§ 3.44 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington rose to call attention to the need to maintain respect for Parliament and to safeguard democracy, and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am very glad to see my noble friend Lord Jopling in the Chamber now and I hope that what I am about to say will not make him too nervous. But I remember that when I joined the Whips Office under the then Mr Jopling back in 1979, I had occasion on one day to go to see him to tell him that I had been into the Smoking Room and I anticipated great trouble because there were a number of people in the Smoking Room who were plotting to vote against the government. "Oh", said Mr Jopling, "Don't worry about that. Go back into the Smoking Room and get them all to go into the Chamber and listen to the winding-up speech by the Minister". So I went back into the Smoking Room; I rounded them all up and I got 737 them into the Chamber. They listened to the winding-up speech of the Minister and they all voted against the government.
§ The following day we had a post mortem and my noble friend, then Mr Jopling, said that new tactics had to be deployed and from that moment forward, we were not to encourage any of the trouble-makers to leave the Smoking Room. That is what we did and that really is the clue to 11 years of successful government under Mrs. Thatcher. That is where it all began.
§ It is a while since I was in the other place and it would be very surprising if some changes had not taken place in the way in which the Whips operate and the way in which the House conducts its business. But there is all too much evidence that some changes which have taken place have not been at all beneficial and that, overall, the place has become less effective, less influential and is not performing as efficiently as it might its role as guardian of the rights of the citizen against the Executive.
§ There seem to be a number a reasons for that. Among them, obviously, is the large government majority and the comparative inexperience of Members of the Labour side, many of whom have apparently not yet learned that they are not just lobby fodder but are there to call the Executive to account.
§ But I am sure that the principal reason is that the government do not treat the House of Commons as central to the nation's affairs. The fact that that is the case when the Government seem to be bent on diminishing the authority of this place should be a matter of concern to all who believe that, in the words of the Motion before the House, Parliament should continue to have a central role in the nation's affairs, and all who wish to see respect for Parliament maintained and democracy safeguarded.
There is every reason to be concerned about the Prime Minister's own attitude to Parliament, not least because of his reluctance to appear there. His voting record is truly extraordinary. Mr Blair voted in 14 Divisions out of 325 last year, leading Mr Patrick Dunleavy, Professor of Government at the LSE to describe him as,
the least active premier for 120 years in terms of prime ministerial accountability".
It is not for him to cheer on the troops in the dark watches of the night. Come to think of it, there are not any dark watches now. But there are other occasions when he could show enthusiasm rather than disdain for the place.
§ There is the matter of Prime Ministerial and Ministerial Statements. The Prime Minister's failure to report to Parliament after an important visit to the Middle East last year led to protests in the House on 22nd April 1998 (col. 828 of Hansard). Yesterday, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde reminded us of the refusal of the Prime Minister to come to the House after last autumn's Noordwijk Summit at which agreement was reached on major increases in EU infrastructure spending.
Sometimes Statements have not been made in matters of the gravest moment. It is instructive to contrast the regular Statements made to Parliament by my noble
friend Lady Thatcher—then Mrs. Margaret Thatcher— during the Falklands War with Mr. Blair's way of dealing with events in Iraq. When a few weeks ago Mr. Tony Benn remarked that,
The Commons is dying on ics feet. Democracy is being squeezed out of the system",
Mr. Tarn Dalyell, who so tormented Margaret Thatcher over the sinking of the "Belgrano", spoke in a similar vein. He said,
The House of Commons is atrophying. In 36 years I have never known membership of the Commons be so marginalised"'.
He described how, on 16th December last year when he was struggling to try and force a Commons vote on Iraq and being prevented from doing so by the Government, Mr. Blair was not in the House of Commons telling the representatives of the people what was going on in the skies above Iraq, but announcing government policy in presidential style in Downing Street.
§ There are many other ways in which the Government are side-lining Parliament. Instead of coming to Parliament the Prime Minister and other Ministers use press conferences, talk shows, phone-ins and interviews to communicate their views. Things are getting to a pretty pass when the Speaker, Miss Boothroyd, is provoked into complaining at the way in which that has usurped Parliament's position. Again, chapter and verse is available for all noble Lords to read in Hansard for 12th February 1998.
§ The habit of briefing the press and private lobbies before announcements or debates in Parliament has been taken to absurd lengths, with the result that when announcements are made they are no longer news, but chronicles of events foretold. The leaking of ministerial Statements to sympathetic, some may say sycophantic media figures—to what a rather more independent-minded writer perhaps rather rudely and ungenerously referred to as the "Campbell clique—that slavering little coterie of pundits who take dictation from the No. 10 press spokesman"—in advance of their presentation to Parliament has now become absolutely commonplace.
That provoked some pretty tart remarks from the Speaker. On 21st July 1997 at cols. 699 and 702 of Hansard she said:
The House is rightly jealous of its role in holding Ministers to account. If it is to fulfil its function properly, it must be I he first to learn of important developments in Government policy. I deprecate most strongly any action taken that tends to undermine this important principle, …I deprecate those very heavy briefings, given either by Ministers, civil servants or Ministers' aides".
On 3rd July 1998 Miss Boothroyd had to make the same point.
I cannot deprecate strongly enough the leaks and the briefings that go on, perhaps behind our backs, in such matters". —[Official Report, 3/7/98; col. 632.]
In December 1998 she said,
What is happening is that this House and the status of this House is being devalued and I deprecate it most strongly. I hope that those on the Front Bench, senior members, will note what I have said and see there is no recurrence of this".
I hope some of them had the grace to blush.
It has to be said that there have been few protests on the Labour side of the House about the very many ways in which the House of Commons is being deliberately side-lined by the Government, except from old war horses like Tony Benn and Tarn Dalyell. The rank and file have proved themselves either unwilling or unable to resist what is going on. They have apparently allowed themselves to be intimidated, manipulated and used by party headquarters and Downing Street which are so obsessed with the need to maintain control of Labour MPs, presumably for fear of splits in the party, the likes of those which kept the party out of power in the 1980s and the early years of the 1990s.
§ The proof of what I am saying, that I am not exaggerating, can be found in the way in which, when Statements are made to Parliament, at Question Time and in debates, government spokesmen are hardly subjected to rigorous interrogation from the Government Benches. A year or so ago the Speaker actually complained that successive Labour MPs were not asking questions after a Statement on the English Regions by the Deputy Prime Minister, but they were congratulating him in the most monotonous fashion over and over again. On the 15th May last year in a debate in this place the noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to a particularly gross example of how the bleeper is used to ensure dutiful, respectful and servile questions. The noble Earl said that at 3.25 p.m. the bleepers bleeped in unison and after the Foreign Secretary had made his Statement on Sierra Leone the sheep got up in turn and baaed in identical terms.
§ I have referred to the impotence of MPs on the Floor of the House, but it is not just on the Floor of the House that one sees a remorseless chipping away of the authority of the Commons. The work of Select Committees is being undermined as a result of what can only be described as institutional leaking. Leaks unfortunately have always occurred, but I never thought I would see the day when a Foreign Secretary would accept a leaked document and then, far from returning it to its rightful owner, conceal from Parliament that he has it. So the important role played by Select Committees in scrutinising the activities of the Executive is being deliberately weakened by the deceit of Ministers, and it is being weakened at a time when the Civil Service's role in seeing that the Government behave with propriety within the rules and conventions built up over the years has become much more difficult and its influence as a force for the maintenance of proper standards has been weakened by the flood of political advisers who have descended on departments, twice as many as at the end of the Major administration.
§ Parliament is certainly being bypassed and its authority undermined by the big increase in the use of referendums, referendums called at times and on terms of the Government's own choosing. Take the promised referendum on the euro which is to take place only after tens of millions of pounds have already been spent preparing for entry. We are to be softened up and the impression created that joining the euro is inevitable.740
§ Two pieces of news in the papers at the weekend may have struck noble Lords in the way that they struck me. The first was the enormous cost of the new parliamentary building—£250 million for an office block, complete with a waxed bronze roof. The other item was the resignation of Mr. Lafontaine. That second item brought forth crows of delight from Downing Street, the first to recognise that the resignation of a German minister now had far more important consequences for Britain than the resignation of a British Minister could possibly have.
§ Then we came to yesterday, and the dramatic events in Brussels. Mr. Blair made a very brief Statement. I am not surprised that noble Lords did not even notice when the Leader of your Lordships' House failed to read one of the pages. It certainly was not a Statement brim full of excitement. Mr. Blair made that Statement following the report of the Committee of Experts with its revelations of fraud, irregularities and mismanagement and its conclusion that it was difficult to find anyone in the European Commission who had even the slightest sense of responsibility. It was a miserable minnow of a Statement, in which Mr. Blair said little more than that there should be reform of the Commission with better financial management. There was no sign of any willingness to address the fundamental flaws in the whole rotten system, no questioning of the usefulness of the institutions themselves, let alone of the whole federalist direction in which the European Union is going, driven by the Commission now exposed in all its dreadfulness.
§ Surely the situation can be summed up in these words: as the Commons does less and less, it costs more and more. As Mr. Blair talks more and more, it matters less and less.
§ Perhaps in the longer term Mr. Blair's sidelining of Parliament will not matter because Parliament will have little purpose as a result of the creeping surrender of power to the European Union, with its Commission riddled with corruption, cronyism and fraud, and its Parliament so ineffectual, and so tainted itself.
§ Yes, the Parliament is tainted, with its bloated expenses, its placemen and its majority which is now taking credit for the Commission's resignation but which only a few months ago, long after the fraud was known, was with the connivance of governments, including our own Government, doing all it could to save Jacques Santer's and Mme. Cresson's skins. The truth is that as power slips away from this Parliament, it is being transferred to European institutions where democracy as we know it plays virtually no part.
§ Perhaps recent events will bring people to their senses. My fear, I have to say, is that the present crisis will be used by Mr. Blair to argue that now the Commission is going to be cleaned up, we can carry on as we have up to now with perhaps a little more power being given to the European Parliament. We know what that means from the utterances of virtually every other European leader, including incidentally Mr. Lafontaine's successor, Mr. Eichel. It means continued steady progress towards a European superstate.741
§ I am surely right to call attention to the need to safeguard democracy because we are well on the way to losing it.
§ My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 4.2 p.m.
§ Lord Shore of Stepney
My Lords, the House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for giving us the opportunity to consider a matter of fundamental importance to all of us. Whatever else our differences are, I think that we all value enormously our Parliament and the democracy which underlies it.
I agree with a number of the points made by the noble Lord—I shall indicate them at the appropriate stage in my remarks—but I must advise him that a number of the problems that he defined and a number of the practices that he attacked did not begin on 1st May 1997. They have a history that goes back into habits which are developing in our Parliament, and into policies that have been developed under successive governments. This should not be a party political debate because we are talking about Parliament. As far as I can, I shall refer to that subject rather than to the particularities of one government as opposed to another.
Having said that, and before I indicate my main sources of concern, I should like to point out that in spite of many defects, our Parliament in terms of its functions still satisfies many of the most urgently felt needs of our people and, indeed, of any effective democracy. First, broadly speaking, government policy reflects the will of the majority of the people. Secondly, Parliament provides a forum in which, in spite of often great difficulties, the Government can be held to account. They can be held to account partly by the Select Committees. Although they have certain defects, the development of those Select Committees was an excellent and very important innovation. The Government can be held to account also by the role of the Opposition. Frankly, I wish that the Opposition were stronger than they are at present in the House of Commons. The Government can also be held to account by Members of Parliament who—perhaps not always, but on the whole and on the important issues— remember that they have been elected to the House of Commons not just because they are members of a political party, but because they represent the electorate, the people of all parties who put them there.
Those are the features of our Parliament and our job must be to reinforce them, rather than to weaken them. That brings me to some of my main concerns. Two dangers face our Parliament and our respect for it. They have developed over the years. The first is what is now called "sleaze" and the second is the feeling that Members of Parliament are party hacks. Those two aspects undermine a great deal of the public's confidence in our parliamentary institution.
I turn first to sleaze. During the past four or five years I have been a member of what was originally the Nolan Committee; now the Neill Committee. That committee was set up by the former Prime Minister, John Major, to look into standards of conduct in public life. Our remit was not limited to Parliament; it extended to 742 virtually the whole of the public sector. I am sure noble Lords will remember that among the events triggering the establishment of that committee were the allegations about cash-for-questions and other irregularities. Those allegations were very damaging. Any evidence of any failure of good conduct and any evidence of corruption must be investigated. Indeed, we have been virtually completely free of corruption in government throughout my political lifetime. However, the existence of even feelings about corruption among Back-Bench MPs who are not in government is very damaging to Parliament and its reputation.
The committee had no difficulty in taking a view on that or in making suggestions to Parliament about how that matter could best be dealt with. The establishment of the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, together with the resolution that that committee immediately passed, were enormously encouraging. Any action in Parliament by a Member of Parliament in return for money was banned, including moving amendments to Bills or asking questions in any way. The committee is to look again at that and at whether that resolution has been followed up and implemented. However, the establishment of that Commons' resolution was a powerful statement and I am sure that in the months and years to come it will be helpful to Parliament and its reputation.
The second aspect that worries people is the feeling that at times Members of Parliament are too easily led by the nose and too easily influenced by party authorities. This is a serious matter. Of course, parties need a certain discipline and leadership. At times, they demand strong leadership. But parties and party leaders must also have respect for dissent and for difference within their own ranks. Indeed, to a great extent I would go even further than that: I think that parties should not merely tolerate dissent but chat they should encourage it in many areas.
By that, I do not mean that I believe government should be paralysed, as it were, by internal dissent. There is a very difficult line to be drawn in that respect. We are all people who are familiar with such problems. Yes, on the one hand, it can go too far and can lead to the discrediting of a party by making it appear to be rudderless and fraught with internal dissent. However, on the other hand, the appearance of a party whose members seem to be acting like sheep brings no credit at all to that party in anything but the very short-term. So there is a danger there.
This is not the first time, following 1st May 1997, that a very large majority has, in a sense, reinforced those tendencies. I seem to remember the noble Lord, Lord Pym, when he was Chief Whip in another place, having the "unwisdom", the boldness, after a previous election in which a large government majority was returned, to express his unhappiness that a majority of such a size had been obtained. He thought that it would have been a good thing if it had been smaller. He was right. I do not want Parliaments where there are majorities of 200 Members. I am quite sure that we will not have that again.
743 Incidentally, that is where we in the Lords come in to some extent. The most important argument for having a second Chamber with powers is to prevent the party in power, with a large majority, becoming arrogant. There will not be many occasions in that respect, but when they occur they are very important indeed. In such circumstances that party must be checked. The people must be given an opportunity—though I do not agree with what the noble Lord said about a referendum— to intervene to ensure that what is being done is really acceptable to them and not just to the majority in the House of Commons and to the particular leadership of that time.
So what can we do about it? Frankly, a good deal depends on the legislation that we were discussing the timing of a short while ago. I am much more relaxed about that than many other noble Lords, because of the pledge that the change will not bring about a majority for any one party in the reformed or the changed Chamber. Further, there will be built into the changed Chamber a body of independent or Cross-Bench Lords who will on occasions be quite decisive in allowing or refusing legislation that the Government wish to promote.
Perhaps I may say a few words about another development, which I am glad to say the noble Lord touched upon. I shall be brief. Frankly, I am very disturbed by the failure of the media to behave responsibly about Parliament. The discontinuance by the broadsheet newspapers of reporting Parliament and parliamentary debates is a disgrace. I cannot understand it. After all, freedom of the press is one of the things that comes out of a parliamentary democracy that is respected, unchallenged and seen to be working. They benefit from it, so they should not, as it were, disparage it in the worst sense of all by totally ignoring and disregarding the debates and what people have to say.
Again, with the growth of the inquisitorial interviewer in both radio and television, there is no doubt in my mind that there is an obvious desire to replace the Chambers of the Commons and the Lords with the television studio, as though that was to be the great forum of debate; that is to say, not the elected representatives of the people but the highly-paid inquisitors in the employ of the television companies. In this area in particular my remarks should go straight to the BBC, which has a particular responsibility in this area. Its business is to defend democracy, to educate and to inform as well as to entertain. Its failure there is a very serious one. I hope that those remarks may even be reported and at least read by BBC reporters.
Finally, I must say that I agree with the noble Lord about the foolishness and disrespect for Parliament shown by Ministers, not just of this Government but also of previous governments. They go to the studios or speak into a microphone outside No. 10 Downing Street and tell the nation, as it were, what they should be telling Members of Parliament in terms of a Statement in the House. It really is disparaging Parliament in a way that is totally unacceptable. The Speaker of the House of 744 Commons, Betty Boothroyd, is absolutely right in her refusal to accept it and in her constant efforts to promote improvement in ministerial behaviour in that respect.
