HL Deb 17 July 2000 vol 615 cc584-9

3.6 p.m.

The Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff) rose to move, That the 2nd and 3rd Reports from the Select Committee (HL Papers 62 and 81) be agreed to.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I regret to have to inform the House that the Chairman of Committees is somewhat unwell, and I regret even more that I therefore have to stand in to move this Motion for him. I rise to move that these reports be agreed to with double trepidation because I am not actually a member of the Liaison Committee, although I sit in attendance along with the noble Lord, Lord Winston.

The reports are the outcome of a review by the Liaison Committee of the committee activity of the House. This is the first general review of committee work since the report of the committee on the committee work of the House in 1982, which noble Lords will remember was under the chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, and on which both the Chairman of Committees and I had the honour to serve.

The setting up of the Liaison Committee was one of the fruits of that work, as was the setting up of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which I am sure we would all agree has been extremely successful. The Liaison Committee has now concluded that the time is right to build on the foundations laid by the Jellicoe Committee and to expand on the range of committee work which the House undertakes. The two reports propose the appointment of two new sessional committees, one to consider constitutional questions and the other to consider economic questions. Taken together with the new Joint Committee on Human Rights, the new committees represent a significant expansion of the House's committee activity and will require substantial additional resources. Last week the Finance and Staff Sub-Committee agreed to the provision of the necessary additional Clerks and other staff.

Finally, I should mention that the Liaison Committee shares the Jellicoe Committee's wish to continue to make regular use of ad hoc committees and recommended the appointment of an ad hoc committee on animal experimentation. The Liaison Committee would welcome your Lordships' constructive suggestions—I repeat, constructive suggestions—for future ad hoc committees. I beg to move.

Moved, That the 2nd and 3rd Reports from the Select Committee (HL Papers 62 and 81) be agreed to.—(Lord Tordoff)

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, perhaps I can briefly detain the House. Although I am interested in the appointments, the setting up of the economic committee, which is an extremely important development, does not have the advantage of having included with it terms of reference, as there are with the proposed constitutional committee. I am sure that these will be agreed. But I hope that the noble Lord can give us an assurance that, in drawing up those terms of reference, he will ensure that there is proper complementarity between the role of the proposed economic committee and the current role of Sub-Committee A of the European Union Committee. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to give me that assurance this afternoon. Clearly, it is important that each committee should be able to continue with its role without there being a turf war between them.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I welcome these proposals. I believe that Select Committees reflect this House at its best. I am very keen on expansion of such committees, as envisaged in these reports, but I have two questions for the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees. First, I welcome the fact that a committee is to be established to study animal experimentation, but is there any reason why this is to be an ad hoc committee rather than part of the Science and Technology Committee?

Secondly, the last sentence of paragraph 9 of the Third Report says that the recommendations are made, on the assumption that the House will be prepared to provide these resources". Can the noble Lord tell us whether this is a matter for the House or for the Treasury?

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Dubs, I believe we all recognise the great value of these committees of the House, which are acknowledged almost throughout the world for their impartiality and fairness. I have one question to raise on the third report as regards the proposed constitutional committee, which has terms of reference: To examine the constitutional implications of all public bills coming before the House; and to keep under review the operation of the constitution". The following paragraph says that the, staff needs of the Committee beyond a clerk will depend on how it chooses to work. We recommend that initially the Committee should seek any specialist support which it needs from specialist advisers". My point to the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees is as follows. As regards these specialist advisers, can the noble Lord say whether we will have the same stage army of pressure group people coming in under this guise and purporting to give impartial advice to a House of Lords committee?

My question may sound far fetched, but on 5th July this year, when speaking during the Committee stage of the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill, I drew attention to the recent publication by Charter 88 under the pretentious title of Unlocking Democracy and said (at col. 1486 of Hansard) that I feared the monarchy would be a target of these zealots in the not too-distant future. I also drew attention to the All-Party Constitution and Citizenship Group of Parliament which, as noble Lords will know, represents all shades of opinion in both Houses. I looked into the background of this group and found out, as I then informed the Committee, that, under the heading "Benefits from outside sources", it also says: Administrative support is provided by Charter 88". That information then goes on to give the contact name of, Michelle Mitchell, Parliamentary Officer Charter 88". Despite its success, this is only a pressure group. However, if that is right at the heart of an all-party group, can the noble Lord give me an assurance that it will not be right at the heart of the proposed constitutional committee?

