cost of making these appointments would also be considerably increased. At Committee stage I intend to move to omit Clause 14 and the schedule from the Bill.
Part III proposes a commission to review government administration. That is a very sensible proposal. Part IV is a hit controversial in places, but I shall try to keep an open mind until Committee stage and I have heard further justification from my noble friend for his proposal. Meanwhile, I doubt the need for by-elections after the appointment of new Cabinet Ministers. That, too, would add to the cost to the taxpayer.
Clause 21 in Part V requires the BBC to broadcast proceedings of each House. That is an excellent proposal, for it means that people can be better informed. We used to be reasonably well informed by The Times, Daily Telegraph and Guardian, but regrettably those newspapers have not performed that task for many years. I hope that I shall not be thought to he too egocentric if I say that I fought and won 10 general elections and never had a majority of less than 5,000. Looking back to those times, it occurs to me that no more than one third of those who voted had a real understanding of the issues. I doubt whether today the proportion is any higher, because people do not have an easy opportunity of becoming well informed. If the BBC had an obligation to broadcast the whole of our proceedings, democracy would be much improved, and people would be better informed and more able to make a judgment. I regard that provision as being of great importance.
I believe that my noble friend has done a great service in putting forward the Bill. I know that it is late in the Session, but I hope that we shall have the Committee stage very soon. If, as some would say, a miracle occurs—I believe that it is a necessity—and the Bill reaches the statute book, it would be in the interests of our parliamentary democracy.
§ 11.49 a.m.
§ Lord Rathcavan
My Lords, with due humility in the presence of so many noble and learned. Lords, I intend to make only a brief contribution to the debate on the Bill which I broadly welcome. From these Benches, I often admire the nimble footwork of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, on legislative matters on which he has as much experience and historical knowledge as anyone here today. I do not see any hidden agenda, however, in the Bill. It is clear what it intends to achieve: more democratic government. which we badly need at present; more accountability; more parliamentary control; and more scrutiny of government and in particular the scrutiny of the devolved assemblies and Scottish Parliament.
I wish to speak in particular on Clauses 4 to 8 which are concerned with parliamentary control over the delegation of legislative powers and the exercise of those powers in Scotland, Wales and my own province of Northern Ireland, and which would require the Northern Ireland Assembly, for example, to send all its Bills to Parliament here for scrutiny at the least.
During the few years in which I have been a Member of your Lordships' House I have had the advantage and experience of being a member of Sub-Committee D of the European Communities Committee to which government give the informal power to scrutinise and comment on any legislative measures or directives from Europe before they are agreed by the Council of Ministers. In Clause 9 the Bill goes much further, and I very much welcome that. The sub-committees of the European Communities Committee do not have power at present, but I hope and believe that we have influence. Government take into account our recommendations, as they have done recently on the report produced by Sub-Committee D on genetically modified crops and food. More important perhaps is what would happen if the scrutiny process of the committees was not there to request government to account for what they are doing and to debate the issues involved.
In the case of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament there is no revising chamber and no scrutiny reserve. There are concordats which I understand are written but which are informal arrangements concerning departmental matters, produced more often by officials than Ministers, such as, for example, on the rules for competition on inward investment incentives between the different regions and the DTI—a very contentious issue. But if I remember correctly, the Government, at least at Third Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill, rejected any legal obligation to lay these concordats before Parliament. In Clause 5 the Bill would require the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament to send all Bills to the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee for scrutiny and a report to be laid before the Assembly or the Scottish Parliament. It is a reasonable enough request and a move towards the checks and balances and public discussion which should take place.
At one extreme one can imagine a coalition in Northern Ireland of the Presbyterian ethic with the abstemious style of Sinn Fein to introduce prohibition 1187 in the Province. That reminds me of my time as a young member of the editorial staff of the Irish Times when that paper published an April Fool's day editorial during a general election criticising the inclusion in the manifesto of the Fianna Fail party of a proposal to introduce prohibition for the Republic of Ireland. This led to a serious sense of humour failure by the Fianna Fail party which accused the Irish Times editorial of being in the hands of crypto red communists.
On a more serious note, I urge the Government to take more seriously now the Bill's proposals and to take this opportunity to make the regional assemblies and the Scottish Parliament more accountable and more open to scrutiny by central government and Parliament, which is, after all, providing most of the money for them to spend, as the noble Viscount mentioned. Perhaps it requires a beefing up of the Public Accounts Committee. That is covered in Clause 13.
I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, on introducing the Bill. I strongly support the themes of the Bill and look forward, I hope, to the Committee stage when the Bill can even be improved.
§ 11.54 a.m.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, I, too congratulate my noble friend Lord Cranborne on introducing the Bill. It is an important Bill and I join in welcoming the fact that it is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor who is to reply for the Government and my noble friend Lord Strathclyde for the Opposition.
The Bill deals with the fundamental relationship at the heart of our political system. There is an inherent conflict within that relationship. Most members of the elected Chamber are returned to support and sustain the Government, yet they are Members of a House expected to subject to scrutiny the actions and measures of that very Government. The nature of this inherent conflict raises two important questions. First, what are the most effective means of parliamentary scrutiny? Secondly, how can those means be put beyond the immediate reach of the majority which exists to sustain the Government, a Government which may not be too keen on being the subject of close and sustained scrutiny?
