§ 3.21 p.m.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby rose to call attention to the case for making Parliament more effective in holding the executive to account, and therefore more relevant to voters; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying how grateful I am to colleagues in this House for having supported in such substantial numbers the debate that is about to take place. It indicates, I believe, that many Members of this House are profoundly concerned about the need for the reform of both Houses of Parliament—not only one, but both of them. I very much look forward to the speeches that are to be made which I believe will be of significance and importance.
§ I never quite understood the proper definition of the word "serendipity", but I have decided that it characterises the timing of this debate. As your Lordships will know, somewhat unexpectedly and all of a sudden on Monday, what one might describe as the "poodle" of Parliament turned round and bit its master on the executive. That gave me, for one, a very great sense of satisfaction. I hope that the opportunity it presents will now be seized. The former social security Minister in another place, Mr Frank Field, said that he believed that what had happened would be the "engine" for much wider reform. I very much hope that he is right. I also notice that Mr Graham Allen, a colleague of his and former Labour Whip, described the House of Commons as a "six-stone weakling". I might have used the term "a 12-stone weakling", but the message is quite clear.
§ Let us admit that there has been a loss of purpose in the other place. It flows from three factors, none wholly within its own control. It flows, in part, from devolution of power to Scotland and to Wales. One of the reasons why devolution is today a very substantial challenge to the House of Commons is precisely that the devolved assemblies have chosen working 1481 practices and methods that bring them a good deal closer to their own people. This House will recognise that, very strikingly, the regional media in both Scotland and Wales have virtually totally abandoned the coverage of Westminster in order to cover Cardiff and Edinburgh. That move is not without significance.
§ The second reason for the loss of purpose is a subject that has often been debated in this House; namely, our membership of the European Union. This has led to a good deal of legislation being ultimately decided in Brussels. We all know about that. And, regardless of our own opinion one way or the other on such subjects as membership of the euro, we are all very much aware of the need to establish the best mechanisms we can to scrutinise European legislation.
§ The third area has been little discussed in this House, or, indeed, in the other place. I refer to the growing power and extension of international treaties over precisely what are the sovereign powers of national parliaments. We do not discuss the World Trade Organisation; we do not have the pleasure of looking at the agenda for the G8; and we do not have an opportunity to talk at great length about the global environment convention. However, we all recognise that those treaties are now shaping our world and producing decisions that affect our citizens, while we are virtually voiceless in them.
§ One of my great concerns is that two elements are now eroding the power and the influence of Parliament. The first is the loss of interest among our own electors: a 59 per cent turnout, dating from the last election, is an alarm call to all of us. Secondly, when young people believe that protest is the only effective way for them to express themselves—even peaceful non-violent protest, as distinct from lobbying Parliament—-then, again, there is a very serious issue that we are obliged to address.
§ One of the reasons why Parliament has lost influence relates not only to the issues about which I have talked; namely, devolution, membership of the European Union, and the growing extent and power of treaties: we must also recognise that the extraordinary proliferation of quangos, regulators, commissioners, and the like, over the domestic field for which Parliament was once responsible has created a feeling of distance between the electors and Parliament which is also serious. I make no party point. However, whichever party we may belong to, the fact that 10,000 appointments a year are now made to quangos and regulatory bodies with virtually no scrutiny by either House of Parliament is a matter of considerable concern.
§ In a very distinguished study undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, for the Hansard Society, one of the most disturbing findings was Parliament's sense of its own impotence. The society's survey showed that Members of Parliament regarded virtually every one of their powers as now being ineffective. They said that parliamentary Questions were ineffective. The most famous day for parliamentary Questions—now Wednesday for Prime Minister's Questions—was, according to the study, 1482 regarded by 71 per cent of parliamentarians as being "ineffective". Only 8 per cent believed that Prime Minister's Questions were in any sense effective in ensuring the accountability of the Prime Minister.
§ Indeed, the Hansard Society study went much further. Of all the mechanisms open to Parliament—parliamentary Questions, Private Notice Questions, parliamentary debates and Select Committees—one, and only one, was regarded by more than half of the Members of Parliament questioned as being effective to any substantial extent. It will not surprise noble Lords to learn that that mechanism was the Select Committee procedure: 54 per cent of MPs thought that they had some ability to scrutinise and control the executive, but virtually every other traditional method was seen by them not to work.
§ A study by the BBC conducted last year—a survey of the British people's attitude towards their institutions—showed that Parliament was tied third from the bottom. If noble Lords would like to know who was even further down the list than Parliament, which attracted the confidence of exactly 32 per cent of our fellow citizens, I can tell them that the two institutions that did even worse were political parties (not much divorced from Parliament in the public mind) and the press, which noble Lords will be pleased to hear was the lowest of all, with just 11 per cent support from the public.
§ In such a situation, where not only the public have lost a great deal of confidence in Parliament but also where Parliament—this is the crucial point—has lost confidence in itself, we must ask the question: what can be done about it? However, before I address that question, I should like to say a few words about the executive. The worry is not just that Parliament has effectively lost its power to scrutinise and to hold the executive to account. Developments within the executive must also be the cause of some concern.
§ Over the past 15 or 20 years there have been two steady developments. One of those has been the consistent weakening of the Cabinet. I do not point particularly at the current Prime Minister, or at one of his most distinguished predecessors, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. But the truth of the matter is that except for a brief period under John Major, the Cabinet has become more and more a committee established to say yes to what the Prime Minister of the day wants it to do. Cabinet committees have been increasingly replaced by ad hoc committees, some of them comprising a small group of people called together for the purpose of agreeing a particular policy.
§ In addition, No. 10 has grown out of all proportion. Today There is something very close to a Prime Minister's office. That office is staffed by many young aides, undoubtedly brilliant young men and women, but—this is the key point—not accountable to Parliament. They are not accountable to the electorate; they are accountable only to their masters and mistresses who appoint them as aides. That causes us to be considerably concerned about growing prime ministerial power.1483
§ Ours is not a presidential system. I believe that it cannot be turned into a presidential system. At the conclusion of my remarks—I shall speak for less than the allotted time—I shall underline why I believe it is a dangerous illusion to suppose that Britain can turn its system into a presidential system, given the conditions that apply in other presidential systems that do not apply in this country.
§ Let me turn for a moment to what can be done. Obviously, one of the most important first steps, which could be taken soon—as the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and the excellent Conservative document, Strengthening Parliament, both point out—is effectively to exclude the Whips from the process of selecting members of Select Committees and their chairs.
§ If, in this House, someone proposed that a man or woman accused of some offence could select not only the jury but also the judge, we would find it laughable. But the truth of the matter is that when the Whips choose Select Committee members and their chairs, that is exactly the position in which we find ourselves. How can the scrutineers be chosen by the very people who are to be scrutinised? It is simply absurd. Frankly, if we were a little more blunt, we would laugh it out of court. I very much hope that another place does not "buy" the compromise now being suggested; that is, that senior Back-Benchers should join with the Whips to select members of Select Committees. It is absolutely critical that Select Committees are independent of the executive; after all, they do not, frankly, wield any great power.