Frankly, an awful lot of this lies within the power of members of governments to rectify. They do not have to go to such studios. I did not do so when I was a Minister; indeed, I refused on principle because I felt that my duty was to give my statement to Parliament. After that, "Yes, you can have me, and torture me in the studio. I don't mind". However, I felt that my first duty was to Parliament. I am sure that many other Ministers and Members of Parliament feel exactly the same. That was the only other point that I wanted to make on that subject. I should move on now to a conclusion because, although this is an open-ended debate, I realise that many other noble Lords wish to speak. I have but a few words to say about what I believe to be the most fundamental challenge of all. I also want to make a comparison between now and just how awful things could become if we were to follow a certain example, not all that far away, of another Parliament.
The biggest problem is whether our Parliament will become irrelevant; whether it will be marginalised; and whether we are transferring far too much of the power of our people away from decisions within the House of Commons to external bodies and authorities. I believe that we are. Moreover, I believe that many share that view, although I am not necessarily convinced that that is the view of everyone in this Chamber; I wish it was. Nevertheless, we shall soon reach a point which is acknowledged on the Continent by virtually all political leaders but which our own leaders fail to recognise. We are reaching the point where two-tier government is emerging in Europe. The upper tier, the federal tier, will be in Brussels and the state tier, whether it is a kind of New York, California, or whatever, will be here. If that process evolves, power, interest and authority will be transferred from our own elected people to those who claim to speak for them in Europe.
If anyone wants an example of a "nightmare parliament", it surely must be the Strasbourg Parliament. Indeed, for them now to claim that they have come of age because they have dealt with, so to speak, the Commission and dismissed it, is an unbelievable piece of impertinence. It is not just the point made by the noble Lord; it is also the fact that the European Court of Auditors has failed to discharge the Community's budget for the past four years. Indeed, in the words of Article 24 of the Treaty that I have before me, the Court of Auditors,shall provide the European Parliament and the Council with a statement of assurance as to the reliability of the accounts and the legality and regularity of the underlying transactions".This has to be reported to the Parliament and everyone else. What happened in year one, when the Court of Auditors could not approve the budget and its honesty, regularity and reliability? In year two that happened again, and again in year three. But then in year four a brave young man—as I said yesterday—spilt the beans and revealed the corruption that was taking place. Only then was a special investigative body set up to report on the matter.
745 We are all conscious of the fact that even the MEPs are aware that there is to be an election in three months' time. It has taken all of that to make them do their minimum duty of holding the executive of the European Union—the Commission—to account. Thank God we have not quite reached that stage here, and nor will we, but we must continue to control our own affairs. I hope this debate has been helpful in that great purpose.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Lord Bell
My Lords, I rise to address this House for the first time having chosen a rather unfortunate moment. In speaking after the noble Lord, Lord Shore, I feel a little like the batsman who followed Brian Lara's double century the other day. It is with genuine trepidation that I rise to address your Lordships. It has been a huge privilege, if somewhat daunting, to have had the chance to listen to the independent thinking that goes on in this House and to debate of the highest quality, as I have since I was introduced in October last year. I shall do my best to try to maintain those high standards.
That I rise at all is only because my noble friend Lord Glenarthur sprang the idea on me at such short notice that I have not had the opportunity to change my mind. I hope that your Lordships will display that other quality which I have seen in this place; namely, tolerance. I shall try to take only a few minutes of your Lordships' time. In fact, even without the spine-stiffening supplied by my noble friend Lord Glenarthur, I would have wanted to speak in this debate so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. It touches on issues with which I have been involved in one way or another over the past 30 years—30 years in which my main job has been the management of reputations.
One of the most important lessons I learnt over those years is that any institution is respected only if it sets out to earn respect. I was brought up to respect Parliament, as I am sure most of your Lordships were. However, that is not the case these days. People do not automatically respect Parliament, nor do they automatically respect our other great institutions. The forelock-touching society has gone, and a good thing too. Who can blame people if we ourselves do not bother to respect their intelligence by engaging them in a dialogue and telling them why Parliament matters? Anyone who has been involved in elections in other parts of the world, as I have, knows how precious our democracy is. But in this country we need to work much harder to defend the reputation of our democratic institutions.
I am reminded of a story—I am sure it is apocryphal—that was told to me by a Conservative Party worker who was sent to Zimbabwe at the time of its first independent elections to advise the people on how to partake in a democratic election. While visiting a village he saw another election adviser lecturing the villagers on how to vote. He told them, "When you enter the polling booth you will be given a voting paper and on this paper will be the names of the three candidates: Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo and Bishop Muzorewa. If you wish to vote for Robert Mugabe, you should place a large cross in the box next to his name. If you do not 746 wish to vote for him, you should place a small cross in the box next to his name". Democracy is a little fragile if one is not careful with it!
However uncomfortable many of us may feel about the changes to our institutions we see going on around us, the plain truth is that those institutions are in the firing line because they lost touch with the public. Although the electorate is extremely wise, we cannot expect people to guess what it is that a particular organisation or institution does and to know why it should be held in high regard. In politics as in business, if an individual or an institution has a good reputation, if people think well of them, it is easier for them to achieve what they want to achieve. By the same token, if an institution does a wonderful job—like this noble House for example—but does not tell people about it, then, as we have seen, that institution is much more vulnerable to the threat of change.
That brings me to my second point; namely, that good communication is about giving information, not manipulating it. It is about persuading people; not conning them. It is about working at talking to people to build credibility, not simply talking to them when it is convenient or necessary to do so. It should always be done in plain language. To those who think it is clever to mislead the public or the media for short-term gain, I would say, "As you sow, so shall you reap". Any business or organisation which seeks to shore up its reputation in the short term by telling an untruth should understand that it will always be found out in the long run.
And that takes me to my third point. If an individual's or an organisation's reputation is in tatters, do not blame the media; or rather, do not blame only the media. For, as the illustrious ex-editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, once said to me, "If you don't want it written about, don't do it".
What can we do to help people care more about Parliament, for surely that is the essence of this debate? We could start by making it much easier for them to vote. The Government are right to make it easier for people to vote by post. I believe they are also considering voting by e-mail, which I would support. It seems to me that as part of a campaign which they should run to encourage people to vote—they are running such a campaign in Scotland and in Wales and they should run such a campaign throughout the United Kingdom and at every election—they might seriously consider compulsory voting. I believe that would be good for voters and politicians alike.
If everyone had to vote, politicians and political institutions would have to speak to everyone. They would have to engage them in the democratic process and make them feel part of the decisions that emerge at the other end. The alternative is alienated citizens and institutions which are increasingly thought to be out of touch with the everyday concerns of the public
The truth of our modern life is that institutions which capture the public's goodwill live on and those that remain aloof and cannot be bothered to engage and involve the people they serve are unlikely to survive. I thank your Lordships for listening.
§ 4.27 p.m.
§ Lord Newby
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bell, in that thoughtful maiden speech. As many of your Lordships will be aware, the noble Lord, Lord Bell, is a colossus in the world of political communications. It is rather the fashion at the moment to suggest that Peter Mandelson invented a whole range of spin doctoring and communications activities related to politics and political campaigning. The truth is that the noble Lord, Lord Bell, is the doyen of his profession. Although I have been on opposite sides in campaigns and I disagree with the noble Lord on a wide range of issues, I have the greatest respect for his professional skills. I am sure that your Lordships' House will benefit from his presence here. While on that subject it is also a pleasure to welcome the other great Lords of communication, the noble Lords, Lord Saatchi and Lord Chadlington. That is a formidable trio and testimony, if it were needed, to the importance of the issue before us today.
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is clearly to be congratulated on raising this issue at this time. In his speech he dealt with a whole range of issues, most of which I cannot touch on because of time constraints. However, when I heard the great tirade against all things and institutions European, I could not help thinking that, as far as I can recall, the word "sleaze" first entered my political vocabulary in respect of this place rather than anywhere else. That should be borne in mind as we cast stones at other institutions.
On a slightly lighter note, I agree absolutely as regards the tyranny of the bleeper system. I should like to give your Lordships an unequivocal assurance that the Liberal Democrats on these Benches will not behave like sheep. We will not always slavishly follow the line of the party Whip, and I hope we will continue to demonstrate the independence of spirit which is traditionally associated with your Lordships' House.
I should like to concentrate this afternoon on the way in which Parliament is dealing, or in my view failing to deal, with the major constitutional changes which are taking place as we speak today. It seems to me that Parliament finds it very difficult to change in any respect, in terms of its procedures and certainly in terms of its composition. As the Scottish Parliament is about to establish itself, we see there a whole range of new thinking, looking at ways in which the Parliament will conduct its business and how best it can become an effective legislative chamber. I suspect that by the end of the year the way we do business here is going to look extremely tired and outdated.
However, the more important question I wish to raise this afternoon is how Westminster will deal with what for a very long time has been known as the West Lothian question. After May, the Scottish Parliament will be responsible for primary legislation across a whole swathe of policy issues, including, for example, health and education, which most exercise the minds of both the public and politicians. Westminster will have no future role in discussing those areas of legislation in Scotland, but Scottish MPs and peers will still be able 748 to speak and vote on English and English/Welsh public policy-making in areas for which the Scots have sole responsibility.
I gather that the Leader of the House in another place has said that the simplest way to deal with this change in circumstance is to ignore it and to carry on as though nothing had happened. So far as I am aware, there has been no formal debate on how your Lordships' House might respond in its procedures to devolution. I think it is illogical and unacceptable to have Scots speaking and voting in English debates. Although there will be far fewer debates which refer purely to English matters and not to English/Welsh matters, to the extent that there are purely English debates it seems to me strange, illogical and unacceptable to have Welsh MPs and peers speaking in those debates also. I should like to ask the Minister whether it would be possible for time to be found in the foreseeable future for these issues to be considered on the Floor of the House.
It seems to me that the main problem about the Government's approach to this issue in the other place is that, while at the moment they have a huge majority in England as well as in Scotland and Wales, serious difficulties will arise if and when they do not have a majority in England but could conceivably have a majority across the United Kingdom. How then could they justify to the English electorate forcing through legislation on the back of votes from Scotland and Wales, when those nations and regions are able to take legislative decisions themselves?
Some people argue that the way in which this issue should be dealt with is to establish an English parliament. I do not believe that that is the way forward because there would then be a tension between the dominant part of the United Kingdom, in terms of population, and the peripheral nations and regions, which would be likely to lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom itself. It seems to me that the way forward is to look at the whole issue of devolution within England.
This is required for two reasons: first, for the one I have given and, secondly, because there is now a democratic deficit in the English regions outside London. Indeed it seems to me that the English regions are faced with a democratic pincer movement. On the one hand they will have Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with powerful parliaments and assemblies, able to lobby for public policy changes that would benefit them and, more specifically, able to lobby for more resources and more cash for their parts of the United Kingdom. On the other hand, a London authority is about to be called into existence—and I greatly support it—and that will start to say that it wants some of its money back. I think this will be an inevitable consequence of political activity in London. We see it now very firmly at the masthead of the putative campaign set in train by the noble Lord, Lord Archer, to be the Conservative candidate as mayor of London, making the point about the extent to which London subsidises the rest of the United Kingdom.
While London will be able to make that argument powerfully, with elected politicians claiming a mandate from their people, Scotland and Wales will be able to 749 rebut it powerfully because their politicians will claim a mandate from Scotland and Wales. The English region will have nobody with any equivalent political credibility to make their case. It is the case that the English regions are getting regional development agencies, but they are not getting a democratic structure. The Government's attitude is that they will look again at the question of democratic institutions in the English regions when a demand has been demonstrated.
I believe that that demand is already there. Some 25 years and more ago, the Kilbrandon Royal Commission undertook a lot of research on attitudes across the whole of the United Kingdom towards regional devolution. It found on a raft of measures that the demand for the devolution of substantial powers, and almost total powers, to regional decision-making bodies was as great, if not greater, in virtually every single English region as was the case in Wales.
I do not believe that that position has changed today, and if we are faced with the situation of conducting a referendum in Wales as opposed to the north-east as to whether a regional assembly should be established with significant powers, I would feel much more confident about winning a substantial majority in the north-east than was the case in Wales. The Government seem to be arguing that there is no demand for this just on the basis that there is no evidence, but, to the extent that there is any, I suspect that it goes the other way.
If we look at what is happening in the English regions, in the north-east there has been for some time a campaign for a northern assembly. We now have the establishment of a constitutional convention, explicitly modelled on the Scottish experience, with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham as its chair. In Yorkshire we have a campaign for a Yorkshire assembly, a claim of right—it sounds slightly quaint, as someone who has signed it, to have Yorkshiremen establishing a claim of right in the same way as the Scots. However, it stems from the same feeling that there is a regional identity which cannot be politically expressed adequately at the moment.
Similar developments are to be found in the West Midlands, where the Bishop of Aston is again chairing a cross-party body. There is a growing demand within the English regions for their position to be taken more seriously and for constitutional change to affect them in the same way as it has affected the other regions. These demands are already substantial. They are growing and will continue to grow more quickly after the Scottish and Welsh elections. This House has spent many, many hours discussing the Scottish question, and the time has now come to address the English question.
§ 4.39 p.m.
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, it is the function of your Lordships' House not just to scrutinise legislation, to amend it and improve it, but also to have wide-ranging debates of the kind that we are having today. There are few debates that have been as important as this, and I warmly congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Waddington and Lord Bell, for their speeches on this occasion. It gives us an opportunity to look at the role and function of Parliament as a whole.
750 We know, as a result of discussions that we had earlier today, that we shall be dealing with the reform of the House of Lords in Holy Week. I shall not enter into that but I hope that, having dealt with the reform of your Lordships' House—and reform should mean better—the Royal Commission will be given: the power to look at the function, the role and the composition of the House of Commons. In my view, the: House of Commons needs rather more reform than your Lordships' House, not least with regard to the West Lothian question, a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Newby.
It is against a background of some 28 years in the other place—during which I spent 12 years as a Whip, mostly in opposition, then four years as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and then almost 10 years as Speaker—that I express some thoughts in respect of Parliament and the safeguarding of democracy.
First, it is worth bearing in mind that lack of respect for parliamentarians is certainly not new. In the 15th century a man was whipped and pilloried and put in prison for life for cursing Parliament and all its works. Today there is a dangerous disenchantment, which is deeply felt and has dangerous implications for democracy. We should never forget that it is far easier to lose our freedoms than to regain them and that freedoms are usually lost for what appear to be little good reason at the time. I have mentioned before, but it is worth repeating, that one can trace the demise of virtually every civilisation. Sometimes it has been through enemy action but usually it has been through apathy. Apathy is the most dangerous enemy of freedom. Civilisations have gone from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to apathy; from apathy to dependency; and from dependency once more into bondage.
What can be done to encourage greater interest in and respect for Parliament and all of its works? Unhappily, the Chamber of the other place is no longer the forum of the nation. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shore, about that. When we turn on the television set today we find that the Chamber is very largely empty. When I was Speaker I hardly ever received complaints about bad behaviour—very largely because the behaviour was probably better than it had ever been; one has only to read the records of Parliament in the last century to know the truth of that—but I did receive complaints about the emptiness of the Chamber. Very sadly, to a large extent, television has destroyed debate in the other place. With television there was increasing repetition and the obvious point being made, and gradually people failed to turn up.
One of my favourite anecdotes of Mr. Enoch Powell relates to an occasion when I was a new Speaker. I was rather pompously on my feet trying to protect a young Member by saying "Order. The honourable Member has a right to be heard". When I got back to Speaker's House I received a note from Mr. Powell, who had written, as I suppose one should write to Speakers, "Mr. J. Enoch Powell presents his compliments, Mr. Speaker, and begs to point out that no honourable Member has a right to be heard". I summoned him for a glass of milk later in the 751 evening and he said to me, "I don't think you thought it through, Sir". I said, "What is that, Enoch?". "Well, you said a Member has a right to speak, Sir. If you call him, we have no obligation to listen to him". That of course is the truth. Members of Parliament will leave the Chamber if they hear repetition or the obvious point being made.
I agree with what has already been said about Statements being made outside the House. I had the same problem that the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, has in trying to bring Ministers—particularly Prime Ministers—to the Floor of the House to make Statements. I had to insist on one occasion because I had heard a very important Statement being made to Mr. Redhead. The Prime Minister was very good; she came and made the Statement. I know that I was accused of granting far too many Private Notice Questions and emergency debates. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, was Chief Whip at the time and complained to me about that. However, it was one way of getting important matters raised on the Floor of the Chamber. I had to use what weapons I had.