The Bill deals with the means of scrutiny and the form of protection. I shall address each briefly. On the content, I very much welcome many, indeed most, of the provisions of the Bill. I congratulate my noble friend especially on the provisions for strengthening the role of Parliament in the scrutiny of primary and delegated legislation. I welcome Clause 1 providing for the publication of Bills in draft. I acknowledge how far the previous administration went and how far the present one has gone in providing for the publishing of some Bills in draft. But I believe that it is vital to lock the provision into the system and not leave it to the discretion of Government.
I also strongly support the other provisions of Clause 1. I have long advocated the use of evidence-taking committees, especially in the other place, as standard practice; the provision that Bills automatically stand referred to such committees, unless the House resolves 1188 to the contrary, will, I believe, serve to increase enormously the quality of parliamentary scrutiny, offering as it does the potential for more informed and less partisan examination.
I am delighted by the attention given to delegated legislation and would probably wish to go further and to incorporate more of the proposals contained in the report from the Procedure Committee in another place in its Fourth Report in the 1995–96 Session. I very much endorse what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and my noble friend Lord Renton said. The legislative process in Parliament is still the weakest area of parliamentary scrutiny and anything that serves to strengthen Parliament in its scrutiny of public legislation is to be applauded.
I congratulate my noble friend on the proposals for greater use of the National Audit Office, itself of course established through the medium of a Private Member's Bill. The provisions of Clause 2 are novel and potentially far reaching. I recognise that there are important implications in terms of resources for the National Audit Office, but the provisions merit serious consideration.
I also welcome and strongly support Clause 12 dealing with uncommenced legislation, and have great sympathy with what my noble friend seeks to do in respect of European legislation, public appointments, the number of Members of the House of Commons in Cabinet, and the broadcasting of proceedings, although I take the view that a reduction in the size of the Cabinet should be a consequence of reduction in the size of the House of Commons rather than the other way round. I am not sure that I necessarily agree with the detail of each proposal, but I think that my noble friend has got the principle right in each case.
Where I part company with my noble friend is in respect of Clause 3 providing for referendums on legislative provisions which affect substantially the constitution. I have a practical objection to subsection (1) and I am opposed in principle to the provisions of subsection (2). The practical objection is that it is not always possible to distinguish clearly between a measure which affects substantially the constitution and one that does not. There is an enormous grey area. There can also be a marked difference between a Bill which affects substantially the constitution and a Bill which has an important and contested impact on the constitution. I note also that the Bill does not define a constitution.
I turn to my more fundamental objection. I have a longstanding and principled objection to referendums. The best argument against referendums was made by my noble friend Lady Thatcher in her first major speech as Leader of the Opposition in 1975. Although she may have changed her opinion since, I have not. She recognised that referendums conflict fundamentally with the concepts of parliamentary sovereignty, collective responsibility and a representative of Parliament. As another Labour Member said in that 1975 debate, a referendum perpetuates a confusion of government by 1189 debate, thought, reflection and decision in the House of Commons with a head count of the people. Although I recognise that there is a counter argument, I subscribe to the view that referendums undermine crucially and perniciously the very notion of parliamentary control that my noble friend seeks to protect by this Bill. Clause 3 is the equivalent of a computer virus and if it is left in, it will serve to wipe out and destroy the valuable provisions embodied in the other clauses. I should like to see it eliminated.
I turn now to the form of the Bill. I very much welcome what my honourable friend seeks to achieve by embodying the mechanisms of parliamentary scrutiny and control in statute. By putting the provisions in statutory form, they are protected from the passing whim of a majority in either House. They can be changed only by another statute, not by a simple vote to change or suspend a Standing Order. Given the power at the disposal of the government of the day, such protection helps to ensure a more balanced relationship between the Executive and Parliament.
I can anticipate the argument that the Government will employ against using a Bill for this purpose; namely, that it is too rigid. In some countries, provisions of the kind embodied in this Bill are to be found not in statute but in the constitution. That, I think, is to provide for a little too much rigidity. This Bill lies between the two extremes. It is not overly rigid and it is not too flexible. It provides for a modest degree of statutory protection. For the reasons I have given, I believe that it is necessary protection.
Although I oppose certain provisions of the Bill, I very much support its purpose and I believe that my noble friend has done a great service by introducing it. I often tell my students that the real value of Private Members' Bills is to be found in the debate they generate. They can bring issues on to the political agenda. They can prompt the Government to act. They can help to keep important issues to the fore. I hope that my noble friend's Bill will serve to do all these and more.
Finally, good government needs an effective Parliament. A confident government will have no difficulty in embracing the spirit of this Bill. A government lacking in confidence will not embrace it. I look forward to the response of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor.
§ 12.2 p.m.
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity to discuss this important matter on a Friday morning. However, I am not totally convinced that we need a Bill to make Parliament more effective. In saying that, I do not disagree with many of the suggestions made by the noble Viscount. What I believe is wrong is the way in which we are using Parliament at present. There is not much wrong with the institution of Parliament in itself.
1190 The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, mentioned that the only effective power in the other place at the moment are the Whips' Offices. I fully agree. I was a Whip for some 12 years—
§ Viscount Cranborne
My Lords, particularly in view of the noble Lord's presence here this morning, perhaps I ought to have added, and put first, the Speaker's Office.