§ The second thing that needs to be done—again I owe a great deal here to the two reports I have already mentioned—is to try to make sense of parliamentary Questions. In this respect I think that this House has a good deal to teach the other place. There should be room for topical questions every week and there should be a limited number of questions. Above all, duplicate questions should not be accepted. Prime Minister's Questions have become absurd because one open-ended question after the other is put down, the sole purpose of which is to enable people to join in a rugby scrum called parliamentary Questions. That does not commend Parliament to the electorate, who increasingly dislike yahoo politics and who could not have more clearly indicated that dislike than at the last election.
§ I shall briefly mention two other matters. One that I believe is important is to reconsider the significance of a committee on treaties, for which my noble friend Lord Lester has pressed time and again. It is crucial to start to scrutinise international treaties. We are not suggesting that the executive should give up its power to ratify them, but at least it should consider the views of Parliament before it does so. Our young people recognise the effects of these treaties and are outraged that there is no constitutional method of discussing their impact and their effect on us and on other citizens of the world.
§ Finally, on the reform front, let me take a leap into the radical cyber age. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who is very aware of the impact of 1484 globalisation, will be an enthusiastic supporter of my next proposal—at least I hope so. We should start to think seriously about introducing a drafting stage debate for every major Bill before it is accepted by the Government for Second Reading. In other words, before the Whips are imposed there should be an opportunity to discuss the impact and effect of Bills. We might also adopt a process of the US Congress and some other legislatures; that is, placing draft Bills on the Internet so that the public and the interests concerned have an opportunity to express their views before the Government finally commit themselves to legislation. We have to recognise that we are now in a new electronic age. What better than a government committed both to information technology and the concept of citizenship to advance such a reform?
§ I turn to the issue of this House. I have already mentioned that in my view this House has some significant lessons to offer the other place. Sometimes I think we should be a little less humble about our role. Those lessons include what I have already said about parliamentary Questions, the timing of debates and the provision for topical debate, all of which are better at this end of the parliamentary corridor. But I would be irresponsible if I did not express my concern, the concern of these Benches, and not least of my noble friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats in this House, about the decision by the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House to state in a Written Answer—I regret that it was a Written Answer with no opportunity to question him further—that he saw no point in further consultation following the Wakeham report. I put it on the record that both of the major Opposition parties were under the impression that there would be another round of all-party consultation on those matters. We fully recognise the Government's right to say that there should not be prolonged delay. However, the matter could be dealt with by timetabled discussion. I register our concern, about which my noble friends Lord Dahrendorf and Lord Goodhart will have more to say.
§ I said at the beginning of my remarks that I was deeply concerned about the extent to which the executive is trying to become more and more presidential. Incidentally, it is greatly aided in that by the media—about which my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham will say something—in their insistence on concentrating on just one or two figures in each party to the exclusion of virtually everything and everyone else—not least, of course, to the exclusion of policy. Noble Lords will have noticed that Mr Gerald Kaufman's suit—I believe a copper and filigree suit—set off a degree of attention that policy has not attracted from the media for many months past. If I may say so, that is just a little daft.
§ In conclusion, the United States has a presidential system, a written constitution and a Supreme Court which is used to dealing with political questions. It also has an extraordinarily powerful legislature and a federal system in which the states hold much power. To try in any sense to graft a presidential system on to a unitary state with a weak legislature, a non-political judiciary and no, or very little, power for local and 1485 regional government, would, in my view, put at risk the whole of parliamentary democracy. I believe it is high time that we in this House and those in another place drew the line and said, "Thus far and no further and, indeed, we ought to step back". I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.39 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on moving the Motion. In doing so she has drawn our attention to a strange paradox; namely, that Parliament and society, which are so relevant to each other, are becoming more and more disengaged. You would have thought that their mutual dependence and relevance would have brought them closer together, but in fact the opposite is true. I am not surprised. I have come across this paradox elsewhere in the world of business and of science. I think that there are lessons to be learned.
Those of us running businesses in the 1970s and 1980s could not help but observe that macho management and personal greed were alienating and antagonising the public—the very people on whom our profits and growth depended. Concern about that made the more perceptive of us realise that the business of business is not to serve ourselves but society. Out of that came the philosophy of corporate social responsibility. Companies became good citizens by adapting society's best values. Social responsibility is not only how you treat your customers but also your suppliers, employees and neighbours—and having a dialogue with them.
At the same time, business changed its attitude towards branding. Brands were developed originally as a market tool: a way of keeping market share. However today brands—and for "brands" one can substitute political parties—are seen as a method of earning trust and respect for products and services. It is that trust and respect which delivers the sales and growth to business. In that way business set about resolving the paradox. I do not say that the relationship between business and society is perfect, but it is a great deal better than it was. I think that there is a parallel.
The second area in which I came across the same paradox is science. People know that science is crucial to many aspects of modern life. Indeed, there was a time when people hardly questioned science. However, cracks in that confidence began to appear with episodes such as Thalidomide through to BSE. Some thought that the way to repair those cracks was to increase the public understanding of science. If people understood more about science, then there would be more acceptance of it and its risks. Among others, in its paper, Science and Society, your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology pointed out that that attitude towards the public was not only condescending but did little to repair the breakdown in trust between science and the public. The committee pointed out that the business of science is to serve society and not science: that it was equally important for science to understand the public as for the public to understand science. As a result all kinds of avenues of 1486 dialogue between science and the public have begun to open up with new museums, science weeks and many other initiatives. Those were discussed in the debate in this House on 16th February of this year.
It is perhaps too early to say with certainty, but I have no doubt that all the effort at dialogue will reverse the trend of the public becoming disengaged and less trusting of science. Again, I believe that there is a parallel here with Parliament. What can we in Parliament learn from the experience of science and business, of trying to resolve the paradox of their relationship with society?
The Electoral Commission's survey conducted by MORI of the recent general election concluded that voter engagement is the issue rather than apathy. We must engage the public more, as science and business now seek to do. There are many indications that there is a wish to do so. The debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on the public galleries produced some useful ideas about how we could make our sittings more user friendly. I think that those reforms should extend to the way in which the committees of the House work. Your Lordships' committees deal with matters of great interest to the general public ranging from the health of air travellers to the confidentiality and use of genetic data, and the work of the Monetary Policy Committee to animal testing. That work could be wasted unless it is combined with dialogue with the public.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. We should be more serious about consulting the public. I have said at the Dispatch Box that the Government are consulting the public knowing full well that the consultation consisted of inviting people and organisations to write in or answer a questionnaire. Consultation has to be a two-way affair. We could use telephone help lines or online consultation with chat rooms. Information about these consultations could be more widely advertised. Fortunately your Lordships' website is being restructured, modernised and made more user friendly. It will have the capacity for individual Peers to have their own website with which they can have a two-way dialogue with the public. Perhaps this will help consultation.