Perhaps the most important reason for the empty Chamber these days is the flood of constituency correspondence. In no country in the world is the electorate more carefully and well looked after by Parliament than in this one. This morning, before the debate, I checked up again with the Postmaster in the other place. The figures I was given are worth bearing in mind. I was told that 95, 000 letters come into the Palace of Westminster every day and 75, 000 go out. It is a tremendous flood of correspondence. I used to have to explain to people who wrote to me about empty Chambers that the Members were there but that they were in their offices dealing with the letters that they had written to them.
We should do something about the constituency correspondence. It arises largely from the fact that we all had constituency surgeries or advice nights, almost as though we were touting for business. I remember on one occasion, when I was rather busy at a constituency surgery, trying to explain to one of my splendid constituents that I would not be able to help him to get a council house. He said, "Why not?". I said "Because I am not a councillor". He said "What has that got to do with it?". I said "If it was called parliamentary housing I would be able to help you. But, as it is called council housing, that means it is a matter for the local council. This lady sitting next to me is a local councillor; would you mind going direct to her and telling her about it?". He poked me in the chest and said "Look here, mate, you're paid to do it". The councillor was there, and she took it all down; and then she wrote to me, and I wrote to him. If we could return to local government the powers that have been taken from it in recent years we would do two things: first, we would increase the prestige of local councillors and of local government; we would also go a long way towards stopping the flood of correspondence to Members of Parliament which largely has nothing to do with their prime role as parliamentarians; that is, holding the Government to account.
752 Very few governments positively set out to make life more difficult for themselves. All honour to the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when she set up what were called the St. John-Stevas reforms whereby Select Committees monitor every government department. The real action in the other place these days goes on in the Select Committees. I would make the chairmanship of Select Committees—which is already very prestigious— even more prestigious, to the extent that the Chairmen of Select Committees should be paid, probably the same as Ministers of State. Members of Parliament should aspire to be Chairmen or members of Select Committees rather than seek to be Ministers.
As I have said, I was a Whip for 12 years. Increasingly I came to the conclusion that I had far too much influence. One only needed to appeal to ambition to get Members to do their duty. That is not right. Fortunately, for the last six years of my term in the Whips Office I was in charge of the "troublemakers"— a schoolboy expression which I suppose I should not mention in your Lordships' House. They were among the best MPs. You could not buy them in any way; you had to persuade them. When most Secretaries of State are long, long forgotten, people will still remember the likes of Tony Benn, Tarn Dalyell, Dale Campbell-Savours and the splendid Robin Maxwell-Hyslop, who caused your Lordships' House so much trouble a few years ago on the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill.
The payroll has increased to a dangerous extent. When I first entered the House of Commons, only very senior Ministers had PPSs. Today, very junior Ministers have PPSs. The trouble with that is that they are, generally speaking, among the best Members of Parliament. But they are neutered because they are unable to participate in debate. The patronage of the Government should be carefully looked at.
I believe 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". At the moment, this is rather better done in your Lordships' House than in the other place. Just before the last election the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, was kind enough to give me a drink. He said to me, "It is our perception that since you have been the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers we seem to be defeated rather more regularly than we were in the past. Have you been telling them what to do? Have you been issuing a Whip?". I had to assure him that we never did anything like that. But I said, "If anyone comes to me and asks, 'Do we happen to have a line on this?', I say, 'You had better go into the Chamber and listen to the argument'", to which he replied, "My God, you don't do that, do you?" In relation to what the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said, perhaps we will not get back to listening to the argument in respect of the political parties, but I hope that that will always be the case in terms of the Cross-Bench Peers.
This has been a splendid opportunity to look at the role, the composition and the functions of Parliament. As I have said, when we have dealt with the House of Lords, I hope that a similar scrutiny will be made of the role, functions and composition of the House of 753 Commons. In doing so, we should always bear in mind that respect for Parliament and the safeguarding of democracy is one of the prime responsibilities of all of us who are privileged to serve in either House of Parliament.
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Lord saatchi
My Lords, I am delighted that, by an accident of history, I am following the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, because my remarks will concern him directly and also because, in the light of what he said about the payment of the Chairmen of Select Committees, I know he will particularly appreciate what I am going to say.
All parliamentarians agree that the power of the executive has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. How can that be achieved? I have a proposal, which I shall try to express in a crisp form. First, according to commentators, the main virtue of the House of Lords is its independence of the executive. Secondly, according to the same commentators, the main defect of the House of Commons is its lack of independence of the executive. Thirdly, the method by which your Lordships' House is seen to demonstrate its independence is through our large and illustrious number of Cross-Bench colleagues. Fourthly, the method by which another place is supposed to demonstrate its independence is through our time-honoured and respected system of Select Committees. Fifthly, I find in Erskine May that the chairmen of Select Committees normally exercise a substantial measure of authority in the conduct of committee affairs and the practice whereby the chairmen of committees are chosen from the membership of each committee by its members is a tradition of the House rather than a requirement of Standing Orders.
Therefore, I propose, sixthly, that the best embodiment of the best virtue of this House—the Cross-Bench Peers—should be loaned to the House of Commons to serve as the independent chairmen of Select Committees. Seventhly, the result would be a boost to the Select Committee system, proving that these committees can perform, and be seen to perform, the vital task of holding a potentially over-mighty executive to account. We would all be comforted for, in the words of the Motion of my noble friend Lord Waddington, "respect for Parliament" would be maintained.
§ 4.54 p.m.
My Lords, I shall try to be as brief as the previous speaker although I am not sure that I will succeed in that. I speak as a comparatively new hereditary Peer who comes from a business background. I have not been in the House of Commons but I have watched it with great interest from the outside. I remind the House that we are debating respect for the British Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Bell, said in his thought-provoking speech, respect needs to be earned. I believe that we should set an example as parliamentarians.
I intended to confine my remarks to the House of Lords but I was interested in some of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, about Labour's large 754 majority and the sycophantic MPs running around with their pagers. I seem to recall that similar things happened, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, in the 1980s. I recall that new MPs at that time behaved perhaps not quite like sheep but there was a certain amount of following the leader. Independence in Members of Parliament grows as they stay longer in Parliament and they learn. I believe that independence will emerge as it did in the Conservative Party over its 18 years in office. In fact that nearly killed it. The same comment applies to sycophantic journalists. There are plenty of those around. I know from my business work at that time that they seemed to think that everything the Government did was marvellous. If one or two are saying that today, it just redresses the balance; a little.
Perhaps I may turn to Select Committees. The alleged leaks to Ministers of Select Committee reports is unfortunate. But can we be certain that that did not happen in the 18 years of the Conservative government? I have my suspicions. Reference has been made to the influence of Select Committees. I certainly believe that the Select Committee which examines the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions—the committee in which I am most interested—has a much greater influence now with this Government than the committee had with the previous government
I have the privilege of serving on your Lordships' European Communities Committee. We were discussing at a meeting of the committee only yesterday how to improve the scrutiny of European legislation. As for the new building for Members of Parliament and its grossly inflated price, the building was started by the previous government. I understand from some of the engineers working on it that if the committees concerned had accepted that Westminster Underground station should close for a couple of years and that honourable Members and noble Lords should walk to St. James' Park station, £50 million or £100 million could probably have been saved on the cost. Therefore to criticise the present committee is a little rash. It is surely possible to walk to St. James' Park station.
I turn to Parliament in general. In the past 20 years we have heard a great deal about subsidiarity. The then Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, kept on waving her handbag saying that we must have subsidiarity from Brussels. I entirely agree with that. But when it came to subsidiarity with respect to the regions and Parliament here, that policy seemed to be slightly different. I certainly support the present Government's devolution proposals. I hope, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, that they will extend eventually to the English regions. But for all those institutions respect must be earned. And if they succeed, they will succeed because they have earned respect.
I now turn to the subject of your Lordships' House. It is my impression from talking to people outside, to those in the media and so forth, that outside opinion of the workings of this House is that our debates are generally good; we talk sense most of the time; we are thorough; we are informed—and occasionally a little bit dotty. That is all right. However, I wonder whether we are in danger of losing some of those qualities.
755 Some noble Lords will already have read the Freedom and Function report published on 1st March. I understand that the report is soon to be debated in this House. I read it with great interest. Many aspects of the report deserve careful consideration, one being the use of the second person in addressing Members during debates; once we begin using "you" as a form of address, matters become personal. Another is the reference to personal criticism. We have heard a lot of that recently. It is very sad: in the four or five years that I have been a Member of this place I have noticed a difference. Walking in front of speakers and between speakers and the Table is a small matter but it nevertheless affects people. And there are many other matters about which your Lordships can read in the report. They are all in the Companion, and I hope that we shall soon know the proposed changes. But we are self-regulated. Today's proceedings are a good example. We welcome and relish our freedom, but we have to earn it.
I say as an hereditary Peer that it is tempting for us to adopt a more aggressive and almost less professional approach as the time for our departure draws near. I am sad about that. I hope that we hereditaries will depart in a manner whereby we can feel proud of what we have done. I hope that we shall feel that we are remembered for the positive contribution that we have made rather than for behaving rather badly, sometimes almost like a group of schoolchildren, in the last months or years.
I hope that the House will soon be able to debate this excellent report. It is an interim statement of how we might improve procedures quickly. That will improve the quality of our debates and, as a consequence, improve the respect in which the House is held.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ Lord Birdwood
My Lords, imagine how surprised I was to read these words in The House Magazine two weeks ago:Parliament has lost power and authority to the executive, to Europe, to the courts, to the mediaThe writer goes on:Major statements apart, newspaper reports of what goes on in the Commons chamber are confined these days to the waspish efforts of a talented band of sketch-writers who largely see the Commons as a vehicle of entertainment, a backcloth to a string of witticismsWho could that reactionary medievalist be? Why, none other than Robin Oakley, the political editor of the BBC. The temptation has been nearly unendurable simply to read out the whole of that tough, uncompromising essay and call it my speech, so well does it accord with my own reflections. But I must use the privilege of this afternoon's debate to embrace the anxieties implicit in the Motion—and a nod of thanks to my noble friend Lord Waddington is more than due—in my own words.
Here is a proposition. This Government swept to power on the promise, among others, of efficiency. The brand management with its emphasis on "new" and "modern" was quite unambiguous in that as a priority. And how could anyone challenge that? Efficiency is critically important in running a great complicated thing like a country, and the more efficient the better.
756 Surely there can be no argument with that. But there is a permanent war in any political system between two ideological constants. One is efficiency; the other is democracy. You see, the enemy of efficiency is dissent. If one is a political party with a huge mandated majority, there is precious little one cannot dream up that cannot be executed. Make everybody paint their houses pink? No problem. Perpetuate the Parliament past five years? Good idea. Much more efficient. It would mean that Ministers could really get to grip with matters. Repeal the laws of thermodynamics? Worth a try.
And look: here come the referendums to validate our policies. "Throw the big budgets at the issue and we've got it in the bag" is the logic. As an aside, the part played by the referendum in the political process is worth a whole debate on its own. We have turned it into a kind of quiz show accreditation to any ideological cook-up of the moment. Tough on crime? Go to the people; they will tell you—especially if you have just chucked £5 million at them in telling them so.
How deeply irritating, therefore, it must be to have to explain to the Chamber of the other place, let alone this one, what bright, efficient action is in mind. This, after all, is the Government of the "whim of iron". Let me be clear. I bow to no one in ascribing to this Government— to be more accurate, to the inner circle of this Prime Minister—motives which are utterly wholesome, benign and Simon-pure. If a little bit of personal freedom is to be sacrificed, so goes the thinking, it is a small price to pay for the big idea.
I frame three paradoxes. The first is the tension between efficiency and democracy. The second is the way in which the new bourgeoisie of complacent affluence has been decoupled from the political process. The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, brilliantly traced the cycle which included apathy as a key threshold of decay. The trade-off runs as follows: do we really mind a little less liberty if we have all these material goods?
Of course this does not mean that I am for inefficiency or in favour of material deprivation. But there lie hidden in these paradoxes the seeds of a velvet tyranny. It has been pointed out that the idea of nation is being squeezed out and is being replaced with new affinities. Not a few of those are affinities of perceptions of victimisation. This a new landscape of power for which the map-makers are the media. This is not the time for me to revisit the question of the power of single issue groups. But when one digs into the recent past, the way in which Parliament has been made to dance to the ephemera of media campaigns riding on image-friendly stridency, has itself contributed to the perceptible shrinkage of its own status. Did the Conservatives do their share of dancing to media pressure? Listen, we showed the way. And we acquiesced in this House.
But I accuse, in the name of this Motion, the party opposite. To the party opposite debates such as this are just games. They look across at these Benches and what do they see? No journalists to please or appease; no TV ratings to cause a moment's concern. They see men and women, many of whom are in any case guaranteed to disappear off the stage like conjurers' assistants with one wave of the executive wand. And how much more 757 efficient this House will seem to be when it is in permanent harmony with the Stepford majority in the other place.
My third paradox is being present here, now. I could surely be mocked for my impertinence in speaking of democracy when my credentials have none; but nor have those of any speaker here today. When a curator accepts responsibility for the treasure in his stewardship, he is a creature of the duty; he is not himself the treasure. The chain of custody is forged in vigilance. Our inheritors must not look back on these years and see that dissent was sacrificed in the name of efficiency and that our legacy was the democracy which died of neglect.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ The Earl of Listowel
My Lords, I was prompted to put my name down to speak in the debate because of the induction for new Peers which I attended this morning. It was made plain that the quality of debate in this House was very high. The Senate in the US was reflected upon. There, senators appear for their speech and then disappear. Is it not possible that the hereditary Peers have some connection with this high quality of debate? Should they be abolished before there is a clear idea of how this high quality should be maintained in the newly constituted Upper House? Parliament should be judged on its acts. By having a clear idea of how that characteristic of good debate is to be maintained in the newly constituted Upper Chamber before the hereditary Peers are abolished, we can ensure that it persists. A Parliament that legislates for tomorrow and today will be respected. Is not respect for Parliament the best safeguard for democracy?
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Harptree
My Lords, I, too, welcome the topical and important debate introduced by my noble friend Lord Waddington. In my view, respect for Parliament rests on twin pillars. The first is good representation of the people—understanding their aspirations, their feelings, their hopes and their fears. A classic definition of this relationship was given by Edmund Burke to the electors of Bristol is 1774:Your representative owes to you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinions".I suggest that that is as true now as it was then, although we should no doubt express it in a somewhat different form today.
Representation of the people involves both Houses. In the case of Parliament there is direct representation through elections. Once a Member of Parliament is elected, he is responsible for, and to, all his constituents, whether or not they voted for him. But we, too, are part of that representative process. One has only to consider the enormous increase in our mailbags in recent years to see very clearly that the British public want and expect us to represent them. Indeed, it can be said that we sometimes represent people's wishes more effectively than does a heavily-whipped other place. A good recent example of that is the issue of student 758 fees, with particular reference to Scotland. I suggest that people are better represented if both Houses are effectively involved.
The second pillar is the holding of Government to account. Here again both Houses are involved and both Houses have a responsibility. Your Lordships' House prides itself on revising legislation. The value of that revision process is shown very clearly by the number of government amendments which are tabled as a direct result of debates in your Lordships' Chamber or in Select Committees in your Lordships' House.
It has already been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Waddington that it is difficult to maintain these twin pillars when the government of the day have a substantial majority in another place. No matter what the colour of the government, there is always a temptation in those circumstances to steam-roller things through, knowing that one will get away with it. But it is significant that the rumblings which are now appearing in the other place are coming from senior and experienced Members. The chairmen of Select Committees in another place, the majority of whom are respected Labour Members, are now complaining strongly that they and their work are not being treated seriously by the Government.
An even greater threat to parliamentary sovereignty is the constant stream of statements and leaks that Ministers and their aides are now giving outside Parliament. This has been referred to by my noble friend Lord Waddington, the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, and others. I shall therefore not repeat those arguments, except to say that it is extremely dangerous when Parliament is sidelined and passed over in this way. Ministers are not responsible to the media; they are responsible to Parliament. Major policy statements should be made to Parliament, where Members can question and call to account the Minister making the statement.
Another problem concerns devolution. This was referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Berkeley. We are in the midst of a constitutional revolution. I do not think it is yet generally realised what a major effect devolution will have on both Houses of the Westminster Parliament and how there will be a need to develop a new relationship—and it will be a very delicate one—between Westminster and these new bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A new relationship will be needed and it will take time to develop it.
Many important questions concerning devolution remain unanswered. I tried to refer to these when I spoke in the two-day debate on the 23rd February and I shall not repeat those arguments now. Above all, there is the problem of the English question. Unless these problems are resolved, and resolved quickly, we shall be storing up great trouble for the future of Parliament.