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, I wholly agree. I was Speaker only for 10 years, but I was a Whip for 12 years. By the end of my time, in 1979, I had reached the conclusion that as Deputy Chief Whip I had far too much power. If we had used the 1970s tactics in 1964, when I first went to the Whips' Office, on Colonel Sir Walter Henry Bromley-Davenport or on Captain Lancaster or on Nigel Birch, I do not believe that I should be standing here today addressing your Lordships' House.
The trouble is the ambition of Members these days to become Ministers. That gives the Whips far too much influence. I wholly agree with the noble Viscount that what is wrong is that the Government are not being held to account, particularly in the other place. There is not time to go into that in detail in the gap, Put one of the actions we must take is to return to local government the powers taken from it during the past several years and free Members of Parliament to come into the Chamber and hold the Government to account It was Mr Gladstone who said to his own supporters, "It is not your job to run the country. It is your duty to hold to account those who do".
The trouble is that Members of Parliament are in their offices answering the 40,000 letters which come into the Palace of Westminster every day. Frequently, when I was Speaker, I received letters of complaint which were hardly ever about bad behaviour but nearly always about the way in which the Chamber was so badly attended. I want to see the Chamber become once again the forum of the nation. If one turns on the television today, one sees that it is nearly empty. That sends a bad message to the public who watch it, or fail to watch it and do not take account of what is happening. I should make the Select Committees much more influential. That is where the Government really are being held to account. For instance, there is a good case for paying the chairmen of Select Committees.
I shall not enlarge on these matters today, but I hope that we shall have an opportunity to return to them at a later stage. I welcome the opportunity provided by the Bill to reform the whole of the parliamentary system. I hope that after the Bill to "reform"— and reform should be better—your Lordships' House, we shall move on to look at the whole of the parliamentary system, which includes the other place. I welcome and congratulate the noble Viscount on giving us this opportunity today to discuss this very important matter.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he say why he believes that attendance in another place has fallen so much? Is it not due to the ever increasing amount of correspondence which 1191 constituents send to honourable Members, plus the fact that the departmentally related Select Committees, which were established 20 years ago by a committee of which, I must confess, I happened to be a member, now take up so much of the time of Members and prevent them being on the Floor of the House?
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. Part of the trouble is the constituency surgeries, which are now held every week. Members are largely canvassed about constituents' problems. Two-thirds of them are matters for local government, which is why I say that we should return powers to local government and let local councillors deal with many of the problems. That would free Members of Parliament to spend more time in the Chamber.
It is true that Select Committees take Members away from the Chamber. When I was Speaker, Members would regularly ask me whether they would be called by five o'clock. I had to say, "It is unlikely that the Front Benches will have finished by five o'clock. Is it because of your Select Committee?". They would reply, "Yes, Mr Speaker". They have no option. If you can go to a Select Committee and be seen on television holding witnesses and Ministers to account, why stay in the Chamber hoping to catch the eye of the Chair?
§ 12.9 p.m.
§ Lord Jopling
My Lords, I am provoked by my noble friend Lord Cranborne's flattering remarks, about the efficiency of the Government Whips' Office during the years in which he was in the House of Commons, to offer a few remarks. I wish, however, that his enthusiasm for the Whips' Office had been shown on some of those occasions when he was not quite as helpful as I might have wished. However, on this occasion I congratulate him warmly on introducing this Bill. It brings together many of the thoughts that we have had over the years as to how Parliament might be improved.
My noble friend Lord Cranborne came very clean when he said that one purpose of the Bill was to make it more difficult to get legislation through. It would certainly have that effect. When I was Chief Whip, I hated some of the scrutiny arrangements for legislation. They made my job much more difficult, as it took longer to get legislation through. I well remember when there were Cabinet Committee meetings to decide what should be in the Queen's Speech. Ministers would come with torrents of legislation to propose, even though our party had been elected on the basis of reducing the amount of legislation. Whenever I plaintively said that we might be pushing far too much legislation through, nobody seemed much prepared to listen. The Bill might thus prove to be a good way of stemming the flow of legislation from which we have suffered during at least the 35 years in which I have been around this building.
I much agree with the proposal for a smaller House of Commons and fewer Ministers. I had the honour to be chairman of a committee on the Sittings of the House in the 1990s, and I wish that I had had the opportunity 1192 to make such proposals, but that was precluded from its workings. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that these things should be done together, rather than in two stages, as the Bill proposes. I hope that the Bill may be changed in that regard.
I am unhappy about the proposal in Clause 9 that Ministers should not sign European legislation until there has been wide consultation. I shall explain why. During negotiations late at night, new propositions often come up in the Council of Ministers, which can prove particularly advantageous to the national interest. For example, I was once involved in the middle of the night in the annual agriculture price fixing. I was determined to maintain the beef support system, which we then enjoyed. We were the only country to do so. I had no friends, and I badly wanted a friend to support me in maintaining the beef support system, which had to be renegotiated every year. At about 4 a.m. the Italian Minister said, "Michael, I have been looking carefully for the first time at your beef support system, and I think it has much merit. But I wonder whether you would be kind enough to look at my tomato pulp regime". I said that I did not need to look at it, as I was sure that it was an admirable scheme. We agreed to stand up for each other's schemes, and so I immediately obtained my beef support scheme. I should hate to tell your Lordships what the commissioner called us when we told him what we had done.