A couple of weeks ago we were debating our declaration of interests. Of course, we should declare our interests to counter the cynicism about parliamentarians being on the make. But what about a declaration of all the public services that we perform? What about a declaration of the huge number of voluntary activities we undertake? Looking about the Chamber I see many noble Lords who put a great deal more back into society than they take out.
We are an unelected Chamber and likely co remain so for some time. That means that we should be more accountable to the public, not less. If we do not adequately respond to their concerns their only course of action is disengagement. They cannot remove us as they can remove Members of another place; and so, also for the sake of democracy, we should undertake more active dialogue with the public. The business of Parliament is to serve society, not the Government.
§ 3.47 p.m.
§ Lord Fowler
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord with his experience and the noble Baroness with her exceptional knowledge of Government and Parliament. I congratulate her on initiating this debate.
I have read the notes for guidance for maiden speakers and would plan, as instructed, that my remarks should be short and non-controversial. The most deeply uncontroversial statement that I can make after 31 years' experience of another place is that not all wisdom resides in the House of Commons. That is not intended as an observation on my party's leadership election process—as a supporter of Ken Clarke, how could it be?—but as an indication that as the years have gone by the ability of the House of Commons, even its desire, to hold the executive to account has reduced.
On Monday we saw the Commons flexing its muscles with regard to Select Committees. We shall have to see whether that process continues and goes further, as the noble Baroness hopes. I have to say that so far the trend is not encouraging. Under both governments—I stress, both governments—the accountability of the executive has been reduced. Some of the traditional ways of checking the actions and policies of Ministers have been blunted.
On the face of it the clearest and best way of holding Ministers to account is during Oral Questions. As any Minister will testify sharp questions from in front and even more from behind—are the most effective way of revealing weaknesses in policy. But things have changed, and let me give an example of how. When I was first elected to the Commons at the 1970 general election there was a terrible row some 12 months later involving that wonderful character, the late Julian Amery, Lord Amery of Lustleigh. He had been made (perhaps slightly surprisingly) Minister for Housing. His famous protestation that he lived in a terraced house like everybody else was perhaps only half convincing when it was discovered that the terraced house was in Eaton Square. At any rate in March 1971 Labour MPs noticed—they could hardly fail to do so—that no fewer than 24 Questions for Oral Answer appeared on the Order Paper tabled by Conservative Back-Benchers. They were all helpful, along the lines, "Wouldn't the Minister agree that the Government's housing policy is wonderful?" There was immediate outrage and accusations that the Questions had been prepared by civil servants and planted. There were Statements in the House. The whole issue was referred to a Select Committee. There was even speculation that the Minister might fall.
How things have changed. These days everybody does it. It does not cause a murmur. Questions are planted and helpful supplementaries are circulated. I suspect that they are prepared by special advisers, not civil servants, but the aim remains to give Ministers an easy ride. I describe the process because I am sure that such actions are entirely unknown in this House.
1488 Some in the other place disguise the process much better than the Government Back-Bencher in the last Parliament who, having the rare opportunity to question the Prime Minister, simply rose and said rather sulkily that her question had already been asked, meaning that the suggested supplementary had mistakenly been given to a Member higher up the Order Paper.
My first point is that if we are to progress, Westminster must recover its independence and its pride. We must place more value on independent Back-Benchers. Governments—any government—must understand that the function of their Back-Benchers is not to give unqualified support on any policy or decision; the Government right or wrong.
I do not wish to overstate the case. There are occasions when Members of the other place show total independence. Most consistently, they reject the Government's proposals on pay and allowances for something more generous. Ministers protest, but often very softly. More constructively, they pursue regional interests entirely independently. As the Member of Parliament for Sutton Coldfield, I was a consistent opponent under governments of both parties of the Dome going to Greenwich, although perhaps in retrospect we in the West Midlands had a lucky escape. There is currently a rather better all-party campaign, which I strongly support, to bring the national football stadium to Birmingham. Ministers know the strength of feeling for having some of our national projects sited in the Midlands and the North.
The point remains that if Parliament is to recover its influence, it must exert its rights. Again I emphasise that it is not just one government who have been responsible for the erosion of those rights. In the last years of the Conservative Government, I confronted a senior Minister on the grounds that, rather than making a Statement on the Floor of the House, he had given an announcement as an exclusive story to a national newspaper. The journalist in me was offended because scoops used to be the stories that the Government did not want in the newspapers rather than the ones they had planted there. The parliamentarian in me was offended because, even a few years before, the rule had been that Parliament should always hear first of any significant new announcement.
The Minister's reply was frank. He did not attempt to deny the accusation. The newspaper in question supported his policies and he thought that it was sensible to give it preferential treatment. Ministers also know that such statements of policy are not subject to the same scrutiny as they otherwise might receive. The announcement is praised as an important development to justify the scoop.
In my view, the position has deteriorated even further since then. There is no answer but for Parliament to assert its own rights and not allow itself to be used or bypassed.
I have one last point, which has not yet been made. In holding the executive to account, we should be concerned not just about the announcement of new 1489 policies, but about the implementation of policies that have become Acts of Parliament. That is where serious errors can take place and the aim of Parliament can be defeated. It is not just a question of scrutinising legislation before it is introduced, valuable as that is, hut also a question of post-legislative scrutiny. The truth is that the concern to get legislation passed is not matched by an equivalent concern to see it successfully implemented.
All too often, at the crucial moment when, after long preparation, a Secretary of State finally gets his measures on to the statute book, he moves off to another department. The implementation of the measures is then left to his successor. Whether we like it or not, the political truth is that a Cabinet Minister does not normally reckon that he will make his reputation by successfully implementing the decisions of his predecessor. A new Minister means a new focus. The department is required to put its efforts into developing new policies. That is where the excitement is. The danger is that the implementation of existing policy goes down the league of importance.
I shall give one example from my experience about which I still feel strongly. In 1986, when I was Secretary of State for Social Services, we passed a long and complex Social Security Act. One of its proposals was to change widows' entitlement inside the state earnings-related pension scheme, but to give more than 12 years' notice of the change. In Committee, my then Minister of State, John Major, promised a publicity campaign to explain the change further. Following the election. John Major and I both left for other jobs. The result was that the departmental leaflet failed to mention the change and gave the wrong information. Had a committee been set up to monitor the post-legislative impact, the mistake would have been avoided.
One problem with debates about the accountability of the executive is that they so often seem automatically hostile to the Government. In fact, as my example shows, the process can be to the positive advantage of Ministers. Although we have our political differences, some of which run very deep, holding the executive to account is essentially about good government, better legislation and its better implementation. Surely all parties can unite on that.