In conclusion, perhaps I may mention two reforms which I believe can lead to a stronger and more effective Parliament. They may seem small in themselves, but I believe that they will be of considerable significance if they are adopted. The first concerns pre-legislative scrutiny. I give great credit to the Government for 759 introducing draft Bills on a number of relatively non-controversial issues. That is much to be welcomed; some of us have been advocating it for a good many years. It will give the opportunity for Parliament, in co-operation with government departments and outside interests, to examine and improve Bills before they are set in concrete. Once the Bill is published, it is more difficult to persuade Parliament to make amendments. I believe that this welcome development will lead to better Bills and better scrutiny of the Government's legislative programme.
I understand that the departmental Select Committees of another place will consider draft Bills. Your Lordships' House does not have departmental Select Committees. I suggest that we need a new Select Committee whose specific duty it will be to examine draft Bills. Your Lordships' House is very well fitted and qualified by a variety of expertise to examine Bills. Furthermore, I believe that your Lordships' House would have more time to do a thorough job than the overburdened committees in another place. It would be a great pity if this very welcome new parliamentary opportunity were not grasped with both hands by your Lordships' House. I have been assured that either the Liaison or the Procedure Committee will consider this proposal, and I greatly look forward to its report.
The second proposed reform that I mention is concerned with secondary legislation. Secondary legislation has increased, is increasing and will not diminish. The number and importance of secondary legislation has increased enormously in recent years. I believe that the procedure in both Houses for scrutiny is woefully inadequate. Your Lordships' House is reluctant to vote against secondary legislation and therefore debates lack teeth. I believe that the time has now come when your Lordships' House should be able to delay or amend secondary legislation in the same way as it is able to do for primary legislation. Of course, that proposal also has implications for another place. These reforms, modest as they may appear, would make the House more effective without in any way threatening the pre-eminence of another place. I hope that when he comes to reply the noble Lord the Minister will be able to comment capably on these suggestions.
In conclusion, Parliament is in a state of flux. That is due largely to the Government's constitutional reforms. Amid all the uncertainties of the new situation there is an urgent need to strengthen both Houses, and to do so now.
§ 5.22 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, it was the reference in the noble Lord's Motion to the need to maintain respect for Parliament that caught my attention. He assumes that we win or lose people's respect for Parliament through our own behaviour and the way in which we treat each other. He spoke about the way in which the Government treated Parliament. I have no experience of the other place, but I find this attitude rather inward-looking. I believe that people's respect for Parliament also 760 depends on the way in which Parliament treats them. The noble Lord, Lord Bell, and my noble friend Lord Berkeley made the same point.
Some noble Lords look back with nostalgia, but to illustrate my point I look forward to a future in which we treat ourselves in Parliament as we treat others. I paint the following picture. The year is 2020; the place is Westminster; the scene is Parliament. The spin doctors refer to it as the Year of Perfect Vision. The serious press refers to it as the two Packets of Cigarettes Parliament. Others refer to it as the fag-end parliament because our sponsors in that year are the Intergalactic Tobacco Company. That company won the sponsorship through a combination of clever lobbying as the nation's largest tax contributor and by submitting the most competitive bid.
It is mid-August and parliamentarians are back at work. They are rather nervous because the Westminster Parliament has come in low in the parliamentary league tables. The Scottish Parliament has come top and the European Parliament second. There is talk of a hit squad coming in. Lots of measures have been tried to improve our performance. Performance-related pay was introduced, but that served only to change a reasonably helpful and co-operative attitude to one of competitive unhelpfulness. The National Institute for Parliamentary Excellence was formed for the purpose of "ensuring good parliamentary outcomes" but the results were mixed. The institute designed public service agreements between parliamentarians and their constituents, but there has been a good deal of argument as to where to set the targets. The institute tried self-assessment, but it was not successful. Parliamentarians feel that the appraisal inspections that now take place occupy a lot of their time and do little to improve their performance.
Of course, consultants were called in at a fairly early stage. Every parliamentarian filled in the detailed forms to recount his or her activities. The consultants decided that performance would be judged on what they called voter value and funds allocated on the voter value scale. It is paid out monthly and is regulated by the rules of voter governance. It has given rise to endless complaints from parliamentarians about their inability to plan for the future due to the short-term financial horizon. The Inclusive Parliamentarians Association is campaigning to change that. I believe that noble Lords get the drift of my argument. I could go on to explain how the shift system works in Parliament in 2020. Parliamentarians work shifts because the PFI contracts to re-equip Parliament over-estimated the rates of interest and inflation. This means that Parliament has to work 168 hours a week to achieve the monthly capital cost repayment.
That is a picture of parliamentary life in 2020. Perhaps that is the nightmare Parliament to which my noble friend Lord Shore referred. I hope that noble Lords will not consider it to be too far-fetched. Each element that I have described is a feature of many people's lives in Britain today in both the public and private sectors. My point is a very simple one: if we want the public to have respect for Parliament we must be sensitive to the effect that Parliament has on the self-respect of the public.
761 I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for drawing our attention to the need to maintain respect for Parliament and to safeguard democracy. He is right. What is more, his timing is right. As many noble Lords have pointed out, we are on the verge of big, fundamental changes: devolving power to the regions and the cities, moving towards the euro while keeping our economy steady and reconciling an enterprise economy with a fairer society. These are the right things to do. That is being done with confidence and clarity. But no one really knows what the consequences will be. For that reason we need the solidarity that is brought about by mutual respect; that is, people in Parliament respecting each other.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Lord Chadlington
My Lords, first, I add my thanks and congratulations to my noble friend Lord Waddington for initiating this debate today. I should also like to express my admiration for the outstanding maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Bell. As I wish to address the relationship between a democratically elected government, those who present government policy and its effect on both democracy and the sovereignty of Parliament, I must, at the outset, declare an interest. For the past 35 years I have worked in the public relations and advertising business in different capacities. I have served successive Conservative administrations.
The media today present both a threat and a challenge to any modern democratically elected government. On the one hand, the media provide the only way to reach most of the electorate on a daily, even hourly, basis. On the other hand, it has an insatiable appetite for news and comment, the timetable of which pays scant regard to the working hours of Parliament. No modern-day Prime Minister can follow the example set by Harold Macmillan. On returning from an overseas trip he was asked by a BBC interviewer at the airport, "Prime Minister, do you have anything to say to the BBC?" Following a brief moment of reflection, Mr. Macmillan replied, "No, thank you very much. Not today".
The demand for hard news is reflected by a vast increase in TV channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines and, of increasing importance, the Internet— all equally hungry for news and comment. Moreover, if a Government do not comment, others will—searching for political advantage, choosing perhaps to misrepresent or disrupt government business. The unpoliced and unregulated Internet, which has no editorial gate-keeper, provides the ideal medium to give currency to unsubstantiated rumour which in turn feeds into more traditional media.
The lobby brief is now an integral part of the Government's round. But almost more important to opinion poll ratings is the "Richard and Judy Show", "Des O'Connor", "Breakfast TV" and the "Jimmy Young" programme or their equivalents both nationally and regionally.
Against that background New Labour has without doubt carried through a brilliantly successful communications offensive. From the launch of New 762 Labour, through the election and during the first two years in power, it would be churlish not to admit that the Government have successfully put across their policies, plans and prospectus with clarity, consistency and in general, they have been given a favourable media reception.
I now believe that this Government have changed the face of politics forever. I cannot foresee how any government of any colour could now enter office, particularly as media opportunities escalate, without a thoroughgoing professional marketing and publicity machine. And if that is true, the effect this change will have on the sovereignty of Parliament and on democracy as a whole must be carefully considered. At the very least, we must review the conventions which apply to the relationship between Government, Parliament and the media.
We can consider that from four aspects—public relations; research; marketing and advertising. First, public relations. As has already been emphasised, government policies are trailed in the media daily. These are not only minor political leaks. Only a week or two ago the key elements of the Chancellor's Budget were explored by the media daily for a week before Budget day even dawned. The convention of telling Parliament first appears to be under threat. To some extent it is not difficult to see why. The evening ministerial announcement, which is too late to catch the morning papers and is old news by the day after, has to be trailed at teatime to catch the evening television news—often well before the Minister is on his feet in another place. As long as the media do not believe that they have a prime role as media of record, practices such as this will continue. Some may argue that while those activities run counter to convention, they ensure that the public—the electorate—at least has the opportunity to hear what is proposed and debate the issues. Sticking to the letter of the convention can prevent the debate from taking place at all.
But it is Parliament which is the proper forum in which Government can propose and defend policies under the scrutiny and questioning of those who are elected to oppose those policies. While a balanced debate can be held in another place, a leaked story will usually only present one side of a case: that of the leaker.
In any event, the media debate is orchestrated and managed by a new breed of unelected special advisers— "spin doctors" in the popular parlance. Over the past two years, as my noble friend Lord Waddington pointed out, reflecting the growth in this activity, the number of special advisers has doubled.
We need to clarify the role of this army of political advisers, not only in terms of cost and role, but in terms of their relationship with other parts of the Government, particularly the Civil Service and information officers. The objectivity of the Civil Service from one year to the next, and one Government to the next, must at all times be protected. However great and increasing the power of the Government's political PR machine, the great divide between politicians and civil servants must be maintained. Similarly, the traditional role of the 763 information officer as a bipartisan public servant who is reactive to inquiry, willing and able to "give objective advice to requests for information, cannot be compromised into selling or promoting government policies.
Spin doctors want favourable coverage in the media for their political masters' policies. That is why they are there. Ideally, they want the debate which precedes and follows policy announcements to be constructive and favourable too. If a tabloid newspaper runs a poll on a new policy it wants its readership to endorse it. That gives it the chance to say, "It is what the people want! It is democracy at work!" Focus groups play an important part in this process. They tell governments what commuters, parents, teachers, doctors and pressure groups want and what policies they need to solve their problems.
Analysis of focus groups can determine government policy. By playing back to the electorate through the media the very policies they have identified through these groups, spin doctors create a virtuous circle of applause.
New Labour has spent £22 million on focus groups— three times what the former Tory Government spent— including £500, 000 to run the People's Panel; 5, 000 randomly selected people who are regularly consulted to tell the Government what "ordinary people" think. This seems to me, with two very important provisos, to be a reasonable, sensible, modern approach. Staying in touch with the electorate is one of the most difficult things for an incumbent government to achieve.
My first reservation is that if such research is publicly funded then all findings must be in the public domain so that they can be used by all parties to inform and develop debate. I am sure that the Government would carefully avoid any implication that public money be used for party purposes.
My second important proviso is the need to ensure that in this marketing approach to policy, political leadership is not lost. Doing what is right for the country as a whole, whether it is popular or not, is an essential part of parliamentary government and democracy. There is the world of difference between parliamentary democracy and populist democracy.
While we can think of many unpopular decisions which were wrong, many of our greatest political leaders have made unpopular decisions, risking electorate displeasure but being proved right in the end. We must never lose courageous, political leadership. Reflect on the political life of Roosevelt or Churchill to secure the point, my Lords.
Advertising has also been an effective instrument in promoting government policy. The Government are now set to outspend Coca-Cola on TV with a budget of over £80 million for public service advertising. In the past 12 months, there have been 28 separate government campaigns on TV and 106 different campaigns in the national press—a 35 per cent, increase in advertising expenditure at the COI.
764 In principle I think that it is right to inform the public about issues which affect their lives. Indeed, I have argued in this House for greater advertising spending behind both the NHS and the Police Force to help build a reservoir of goodwill among the public to offset the constant torrent of bad press which these public services regularly attract. But again, we need to be certain that this huge advertising spend is genuinely being driven by the need for public information rather than political self-advantage. We cannot use public money to fund party propaganda.
So the introduction of modern PR, marketing, research and advertising skills into the political arena has brought great benefits to this Government as I believe it will bring great benefits to governments in the future. But there remains real suspicion that these new skills bypass Parliament and challenge democracy. However right or wrong these allegations may be, the perception is more important than the reality. This is a government who pride themselves on a modern view of Britain. They have certainly achieved that in communications. They now have the opportunity to analyse the implications of that communications revolution and ensure that parliamentary sovereignty and democracy are protected.
It will require a radical agenda. There are wide-ranging radical steps which can be taken. Perhaps, in conclusion, I may suggest four headline actions which could initiate some government thinking. First, put the Lobby on the record: film it live; show the journalists; show the briefing. That would dispel the view that there is some hidden cabal with a quid pro quo, a two-way street of gossip and innuendo.
Secondly, insist that newspapers quote their sources by name. No more, "A close aid to the Prime Minister said". Either the journalist puts his own name behind the story, or the source is willing to back his quote with his own name, or the story does not run.
Thirdly, limit the free flow of jobs between the media and ministerial special advisers—both ways. Insist on a significant period of purdah between the two professions. Fourthly, establish an independent group to arbitrate and audit both the content and levels of advertising spend for public information advertising.
Those four steps, or some variation of them, coupled with other radical initiatives, would provide the transparency which the electorate is beginning, rightly, to demand. I believe that, as all future governments will follow the example of New Labour in using the full panoply of management and marketing skills, the Government have a responsibility and opportunity also to ensure that Parliament continues to be respected and democracy safeguarded.
§ 5.41 p.m.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for the opportunity to debate this important matter. It is a brave Motion, given the executive performance of the previous Administration, but one should be encouraged, for all sinners are entitled to repent. Furthermore, it could be said that the 765 Executive, accounting to Parliament, played a large part in the downfall of the previous Administration. I will confine my remarks to the role of the Executive.
It would be hard to find a more pompous, high-handed, self-important autocratic bunch. Blair's Cabinet is probably the most arrogant in British history…New Labour rides roughshod over Parliament, public opinion and at times the very basics of democracy".Those are not my words, but those of the nation's favourite newspaper, the Sun, which is read by millions and is a government supporter.
What makes that statement so telling is that prior to the election the Opposition were making statements such as,Labour is the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole".The manifesto goes on to state:Over-centralisation of government and lack of accountability was a problem of governments of Left and Right. Labour is committed to the democratic renewal of our country through decentralisation and the elimination of excessive government secrecy…Our mission in politics is to rebuild this bond of trust between governments and the people. That is the only way that democracy can flourish".The quotes go on and on. The British people were ready for such and with a 43 per cent. share of the national vote the Government were given a landslide. I have no argument with that—strong government allows clear direction; but they are wholly dependent on the Executive respecting the democratic and parliamentary tradition.
So how does it come about that after less than two years in government the newspapers and other political commentators show such concern about our system of government? One of the reasons, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, is respect. Respect has to be earned. That cannot be underestimated. How can it be that the gloss of New Labour is so tarnished? They seem to have continued where the Conservatives have left off. They hit the ground running with tobacco sponsorship and cash for access fiascos.
The attempt is to allow the secretive sponsorship of almost anything in government. Why is government expenditure subsidised by private commercial concerns? And why does it always have to be commercially confidential? The noble and learned Lord, Lord Neill, has taken those points for further consideration by his committee in paragraphs 4.6 and 4.8 of his latest report. The ethical foreign policy was blown to bits in East Timor by the secretive supply of more weapons than the previous Administration to the Indonesian authorities.
Then there is the democratic reform of your Lordships' House; a House where the overwhelming majority of hereditary Peers are willing to go for the greater good of a reformed Chamber. Here there is a government arrogance that is displayed by not allowing the objective input of the hereditary Peers in the reform process. Instead, we have the brilliant introduction of the Cross-Bench amendment, organised by the No. 10 press office one afternoon. It was as much news to the Cross-Benchers as it was to the rest of the House. After the Government's primary message, a possible solution with the precious brand image "Cross-Bench approval" 766 had been achieved and the amendment was renamed, quite rightly, the "Weatherill" amendment. To my mind, it is quite simply the single most brilliant piece of control that the Executive has pulled off to date. It has stifled debate, set Peer against Peer and is quite irrelevant to the future conduct of the House, which is what the debate should be about. It is sponsorship of a most subtle form.
When the Executive is asked to account verbally or in writing, the tactic appears to be obscure and there is a golden rule that mistakes are never, if at all possible, admitted. One has only to look at the years of effort that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, has had to make to get to the bottom of the organophosphate problem to see this tactic used brilliantly. Lesser people would have gone away a long time ago. Who really does not believe that with objective honesty this problem could not have been solved years ago and much suffering relieved?
Legislatively, more and more Bills are skeletal in nature; for example, the Pollution Prevention and Control Bill, which drew such condemnation from the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee; or the Data Protection Act 1998, which was passed in such haste in order to comply with the European Directive by October 1998. Yet the Act is still not in force and the orders defining basic working of the Bill have yet to be seen.