I hope that the Bill will reach the Committee stage, and that we can try as the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, said, to improve it in the weeks ahead.
§ 12.15 p.m.
§ Lord Hankey
My Lords, I have only just returned from abroad, and have not studied the Bill in the detail that I should have liked. However, its content is enormously important. The Mother of Parliaments is closely watched by the rest of the world for the manner in which we achieve our democracy and transparency, and for how we involve our people, as the primary stakeholders, in government.
What we do in Parliament is of great importance for the primary stakeholder, the electorate. All too often, the electorate has been alienated, and that is borne out by the poor turnout at referendums. The devolution of power which the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, emphasised is vital. We must ensure that devolution involves people so that our open society, which often stands in contrast to the closed societies that lead to corruption and centralisation, can lead to involvement, inclusion and the proper devolution of power.
I have just returned from the Yemen where the law of local administration has attempted to open government to local people. Such issues are fundamental to countries such as India and China, which watch our parliamentary democracy closely. The Bill's importance is underlined by the way in which the "Mother of Parliaments" is so highly visible to the rest of the world. In times of prosperity, alienation is less significant, but we need systems of control and contract for when times are tough, and that also applies to the way in which we organise ourselves in Parliament.
§ 12.17 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, on this ingenious, thought-provoking and constructive Bill. I agree, in principle at any rate, with virtually everything proposed. The exception is Clause 17. The number of Members of Parliament may have crept up somewhat in recent years, but he has perhaps overlooked the fact that once Scottish over-representation at Westminster has been remedied and Scotland has been brought into line with England, Wales and Northern Ireland—a necessary move which I trust will not be long delayed—the number of Members of Parliament will fall to about 644. Of course that is still a long way short of his ultimate goal of 400. But I understand that many people value the chance of personal contact with their Member of Parliament, and the greater the number of constituents, the smaller the opportunity of making that personal contact will be.
Moreover, as my noble friend Lord Weatherill has pointed out, Members of Parliament have to some extent had to step into the shoes of local councillors, and their postbags are at least 10 times larger than they were a generation ago. The hands of Members of Parliament are therefore already fairly full. I doubt whether, for example, the deputés in the Assemblée Nationale have to cope with quite so much correspondence, but I am open to correction on that.
I wholeheartedly agree with the proposal in Clause 18 to reduce the number of Ministers. But it is surely just as important that their numbers should be reduced proportionately as that they should be reduced in absolute terms. Yet under the Bill's proposals, from the year 2020 onwards, 15 per cent of Members of Parliament, and up to 29 per cent of Members of Parliament on Government Benches, could be Ministers. In addition to that 29 per cent, there would be several unpaid parliamentary private secretaries.
Surely, if we want greater parliamentary scrutiny of the executive, as we must all do, we want the maximum possible number of independent-minded Back-Bench MPs who have little interest in scrabbling for office and are therefore not afraid to vote against the dictates of their Whips whenever they judge it right to do so. With that exception, I think that the Bill is excellent, and again I congratulate the noble Viscount.
§ 12.21 p.m.
Lord Bruce of Donington
My Lords, I shall not detain the House for more than a couple of minutes. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for bringing forward this particular subject, which is very appropriate at this time.
I draw your Lordships' attention to Clause 9, which deals with the whole question of Community legislation. I am not entirely convinced that Members of another place, or, indeed, quite a number of noble Lords, are aware of the amount of Community legislation which goes through both Houses of Parliament without proper parliamentary scrutiny.
For many years I have endeavoured to acquaint your Lordships with the extent to which that has intruded into our national life. Perhaps the Government will give us 1194 an indication of their views on the validity of the conditions set out in Clause 9. Will the Government indicate whether they are aware of the extent to which legislation from Brussels avoids proper scrutiny? That does not necessarily happen by design, but perhaps through our administrative negligence: or perhaps through the views of our own bureaucracy here, which is not free from blame in that particular respect, and which quite willingly connives at the avoidance of parliamentary views being expressed prior to any particular enactment.
I have no particular rancour in that matter. I do not even resent being ignored over those questions during the past 15 years. But I assure your Lordships, with as much passion as is proper for me to express in this House, that I am deeply disturbed about the way in which the authority of Parliament to deal with its own affairs in this country is being progressively and deliberately undermined.
§ 12.23 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, it is a great pleasure now to have an opportunity to join in the debate. I very much welcome those noble Lords who spoke in the gap and joined our deliberations. The fact that they were urged to their feet by the speech of my noble friend Lord Cranborne and by others who spoke earlier shows the strength of the power of debate. I say to my noble friend Lord Cranborne that it is right that we should debate this matter, even if it is a sunny Friday in June. I for one am happy to give up my morning in the sun to be here debating one of the most important issues that faces us. I entirely agree with what my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth said in that respect. Indeed, if we had spent as much time in this Parliament debating the provisions in my noble friend's Bill to strengthen Parliament as we have spent debating a Bill to reduce the independence of Parliament, then we should have hope of better governance. The Bill to which I refer is the one that seeks to make so many changes to this House.