§ 3.56 p.m.
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, it is a genuine pleasure to be able to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on his admirable maiden speech. In his memoirs, George Thomas recounts a moment when a former Cabinet Minister went past his chair and said, "May I have a word with you after the debate, Mr Speaker, as an old friend?", to which George replied, "Mr Speaker has no old friends". I had no old friends when I was the Speaker, but I am pleased to say that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and his wife have been friends of mine for many years. I hope that that will long continue.
When the noble Lord entered the House of Commons in 1970, I was already a Whip. I do not recollect him ever giving me any trouble. He quickly 1490 found himself on the Front Bench and when we were returned to government he became a distinguished Secretary of State for Transport and later for Social Services. His experience will be of great value to your Lordships' House. He also has the great advantage of being young. I trust that we shall have the benefit of his experience over many years.
I have a confession. When I looked at the list of speakers just before lunch, I was 13th in the line. I thought that I would come into the Chamber and make up my speech as we went along, picking the plums from other people. I have been caught red-handed by being put up to this position.
I wonder how many of your Lordships remember the days when we were all issued with old-style passes. In those days there was enormous cachet to being a Member of the House of Commons. I think that Members of the House of Lords had similar passes. They enabled us to park almost anywhere in our constituencies. I doubt that that would be wise today.
The truth is that Parliament has never been held in high repute. A man was whipped and pilloried arid put in prison for life in the 15th century for "cursing Parliament and all its works". It is not new to hold Members of Parliament in doubt. However, the current situation is dangerous. I do not recollect a time when Members of the other place have been held in quite such low esteem. That is dangerous for democracy.
Part of the reason, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has said, is that the system of government these days is much more presidential than parliamentary—and without the checks and balances of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the United States of America. I should like to see a return to parliamentary government in which Her Majesty's Government are held to account in Parliament not only by the Loyal Opposition but by Back-Benchers on both sides of the House, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said.
I was a Whip for 12 years. To paraphrase Dunning's famous Motion, I believe that the power of the Whips has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. In my day, the Whips did not impose their wishes upon reluctant Members; rather, it was the other way round. It was our duty to ensure that the leadership knew the views of the Back-Benchers. If the news was good, of course the Chief Whip took it in; if it was not so good, that was my duty. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, is not here today, but she will recollect that her traditional greeting to me was, "What is it now?". But it was essential that the leadership was told of the views of the Back-Benchers.
Mention has been made of Select Committees. When they were first introduced, I was somewhat dubious. I believe that at that time I was Chairman of Ways and Means, but I was concerned that the introduction of departmental Select Committees would tend to empty the Chamber. In that, I regret to say, I was correct. Latterly, when I was Speaker, I cannot begin to tell your Lordships how many times Members would come to me to ask, "Mr Speaker, Sir, 1491 will I be called before five o'clock?", to which I would reply, "The Front-Benchers will not finish by five o'clock. You have a Select Committee, have you?".
Members have no choice. They can either wait, hoping to catch the Speaker's eye and to be called, or go to a Select Committee. Of course, they go to the Select Committee. Therefore, I fear and regret that speeches in the Chamber are now pretty well irrelevant. Members speak to television cameras hoping to see themselves later in the evening on Tyne Tees or Border Television, or wherever their constituencies may be. I believe that it is through Select Committees that the Government effectively are held to account. In that, as has already been mentioned, lies the real importance of the revolt that occurred in the other place on Monday this week.
I turn to the subject of reform of procedure. There is insufficient time to deal with the matter in detail, but I am highly alarmed by the present practice in the other place of not taking votes after 10 o'clock at night; instead, debates are wrapped up and voted upon on a Wednesday. As one old friend on the government side of the House said to me the other day, "It's not right, mate, but it's done a power of good to my voting record". It is wrong in principle and I hope that something can be done about it.
I believe that we need to review our procedures not only in the other place but also in this House. I agree with what the noble Baroness said about Prime Minister's Questions. They are an absolute farce. They may make good television in the United States, but I believe that they have brought the House of Commons into grave disrepute. When I was Speaker, I tried to do something about it. I asked the then Prime Minister whether she could try to arrange for her Members to put down definitive Questions so that, if Members of Parliament strayed from them, I could bring them back to order. She replied in general terms that she did not use Prime Minister's Questions for that purpose; she used them to give a message to the nation. I believe that our present Prime Minister does much the same thing.
Finally, I turn to the subject of language. I believe that we must make our proceedings acceptable and understandable to those who elect us—I refer, of course, not to this House but to the other place. Far too many of our procedures and the language that we use are a mystery to those who turn on their television sets or listen to the radio, if they do so at all. Of course, I do not advocate a change to the traditional courtesies—indeed, in recent years those have tended to slip somewhat—nor am I against passion and anger. Both have a place in Parliament when they are necessary but not when they are unnecessary.
My time is up. Perhaps I may come to a close by recounting to your Lordships a story about language which I found in the parish magazine of my local church in Ide Hill. It was as follows:A ten year old boy told his mother, 'Our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind the enemy lines to rescue the Israelites from the Egyptians. He brought them to the Red Sea, and then ordered his engineers to build a pontoon bridge.1492After they had all crossed over Moses looked up and saw the Egyptian tanks coming. Quick as a flash Moses grabbed his walkie talkie and ordered his airforce to bomb the bridge, and save the Israelites'.'David', exclaimed his mother, 'is that how your teacher told that story?'. 'Well not exactly', David admitted, 'hut if I told you it her way you'd never believe it"'.
§ 4.6 p.m.
Lord Clark of Windermere
My Lords, in preparing for my contribution this afternoon, I spent a little time looking at previous maiden speeches. Perhaps not surprisingly, I found that the word "trepidation" occurred regularly. I must say that, in feeling that, I am no exception.
I entered the other place 31 years ago with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. He and I must have spoken hundreds of times within the Palace of Westminster. But this is very different. This afternoon I am conscious that I am speaking in a House where every Member has reached success in his or her chosen career or profession. I am conscious that, no matter on which issue I speak, someone in this Chamber will know more about the subject than I do. I was tempted to say, "Except possibly on the subject of my beloved Carlisle United", but I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, may contest that.
Before I develop my thoughts, perhaps I may also place on record my sincere thanks to the Members and staff of this House who have been kind and thoughtful and have offered me much friendship over the past three weeks. It is much appreciated and has made my transition along the Corridor most enjoyable.
This afternoon I want to make some pragmatic, practical and selective points based on 18 years' experience on the Opposition Front Bench and on 18 months' running the Cabinet Office—one too long; one too short. Perhaps I should say that I could speak about the work of the Opposition Front-Bencher with great authority and perhaps without a great deal of challenge in this place. The point about the Cabinet Office was that one was, in a sense, trying to manage the machinery of government while, at the same time, holding responsibility for the senior Civil Service. When we consider the executive or the Government in a classical sense, we tend to think of Ministers; but we should also take on board the power, influence and role of the Civil Service.