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees a question on a different point. Can he tell us what progress, if any, has been made on the committee on treaties? Such treaties are now expanding in large numbers and there is very little accountability to either House on these issues.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I should like to raise the issue of animal experimentation, as I understand that one of the proposed groups is to look into the matter. This also reflects the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks. We know that pressure groups come to this House and visit the committees, as well as giving advice. However, there are companies that carry out legitimate business during the process of which they save many people's lives in this country—that applies especially to our children. I speak with some knowledge on the subject because I had a son who, before he died, was diabetic. His treatment came quite precisely from animal experimentation.

Such companies have to survive and they are very much affected at present by lobbying groups that engage in almost terrorist activities to disrupt their work. While this review takes place, I believe that it is beholden on the Government to support those companies. They are governed by very rigorous rules and regulations to which they are adhering. As long as they do so, the Government should quite overtly protect their legitimate activity and their role in the fight against disease in this country.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I have a question for the noble Lord about the proposed constitutional committee. Can he tell the House into what degree of detail it is intended that the committee will go when it considers public Bills? From time to time, UK Bills on matters reserved to Westminster have implications for the Scots Parliament, of which the latter turns out not to be aware—or, alternatively, such Bills should have implications for the Scots Parliament but do not because the Government have tried to avoid getting into a matter that has in fact been devolved but which would be necessary for the implementation of the UK Bill.

Can the noble Lord say whether that kind of issue will arise? Indeed, it has just happened on the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill. I can provide the noble Lord with information in that respect, if he wishes. However, I just wonder whether that kind of issue will be considered or whether the proposed committee will be thinking at a higher level.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I strongly support the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. It is absolutely essential that we should not delay any longer than necessary the setting up of a committee for the scrutiny of international treaties. In that context, can the noble Lord tell us when the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons is expected to report—for example, are we talking in terms of weeks, months or years?

Lord Winston

My Lords, as chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee, perhaps I may address an issue raised by my noble friend Lord Dubs. I believe that it was widely felt both on that commit tee and, to some extent, on the Liaison Committee that an issue as far reaching as animal experimentation, which was not merely a scientific issue, could quite properly form part of the considerations of an ad hoc committee. Concern was also expressed that, as scientists, a number of the members of the Science and Technology Committee might be regarded parti pris as having certain interests and a particular view about animal experimentation.

It was also widely felt that this is a hugely important subject and one that affects our science base. Indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, pointed out, it affects some very key social and ethical issues. There are also important legal and regulatory issues involved that would be well worth considering at this stage. That seemed to us to be a very timely subject for an important ad hoc committee.

The Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I am especially grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for his contribution. I believe that his remarks have answered the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and probably gone some way towards answering the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. Clearly, the matters raised by the noble Baroness fall within the scope of this committee. However, it will be for that committee to decide how far it will look into such matters. The composition of such a committee is also important. As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, we must ensure that it is not simply scientists who take part: the committee will also need to take into account and consider ethical, moral and, indeed, legal issues. I am quite sure that the type of issues raised by the noble Baroness could be swept up within the considerations of this committee. If she wished to give evidence to the committee, I dare say that its members would welcome such a move.

The noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, raised the question of the overlap between Sub-Committee A and the proposed economic committee. Putting on my European Select Committee hat, I have to say that that prospect gave me some concern. It is a matter that we shall have to discuss to ensure that there is no turf war, as sometimes happens in the other place between committees; for example, there is occasionally an overlap of interests between the European Scrutiny Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee. However, I am sure that we can sort out such matters between us. The opportunity for disputes could arise in that respect. We must be aware of them and ensure that we resolve such issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, mentioned specialist advisers. I remind him that he should not confuse membership of all-party groups and the discussions on Select Committees of your Lordships' House. In my experience, specialist advisers are very carefully chosen. They are people who have knowledge but who are not too parti pris. Occasionally you cannot avoid that. The thing to do then, of course, is to have two specialist advisers, one from each side of the argument. We hope to avoid that wherever possible. The noble Lord mentioned Charter 88 being used by the all-party groups. However, that is a different matter from that of specialist advisers. Bodies such as Charter 88 may be asked to give evidence to a Select Committee, but I think that they are unlikely to be asked to be specialist advisers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, mentioned the scrutiny of treaties. As she will note from paragraph 6, it has been decided to await the report of the House of Commons Procedure Committee before we make a recommendation. That is right and proper as we do not want to tread on each other's toes. I am not sure that I can say when that is likely to be completed. I suppose that the normal answer from the Dispatch Box in that regard is "soon".

The Scottish implications of the constitutional committee need to be considered. I should have thought that that would fall within the scope of the constitutional committee, but that will depend on the way in which it interprets its terms of reference. A submission to that committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, or others might help it considerably in drawing up its agenda. I believe that I have answered the questions.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Back to