The Government claimed that they would govern for the many, not the few. Yet look at the way in which they have treated Parliament over the past two years. It has been a story of the subjection of the elected many by the executive few. Month after month we have seen announcements made outside Parliament; MPs sent away from Westminster and another place shut down while this House is still working hard:, changes in another place to tighten the executive's Op on procedure; expressions of impatience with any spark of independence in your Lordships' House or elsewhere. In this House I hardly need mention the tawdry Bill designed to open the road to a second Chamber.
I see in this House—only just over the horizon—changes in procedure that may erode the right of every Peer in this House to be heard, and the right for debate never to be blocked or curtailed. I hope your Lordships of any and every party will resist such changes to the utmost. That is the last corner of our Parliament into which the clammy hand of the executive has not reached entirely. It must stay that way.
1195 The independence and authority of Parliament have been steadily and dangerously eroded. An openly presidential manner of government is emerging, in which a Cabinet meeting is an optional excursion from the flat upstairs, and the second most powerful man in the country is a former journalist on a tabloid newspaper, who has never submitted himself to election by the people, or even, so far as I know, by members of his own party.
On the other hand, my noble friend's Bill represents a way to begin to rebuild the authority of Parliament. It is a far-reaching and audacious Bill, betraying that elegance of mind and seductive vision for which my noble friend is rightly renowned. We on these Benches support the Bill, although I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that not all of my noble friend's ideas will work, desirable though they may be. We should like to see aspects of the Bill become law, and we offer co-operation to the Government, in both Houses, in helping it on its way to the statute book.
I turn to some of the specific provisions in my noble friend's Bill. It is difficult to decide which clause of the Bill most merits attention. But there is no doubt that the provisions in Clause 1 to put a presumption in favour of consultation on a Bill before it is presented to Parliament are wise. We have seen far too often, both under this Government and their predecessors, truncated consultation, or often none, resulting in bad law. My noble friend is wise to suggest a presumption in favour of a committee on a major draft Bill that would take evidence from affected parties. One only needs to cite the draft financial services Bill currently being considered—and the remarkable work being done by many Members of this House in pointing out its defects—to show the value of that. I hope that the Government will be able to indicate their support in principle for this clause.
I was touched by the piety of Clause 3, which would enact the referendum principle for which my noble friend's distinguished ancestor Prime Minister Salisbury was famous. It would enable this House to require a referendum on a constitutional Bill of special significance. That would provide protection against the abuse of elective dictatorship. It would ensure that any referendum would be held on the basis of the detailed proposals of a government. It would not be held, as this Government's referendums have been, on the basis of outline ideas and before detailed legislation had been published. Such pre-legislative referendums are a disgrace and should be prevented. No doubt the implications of that idea require careful discussion in Committee. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has usefully explained why we should have some reservations about it.
I am very interested in the provisions of Clause 4, which would enable this House, on the advice of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, to veto sections of legislation taking excessive secondary powers. The growth of secondary legislation, effectively beyond the control of either House, is a curse of modern government which has flourished equally under both 1196 parties, but has taken a new leap forward in the last two years. The Pollution Prevention and Control Bill, recently before this House, was one of the more outrageous examples of a skeleton Bill. My noble friend's proposal would directly confront that problem. It would require governments to account properly to Parliament, and it would put real power behind the authority justly acquired by your Lordships' Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, since it was created largely on the initiative of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and that of my noble friend Lord Cranborne himself.
My noble friend in Clause 5 imaginatively suggests a way in which the valuable services of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee in scrutinising legislation could, at the request of those bodies, be put at the service of the devolved assemblies. The relationship between this Parliament and the devolved assemblies will take time to bed down. That is one way in which a constructive link can be retained between those devolved assemblies and Westminster. I was much impressed by what the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, said on the subject and on the lack of a revising Chamber in the devolved bodies.
Clauses 6 and 7 require more formal consultation on secondary legislation generally, and I welcome that. I can see great attractions in Clause 12 which would automatically cause any legislation not commenced within five years to lapse.
I am glad to see that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is to reply to the Bill. Perhaps in so doing the noble and learned Lord would undertake to send me, and to lay before the House, a list of all enactments that would currently be caught by this provision.
A number of Bills that have come before your Lordships' House lately seek to address the question of improving scrutiny of European legislation. It is a serious problem, which has become far worse because of the uncritical acceptance of new European commitments by this Government since May 1997, which, taken together, bear down heavily on UK employers, particularly smaller businesses.
So I see great merit in requiring Ministers to consult Parliament on draft directives, long before such directives come to the point of a vote. I also find intriguing the prospect of an affirmative vote in both Houses being needed before a Minister could sign an undertaking. I wonder on how many occasions the noble Lords, Lord Bruce of Donington and Lord Stodart of Swindon, would be seen in the same lobby as this carelessly trusting Government. However, I recognise what my noble friend Lord Jopling said about sometimes needing to take decisions urgently and at short notice.
I very much like the proposals in Clause 10 which will need to be examined carefully in Committee. The clause strikes directly at the pernicious practice of "gold-plating", rife in departments of state, under governments of all colours. Time and again extra elements are grafted on to what purports to be Community-based legislation. Perhaps the noble and 1197 learned Lord will effect a response to this question—almost certainly by letter—as to which elements in legislation presented to the House since May 1997 have been "gold-plated" by government departments before they were introduced to Parliament.