Before I develop that subject, perhaps I may congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on her choice of subject for the debate. I believe that it is most apposite and timely. However, I want to follow up one point that she raised. When we talk about the executive and Parliament, we must talk about them in relation to our citizens.
On Saturday, I attended the Durham miners' gala—a large meeting which took place in the beautiful city of Durham. I watched the banners which were being carried through the city. A phrase on the banners which cropped up repeatedly was "Knowledge is power". I believe that that is very true. In the world of information technology it is even truer now than it has been. That is why I was so keen to develop a radical 1493 White Paper and draft Bill on freedom of information. If we, as parliamentarians, together with the press and our citizens use the Freedom of Information Act, we can challenge government and, I hope, ensure that they govern better. Really, that is what this is all about—delivering better services to our citizens.
I have already referred to the Civil Service; I add that it is absolutely brilliant. Of the incoming government in 1997 not a single member of the Cabinet had previously served in a Cabinet but there was a seamless transition. The Civil Service was simply brilliant. I doubt whether there is another civil service in the world that could have accomplished that. I start from that base.
However, I became rather concerned that there were institutional handicaps built into our constitutional framework, which meant that our civil servants rarely came into contact with legislators. In a career spanning perhaps 40 years, civil servants might never come into contact with a Member of Parliament unless they were attached to a government department that did a great deal of work in the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, the whole concept of ministerial responsibility meant that if they spoke to a Member of Parliament, they had to do so through a Minister. I suggest that that is wasteful and we should look at it further.
We initiated a scheme that is still continuing, although I hope that the Government will find more money for it. Under that scheme, which operated on a voluntary basis, civil servants who wanted to spend a week with a Member of Parliament in his or her constituency and in the House of Commons could do so. The arrangement was completely non-political—it was handled by the Industry and Parliament Trust—and civil servants to whom I have talked told me that they found it very useful indeed. It helped to build up a bond of trust and understanding between civil servants and the legislature. We should be trying to build on that sort of arrangement.
I want to touch on one or two other small points. A great success in the House of Commons is the Public Accounts Committee. It is the one committee that has achieved results; it is the one committee that saves money for our citizens and it is the one committee that makes senior civil servants shake at the knees at the thought of appearing before it. It is an effective committee and we should examine ways of extending it. It is successful because it has independent resources. A former chairman, my noble friend Lord Sheldon, knows much more about it than I do. The fact that the Comptroller and Auditor General is not appointed by government and the fact that public servants are appointed by Parliament mean that we are able to challenge the authority and actions of the executive in a meaningful manner. The excellent report by the Hansard Society, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, referred, made it clear that that society wants to build into the Select Committee system the same system that the PAC uses. That is the right approach. I take on board the idea of having a finance and audit sub-committee attached to every Select 1494 Committee in order to challenge, for instance, government and executive Estimates. That would be a successful way of strengthening Select Committees.
While I am on that subject of Select Committees, whose membership I do not want to discuss, I want to make a pragmatic point. I could never understand why Select Committees did not call before them each year the appropriate Secretary of State to give an annual statement. I volunteered to do so—my civil servants thought that I was mad—and I found it a wonderful exercise. It concentrated my mind and that of my department and it gave me an opportunity to defend my department in front of parliamentarians, which is what we should be doing.
I should conclude my remarks, which I accept are practical—that is one of the roles that we can play in this House. I advance my proposals because I want to strengthen Parliament. By strengthening Parliament and by rigorously challenging it, I believe that we are strengthening our government and executive. By strengthening our government and executive, and by getting better decisions, I believe that we are strengthening something that I hold dearest of all, our democracy.
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Durham
My Lords, it gives me a special delight to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, on his telling maiden speech. His name in the North East is still held in great reverence because he is someone who can speak up for and participate in the politics of the North East. He is also revered as a person for his genuine care of and contact with people. I have walked the back streets of Jarrow with him, we were at the gala together on Saturday and I think that we have even shared terraces at the Stadium of Light—but not at Carlisle United.
The noble Lord's story about being too long on the Opposition Benches and too short in government reminded me of an encounter that I had recently with a young married clergyman, whom I was mildly reprimanding for wearing a blue clerical shirt. I said to him, "Did you know that in the early Church blue shirts were reserved for virgins and archdeacons?". "Ah, bishop", he replied straight away, "too late for one, too early for the next!". We hope that the noble Lord will enjoy his time in this Chamber and we look forward to his many contributions, which, as he ably illustrated today, will be of great benefit to this House. He can draw on his long and distinguished presence in the other place.
It is also my duty and pleasure to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important subject. She reminded us that this is one part—a pivotal part— of a whole range of constitutional issues that we are currently addressing. She picked out one or two of those issues about which I know very little. However, two issues with which I am very much concerned are the development of political regional devolution and the reform of this House. The noble Baroness's remarks on those matters must be linked with today's 1495 debate on public and parliamentary accountability. The subject of this debate is fundamental to all of that and it strikes at the very credibility of our democracy.
Successive elections—parliamentary, European and local—repeated a message of the electorate's alienation and disengagement from the political process. Frustration arises because it can sometimes seem that acceptance of responsibility and admission of mistakes, especially in areas that directly affect people's lives, are in short supply. An example of that is the lack of accountability and acceptance of responsibility in response to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Initially there was an extremely slow response—there was a failure to use past experience—and there remains a lack of co-ordination among support services. There has certainly been poor communication with those who are directly affected. All of that has added to the burdens of farmers and the many others who have suffered at the hands of the epidemic. That crisis highlighted a lack of accountability beyond a single government department because the agricultural community and industry is affected by European policies, global trading conditions and long-term environmental issues.
That example illustrates the question of who is doing the joined-up thinking that will give the farmers some hope. Who is to ask that question and who will answer for the validity of the response?
Another example is the Ouseley report on Bradford. That issue ranges across many different governmental departments. Who, on behalf of the Government, is not only answerable but also accountable for those issues? For accountability procedures to be effective, it must be clear who is accountable to whom and for what, and what are the consequences of that accountability. In theory, the consequence of accountability is the giving or withholding of the confidence of Parliament, but in practice, it is unreal when a government hold a majority of any size, but especially one with a large majority. That leads to our system of accountability which provides no more than answerability.
The question arises about the difference between public and parliamentary accountability. Perhaps, as has been said already by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, we need to give more attention to direct forms of participation in the process of government. Devices such as referendums and citizens' juries are often suggested. Modern technology, such as the radio phone-in, e-mails and Internet chat rooms seem to offer other possibilities. For many people, John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman seem to be more effective at achieving public accountability than Back-Bench Members of Parliament and Opposition spokesmen. Our immediate concern is to make Parliament more transparently the body which holds the executive to account.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, referred to the Hansard Society's Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny. One of its principles is that Select 1496 Committees should have a set of objectives and performance indicators by which their performance can be judged and their effectiveness measured. It proposed that Committees should hold public periodic reviews assessing how far their recommendations had been implemented. Committee work should be more closely integrated into parliamentary activity, for example, by making time for short debates on reports.
