HL Deb 16 February 2000 vol 609 cc1220-3

2.53 p.m.

Earl Russell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether a legitimate revising chamber should occasionally be able to revise legislation in ways the House of Commons would not have wished.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, I suspect that the subtleties of the noble Earl's Question are probably more suitable for university seminars than for brief responses at the Dispatch Box. However, I shall summarise the Government's position and hope that that meets with the noble Earl's approval.

Any revising chamber, however legitimate it may be as a revising chamber, must recognise that the ultimate authority rests with the primary chamber. It must be for the latter to decide in each case to accept either revisions proposed by the revising chamber or compromise positions which may differ from those that they might have wished.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I think that everyone in this Chamber accepts the proposition that the will of the other place should usually prevail. However, the proposition that its will should always prevail and the proposition that we need a revising chamber are incompatible. Which of these propositions is the policy of Her Majesty's Government?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not accept the noble Earl's contention that those propositions are incompatible. As I said in my original response, is obviously—as the noble Earl has accepted—the constitutionally accepted position that the other place is the pre-eminent Chamber— of Parliament. As I said in my original reply, there may be occasions on which the position of this Chamber—or that of any revising chamber—may be considered by another place and it may indeed be accepted. I remember the noble Earl's generous remarks on the occasion of the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill only a week ago when he said that it was incumbent on him to express his intense pleasure that on that occasion the Government listened to this House. Ultimately it is for the primary Chamber to maintain a primary position.

Lord Peston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that for once the noble Earl is somewhat illogical? It seems 1.0 me to be perfectly compatible for the revising Chamber to revise and for the ultimately democratic Chamber to make up its mind on what should pass into legislation. I personally have no difficulty with that as long as the House of Commons at least listens to what we have to say. That, surely, is the central point of what we do as revisers. Does my noble friend agree with that?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, as so often, my noble friend, in suggesting that the noble Earl was illogical, is more exact than I dared to be when responding. However, I think it was clear from my response to the noble Earl's supplementary question that I believe that there is no incompatibility in what he suggested.

Lord Dean of Harptree

My Lords, will the noble Baroness look favourably on the recommendation of the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords that your Lordships' House should have power to delay statutory instruments for a short period and to invite another place to think again?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, as I have made clear on several occasions, the Government do not intend to respond piecemeal to individual recommendations of the Royal Commission. We have accepted it in broad terms as a good basis for further reform. I am sure that the noble Lord will be aware that the Royal Commission recognised that the second Chamber should always be subordinate, even when fully reformed.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recognise the following words: decision by the House not to support. a proposal from the government will carry more weight because it will have to include supporters from a range of political and independent opinions. So the Executive will be better held to account"? Those words were written by the noble Baroness in he Parliamentary Monitorin November 1999 when the House of Lords Bill had become an Act. In the light of that, is not the answer to the noble Earl's Question, yes?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

No, my Lords. The answer to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition is the same point made by my noble friend Lord Peston; namely, that the noble Lord is being illogical. There is nothing inconsistent in the statement which the noble Lord quoted, nor in my original Answer to the noble Earl.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, is it the Government's position that a Bill coming from the other place is ultimately inviolable, or is it their position that it is ultimately infallible? In her reply, will the noble Baroness take an illustration of a provision that was not promised in the manifesto, perhaps the imposition of party lists upon European elections?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, as I am sure the noble and learned Lord is well aware, that matter was subject to intensive scrutiny by this House. Ultimately the other place prevailed. However, I draw his attention to the more recent example in which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, was involved; namely, the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill. in which the Government accepted amendments which originated from this House which they felt improved the Bill. That was obviously a matter of some importance. As I said in my original Answer, in each case the Government will need to decide whether it is appropriate to accept propositions from the revising Chamber.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the logic of the noble Earl's Question is simply that, if it is not right, to what constructive end and to what reasonable purpose do we continue to sit here at all?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am rather surprised by that question. Perhaps I should simply repeat the answer that I gave to the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Without in any way seeking to say that that constitutes universally and absolutely the last word, it seems to me to reflect the position exactly. It must be for the other place to decide in each case whether to accept revisions proposed by the revising Chamber- — and, of course, on certain occasions it accepts such revisions—or compromise positions which may differ from those which it may have originally wanted. I think that that is clear.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that, in arguing that we have the right to be heard by another place but that it has an automatic right to prevail over us, she is describing exactly the position of the Social Security Advisory Committee? Does she agree that it is properly described as the Cassandra of the body politic? Has she any evidence that this House is willing to occupy such a position?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I take once again the example of the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill. If the noble Earl regards the amendments for which he argued as being Cassandra-like, it is for him to accept that description. I described them as improving the Bill. I think that is optimistic rather than pessimistic.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that ultimately we are saying that the representative Chamber must prevail? If the noble Earl cannot accept that, he is not accepting a basic principle of democracy.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

Yes, my Lords. Through my noble friend's question, I would draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to the remarks that he made in his well-known constitutional lecture last autumn. He said that he of course accepted that the House of Lords was not going to revise the position, or take another position which moved away from the basic fact that, under our constitution, the Government are formed from the elected House of Commons, and ultimately that is the democratic responsibility of the Government.