Raft upon raft of order-making powers are conferred upon Ministers, which makes the understanding of how legislation is to work in practice impossible to understand at the time the legislation is being debated by Parliament. However good the spin, this is not the decentralisation of power. There is a tragedy associated with this need to control and be secretive. In seeking office, New Labour was delivering many honourable messages. Among those in the manifesto, at number 9, is the pledge:We will clean up politics, decentralise political power throughout the United Kingdom".One has only to look and observe the manipulation of power by the Executive on matters relating to Scotland, Wales and London to realise that politics are not any cleaner and real power is not being decentralised. That is why, on the judgment of occupations by the people of this country, politics still ranks down at the bottom.
If we need to see the long-term effects of an unaccountable Executive, one need look no further than the Olympic movement or the European Union.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, I, too, welcome the debate and congratulate my noble friend Lord Waddington on initiating it. I am also delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Norton, not least because it demonstrates that he and I are not one and the same person!
I agree with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, that much is right about Parliament, but much is wrong with it. I wish to focus on that, related to the central theme of today's debate. Parliament has a poor reputation among informed commentators and among the public. Informed 767 commentators see a body that is poor in scrutinising the executive and poor in scrutinising public policy. Electors see a body that is essentially self-serving, unruly and partisan. Both see a body that is subservient to the government.
Surveys have shown that, by international comparison, there is a low level of confidence in Parliament. There is an even lower level of trust in politicians, though not in the local Member of Parliament. Constituents have a relatively high regard for the local MP as the local MP, but not for the institution of which the MP is a Member.
That negative view of the institution of Parliament is clearly bad news for Parliament. It is also bad news for government. The government are elected through Parliament and their authority rests on Parliament. Diminish the authority and reputation of Parliament and, in the long run, we diminish the authority of government. A confident government benefit from and indeed need an effective Parliament. Given the nature of our parliamentary system, citizens sometimes confuse government with Parliament. If one falters, there is a danger that that undermines popular trust in both.
The ideal situation is a confident, responsible government operating within and through an effective, responsible Parliament and for that relationship to be popularly recognised and appreciated. Regrettably, we do not have that ideal situation. I shall try to identify some of the reasons why not and pick up on a number of points that have been made already during the debate. The first body responsible for the absence of that ideal relationship is Members of Parliament. There is an intrinsic tension within our parliamentary system, though not one confined to the United Kingdom. Most Members of the elected House are elected to sustain one party in office. At the same time, all Members are elected as Members of a body which serves to subject the government to scrutiny. So for Members of the governing party, there is thus a potential conflict between loyalty to party and loyalty to the institution of which one is a Member. In practice, party has generally been the winner, necessarily so, but there must be something of a balance between the two. Party is essential to the system but a complete stranglehold destroys the capacity of the institution to call government to account. In recent years, that balance has tipped too heavily towards the party in government.
A number of developments have exacerbated the situation. One has been the growth of the career politician. Time precludes us from looking in detail at the consequences of the growth of the career politician but they are extensive. Another has been the ratchet effect of partisan conflict. Once one party employs a new partisan tactic, the other side copies it and partisan conflict edges out detached, informed scrutiny.
A further complication already mentioned during this afternoon's debate is the sheer size of the new membership of the House of Commons—one-third of the full membership—which has been socialised into that excessive partisan environment and has no experience of detached, critical scrutiny.
768 The second reason for the imbalance is the attitude taken towards Parliament by Ministers. When Ministers are secure in office, bolstered by a large parliamentary majority and courted by important bodies outside Parliament, there is a danger of neglecting Parliament and of treating it with arrogance. They can treat it with arrogance because MPs, or at least most of them, let them. That arrogance may result from longevity or newness in office. We have evidence of both. I am not certain that that arrogance is totally institutionalised which is why I refer to Ministers rather than government. But it exists and regrettably, as has been mentioned today, it exists at the very head of government.
Therefore, we have a critical imbalance in the relationship between government and Parliament. Clearly, as has been mentioned already, that does not help Parliament's reputation. However, Parliament's reputation is undermined also—and again this was touched on earlier in the debate—by the attitude taken by the mass media. Journalists, or at least most of them, no longer take Parliament seriously. That, in part, is Parliament's fault for the reasons I have touched upon. It is also a consequence of entertainment squeezing out public service broadcasting.
Furthermore, Parliament's reputation is undermined by a lack of popular understanding of what Parliament does. That is attributable in part to the nature of media coverage. But it is also more pervasive. There is little teaching of what Parliament is about. Even if there were, there is no guarantee that the public's evaluation of Parliament would be positive.
That brings me full circle. Parliament must do the job that is expected of it and has to be seen to be doing it. How do we achieve that? That answer lies in part, but not wholly, with parliamentarians. Parliament will be able to call government to account only if the political will to do so exists. There is no point in discussing structure, procedures and other means of calling government to account if the political will to make them work is absent.
How do we achieve the political will? I suspect that that is not by appealing to politicians' better natures but rather by addressing their self-interest. We must persuade Back-Bench MPs that it is in their own interests to engage in more independent scrutiny of government. They can have a greater influence on public policy. There are past precedents for that. They can bolster their positions in their constituencies. They may have a greater chance of advancement. Historically, there are many examples of able rebels being brought into government while not very able loyalists languish on the Back-Benches.
I do not underestimate the difficulty, the magnitude of the task but it is worth the effort. I am not saying that it will happen, but it should happen. Government Back-Benchers can help to force a better balance between government and Parliament and can do so without necessarily threatening the continuance of government in office. The creation in 1979 of departmental Select Committees in the other place showed what is possible as a result of Back-Bench pressure.
769 The other crucial point is that it is in the self-interest of government to take Parliament seriously. A government who engage in a real dialogue with Parliament are likely to enhance their reputation, their own authority and to have the benefit of better measures. Trie adoption by Ministers of an arrogant attitude towards Parliament generally reflects insecurity. Ministers who take Parliament seriously benefit from engaging in a discourse with Members, something apparent in your Lordships' House where one sees that take place frequently, and from building up a body of goodwill. Arrogant Ministers who falter politically are vulnerable Ministers.
Once the political will is there, Parliament—and I mean principally the House of Commons which is where the problem essentially exists—can then begin the task of strengthening the means of scrutiny and strengthening the Chamber and its committees. But even then the problems of media coverage and public understanding will remain. There are proposals already discussed in your Lordships' House for civic education to form part of the curriculum in schools. That is one way forward. There is a much more immediate problem in terms of media coverage. A more effective Parliament may attract greater media attention but that is not certain and it is not clear that even if it did, it would be sufficient.
It is clear that that is a very real problem and that that problem is not amenable to a simple or single solution. Certainly it is not amenable to change solely within Parliament itself. In so far as it is, then there must be the political will to make Parliament a more effective and efficient body for calling government to account. The nettle must be grasped and must be grasped by parliamentarians. In this House, we can only do so much. The real challenge is faced by Members of the other place.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Baroness Seccombe
My Lords, I want to add my thanks and congratulations to my noble friend Lord Waddington for bringing this matter forward for debate today. The subject of this debate worried many Members of your Lordships' House, and indeed people outside, as we have witnessed power being transferred from Parliament to No. 10. In other words, we have seen Parliament bypassed, as the Executive has high-handedly taken action without reference to either House. It appears that the views of focus groups are more important than those of your Lordships or Members of another place. I shall illustrate that by giving a few examples of what I mean.
Within days of taking office the Government took unilateral decisions without reference to opposition parties. Perhaps the first instance of that was when, out of the blue, the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave authority for an independent Bank of England. It is not for me to comment at this juncture on whether that was a good idea, but I do most earnestly believe that it was a matter which should have been debated and the opportunity given to those who wished to express a view.
770 A few days later the Prime Minister made the extraordinary decision to subject himself to answering parliamentary questions only once a week and without any consultation with the leaders of other parties. I use the word "extraordinary" because I believe it takes away the very purpose of the case for Prime Minister's Question Time, which I have always understood to be the questioning of the Prime Minister on topical issues. Having a session only once a week means that some issues are comparatively out of date before the Prime Minister has to stand up and answer to Members of another place. Since those early days we have seen many other examples of similar cavalier behaviour
My main concern is, however, the break-up of the United Kingdom. This has been done by sleight of hand. The Labour manifesto is to the Government a Bible which must be adhered to, although perhaps I may remind your Lordships that there was no mention of an independent Bank of England in the manifesto, nor, indeed, any mention of tuition fees for students. It did state, however, that there would be a referendum on devolution in Scotland and Wales. Scotland voted for it in significant numbers. It was what people wanted and as a consequence was accepted by everyone.
However, in Wales there was, I believe, gerrymandering to obtain a result to the Government's liking. There was the fixing of the actual date of the referendum, one week after the Scottish poll, against the wise advice of your Lordships. It was also decreed that a simple majority would suffice. That majority was just about achieved and now the Welsh people will have to live with the consequence of a costly extra layer of government. Now that the Assembly is there, we, as Conservatives, will do all in our power to ensure it works properly and is as successful as possible.
There was also mention in the Labour manifesto of regional government in England, but only as and when people wanted it. Nowhere did it state anything about the demise of England, or the promotion of the interests of Scotland and Wales at the expense of England. I meet many people from all walks of life as well as speaking to different groups round the country, and I can assure noble Lords that there is an abundance of strong feeling that the Government have let the genie out of the bottle and as a result the United Kingdom as a nation will disappear.
The Government appear unable to stop changing things in what they call the modernisation of a United Kingdom fit for the new millennium. All Government Front Bench speeches repeatedly mention the words "modern", "modernising" or "modernisation" time after time. I can understand a party that has been out of office for so long having plenty of ideas, but what I cannot understand is the apparent mad rush to change everything in this quest to be modern—whatever that means!
The Prime Minister states that he wants to create a society of which he can be proud. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to say again that there are many on these Benches who are fiercely proud of this country and its glorious past, even if he is not. It is for that reason that I felt compelled to speak today in order that such sentiments should not go by default.
771 I turn to quangos and I refer noble Lords to House of Commons Hansard, col. 453, on 24th February 1994 when Mr. Michael Meacher moved a Motion on unelected state bodies. The Labour attitude to such bodies was expressed clearly in what appears to have been a rather long and acrimonious debate. The criticism of quangos was loud and clear and there was a commitment to end many of those organisations, which they said,are not publicly accountable to elected representatives"—and that—their proliferation has been accompanied by a loss in the quality of public services, by increased fraud and waste, and by falling standards in public life".That was a clear condemnation, and yet what do we see today? We see a Government appointing their supporters to those very organisations they so despised in opposition. There were also accusations that when we were in government we had not cut back on quangos as we had promised in opposition. I looked for guidance in the Statistical Summary of Public Bodies 1998 and found that in 1979 there were 492 bodies employing 217, 000 people. Those figures had reduced to 305 bodies employing 106, 400 people by 1997. It is interesting to note that in 1998 the number of people employed increased to 107, 800, so the growth for patronage and cronyism is there and we can watch the figures closely.
This Government are not two years old and yet we have witnessed devastating changes, and that is even before the Bill to reform your Lordships' House starts its passage through this House. I shudder to think of what the state of our country will be by the time of the general election, whenever it is called.
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for initiating this important and timely debate.
We can all agree with the Motion, but how can we help? I suggest there are two essential ingredients. First, Parliament should make just and fair laws. Secondly, the House of Commons should be seen to be the ultimate authority and be held accountable to the people through the ballot box.
To make just and fair laws there must be respect. Respect is a two-way street. Let me give your Lordships some examples of lack of respect, which I contend has led to lack of respect for Parliament. To set my remarks in context, we have to remember that from 1945 until 1979 the object of government policy—whether Labour government or Conservative government—was to ensure full employment, decent housing and rising living standards for all our citizens.
However, in 1979 all that changed. First, there was the contempt for ordinary working people by the advent of mass unemployment. Secondly, there was the contempt for democracy itself by the attacks on local government, which led to the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the GLC. I have to admit that Ken Livingstone had one little failing. I well remember 772 his touching faith and belief that the House of Lords would in some way stop the abolition of the GLC. We know that it did not do that.
We then had the contempt for advice from fellow Cabinet members who counselled against the poll tax. I well remember discussing the poll tax with an ordinary Conservative Party member as the tax was about to be introduced. I explained to him how it would work and his reaction was one of complete disbelief. He said that surely the House of Lords would never allow such a terrible law to be passed. We all know that it did. We were part of the process.
Where do we fit in? What are our strengths and weaknesses? Our strengths are that many Members of the House of Lords can and do speak with immense authority, with wisdom, with deep personal knowledge and experience. We debate the great affairs of state in calm and measured terms. Our weaknesses are that we are too often perceived as a superior body to the House of Commons. Our careful and constructive debates do not always then lead to equally careful and constructive decisions. We won all the arguments in our debates on the poll tax, for example, but then we lost virtually all of the votes.
I suggest that to counteract our weaknesses and to build on our strengths we should, in every utterance we make, never suggest that we are in any way superior to the House of Commons but should always deliver our opinions as advice rather than instructions. We can also go a long way to ensuring that the decisions at which we arrive after our great debates are a better reflection of the debate by acceding to the reform of the House of Lords, already debated and agreed by the House of Commons in its House of Lords Bill which is now before us.
To summarise my argument, we should resolve to be an advisory Chamber to the House of Commons in the manner of an elderly uncle offering the advice of experience to a favourite nephew, with the best of intentions, but with no power to insist that the advice is taken.
Perhaps I may give your Lordships an example. I refer to the speech given in your Lordships' House on 23rd January 1985 by the late Lord Stockton. I shall not quote it because it is a matter of public record. The noble Earl spoke for 25 minutes in a magnificent maiden speech. I believe that there was some reference to the family silver. I offer that as an example of the best advice that an elderly uncle could give. It is only a pity that that advice was not heeded. If we follow that example, we shall help to maintain respect for Parliament and to safeguard democracy.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Waddington on giving us this opportunity to discuss the importance of maintaining respect for Parliament and safeguarding democracy. As has already been said, this is a timely debate. For almost two years now new legislation which will result in constitutional change with far-reaching and as yet unknown consequences has been passed by Parliament. 773 The reform of the House of Lords, which is currently under consideration, is one more ill-thought-out proposal. Is it not a disgrace that on such an important constitutional Bill the Government should have accepted a closure Motion to curtail the debate in another place last night?
Even more arrogance, disdain and contempt for Parliament was shown by the Minister, Mr. Hoon, in deliberately breaking with all precedent and winding up the debate on the Third Reading before my honourable friend Sir Patrick Cormack had spoken for the Opposition Front Bench, and that while Sir Patrick was speaking, following the Minister's wind-up speech, he was rudely curtailed by the use of the closure Motion. That was supported with relish by the Government Benches. There remained in the Chamber a number of MPs still wishing to speak and Sir Patrick had not completed his speech, but that was of no matter to the Government.
Such utter contempt for Parliament and its processes has become the hallmark of this Government. It really is shameful. While I am referring to the official record of what happened yesterday in the House of Commons, perhaps I should point out that during the Statement on the European Commission the Prime Minister commented on the part played by my right honourable friend John Major in the appointment of M. Santer. When my right honourable friend spoke, he put the record straight. What Mr. Major said was factual and a matter of record, but the Prime Minister chose simply to disagree with it.
Mr. Blair and his spinning machine work hard and, I have to say, with pretty good effect, to hoodwink the nation with their soundbites, warm glowing rhetoric and sleight-of-hand policies. The Budget last week was an excellent example of that. In some areas they execute a ruthlessness when influencing outcomes. Witness the treatment of the people of Wales with the imposition of Mr. Blair's chosen candidate Alun Michael to lead the Welsh Assembly, using the might of the block vote. Witness the treatment of Mr. Dennis Canavan in Scotland and I have to say to Mr. Livingstone, "Look out, it's London next".
The list of examples of this Government's arrogance grows daily. I refer to the way in which the Bank of England was made independent without any recourse to Parliament, as my noble friend Lady Seccombe said. I refer also to the changing of Prime Minister's Question Time from twice to once a week; to the refusal by Ministers even to reply to Written Questions; to the costly presentations, announcements and endless re-announcements of the same policy issue, often with an overt political spin. In fact, I asked after only a few months of this Parliament for a list of government presentations and a breakdown of their costs. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, who is to reply to this debate, replied to me by saying that it would be disproportionately costly to reply to that question. That was after only a few months of this Government.