Your Lordships' House, of course, plays a vital complementary role in the scrutiny process. Listening to the debates in this Chamber, I am frequently struck by the high quality of the contributions. Our lack of true democratic accountability is more than compensated for by a greater measure of independence and a wider range of expertise. We are able to echo the needs and concerns of the communities that we know so well.
It is a pity that our debates are not always adequately brought to public attention. Perhaps we should consider how we can communicate with the public more effectively and exercise more responsibly our duty to bring to the Government our knowledge of public opinion and concerns, to which our involvement in regional public life gives us access.
Apart from the role of this House in the legislature, it would be good to have some confirmation of the extent to which the Government take note of the knowledge and expertise that is represented here.
In international terms, our accountability arrangements seem to be weak because of party discipline and the Whipping system. In spite of appearances our parliamentary parties are coherent. There is strength in that because it provides the Government with the confidence of a mandate. But even party cohesion must not be allowed to take precedence over truth and conscience. The appearance of party unity, short-term views with an eye to the next election, or keeping favour with the Whips for reasons of political ambition must never replace our primary duty to represent and speak for the common good of the nation and its people.
It would be arrogant to speak from the Bishops Benches without the discipline of party allegiance, proposing naive solutions. Nevertheless, we wish to play our part in seeking to make Parliament more accountable, more credible, more relevant and more transparent in the daily lives of ordinary people and the concerns that they have. Unless we can do that together, I fear that an accelerating apathy and a lessening of participation will threaten the vitality of the democratic process.
§ 4.26 p.m.
§ Lord Goodhart
My Lords, the rules now say that only the immediately following speaker should congratulate noble Lords on their maiden speeches, but I want to take advantage of the fact that I am the first from these Benches to say that both the maiden speeches that we heard today were outstanding and every bit as good as one would hope, though not always expect, from former Cabinet Ministers. We hope to hear a lot more from both noble Lords.
1497 I shall start by talking about holding the executive to account through the scrutiny of Bills—especially pre-legislation scrutiny. The scrutiny of Bills is one of the most important duties of a legislature. After all, what is it for if not to legislate? We have now drifted into a situation in which all too often Bills are driven through the other place by a majority, without proper debate. When these Bills reach Your Lordships' House, they have not been properly prepared and we are faced with hundreds of late government amendments, as happened far too many times during the previous Parliament.
Pre-legislation scrutiny of government Bills is of enormous value. I was involved in one of the outstanding examples of such scrutiny in recent years—the Freedom of Information Bill. The Select Committee on the draft Bill was very effective. The Bill had suffered severely as a result of its move from the responsibility of the noble Lord, Lord Clark, to his right honourable friend Mr Jack Straw. Thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, who chaired the Select Committee, the Bill, as eventually introduced, although far from perfect, was much better than it would have been without that scrutiny. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House would agree because he gave evidence to us in his then capacity as a Home Office Minister.
The process of scrutiny enabled us to concentrate on issues within the Bill and to make more effective contributions at Committee and Report stages. Pre-legislation scrutiny is, of course, much more extensive than simply responding to a consultation paper. It gives the real possibility of an exchange of views, the chance to probe weaknesses in the Bill and the opportunity to call evidence on it. Pre-legislation scrutiny is especially valuable when examining difficult constitutional issues.
If ever a Bill called for such scrutiny, it is the prospective House of Lords Bill. It was made brutally clear on Tuesday last week that that is not what it will get. We were given the answer to a Written Question by the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, as my noble friend Lady Williams has already said. That Written Answer states:The Government will publish their proposals before introducing a Bill. It will therefore be open to anyone who wishes to comment on our proposals. We do not intend to repeat the extensive public consultation exercise of the Royal Commission chaired by the noble Lord. Lord Wakeham, but we shall of course ensure that the political parties have a full opportunity to make their views known. We do not see a role for the joint committee. As I told they House in the debate on the Address, our proposals will be based on the recommendations of the Royal Commission. We will consider carefully all recommendations made within their context, but we will not allow consultation to become an excuse for excessive delay".—[Official Report, 10/7/01; col. WA69.]That is it. There will be a consultation paper to which, for what it is worth, the parties can respond. But Wakeham reigns supreme. There will be no Joint committee. There will be no proper pre-legislation scrutiny. There will be no chance to engage the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, in dialogue. There will be no 1498 chance to call evidence. There will be no chance to produce an authoritative report on the strengths and weaknesses of the Government's proposals
Yet that is a Bill of extreme constitutional importance. Indeed, it is much more important than stage 1 of House of Lords reform. Until complicated by the Cranborne-Irvine concordat, stage 1 was, in essence, a one-clause Bill removing what even most hereditary Peers recognised was an indefensible anachronism. But stage 2 is intended to create a second Chamber for the long term. Surely your Lordships' House, through a Joint Committee of both Houses or through a Select Committee of your Lordships' House alone, should have a collective role in the formulation of stage 2.
The Wakeham report contained some good proposals and some bad ones. I take a few examples of what is bad. Should your Lordships' House be deprived of the power to reject secondary legislation, or even to delay it for more than a few hours? Can we take seriously the proposal, as Wakeham option B proposes, that voters should have a right to vote for their regional representatives in the second Chamber once every 15 years? Do we really want to give an appointments commission of seven people, however independent, however distinguished, the power to appoint the great majority of Members of your Lordships' House, including most political appointments? Indeed, what is the point of having a token elected membership of your Lordships' House which may amount to only one in eight of the total membership? Those are vital questions.
I have no doubt that there will be much in this Bill with which we do not agree. There will be much with which the Conservatives do not agree. There will be much with which a number of Labour Back-Benchers do not agree. But there will be no proper forum for debating those issues before the Government commit themselves to the contents of that Bill. Even if there were such consultation, we might not be able to change the Government's mind—but, by God, we should at least be given a chance to try.
It is grotesque that the Government intend to bring forward half-baked proposals for fundamental changes in the composition and powers of your Lordships' House without having had proper consultation with this House. If the Government go ahead on the present basis, they will get no easy ride from us.
§ 4.32 p.m.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Baroness who introduced this Motion not only on the Motion but on the content of her speech and also, as she admitted herself, on a certain fortune in her timing. I add my congratulations also on the general tone of the debate which the Motion has produced. There have been no party polemics, no waste of time and the debate has been extremely welcome and timely. I, too, add some brief words of congratulations to both my noble friend, who is an old friend, and to the noble Lord opposite on two exceptionally welcome and good maiden speeches.
1499 There can be absolutely no doubt that respect for Parliament has been on the ebb for many years now. There have been powerful contributors to that process—successive governments, the media, the political parties and certain well-publicised, but few in number, delinquents.
