HL Deb 14 November 2000 vol 619 cc124-6

2.40 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway asked the Leader of the House:

Whether the proposed constitutional committee of this House will have a remit to advise on the exercise of the House's guardianship of the constitution; and, if so, whether the committee's membership will include Law Lords, one of whom could be appointed chairman.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, the terms of reference for the Constitutional Committee, agreed by the Liaison Committee on 26th June, are: To examine the constitutional implications of all public bills coming before the House; and to keep under review the operation of the constitution". I interpret that to mean that the Committee could, if it wished, consider the exercise of the House's guardianship of the constitution. As I am sure that the noble Lord is aware, the Committee's membership is a matter for the Committee of Selection, but the inclusion of a Law Lord would give it a valuable source of expertise.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for her open and encouraging reply, for which I am very grateful. Would the Constitutional Committee have the remit to advise the House on whether Royal Assent should be sought before Third Reading for a Bill that had been amended in Committee by a substantial majority on a free vote?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a question that he obviously feels is current. I hesitate to respond on the constitutional issue without taking expert guidance, which I shall, of course, do. On the face of it, what he suggests does not sound likely, particularly if, as in the case that I suppose that he is referring to, the Bill had already been certified by the Speaker as appropriate for the Parliament Act.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I have listened attentively to my noble friend's Answer. Why would anyone wish to give any priority to lawyers on this issue, or, for that matter, on any other? I have listened to the noble and learned Lords who fill the House and I have not found them any more noteworthy for objectivity and independence—

Noble Lords


Lord Peston

My Lords, I have not finished my sentence. I have not found them any more noteworthy for objectivity and independence than the rest of us. They have all the merits and all the faults of the rest of us. One or two of us might be puzzled as to why anyone would single them out on a matter of constitutional importance.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, my noble friend is braver than I am. He will be aware that the ultimate decision in relation to a committee of this kind will rest with the Committee of Selection. I am also advised informally that the Law Lords are considering whether they should involve themselves in controversial matters. That may be relevant to whether or not one of their number becomes involved in this particular committee. However, I am not sure that I would follow my noble friend quite to the end of the path that he reached with regard to his broader character assessments.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will the committee also be required to consider the credibility of statutes, whether they can be enforced and whether they would be understood by the people who have to observe them?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am well aware of the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that Bills, and the Acts that follow them, should be clear and, as he said, relevant and understandable to the people whom they concern. I am sure that everyone strives towards that end. Whether that is, except in the broadest sense, a constitutional matter, I am not entirely certain. I believe that the question of credibility is a subject on which we could hold many hours of useful discussion, but I am not sure that that would be an appropriate response to a Starred Question.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I very much welcome the first reply given by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway. However, has she also had an opportunity to read the article in today's Daily Telegraph from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington, the former Master of the Rolls? Does not that article demonstrate a point which is the reverse of that put by the noble Lord, Lord Peston; that is, how worthwhile the noble and learned Lords' views are on constitutional matters and how worthy they are to be Members of this House and to take part in this type of constitutional question?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, with regard to the general points raised by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, I am sure that, as usual, we broadly agree. However, in relation to his specific point, I have not read the article in the Daily Telegraph. Perhaps I may say gently that if the noble Lord had wanted to raise a matter, I should have been given forewarning.