Of course, I cannot deal with every aspect of my noble friend's Bill. Indeed, a difficulty of the Bill—when it comes to winning the attention that it deserves—is that it addresses so many fundamental questions so incisively. The proposition to give Parliament authority to examine the holders of key public offices prior to appointment—as is done in the United States—may seem a far-reaching one. My noble friend Lord Renton mentioned his opposition to that.
I believe that there is much to be said for the proposition. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor could indicate whether there are any circumstances in which the Government would consider proceedings such as those proposed by my noble friend and, if so, in which areas. I look forward to the response of the noble and learned Lord.
Part IV of the Bill has some deeply intriguing proposals as regards another place. Ministers in another place have been kind enough to send us some fairly questionable proposals for the alteration of this House, substantially without any consultation. It may be only equitable for my noble friend to send a fireship of this kind back down the corridor.
I have never hidden my view that the current House of Commons is large and unwieldy. The same could be said of the payroll in government. My noble friend proposes a limit of 400 eventually on the size of another place: a limit of 75 on the number of Ministers and a limit of 15 on the Members of the Cabinet. I believe that is extremely wise and that the proposal should receive widespread welcome. I particularly endorse the welcome given by my noble friend Lord Jopling.
I do not have a firm view on the suggestion of my noble friend that the practice of Cabinet Ministers having to fight a by-election when first appointed to the Cabinet should be revived. However, I understand that in 1964 Patrick Gordon-Walker lost his seat in Smethwick, was made Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stood in the subsequent by-election in Leyton and lost. No doubt that is a lesson that the Government may wish to keep uppermost in their minds when responding to my noble friend.
Clause 20 addresses the shamefully unresolved West Lothian question, in the most direct way possible. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord would cast his mind on this proposal. Does he see it as an option for resolving this question and, if so, can we expect legislation from the Government on this matter? For our part, we do not believe that this issue can safely be ignored.
Part V of the Bill is perhaps the most unlikely, but it is also the most reasonable. It proposes asking the BBC to involve itself further in broadcasting our proceedings. I welcome that and I hope that the BBC will take up the proposal. I look forward to its progress.
1198 If the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor were to give a positive reply to many of the ideas proposed by my noble friend that would be greatly welcomed, not just in the House but more widely. This has been a useful debate and no doubt that is partly due to the lack of interference, or any contribution from the Liberal Democrat Party! I look forward to the reply of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. If the Bill is not enacted, my noble friend will not give up. If he survives the culling process, he will return, in the next Session, with a Bill that deals with some of these issues so that they can be fully debated again.
§ 12.36 p.m.
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, anyone reading the opening words of the preamble to this remarkable Bill may be forgiven for forgetting which party was in power for 18 of the past 20 years. The preamble boldly intones:Whereas the sovereignty of Parliament has been progressively diminished".I am sure that the noble Viscount, in his various roles as a government Back-Bencher in the other place, as someone who took voluntary retirement from there to be accelerated into this House because of the multiplicity of peerages which abound in his great family, and as someone who became Leader of this House, fought tirelessly from within that government to restore the sovereignty of Parliament and to reform the constitution. However, the right honourable gentleman, Kenneth Clarke, told a different story in the other place:With hindsight, I believe that the Government of whom I was a member for so long were mistaken in becoming so immovable on the constitution. We should not have allowed ourselves to be put in a position where we seemed to be defending the constitution for every part of the United Kingdom as though it could never change".—[Official Report, Commons, 30/11/98; col. 577.]I must not fall into dangerous habits of mean spiritedness. I must not countenance the notion chat this amazing Bill is the product of many flows of blood to the brain after good dinners in White's Club. No, I must welcome the passion, the zealotry, of the convert to the cause of constitutional reform. Only yesterday the noble Viscount welcomed me to the ranks of high Tories for my defence of the office that it is my privilege to occupy. I welcomed him to the ranks of the rationalists, which high Tories occasionally join, although usually by accident.
The preamble goes on to say that,the obligation of governments to be held continuously to, account by Parliament has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance, and the obligation of governments to remain accountable to the electorate through their representatives has in consequence declined".I expect that noble Lords who have served in another place will have many fond memories of being held to account. Few will forget how the electorate held the previous government terminally to account on 1st May 1997. Equally, there are among my noble friends in this House those who will also recall painfully being held to account by the other place on 28th March 1979. when the then Labour Government lost a confidence Motion there.
1199 This imaginative Bill contains a range of measures which the Government are already putting into effect without the need for legislation. The merits of other parts will no doubt be debated in detail in Committee.
The noble Viscount argued that Parliament generally, and the House of Commons in particular, ought to have been reformed before the composition of this House was addressed. He presented his Bill just before the House of Lords reform Bill was given a First Reading. Well, that is a battle long ago. The noble Viscount and I have been cutting deals for the transitional House, and nine-tenths of the hereditary peerage, to whose services and their forebears' services I have previously paid tribute, are already in the departure lounge from this House.