In blaming all those culprits, we should be wrong to excuse ourselves from blame. There are many in your Lordships' House who have either been in that strange place down the other end of the building or here in your Lordships' House for many years. We should not dodge the responsibility for what has manifestly gone wrong.
It seems to me that we have let slip from our minds Parliament's importance and that Parliament's importance attaches to and depends upon not its Members but its duties. It would not be out of place if, from time to time, we reminded ourselves of what those principal duties are: first, to uphold the liberties of the people; secondly, to ensure that the laws we pass are both fair and comprehensible; and, thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, to restrain the executive.
It is my belief that in all three we have failed quite seriously over many years. We have fallen short and allowed Parliament instead to become an arena for arid, irrelevant party manoeuvres and, worse still, a tool for the executive. We have permitted a huge, untidy, ill-managed mass of government to grow to a point at which it feels called upon to meddle, often without effect, in more or less every activity of which the human race knows.
Recently, there has been a dramatic instance of the growth in government which really almost comes under the heading of cannibalism. No. 10 has swallowed No. 12 without, so far as I know, leaving even the remnant of a Whip behind.
We have accepted almost without protest the Government's right to suffocate us in a flow of law and regulation which is ill conceived and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made the same point—not thought through, inadequately debated and in constant need of attention and repair.
One result has been to leave people confused and obliged to rely upon professional advisers, whose services do not always come cheap, to guide them through the fungus of rules which grows monstrously in such fields as taxation and social legislation.
I turn for a moment to political parties. I have come to regard them as the only thoroughly nasty thing of which you need to have more than one. Long ago, they succeeded in squeezing out the independent Member, even though, in the last Parliament, under unusual circumstances, one did appear. Another one, happily, has appeared in this Parliament. A retired general practitioner, protesting against the closure of a hospital, has succeeded in making his opponents look silly and totally out of touch. In ordinary circumstances, no independent stands a chance against a candidate with the backing of a powerful party organisation.
1500 In your Lordships' House—and I tender my admiration for them unsolicited—the Cross-Benchers survive to show the worth of people who do not suffer the shackles of party control. Two days ago, a new mood manifested itself in the House of Commons. A large slice of Government supporters moved, as they had not moved for half a century and more, against the bidding of the Government, to tell an over-weaning Administration that they had gone too far and they had better back off. With Gwyneth Dunwoody saying it, they had the good sense to do so. One must just cherish the hope that that vote was not a flash in the pan but a significant event which can and will be repeated.
I turn to those who own and control the media. They have the huge paraphernalia of modern communications at their disposal which gives them unrivalled influence over our affairs, so much so that one cannot imagine the possibility of any political party winning a general election without an element of support from the tabloid press.
That brings me face to face with Mr Murdoch. I have nothing to say about him as a man, but he is not bound to this country by any ties. He sees this country as a place in which to make money and to wield power. Bewildered by such a situation, in order to maintain appearances, and to suggest that someone is sitting near the controls, we have set up the Press Complaints Commission. Its mission is to control the uncontrollable. A report from my noble friend Lord Wakeham, who is its chairman, is a little like David facing Goliath, but bereft of the sling and the pebble with which David achieved such notable results.
This is not a disguised plea for censorship. It is more a lament that those who enjoy such unparalleled influence should see fit to deride or to ignore Parliament, the one institution on which they could rely for support if there is a serious challenge.
Under the bidding of Ministers, your Lordships' House is about to foist upon itself a body of rules already complex and certain to become more so. I remind your Lordships, with due delicacy—the noble and learned Lord has the right of reply to this debate, so I must speak with great caution—that the other day when explaining—mark the word "explaining"—the rules, the noble and learned Lord found himself saying these extraordinary words:It is as simple as that".—[Official Report, 2/7/01; col. 641.]In using those words, he must have surprised himself. Of course, remarkably, it was not at all simple. Anyone who reads that passage can satisfy themselves of that.
While the Government's proposals may appear to be commendable as an act of self-abasement, in my view they will do nothing to enhance respect for Parliament. I fear that the concept of integrity will get lost in the confusion and that the word will be drained of its meaning. The Motion has the merit of being a reminder that persons and institutions who surrender their liberties are unlikely to be respected by those who borrow or usurp them and even less by an astonished public.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, I hesitate to intervene, but if all noble Lords speak for three minutes over their time we shall have less time in which to hold my noble and learned friend to account when he replies.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness for her little lecture. I apologise to the House.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Lord Ampthill
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for initiating this debate. It is an important one and so far it has been a good one. On Monday the vote in another place demonstrated that the mechanisms of Parliament, however arcane they may appear to the uninitiated, are the stuff of constitutional rectitude in this country.
I draw your Lordships' attention to a specific case for making Parliament more effective: the future of your Lordships' House. Voters will care more if, on a daily basis, they know that we are reflecting their differences of opinion and enforcing consideration of those differences on the executive. The executive—the Government—will not collapse if Parliament is able to do that. It may even be strengthened if Parliament reflects, more widely than the Government do, the reality of society outside Westminster's walls. In excellent speeches, those points were made by both maiden speakers.
The Government have embarked on a reform of your Lordship's House that I believe is intended to reflect more closely the wishes of the wider society of the United Kingdom. Following the statement in their 1997 manifesto—A Committee of both Houses of Parliament will be appointed to take a wide ranging review of possible further change and then to bring forward proposals for reform"—the Government set up a process for that. First, there was to be a Bill to remove the right of the hereditary Peers to sit in the House; then a Royal Commission; then a Joint Committee; and then a Bill to reform the House. That was a clear process. I believe that your Lordships embarked on the journey—the most important journey we could embark on—to reform our supreme constitutional body, Parliament, by the process set out clearly by the Government. The British constitution is, classically, about process.
On 10th July this year—eight days ago—in reply to a Written Question in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rees, to which the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has already referred, the Leader of the House said:We do not see a role for a joint committee".—[Official Report, 10/7/01; col. WA69.]The rest of his reply has already been read to the House. Perhaps that was prescient of the Leader of the House. The vote in another place on Monday suggests that the Government could not have controlled the membership of such a committee. Nevertheless, the process of reform of your Lordships' House has been established. We have all agreed to the process.