There have been so many launches and re-launches of the £19 billion for education that local education authorities and their schools can be forgiven for having 774 such high expectations, only to see them dashed when reality sets in. The truth is that so much money is now being top-sliced by the Government to pay for the growth of bureaucracy at national level that the core funding for schools is being reduced and distorted. Incidentally, trying to get a breakdown of the spending and commitments for the £19 billion has proved impossible.
Even when questions are replied to, the answers are sometimes wrong. I have had to query questions which were answered incorrectly by the DfEE and Ministers in another place. No attempt has been made to put the record straight in Hansard, merely to place letters in the Library.
Your Lordships may remember the high-handed way in which the Government introduced education action zones. Apart from the unconstitutional, precipitate action taken by the Government and the lamentable lack of detail on the face of the Bill, information which was refused to me as a Front-Bench spokesman was passed to a public body and distributed to local authority members. A rigged balloting system has been introduced to get rid of grammar schools. There has been an attack on the universities of Oxford and Cambridge by the phased reduction of their college fees. There has been an attack on the interview and selection of children for entry into our schools. Who said that the politics of envy was dead?
Now, we have centralisation, even to the extent that good quality, professional teachers are even told how the children should be arranged in the classroom for teaching. The Civil Service is regularly compromised by the use of an unprecedented member of political appointees.
As has been mentioned, we now also have the serial leaking of Select Committee reports, whether final or interim and in draft. It would seem that so long as the Minister can claim "incredulously" that he has not read them, that becomes a legitimate defence for having received and not returned those reports. I would have more respect for the right honourable Mr. Cook and for the right honourable Mr. Brown if, on receipt of those reports, they had either informed the Speaker of the House or the chairman or clerk to the Committees.
We now know that the House of Lords Bill is to be introduced into this House before Easter, in Holy Week. I found today's debate when that announcement was made deeply depressing because of the ridicule that came from the Benches opposite of people with genuine and sincere reasons for wanting to get to Israel for Passover, as my noble friend Lady Miller said. Others were concerned about controversial legislation being passed in that week. One important point was not made in that debate. It is not just a question of people attending services on the relevant days. It is a question of the clergy of this House—all 26 of them—having a great deal of preparation work to do for those services. It is not a question of the Chief Whip, myself or any other Member attending such a service; a great deal of thinking and work goes into the preparation of the services. I say with some sadness that I am sorry that that point was not put more robustly by the right 775 reverend Prelate. No account whatever has been taken of those who will be preparing for the religious festivals, both Christians and Jews. I join all those who have said that a feature of this House has always been that it is extremely tolerant of the race, colour, creed and background of all its Members.
This is a serious constitutional Bill and it is unprecedented. There has never been a constitutional Bill, the proceedings on which have run for two whole days, held in Holy Week at any time in parliamentary history. Any Member who wishes to engage in those debates should be free to do so. I am sorry that it has not been made possible by the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip to do that. I ask the question: what is the urgency? There has been no response to that question. Could it just be that Mr. Blair, who displays such a paranoia about this place, hopes to neutralise its effect? It will be out with the hereditaries, in with a few more cronies and—hey presto!—the command and control freaks will have their way.
If I sound angry about such constitutional vandalism, it is because I am. Respect for Parliament and safeguarding democracy is essential. The key to that is a strong, independent and effective Second Chamber. From all that I have learned from government papers and what Ministers have been saying, I see no sign of this. Centuries of history are to be cast aside, and for what? Even that question has not been given proper consideration. We have set out on a constitutional rollercoaster with no thought as to what may ensue. Parliament is being treated increasingly as irrelevant. The Executive is becoming more autocratic and the centre of gravity is moving more and more to Brussels. Although the noble Lord, Lord Shore, is not in the Chamber at present, I must say that he gave a pretty stern warning that we would all do well to heed.
This Government will go down in history not as a great government but as one who presided over the breakup of the United Kingdom; and as one who made a mockery of parliamentary democracy. I believe that we have something special here in the House of Lords— a House which is frequently apolitical. It is independent; it is relentlessly courteous; and it is thoughtful and effective. It is a depressing fact of life that the people will only regret the passing of all the constitutional legislation when it is too late.
The combined effect of devolution for Scotland and Wales, regional governments, proportional representation and a drastically emasculated Second Chamber will present us with great challenges. We should all continue to be engaged in this debate.
§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Lord Inglewood
My Lords, I begin by joining those other speakers who have congratulated my noble friend Lord Waddington on introducing this important debate. I do not believe that there is any dissent from the central constitutional principle that in our country Parliament as a whole, and not merely the House of Commons, is the source of political authority and provides legitimacy for the exercise of power. With our long history of 776 unbroken constitutional evolution it is not surprising that we have developed a particular and distinctive structure in this respect. It is a structure that has grown up upon the basis of a hierarchy within our jurisdiction which, by itself, is more or less capable in itself of completing the framework within which it is necessary for our citizens to conduct their lives.
The challenge as I see it for Parliament and democracy, for the two are different—indeed, the two joined together in the phrase "parliamentary democracy" are something different again—is how can Parliament continue to exercise its proper power in the public interest in a society where power is no longer distributed vertically within our own jurisdiction, rather it is to be found across a series of networks wrapped round the globe, much of it outside the jurisdiction?
The most obvious development in that respect is the evolution of the European Union system over Western Europe, which provides an alternative to traditional intergovernmentalism. We have an intricate spider's web of systems for administrative action, political decision-making and legislating under the umbrella of a common transnational legal order.
It is often suggested that this arrangement is either inherently federal or at least without proper parliamentary legitimacy, at least as far as concerns this country. I believe that this is not the case. As my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern has frequently put it, and with much more authority than I could, United Kingdom participation in the entire enterprise depends upon our country's Parliament having given its consent, and continuing to give its consent, or at least not withdrawing its consent from that participation.
I have said on previous occasions that, in my view, the greatest weakness in the way in which we in this country—I suspect that this is true also for other member states—have conducted our membership of the Community and subsequently of the Union has been in the links, or perhaps the lack of links, between national parliament, the source of political legitimacy in this country, and those activities carried out under the authority of our country's Parliament at arm's length from it. That is not to say that the answer to this problem is easy; on the contrary, self-evidently it is not, be it in respect of the UK Government's actions in the Council of Ministers, in respect of the Commission or, for that matter, in respect of the activities of the European Parliament.
Recent events concerning the Commission have laid bare aspects, but only aspects, of its conduct that are quite unacceptable, quite monstrous and which quite properly cannot be laughed off. They must be dealt with ruthlessly and without delay. It is quite right that heads should roll, procedures should be changed and processes reviewed. However, it is also important to remember that not everyone who works in the Commission is corrupt. There are plenty of men and women conscientiously and honourably carrying out their jobs who are in no way tainted.
In the context of recent events, it is important not to heed the knee-jerking siren voices of the europhobe iconoclasts who see this as an opportunity to progress 777 their vision of a reconstruction of the world order long since vanished—indeed, if it ever once existed—and certainly never to return. I believe it is important for continuity to be maintained in the Commission, which, after all, is an institution of very great importance. While the bad apples must be thrown out of the barrel, those that are not tainted—I understand, I am pleased to say, that that includes both the UK Commissioners— will be able to continue to maintain continuity with the past and move forward to help put to rights what has clearly gone seriously wrong. We should be in the business of getting a better future starting from here, rather than hallucinating in the world of political virtual reality. Reform for the longer term, and I have no doubt at all that it is desirable in a whole variety of respects, must be considered and thought through with care.
It is also interesting to note that something seems to have been overlooked in the events of the past 48 hours or so; namely, that the European Parliament has in fact carried out its constitutional duty. It is true that that should have occurred in January and that, for ignoble and grubby reasons, it did not. But the events of this week seem to me to vindicate that institution which I now expect to have come of age, albeit that that probably should have happened some years ago. The balance the system was designed to have may finally be falling into place.
There are those who argue that the intergovernmental approach is the right one for dealing with decisions that we have to take in a multi-jurisdictional context. Yet in my view it is very difficult to see how, in practice, national parliaments alone will police the workings of the multi-jurisdictional systems. For that reason I believe it is necessary for multinational scrutiny to take place. First, this is partly because there is a need for matters to be viewed collectively, as well as from the perspective of any individual member state; and, secondly, because if these matters are solely conducted by national parliaments the priority is likely always to be that of the domestic parliament. Hence matters would not necessarily be given the priority or the perspective that they deserve. In short, there is the need for a watchdog, which does not need to be an alternative to national parliaments, whose authority is derived from, but is not part of, our national Parliament to enable it to oversee what is going on and, if necessary, in the interests of the system as a whole, to take very serious steps as would have happened earlier this week if the Commission had not jumped before it was pushed.
All the European Parliament's political power vis-?-vis this country and in respect of the activities of the Union as they affect this country is directly derived from Westminster via the treaties. The identity of the Members, too, who come from this country is similarly derived from Westminster, which has set down in statute the detailed manner of their selection. This is somewhat similar to the way in which activities put into local government's hands are exercised by those elected according to the Westminster Parliament's approved form of selection; and perhaps even more interestingly, it is similar to the system shortly to come into being in Scotland.
778 I believe that what is needed—it is interesting that the concept is mentioned in the Government's proposals for reform of your Lordships' House, although it is not quite put in these terms—is for those who are exercising scrutiny and power on authority derived from Westminster to be more closely linked to this Parliament in the future. After all, the Parliament here is the ultimate source of the authority they exercise. When all is said and done, Members of the European Parliament and Members of both Houses here in Westminster are allies in the noble task of scrutinising and ultimately holding to account in the public interest the executive and its various manifestations. In a world where the sources of power are changing, the ways of carrying out that essential duty must change too, for otherwise we shall be letting down all our fellow citizens.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Nunburnholme
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who was ably supported by the noble Lord, Lord Shore. He had a lot to say, it was very good, and my goodness he knows how to
I feel honour bound to make the position of my party, the Democratic Party, clear in respect of the two issues being debated at this moment. While the Democratic Party has a full range of policies, the European situation is a major threat to democracy and hence must receive our full attention at present. The Democratic Party believes that the events of the past 48 hours have illustrated the need for Britain to withdraw from the European Union and return to the apparent democratically valid position of the 1975 referendum: in essence, that we trade freely with Europe without loss of sovereignty or political integration, a position that the British people thought was the issue at the time. We believe that the European Parliament as currently constituted is not a democratic authority and hence should not be supported in any way by the United Kingdom.
In particular, we are worried that a very small proportion of the British electorate will vote at the Euro elections and an apparently valid candidate will be elected when in fact the majority of constituents will not have taken part, probably deliberately. This is not democracy and hence we advocate that the British people boycott the Euro elections.
At the next general election, and probably at prior by-elections, the Democratic Party will stand candidates so that the electorate will have available a truly democratic candidate who will not merely listen but will also implement the wishes of the majority. We issue a call today to the nation, a call for national unity, a call to the sovereign electorate, for their support in the restoration of full powers to government at Westminster from the corrupting state within a state in Brussels.
It is now clear that the very badly designed bureaucratic edifice of the European Union is causing hostility both between member states and, even more worryingly, Britain and its traditional friends and allies. We also deplore the proliferation of anti-EU factions who do not appear able to unite. One wonders why this apparently natural gravitation is not taking place. The 779 time has come when individual or party ambition must be put aside and the interests of our country and its people given the absolute priority that they deserve.
The good intent of the latest pressure group, New Europe, is untenable because monetary union and sovereignty are indivisible. I must also remind Members in the other place of their duty to represent the wishes of their constituents and remember the promises made before their election. They must not blindly follow the instructions of a few and hence support a dictatorship. My party has been specifically founded to return Britain to a true democracy and is an expression of the wishes of not merely the "grass roots" but the very earth of this country.
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, I am sure we all enjoyed the noble Lord's election address!
We have had a variety of speeches in this debate. Notable for me were three by extremely skilled, well known political analysts. During the first hour we heard, very importantly, from three enormously experienced parliamentarians, my noble friend Lord Waddington, the noble Lord, Lord Shore, and the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill. All those three have enormous practical experience of the link between respect for Parliament and the democratic process itself. They know that democracy, even when well rooted and of long standing, remains for ever a delicate plant that needs careful tending.
I believe that the people of the United Kingdom have long been, and in fact still are, as deeply understanding and accepting of their own democratic ways as are any people in the world. I confess that I first came to understand this properly by way of my own experience when I was elected 25 years ago—new to party politics—to local government. I was frankly astonished at how instantly, after the battle and hostility of the hustings—which I had not much enjoyed—I moved to being recognised as a person serving all my constituents regardless of how they voted. Everyone seemed to understand and accept this without comment or fuss. This was my first experience of deep-seated democracy. I found myself at that time comparing how people behaved here with Western Germany, where I frequently visited. There democracy was, and still is by comparison, new and consciously valued. The Germans talked of it a lot. They were very proud of it, whereas we in this country took our system for granted and hardly mentioned it at all. We just operated it.
As history and social change move on, every country has to tend its democracy more and more carefully. With care, Germany's system has stood the very special strains of unification remarkably well. They now of course have enormous new pressures to withstand. Here in the United Kingdom there are many new pressures too. Many of them have been discussed in this debate. But I believe perhaps the most dangerous of all is the one spoken about by my noble friend Lord Chadlington; namely, the pressures created by the modern techniques which now allow a government constantly to sound out 780 how the public are feeling—the noble Lord mentioned how the public are thinking but I believe the matter mostly concerns how the public are feeling—and the ability constantly to respond to those feelings over the head of Parliament.
From one point of view, of course, this works beautifully. President Clinton has proved that, and so far it is paying off for this Government too, as it will pay off for future governments. I do not think it is a thing for just this present moment. By direct communication with the public, we now see that it is possible to stay high in the polls, even when things are actually going rather badly—but at what cost?
The cost is turning out—my noble friend Lord Waddington spoke about this—to mean that the Government reckon they can govern while treating Parliament as of secondary importance. So when the Prime Minister comes along one day a week to answer Questions he frequently gets away with jokes instead of Answers. Also, as several noble Lords have said, he seldom finds the need to vote. The Chancellor can get away with a Budget speech which, well leaked beforehand, at the time it is made misleads and is delivered in a style which, as one commentator put it, was,more like a school prize-giving address than an audit of the nation's finances".Parliamentary Statements are so often given ahead to the media that Madam Speaker tells me she takes her Walkman to the park so that she knows what is coming. There is a constant stream of glossy brochures, with announcements, repeat announcements, possible proposals and the Government's passing thoughts all mixed up. It is increasingly hard, it seems, to distinguish between a White Paper, a Green Paper, a discussion paper and a bit of party propaganda. That is another example of the problem of discerning what funding goes to government business and what to party propaganda.
Likewise, the Government are getting away with the current Health Bill, which is drafted so as to be entirely incomprehensible except to lawyers, and they have been forced to put in the Library translations and consolidated versions of some of the clauses so that we in Parliament can understand what is being done. The Bill makes massive changes to the health service in Scotland, but it may not even have become law before the Scottish Parliament takes all those changes over. It is a quite extraordinarily casual piece of legislation by any standards. All these and many other instances that have been identified by noble Lords in this debate show the increasing disregard on behalf of the Government for Parliament.
That, I believe, is re-emphasised by the slightly sneering and sarcastic denigration of half the Members of this House—and also of course by the Government's insistence on fixing the date for the Second Reading of the House of Lords Bill for the week after next, disregarding the most important elements of the self-regulation of this House by doing so and also disregarding the importance of what the Bishops may wish to contribute, as well as the interests and sensibilities of many of us who feel that the timing is bad.
781 The polls show that in relation to the elected House, while the Prime Minister and the Government continue with high popularity poll ratings, approval of the House of Commons is slipping. Surely this Government and future governments must take this warning very seriously. Direct communication with the electorate is an up to date and useful way to proceed, but to maintain the Government's popularity by that means at the expense of proper answerability to the electorate by way of Parliament is dangerous stuff.
We have only to look at the events in the European Commission today to see what happens when people enjoy power for some time without direct answerability. For a government to disregard Parliament for whatever reason—for political ends, for apparent convenience, because of enthusiasm for extra-parliamentary communication or whatever—is to neglect the delicate and precious plant of properly understood democracy on which we in this country all depend. I hope that, for all our sakes, the Government will pay great heed to this debate.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ The Earl of Northesk
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Waddington. I confess surprise, ever so gently, that the noble Baroness, the Lord Privy Seal, is not responding to this debate on behalf of the Government. After all, respect for Parliament and safeguarding democracy are fundamental issues. We could reasonably have supposed that the noble Baroness, as Leader of the House, might have been a little more interested—or is this all of a piece with the Prime Minister's attendance and voting record in another place?