The Government have taken steps to achieve some of the purposes of the Bill. On primary legislation, we produced five draft Bills for pre-legislative scrutiny. A Joint Committee, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, reported on the draft Financial Services and Markets Bill. It has now been introduced in another place. Another Joint Committee has been established to consider the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill. A draft Bill on freedom of information is being considered by Select Committees in both Houses. The Government intend to produce more Bills in draft in future Sessions. This goes a considerable way to meeting the objectives of Clause 1 of the Bill. These measures are designed both to improve the quality of legislation and to provide an early parliamentary input into the legislative process.
From the start of this Session, fuller explanatory notes have been published with each government Bill. These provide much of the information sought in Clause 1 of this Bill. They also provide a detailed commentary on individual clauses. I believe that the development has been widely welcomed both within and outside Parliament, not least among lawyers. The noble Viscount's Bill sadly appears without explanatory notes, but that is because this imaginative Bill does not command the support of the Government.
I shall not be tempted by Clause 3 to weary the House with a reprise about constitutional Bills and referenda, but the Government have gone out of their way to ensure that the views of the electorate are taken into account in constitutional reform. The devolution settlements and the Greater London assembly plans have been endorsed in referenda. Any change in the electoral arrangements for the House of Commons, or adherence to the single currency, would also be subject to referenda.
No one who has had anything to do with the Pollution Prevention and Control Bill could be unaware of the concern in this House about delegation of powers, referred to in Clause 4. This Government pay close attention to the views of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee and wherever possible seek to amend government Bills to meet its concerns. I did just that myself in the Access to Justice Bill in my positive response to every point made in the committee's report on that Bill.
1200 On parliamentary scrutiny of delegated legislation, the House will recall that we brought forward amendments to the Human Rights Bill to set a time-frame for parliamentary scrutiny of remedial orders. The number of sitting days involved in that procedure bears an uncanny resemblance to the periods listed in Clause 6 of this Bill. We are also consulting on an extension of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. The procedures in both Houses for deregulation orders under that Act arguably provide better parliamentary scrutiny than Bills or other statutory instruments receive in either House.
The Government have already carried out their manifesto commitment to overhaul scrutiny procedures for European Union documents. Scrutiny procedures have been extended to cover the second and third pillars of the Maastricht Treaty. The scrutiny reserve has been expanded to include European Council decisions. Clauses 8 and 10 would take us further. No doubt we shall discuss in Committee how they would work in practice.
The Government have been active in extending the principles set out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, and his Committee on Standards in Public Life, for public appointments. It is a tribute to him to know that "Nolanisation" has entered the Whitehall argot as prescribing that all appointments are to be made on merit. That is something on which I have always insisted for judicial appointments: merit—not social balance, opinion balance, gender balance, or any other kinds of balance. Merit must rule.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life considered whether Parliament should be given a role in the process of making public appointments, which is the effect of Clause 14, but concluded against. The system in the United States shows the potential pitfalls of appointments being delayed and politicised, and of good candidates being deterred from applying. The noble Lord knows that I would have no truck here with the confirmation hearings in the US before Supreme Court justices are appointed. Once appointments have been made, of course, Parliament has considerable powers to hold office holders to account, but subject, in the case of the judges, to the important constitutional convention of judicial independence.
In March, the Government published a White Paper Modernising Government. This set out plans for continuous improvement in central government, including greater use of new technology and a commitment to delivering services which are of high quality and efficient. We have also set up a performance and innovation unit within the Cabinet Office, designed to improve the capacity of government to identify and address strategic, cross-cutting issues and to promote innovation. I think the House will find that these measures, along with the public service agreements, the Government's annual report, annual departmental reports and the output measures involved in resource accounting, will go a long way to meeting the aims of Clauses 15 and 16.
The Scotland Act 1998 already provides for a modest reduction in the size of the House of Commons, but not on the scale envisaged in Clause 17 of the Bill. As 1201 someone who has not sat in the other place—unlike the noble Viscount—it is difficult for me to judge how reducing the number of MPs—and therefore increasing the number of constituents each represents—will affect the workload of MPs. But I say this: if we had a Bill before us calling for a reduction in the number of judges but an increase in access to justice, some of your Lordships might spot a problem. Clause 18 of the Bill seeks a reduction in the number of Ministers and an increase in accountability to Parliament. I suspect that any reduction in the number of Ministers would not improve accountability, and certainly not in this House. As the Minister responsible for a department of state which feels rather under-resourced with Ministers, I have difficulty in being persuaded by the noble Viscount's proposition.
Clause 19 is surely the most entertaining in this enjoyable Bill. No doubt we all want our Prime Ministers to have maximum flexibility in composing their Cabinet. No doubt we all want to see young blood brought on, although preferably not at the expense of our own seats in Cabinet. But, as I understand the clause, first-time appointees to the Cabinet would have to give up their seats in the other place to fight a by-election. Is it to allow their constituency to judge their suitability for Cabinet rank? I don't know. Or is it to allow the electors to express interim assessments of government performance every time someone enters the Cabinet for the first time? I rather think that it might lead to some Cabinet Ministers remaining in office perhaps for a little longer than might be in the public interest.
Then, in this Bill's breathless canter across our constitutional affairs, we come to the crescendo: Clause 20, the West Lothian question. Now that we have devolution up and running, I think the best thing to do about the West Lothian question is to stop asking it. More or less the same question was addressed in the two failed home rule Bills for Ireland of 1886 and 1893. In the first, Irish Members were excluded from the Westminster Parliament. After many months of argument they were brought back in, hut for imperial purposes only. That also became part of the 1893 Bill. But the distinction between what was, and was not, an imperial question proved so impossible to define that, at Committee stage, the Government changed their mind yet again and left it that the Irish Members could vote on anything.