Of course, this is no criticism of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey: heaven forbid! The noble Lord is an assiduous parliamentarian. His contributions to your Lordships' House are hugely admired and respected on all sides, but at the very least there is scope for misgiving that the noble Baroness may somehow feel that the substance of our debate today is beneath her.
That said, I hope also that the noble Lord does not fall into the same trap as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. The old chestnuts of "18 years of Tory misrule", of "not taking lessons from the Conservative Party" or of the Government's standing in the polls have been deployed far too often. It neither explains nor justifies the matter under discussion. It is the Government of the day who should respond on their own account, rather than hiding behind any aberrations that may have existed in the past. Indeed if, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, maintained, there were such aberrations in the past, it is doubly wrong that the present Government should persist in them.
In all this I am drawn to a particular feature of our governmental system which was touched upon by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. It has been observed that:parliamentary government is not government by Parliament. The Government govern in and through Parliament.That is pretty crucial stuff. It infers that should an administration seek to bypass Parliament it is in effect denying itself proper authority to govern. As many 782 noble Lords have observed, examples of this Government's contempt and disdain for due parliamentary process are legion. We have had the curtailment of Prime Minister's Question Time; the making of major announcements to the media instead of to Parliament; the receipt of leaked reports from Select Committees and so on. We are in a sorry slate indeed when we have an administration that almost takes delight in the ritual abuse of Parliament and, in so doing, undermines its fitness to govern.
This leads in turn to a crucial element of our system. As the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, explained, it is generally acknowledged that, apart from a few honourable—noble even—exceptions, Members of another place are increasingly perceived as mere ciphers of their respective political parties. They have assumed the status of little more than a rubber stamp. Indeed, so diligent are they that they find the prospects of rubbing shoulders with today's icons of populist culture at the Brit awards infinitely more appealing than debating the Government's flagship Bill of this Session. The Government's omnipotent majority in another place and the mute acquiescence of their—and, in their own way, the Liberal Democrat—Back Benches have the regrettable effect of conferring ownership of that House upon the Executive. But this should not obscure the fact that Parliament—both Houses—should belong to its membership, not to the Executive. Government should be at the service of Members of Parliament, not the other way around.
In our own experience there are increasing signs that Ministers believe that this House exists merely for their convenience. Questions from your Lordships are routinely glossed over or not answered at all. By way of example, my noble friend Lord Chesham is still awaiting an Answer to his Written Question of 13th January. As the noble Lord the Minister knows, my noble friend has been provoked to table a further Question asking why his original Question remains unanswered. The traditions of the House are summarily ridden roughshod over, as with the recommendation, advanced by the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip, that we should consider changing our debate days from Wednesday to Thursday. The courtesies of the House are being undermined as the process of politicisation gathers pace. It will be a sad day if this continues and this House is made as much of a creature of the Executive as another place.
Nowhere is this presumption more obvious than in the intransigence of the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip earlier today. I make no apology for returning to this matter. The scheduling of the Second Reading of the House of Lords Bill will have the undesirable effect of preventing a significant number of your Lordships—not least the Bishops—from taking part because of other and prior commitments. That would suit the Government well. But it beggars belief that so many of those with the greatest experience of and interest in the operation of this House are to be denied their entitlement to contribute. The only interpretation to put upon it is that the Executive really does believe that Parliament functions for its 783 convenience. That is rank arrogance and does nothing to ensure proper and adequate scrutiny of the Government's legislative programme.
Anyone who doubts this interpretation need look no further than the comments of the junior Home Office Minister in winding up the Third Reading debate on the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill in another place. I quote:…the other place had better listen to the democratically elected Chamber, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it crystal clear that we do not intend for the will of Parliament to be thwarted again". —[Official Report, Commons, 1/3/99; col. 807.]In the first instance, I offer the junior Minister one small bit of advice. The institution of Parliament is composed of two Houses and the Crown. Like it or not, that is our constitutional arrangement. It will still be our constitutional arrangement once the Government's proposals for this House have been enacted. Despite that, the Executive issues its decree as to what will happen and demands that there be no deviation from that by your Lordships. No matter that the issue is subject to a free vote; no matter that the overriding duty of this House is legislative scrutiny. So far as concerns the junior Home Office Minister, all that matters to the Government is that they are not obstructed, not criticised, not held to account. What a parody this is. Where is the respect for Parliament in such arrogance?
What astonishes is the sense in which the control and power conferred upon this Government by virtue of their mandate—I am conscious of how much the phrase "elective dictatorship" rankles with them—is insufficient for their needs. It is almost as if a doctrine of the "divine right of the Executive" is being developed. This is a throw-back to a darker age. In the name of "modernisation" seriously, there is a sense in which we are reverting to a perverse form of absolute monarchy.
From another perspective—it pains me to say this— there is a curious symmetry here between the mire in which the European Commission now finds itself and the Government's disdain for Parliament. Only the infatuated deny the existence of the democratic deficit in Europe. Its main cause lies in the failure to provide adequate measures of accountability within its institutional structure. By turns, the Government's lack of respect for Parliament institutionalises and visits that self-same deficit on our own system. It is about time that they recognised and understood that Parliament has to belong to its membership. Whatever Mr. Mandleson may have said in the past about the era of representative democracy coming slowly to an end, this is the most certain way of ensuring that the process of government belongs to the electorate.
§ 6.56 p.m.
§ Lord Goodhart
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for introducing what has been an interesting debate on a very important subject.
Of course, complaints about the increasing powers of government and the decline of the independence of Parliament are nothing new. We certainly could have 784 had this debate at any time, at least since the organised party systems started to emerge in the days of Gladstone and Disraeli. I suspect that we have had this debate on a good many occasions in previous years.
Of course we need to maintain respect for Parliament and safeguard democracy, but we need to consider what are the present dangers to Parliament and to democracy and how we guard against them. Let me start with the question of respect for Parliament. For most people, of course, Parliament means the other place, the House of Commons. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I never had the privilege of serving there, but, reading from Hansard, I see that good speeches are made there—even if, perhaps, not quite as often as in your Lordships' House—and I see that serious debates are held there. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, pointed out, they are held in an empty House. The House fills up mainly for Prime Minister's Questions, when the House is seen probably at its worst, with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the "Yes, I did", "No, you didn't" shouting matches reminiscent of Christmas pantomimes, and Government supporters asking questions of cringe-making sycophancy which one would expect the parliamentarians of North Korea to ask their dear leader.
It is hardly surprising that the press, therefore, gives little attention to serious debates. What coverage Parliament gets in the press now comes mainly from Matthew Parris, Simon Hoggart and the other sketch writers. We cannot blame the media for this. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Bell, said in his excellent maiden speech. Media coverage simply reflects the fact that when a government of any colour has a working majority proceedings in Parliament really do not matter very much. It is difficult to think of more than one speech in Parliament in the past 20 years which has actually changed the course of politics. That speech is, of course, the resignation speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon.
It is widely recognised, and has been said by many speakers in the debate, that the main cause of the low respect in which Parliament is held—the main flaw in the British system of democracy—is the lack of control of Parliament over the Executive. That is why it is so important that your Lordships' House should be reconstituted on a basis that will give it legitimacy to act as a brake on a runaway executive. Its membership must be predominately elected and must be elected by a system or a timetable which would ensure that the elected membership of your Lordships' House is not a clone of the other place.
Equally serious is the decline in respect for politicians as a group. On that I agree again with the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill. I never managed to be elected to the other place but I have done a good deal of canvassing for myself and for other people in elections. I found nothing more depressing than the reaction one so often experienced on the doorstep: "You politicians are all alike. You are only in it for what you can get out of it". That reaction is a travesty of the truth. Politics in this country is an honourable profession. We are indeed lucky in this country. Serious corruption among British politicians of all parties is now extremely minimal. 785 Quite to the contrary, most politicians earn far less in politics than they would in outside jobs and the sacrifices that they make not only in terms of money but in terms of time and leisure are enormous. We need to bring the public perception closer to the reality. We need public education in politics, not to persuade school children of the merits of one party's policies as against another but to teach them about the political system, how parties work, why we need political parties and what it is that politicians do.
However, I believe also that politicians need to change the way they work. On these Benches we have been saying for years that what we need is a less confrontational system and more co-operation between parties—to coin a phrase "constructive opposition" rather than knee-jerk opposition, which turns off voters. We believe that proportional representation can achieve that and we now have an opportunity to find out whether we are right. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will show whether elections by proportional representation can change the political culture.
The mention of Scotland and Wales leads me on to look at democracy as a whole and not just democracy at Westminster. Some people—I think that includes the noble Lord, Lord Waddington—look at democracy and Parliament as being essentially the same thing. That view was encouraged 100 years or so ago by the constitutional scholar A. V. Dicey, who taught that the only principle of the British Constitution was the absolute sovereignty of Parliament. But democracy is very much wider than that. Natural communities of any size need their own democratic institutions. Wales and Scotland are clearly natural communities—indeed, they are separate nations—which should have their own representative institutions within the United Kingdom.
Local democracy is also of the highest importance. One thinks back to the great days of local government in the 19th century: the reform of the ancient borough corporations; the creation of local government in the counties; Joe Chamberlain's Birmingham in the 1870s; and the founding of the LCC in the 1890s. One of the worst acts of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was to emasculate local government by taking away its powers and depriving it of control over its own funds. She abolished the GLC, though London surely is a natural community if ever there was one. All that was deeply anti-democratic.
The problems are serious but I do not think that democracy is in crisis. On balance, I believe it has improved during the time of the present Government. This year we will see the formation of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly; next year we will have a London mayor and assembly; and some time this year we will, pray God, have a Northern Ireland Assembly. The local government strait-jacket is being relaxed a little.
But much still remains to be done. Local government needs to be strengthened. We need to end finally the capping of local government and to give local authorities more sources of income under their own control. We need to bring greater democracy to the European Union by giving more power to the European 786 Parliament. It has shown this week that it has teeth; but it still needs more and sharper teeth. I welcome the recognition of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, in what I thought was one of the best speeches in the debate, of the importance of the European Parliament. We need to make the composition of your Lordships' House more democratic and to give it greater legitimacy. Above all, we need to make people understand that democracy matters to them; that democracy is not just the least bad system but it is the only system which, in the long term, can secure their freedom, prosperity and peace.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Waddington for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important subject and to listen to a number of interesting and thoughtful speeches. A group of three—I am not sure whether it was a troika or, if I may be Scottish, a reel of three— of the most experienced practitioners in the world of communication have come today to tell us their views on these matters. They were led by my noble friend Lord Bell who made a very interesting maiden speech. He said that institutions must earn respect. That is absolutely right. That is what they must do. My noble friend Lord Saatchi showed us all how to make a brief speech. Your Lordships will not be surprised to know that I do not think I am up to following his example.
My noble friend Lord Chadlington said that one of the problems—it is a problem we all appreciate—is that modern governments manipulate the media and that there is a comfortable and sometimes cosy relationship between the media, the spin doctors and the political advisers. That applies not just to the present Government but to all modern governments—the present Government are just rather better at it in many ways. When I heard my noble friend say that. I could not avoid recalling that two political correspondents with whom I had a good many dealings when they worked for the broadcasting media in Scotland suddenly materialised one morning—or the next morning—as, in one case, a directly paid spin doctor for the Labour Party and in another case one of the Secretary of State's spin doctors. That kind of relationship is uncomfortable and is not one we should encourage.
Anyone who has a doubt about the need for parliamentary scrutiny of the executive just needs to look, as my noble friend Lord Inglewood reminded us, at what happened in Brussels this week. Frankly, the executive there in the form of the Commission was under no one's control and no one's scrutiny. For a long, long time we talked about these problems in your Lordships' House. We talked about them during this Government's term of office and we talked about them during our term of office, when I occupied the position of spokesman for the Treasury which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, now occupies. But the real problem was that no one was in a position directly to scrutinise the Commission. So the lesson, if there is one, from what happened in Europe this week is that any new Commission not only needs people of a great deal more integrity than a few of the commissioners had in the 787 previous Commission, but also needs to be more firmly controlled by either the Parliament or by the Council of Ministers.
I am not one of those who believe that the House of Commons has gone to the dogs for any reason other than that very few of its Members appear to want to attend hour after hour and day after day; indeed, they do not even want to attend the normal eating and drinking places in the other place, so busy are they on their word processors. The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, gave us some advice on that. His comments reminded me of a remark that the late George Thomas—Lord Tonypandy—used to make when people said how noisy the House of Commons was and sent him letters of complaint. He wrote back and said: "If you want to hear a silent Parliament, go and look at the Supreme Soviet and ask yourself which you prefer".
If I have any quarrel with the present House of Commons it is the sycophancy that goes on there. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, described the exchanges between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition as, to paraphrase his remark, "Yahoo politics". I have to say to the noble Lord that his own leader plays a third part in the Yahoo politics. He does not seem in any way different from the Prime Minister or my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition. What is most disturbing is the way in which Government Back-Benchers behave in trying to get themselves promotion by not merely soft over-arm bowling, but soft under-arm bowling to the Prime Minister. That was brought to everyone's attention by the splendid Mr. Andrew Mackinlay, who asked the Prime Minister on 3rd June:Does the Prime Minister recall that, when we were in opposition, we used to groan at the fawning, obsequious, Softball, well-rehearsed and planted questions asked by Conservative Members of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)? Will my right hon. Friend distinguish his period in office by discouraging such practices—which diminish Prime Minister's Question Time—during this Parliament? Furthermore"—I add this rather against my own side—in view of the rather depleted official Opposition, will he encourage rather than discourage—without fear or favour, and without showing partiality or affection—loyal Labour Back Benchers who wish to seek and provide scrutiny and accountability in this place?He received a pretty inscrutable reply from the Prime Minister:I fully respect my hon. Friend's independence of mind and shall do my very best to ensure that he retains it"—[Official Report, Commons, 3/6/98; cols. 358–59.]The position in the other place has not improved since last June, as any noble Lords who listen to Prime Minister's Question Time will know.
I was surprised that my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree was the only one to raise the matter of the lack of scrutiny of secondary legislation. It was the one point that I wanted to make in a major way. I am not going to allow the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, to score an easy goal by saying that it is entirely this Government who are responsible. In fact, it is a problem that has developed over the years. More and more primary legislation consists of more and more secondary legislation, and that secondary legislation becomes 788 larger and more complex. Frankly, neither House examines secondary legislation properly. The position is perfectly simple. Both Houses have the option to take it or leave it; to accept it in its entirety or vote against it. Your Lordships' House, in my view rightly, has a self-denying ordinance in this. Divisions in the Commons do not make any difference because it is a matter of either the whole lot or none of it.
It is perhaps time that we thought in terms of finding a method, either in this House or in another place, of scrutinising secondary legislation—not in the same way as primary legislation with Second Readings, Committee stages, Report stages, and so forth, but perhaps scrutinising one particular stage of secondary legislation. I know that this matter worries Members of this House. After all, it was this House that set up a delegated powers scrutiny committee to examine primary legislation and to be particularly vigilant on Henry VIII clauses and how governments decide Parliament should deal with secondary legislation, affirmative or negative.
I think it is fair to say that the Government have taken on board most of the recommendations made by the committee to date, as we have done. It will be interesting to see what they do in relation to the pollution Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, described as a skeletal Bill in its purest definition. We ought to think in parliamentary terms of how we can deal with it.
We recently debated a huge order relating to Scottish parliamentary elections. I was perfectly content with most of it, as were other noble Lords who took part in the debate. It largely replicated the rules, forms, ballot papers and procedures of parliamentary elections to the House of Commons. But there were differences, because there are top-up second ballots. One of the problems was that there was no proper provision for recounts in the second ballot. The only such provision was at the constituency stage. After that, the constituency result goes to the regional officer; he waits for all the constituency results to come in; he then receives all the first-past-the-post results; he performs the d'Hondt divisor (on which we spent many happy days of debate in this House) and he then comes to a decision on who is elected.
The simple fact is that it is not until, in the case of Wales, the fourth and last member is decided and, in the case of Scotland, the seventh and last member, that anyone will know whether the result is close and whether there is a need for a recount. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and I made that point, and I believe that government Ministers understood it, though they gave all kinds of reasons as to why they could not accept it.
If we had scrutinised that legislation in any kind of detail, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and I might have brought forward an amendment. We may well have pressed it to a Division, and we may well have won. I prophesy that, had we done so, we should have prevented problems which may well arise following the Scottish and Welsh elections if either of the fourth or seventh places are at all tight.
789 Talking about Scotland and Wales reminds me of the use of referendums. The point was raised by my noble friend Lady Seccombe. In the matter of Scotland and Wales, pre-legislative referendums were held. They were attempts almost to gazump Parliament; to make sure that the Government always had a trump card— the referendum had already decided the issue; who were Members of Parliament to start to look carefully at the proposals?