So that is the historic precedent for my proposition that the best thing to do about the West Lothian question is to stop asking it. But the West Lothian question never really was a question any way. It was a challenge: "You can't answer this one; and therefore you can't have devolution." For myself, I regard the so-called West Lothian question as addressing what is a consequence of devolution. We do not want two classes of MPs. A modest price to pay for the maintenance of the Union is to have the wit and wisdom of the Scots inform the legislative counsels of the English nation. On careful reflection, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will agree.
So I fear that we cannot support the Bill. However, the thanks of your Lordships' House are due to the noble 1202 Viscount for enlivening this already sunny Friday morning, although he cast a cloud over my Thursday evening when my noble friend Lord Carter made a late request to me to stand in for him—but, of course, it has all been worth it in the end. I fear that this Bill will not reach the statute book, but it will certainly add to the gaiety of the nation.
§ 12.51 p.m.
§ Viscount Cranborne
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to noble Lords who have taken part in what, rather to my surprise, I found to be an extraordinarily enjoyable morning. In particular, I am delighted that I contributed to lightening the noble and learned Lord's day. However, I must say that I cannot help feeling that this entire debate has been justified for one reason only in that it has provided us with a revelation about the true nature of the noble and learned Lord, which was not only "laid" before your Lordships' House yesterday but also today. In his closing remarks, when discussing Clause 21 of the Bill, the noble and learned Lord revealed himself to be one of what we had always suspected the Caledonian members of this Government to be: Scottish supremacists. I think that the English section of the country has been warned that the reverse takeover by the Scots of the United Kingdom is not only in full flow but is now irreversible.
I enjoyed the contribution of the noble and learned Lord and I take a little comfort at least from the modest amount of support that he gave to the spirit behind some parts of my Bill. However—dare I say it?—he did commit one error. As I listened to the noble and learned Lord, he seemed to imply that he thought we could trust the Government to carry out those parts of this legislation with which they agreed. I say this knowing that the noble and learned Lord is probably the most trustworthy member of this Government; and I speak from personal experience. But I do not feel that I would say to him that Parliament exists to trust the Government. That is why it seems to me that legislation might be required, even for those parts with which the Government agree.
I am delighted that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and my noble friends Lord Renton and Lord Norton agree with substantial parts of the Bill. Indeed, rather more than I dared to hope, your Lordships have, in principle, supported large parts of what I propose. For the reasons given, I firmly support the idea that we should look at ways in which we could make secondary legislation amendable.
On the matter of appointments, I am all too aware of the horrors experienced by candidates for membership of the Supreme Court in the United States, and of the appalling inequity visited on one of them in particular. However, because of the incorporation of the ECHR, judges will now be increasingly called upon to make 1203 political judgments in a way that they have not been called upon to do hitherto. Those political judgments are bound to drag judges increasingly into the political forum. It was for that reason that I was highly sceptical as a non-lawyer about the good sense of incorporating the ECHR. If judges are to become political, I fear that, as a consequence, we shall need to know a little bit more about them before they are appointed. If we were to disincorporate, I should be the first to advocate that judges should certainly not be examined in that way.
I should tell my noble friend Lord Renton that I drafted Clause 5 as a tribute to him. His contribution in this area over many decades is, I am glad to say, very much recognised by the House. In so far as progress has been made, it is to him and to the late Lord Rippon that we ought to pay most generous tribute.
I should like briefly to mention part of the contribution of my noble friend Lord Norton. As he is such a great constitutional expert, I was pleased that he agreed with parts of my Bill. I was also very touched that my noble friend Lord Jopling does not resent too much the often absurd way I behaved to him when I was one of his very junior Back-Benchers and he was the great and august Chief Whip. I am grateful to him for that. However, I should like to say to both my noble friends that I should very much prefer to take these reforms together. The reason that I propose we should stagger them is that, unless we do so, it seems to me that it will be very difficult to persuade Members of another place to vote in large numbers for their own demise. Nevertheless, if my noble friends can find a better way of doing this, I shall be only to delighted to listen to them in Committee.
As far as concerns referendums, I instinctively agree with my noble friend Lord Norton. But, as long as we do not indulge as the Government do—this is where I disagree with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor—in pre-legislative referendums, which seem to me to be a constitutional outrage, as pointed out by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, we shall be faced with a number of very great, fundamental changes which are inevitably irreversible. It seems at least right that such matters as EMU and devolution should be submitted to the judgment of the electorate, but only when it has had the opportunity to see what Parliament has decided and Parliament's own discussion of such matters has not been emasculated by pre-legislative referendums, in the way that the Government did in the first Session of this Parliament.
I should also like to say how much I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, about the importance of visibility. I hope that we may return to the matter of the numbers in another place. If we are lucky enough to have a Committee stage for this Bill, perhaps I shall be able to cross respectful swords with the noble Lord, Lord Monson. As I said, I am most grateful for the contribution of all speakers on a warm Friday morning. I reiterate my thanks to all noble Lords who have taken part. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.