If we are to have referendums we should incorporate them properly and fairly into the system. To date, the Government have refused to countenance doing so, despite the excellent report from the commission on the conduct of referendums set up by the Electoral Reform Society and the Constitutional Unit, chaired by Sir Patrick Nairne and including two Members of this House—neither was on my side of the House; they were the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, and the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham.
What we need is a referendums Act and a referendums commission which ensures that the rules and questions are properly and fairly dealt with and that both sides have a proper sight of the ball, so to speak. It must become a genuine exercise in determining the desires of the British people and not just the Government asking a question to which they have already worked out the answer.
A test of the Government's integrity and democratic credentials will arise this Friday in the other place when a referendums Bill is to be presented for Second Reading. If the Government do not work with the promoters of the Bill to ensure its passage through to the statute book this Session, it will show not merely a contempt for Parliament, but a contempt for the whole democratic process.
My noble friend Lady Blatch mentioned that the Third Reading of the Bill to reform this House was taken yesterday in the House of Commons. The Third Reading debate began at two minutes past six. With many Members still wanting to speak, including the Official Opposition spokesman who was still winding up, at two minutes to ten the Government imposed the closure and the troops went through the Lobby. And that was that—on a debate which I believe is of some importance and which, judging from their reaction, Members on the Government Benches also believe is of some importance, though perhaps for different reasons.
The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, described the House of Commons as the forum of the nation. The noble Lord reminded us that, when he was Speaker, he forced Mrs. Thatcher (brave man) to come to the House of Commons and make a Statement on a particular issue. He also allowed PNQs and emergency debates in order to ensure that the Government were daily held to account.
The noble Lord's remarks illustrate—and I shall not argue with him—that my party was not exactly immune from some of the bad practices about which some of my noble friends have complained. But I believe that we were amateurs at the business. The field is now held by the professionals. They certainly know how to do it. The Prime Minister has led the way in reducing the 790 importance of Parliament by going to the House only once a week to answer Questions. That reduces his exposure to Questions on vital issues to the vital issues of just one day instead of two days. That accords, of course, with his desire to keep as far away from the House of Commons as he possibly can.
My noble friend Lord Waddington publicised the Prime Minister's Division record. I suspect that it must be the worst Division record any Prime Minister has ever had. The problem is that the Prime Minister has clearly shown—and it has infected all his Ministers— that it is far better to give a good media briefing than to go and answer to the House of Commons.
Let us look at Monday's Statement on NHS modernisation. The Statement was made, as usual, at half past three in the afternoon in the other place. In fact, at six o'clock in the morning, on Radio 5 Live there was a detailed report on the setting up of admission wards in hospitals, a report which could only have come from a detailed knowledge of the contents of a Statement due to be made nine hours later. Subsequently, the "Today" programme carried all the details. I discount the only explanation other than leaks—and very good leaks—which is that Jim Naughtie, fine Scot though he is, is gifted with what we in Scotland call "the second sight". I do not believe he has the second sight.
Let us look at the health Department. I do not pick that out because it is particularly bad but because Monday was that department's day. The leak of the Statement on NHS modernisation was not the first leak. The nurses' pay award was leaked to the press two weeks before publication. The Ashworth Hospital Statement was leaked to the Daily Telegraph the day before it was made to the House. The mental health Statement was leaked to the Sunday Telegraph two days before it was made. Details of the social services Statement appeared in the Independent and the Guardian on the morning of the day it was to be made. Details of the children's safeguards Statement appeared in the Evening Standard on the morning of the day it was to be made. And so I could go on.
I know the reason for it. When I make an important speech—I think I make a few; not many people agree— if I tell the media before I make it, I get an interview on the radio. If I tell them after I make it, I do not get an interview; the news is dead. They are only interested in news that is about to happen. While that may be the excuse for the Government doing what they are doing— and, to an extent, what we did—it does not justify what has now become an art form of allowing Statements to come out in the press before they are made to Parliament. We all have a responsibility for the situation that has developed, but perhaps the Government should think of themselves in terms of New Labour a bit more and restore Parliament to being the central forum of debate in our nation.
I leave your Lordships with the words of Madam Speaker on Monday 15th March with regard to the health Statement. My noble friend Lord Waddington quoted a few of her comments. When asked by my 791 honourable friend Michael Jack about the broadcasts in the morning, the Speaker said this:As to the right hon. Gentleman's substantive point, I repeat how much I deprecate leaks of any kind. I listen avidly to the morning news, including the 6 o'clock news to which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) referred and every news from then on. I use my Walkman to listen to the news when I take a walk and I hear far too much information that is made public often days before it is revealed at the Dispatch Box. I shall continue to deprecate that practice for as long as it continues". — [Official Report, Commons, 15/3/99; col. 723.]I suggest to the Government that they listen, heed, mark, inwardly digest and act upon those words of the Speaker of the other place.
§ 7.23 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for introducing this debate and in particular for the terms of the Motion, Perhaps I may remind the House of those terms because, if I may say so, some of the speeches were slightly wide of them. The terms of the Motion were as follows:To call attention to the need to maintain respect for Parliament and to safeguard democracy".In what I have to say I shall, of course, seek to respond to the debate as best I can, but I should like to put in your Lordships' minds two themes which I believe should infuse the way in which government think about these issues. The first was referred to by a number of noble Lords but perhaps most effectively by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. It is the fact that democracy is wider than Parliament. In this country democracy includes Parliament, of course, and Parliament is the fountainhead of democracy because we are a unitary state, but democracy includes local government; it will include regional government; and it will certainly include devolved government in Scotland and Wales. Everything we do to provide a devolved democracy closer to the people and to communities is an enhancement of democracy, even if sometimes it is a diminution of the powers of central Parliament; and it is still democratic.
The second point relates to Parliament and, in particular, the House of Commons. We should recognise that there is an eternal tension between the government and the Parliament, and that is in the nature of our political system. Bagehot said it best nearly 150 years ago:The whole life of English politics is the action and reaction between the Ministry and the Parliament".Sometimes it goes one way and sometimes it goes another way, but that is inevitable. It is part of our politics. We are entitled to complain about the balance being in the wrong direction, but we must not expect that that creative tension will go away.
From some of the speeches I heard this afternoon, it seems that some noble Lords think there was once a golden age of Parliament, when Parliament was supreme and commanded the Executive, exercising a profound influence on the way the Executive governed the country, if not governing the country itself. I wonder 792 whether that is true. I do not need to go back to the 18th century, but I think the cartoons of Hogarth and Rowlandson are evidence of the contempt in which politicians have been held for many years, and probably throughout the history of our democratic system.
It would be hard to argue that Parliament is held in as high respect outside Westminster, as it was let us say 50 years ago. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, gave us evidence about the lack of respect in which politicians are held today. I do not know whether he has the historical evidence with him but, as a survey researcher myself, I seem to recall that, although I think things have become rather worse in the past 10 or 20 years—I am not making a party point here—there have been long periods in our history when disrespect for Parliament was widespread. Perhaps public opinion, the media and even the judiciary were too deferential at some times in the past. When this happens, the only thing that government can do is to encourage measures which improve Parliament so that it earns greater respect. Here I profoundly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that an effective government need an effective parliament. I paraphrase what he said. I am sure that that is right, and I am convinced that that is the view of the Government, although it contrasts with a number of statements made by noble Lords opposite.
In the 1990s respect for Parliament has been affected by perceptions in the media and elsewhere about the funding of political parties generally. That is one issue which did not come up in debate, and I am sorry about that because I believe it ought to have done. We asked the Neill Committee to examine the funding of political parties, and later this year we shall bring forward a draft Bill to reform the law in this area. We have encouraged both Houses to improve procedures for standards of conduct. Not everything has gone smoothly, but I venture to suggest that general perceptions of standards of conduct among Members of Parliament and peers are higher than they were only a few years ago—I will not even say two years ago—before the Nolan and then the Neill process took place.
While I am on the subject of Nolan and Neill, let me say a word about referendums. I simply do not accept that the ideal of democracy is to have a Parliament where the only direct chance of participation by the electorate is, once every four or five years, a vote on all issues combined together in the way which suits the political parties. Without saying that they should become a substitute in any way for parliamentary government, referendums as they have been used in the past few years, particularly in a constitutional sense, have been a valuable addition to, not a subtraction from, democracy. But in turn that implies that there should be rules for referendums.
For that reason the Neill Committee has proposed rules for referendums. The Government intend to respond to that committee's recommendations about the conduct of referendums in the form of a draft Bill this summer. The duty of government to get the balance right and put the clear issue to the electorate in a referendum is a very complex matter. It will be particularly difficult in the context of the referendum on European monetary union and the euro, but it is essential 793 that we are in agreement and should debate thoroughly the rules under which referendums are to be carried out, and we are determined to do that.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, in referring to the referendum on this issue did the noble Lord say "when" or "if?
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I do not know which I said. I do not speak from a script. When the Government have decided that it is right for the country to adopt the euro they will proceed, but only after a decision of Parliament and then the decision of the people in a referendum. Our present position is prepare and decide.
I challenge the contention that the constitutional changes that are taking place weaken Parliament and democracy. All of them were spelt out very precisely in the Labour Party manifesto which was endorsed overwhelmingly in the general election less than two years ago. The devolution settlements have been approved in referendums. The legislation has been discussed and amended, despite the comments of some noble Lords, and passed by Parliament. Voters will return to the ballot boxes to elect members of the devolved bodies. Is that undemocratic? I do not believe that it is.
The constitutional changes will be underpinned by incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Freedom of Information Bill. Both measures will strengthen our democracy and not undermine respect for Parliament. Indeed, they will extend the rule of law and greater disclosure of information. I believe that both of those are objectives for which Members of your Lordships' House have pressed for many years.
I should like to say a word about the quality of legislation. Criticism has been made of some legislation. When we had a comparable debate in May of last year, it was conspicuous how many noble Lords said that the quality of legislation had on the whole improved. I do not know whether that is universally the case. I am sure that there is a long way to go. However, since May of last year the introduction of explanatory notes to legislation has made it enormously simpler for Members of Parliament and your Lordships' House to understand what legislation is intended to do and what it actually does.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, for his observations about the extension of pre-legislative scrutiny. We set up a joint committee to examine the draft Financial Services and Markets Bill. A Select Committee in the Commons is taking evidence on the draft Food Standards Bill. Two other Bills have already been examined. There will be further draft Bills this Session on freedom of information, local government and the funding of political parties. That is a practical way of maintaining respect for Parliament.
We are doing more about the consideration of Bills. The explanatory notes to which I have referred give Members of both Houses a clearer understanding of legislation. We have introduced informal meetings in 794 this House involving Members of the House, Ministers and officials on specific Bills. In the Commons we have revived the procedure for the establishment of Special Standing Committees. This very week the Immigration and Asylum Bill is going through a Select Committee-style evidence-taking phase. From the start of this Session we have brought into effect Section 19 of the Human Rights Act at the earliest opportunity so that every government Bill will be accompanied by a ministerial statement on compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights.
As to European legislation, we have implemented our manifesto commitment to overhaul the system of scrutiny. Changes have been made to the procedures of both Houses to ensure that documents under the second and third pillars of the Treaty of Maastricht are subject to parliamentary scrutiny. We have also taken steps to improve non-legislative scrutiny in both Houses. I refer to the committee of this House that deals with monetary policy following changes to the rules of the Bank of England. A joint committee on human rights will be set up later this year. In the Commons there is a new cost-cutting Environmental Audit Committee. None of these is the action of a government lacking respect for Parliament.
I should like to make a few comments on some of the negative points made about the accountability of Ministers and the Government in general to Parliament. I do not accept the factual basis of some of the criticisms that have been made. I agree that the Prime Minister answers Questions only once a week, but he does so for 30 minutes instead of 15 minutes, so it is the same time in total as that for his predecessor. He is much less likely to miss these sessions through international commitments. He has missed only one session since the general election, and that was at the time of the Good Friday agreement. He has answered more Questions, and for longer, than his predecessor over a comparable period. He has also made 17 Statements to the House on such matters as Northern Ireland, Iraq and Europe, compared with 10 by his predecessor in a comparable period.
Referring to Statements, obviously a government elected in 1997 after a long period in opposition would be bound to be active. But if we failed to have respect for Parliament we would have had fewer, not more, Statements. In the previous Session, 117 Statements were made to both Houses, compared with 97 in an equivalent period after the 1992 election. We spent more time on Statements in the Commons and have had more Private Notice Questions, and there were 82 appearances by Cabinet Ministers before Commons Select Committees in the previous Session.
I heard what noble Lords said about leaks. We take the criticisms of the Speaker very seriously indeed. There are several kinds of leaks. Some leaks may be official or semi-official. The Speaker has criticised such leaks. It is far more likely that it is impossible to keep policy away from the media given their present power and the intense scrutiny to which government actions are subject by an increasingly powerful media. That reached a climax when I heard the complaints about the leaks on the Statement concerned with access to the 795 countryside and the right to roam. The complaints were not that the leaks were right but that they were wrong. On which side are we? Are we complaining about information getting out or saying that if the information gets out it should be accurate? There is also the question of leaks from Select Committees to Ministers. That is a serious matter which is being investigated by the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee. Noble Lords would not wish me to anticipate the outcome of that matter.
Having covered the main themes of the debate, I should like to respond to some special points raised by individual noble Lords. I begin with the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington. He made a very powerful speech about the role of communication between the public, the media and government.
I note that in an excellent maiden speech, the noble Lord, Lord Bell, described his business as being the management of reputation. I note that in referring collectively to the terrible triplets Chadlington, Bell and Saatchi, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, referred to their trade as "communication". When the Conservatives do it, it is communication; when the Labour Party does it, it is spin doctoring. Is that the distinction? I just want the definitions on the record.
However, I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, said. He referred to special advisers. Let me assure the noble Lord that the position of special advisers has been regularised since the election. Their model contract was made public for the first time in May 1997. My experience of special advisers is that rather than politicising the Civil Service, they have made it possible to maintain the Civil Service code for those who are civil servants by separating those activities which are properly party activities rather than making it more difficult for civil servants. If noble Lords were civil servants, I think that they would generally agree. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was famous for having a thorough press summary at eight o'clock every morning. I have one too, but it is not paid for by the taxpayer; it is produced by the Labour Party, and very good it is too. That is another example of the separation of politics from the role of the Civil Service.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I doubt whether he can answer now, but perhaps he can look into the matter and write to me. I am informed that the political advisers to the Secretary of State for Scotland will resign in order to campaign with the Secretary of State for Scotland who hopes to be the leader of the Labour Group for the Scottish parliamentary elections. Will they be reappointed as members of the Civil Service after the election?
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I do not know the answer. I shall write to the noble Lord. I suspect that there may not be an answer. I suspect that no one knows whether they would want to be reappointed even if that were possible. But I can assure the noble Lord that whatever decisions of that kind are 796 taken, they are taken in public; they are taken by the Secretary to the Cabinet; and they are taken in accordance with published codes.
In an excellent two-minute speech, the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, made a complicated seven-part syllogism which concluded with a proposal for a lease-lend scheme for distinguished Cross-Benchers. I think that he should consult the Cross-Benchers rather than expect a response to that from Government.
The noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, could repeat the four positive points he made in evidence to the Neill Committee which is consulting now on the effectiveness of its first report. I am sure the noble Lord knows where to go for that. He asked me about the People's Panel and the publication of the results. He is entirely right. The results have been published so far, and they will continue to be published. They are available, if nowhere else, on www. servicefirst. gov. uk. I apologise for the somewhat Orwellian name of the website, but it is there.
I have taken up enough of your Lordships' time. I am sorry if I have not responded to some of the more negative points. This has been a very mixed debate. There have been some excellent speeches; and there have been some of the worst speeches that I have heard in my time in your Lordships' House. It is only right that I pass on, having said that. However, I hope that I have shown that this Government recognise the need for an effective democracy of which an effective Parliament and House of Commons are a part. We recognise the difficulties of maintaining that, but we are determined that it will continue.
§ 7.44 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, I feel indebted to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for the courteous way in which he sat through the debate, and the way in which he summed up the matter. I shall not take him up on any of the points he made, although I do not agree with him that any of the speeches we heard today were other than extremely useful and well informed. I think that we have had a very good debate. We have had excellent contributions from experienced parliamentarians such as the noble Lords, Lord Shore of Stepney, and Lord Weatherill. We have heard from experts in the handling of the media (or whatever is the appropriate way to describe their activities).
I am grateful to every noble Lord who has taken part in the debate. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.