1502 At the risk of boring your Lordships perhaps I may remind you of the Government's commitment to the process. The White Paper of January 1999 gave the next intimation of the proposed Joint Committee on page 35. On 23rd February 1999 your Lordships debated the White Paper. The Government Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said:We have appointed a Royal Commission. followed by a Joint Committee which will produce proposals for the final stage of reform".—[Official Report, 23/2/999; cols. 1094–95.]On 29th March 1999 the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that there was a majority in both Houses for the removal of the hereditary Peers. He went on to say:Having done that, a consensus is sought about what should happen next, first, through the medium of the Royal Commission, and, secondly, through the Joint Committee of both Houses".— [Official Report, 29/3/99; col. 189.]On 20th April 1999 the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, the then Leader of the House said:Whether or not we should seek a second stage referendurn—if one can call it that … is … a matter we would hope to proceed with by consent once the Royal Commission and the joint committee of both Houses (which we have no intention of abandoning) have reported".—[Official Report, 20/4/99; col. 1052.]On 13th May 1999 the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said during the Committee stage of the Bill:If one sets up a Royal Commission, one ought to be prepared to attend to its conclusions. If one invites a committer. of both Houses, which, by definition, will have an authoritative composition, one ought to have the courtesy and ordinary sense to listen to what it says".—[Official Report, 13/5199; cols. 1412–13.]There have been numerous mentions in another place of the setting up of the Joint Committee, but I believe that the House would prefer it if I rely on what has been said in this House. However, as late as 19th June 2000 the Leader of the House of Commons confirmed that it remained the intention to establish the Joint Committee. I do not suggest that in his Answer last week the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House reneged on a commitment; nor do I accuse him personally of bad faith. Of course, the noble and learned Lord acts on behalf of the Government. It was, nevertheless, on that basis that all noble Lords read the report of the Royal Commission.
The Royal Commission clearly envisaged no Joint Committee, although it was open to it to do so; but it was not Parliament. I never understood that a Royal Commission, which is just a very grand expression of the Royal Prerogative, should be superior to Parliament or a parliamentary Joint Committee.
On 20th June 2000 the then Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, replied to a Question for Written Answer tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alli. The noble Lord asked whether the Government intended to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider the parliamentary aspects of reform of this House. The noble Baroness replied that the,Government do intend that such a committee should be established in due course".—[Official Report, 20/6/00; col. WA17]1503 Your Lordships will be aware that the Royal Commission, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, had reported in January of that year. Here we have a working example of Parliament holding the executive to account, or failing to do so.
The British constitution depends on process. The integrity of that process depends above all on undertakings given in Parliament being honoured. If Her Majesty's Government believe that they are allowed, or they are allowed by Parliament, to renege on undertakings that they have given, that process is destroyed.
I thank the noble Baroness for giving me this opportunity on behalf of your Lordships to ask: if the process of reforming your Lordships' House is to be abandoned in so cavalier a fashion, how can Parliament hope to hold the executive to account?
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend for initiating this important debate and congratulating the two noble Lords for their outstanding maiden speeches. I declare an interest as the new chairman, as of yesterday, of the Hansard Society. Its report last week on parliamentary scrutiny, which has been referred to by several noble Lords, is germane to this debate, and I commend it to those of your Lordships who may not have seen it. At the same time, I pay tribute to, and thank, the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, who chaired the commission which produced the report. I also draw to the attention of those noble Lords who believe that they are overworked to page 143 of the report. Appendix 4 sets out the amount of time that Members of Parliament believe they work each week: the average is 70 hours. I make no further comment.
Regrettably, a long-standing piece of Hansard Society business which I have inherited means that I must leave the debate before the Leader of the House winds up. I apologise to him and the House for that.
It may be helpful to inquire for a moment why, if accountability is so self-evidently a good thing, we do not have more of it. Is it simply because of the machinations of the executive—the Demon King of this debate—backed up by the sticks of the Whips and the carrots of patronage? Is it because of what some constitutional scholars call fusion; namely, that the executive and Parliament have in a deep way begun to fuse when there should be a greater separation of powers?
I should like to introduce a slightly different thought. I believe that part of the answer is the pervasive and very debilitating culture of blame which so disfigures contemporary life in Britain. The heart of this culture of blame lies at Westminster. As a result of history, our Parliament is constructed and conducted on an adversarial basis. We have political partisanship which too easily overflows—not in your Lordships' House but elsewhere—proper limits. Our media are dependent not only on the personalisations to which 1504 my noble friend Lady Williams referred but the short-term adrenaline of exposé and recrimination. How readily the four-letter words "rage" and "fury" leap from the keyboards of the headline writers every day. Each morning there is free-floating anger looking where next to strike as the newspapers are prepared.
Following the debate on Monday in another place on Select Committees, I was interested to note that one honourable Member was quoted in the press as saying that,democracy is nothing without culpability".It may be that he was misquoted. Perhaps Hansard improved his sentiments, since by the time the record appeared "culpability" had been replaced by "accountability".
That confusion serves to highlight the dilemma. If accountability is always taken to mean culpability and nothing more, pin the tail on the donkey, identify the guilty men, name them and shame them and find today's sacrificial victims to be thrown on the steadily burning pyres of synthetic outrage. If that is all there is to accountability, what is the likely, rational response of those in government? I venture an answer: Whitehall will be full of secrecy and Westminster will be full of spin. It sounds rather familiar, does it not? What will be the popular attitude to Parliament and politics? The answer is: apathy and alienation. Perhaps that is also rather familiar.
Yet I believe that accountability is an infinitely precious and indispensable part of good governance for all kinds of institutions—for companies as for Parliament—to ensure not only that power is exercised properly on behalf of those in whose name it is held but, just as importantly, that we learn from experience. The whole governmental system is a learning process. If mistakes are covered up and every new government must start in Whitehall from the year zero, as they do, and the best and brightest in the corridors of power are forced to spend a significant part of their time week in, week out, denying painful experience, with clever words and bright smiles, rather than openly setting out to learn from that painful experience and to do better next time, we shall not have a successful system of learning. To paraphrase the famous biologist Jonas Salk, the organism—the system of government in Britain—will be doomed because it does not have a feedback mechanism to modify its behaviour so that it does better next time.
What can we do to break out of the vicious circle and ensure that accountability is normal and continuing, that power is shared, that there is a good system of learning and that culpability is an exceptional and secondary matter? The first thing we can do is to decide that the mother of parliaments is due for reskilling, retraining and reform. I hope that the modernisation committee in another place will prove useful. The report by the Hansard Society and the Norton report, which is another document pointing in the same direction, show the way to better pre-legislative deliberation and scrutiny.
We need better joined-up thinking between the Houses so that both Houses of Parliament can be seen as one integrated system. Several noble Lords have 1505 referred to the need to learn from good practice elsewhere—we have no monopoly of wisdom—not just legislative assemblies abroad but the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly which are now working in a very interesting and experimental way. We need to learn from local government. Dare I say that the House of Commons might learn something from the House of Lords?
We need to develop an alternative career path for those in Parliament who want to be scrutineers and not Ministers and to make it worth their while in terms of status and remuneration. We need to drag the usual channels out of the shadows. Of course business has to be managed through both Houses, but could it not be managed with the involvement and consent of Back-Bench Members? Could we not have, as other legislatures, a business committee which is out in the fresh air and visible and transparent to us all?
Many of your Lordships made the point about power moving to regulatory agencies of one kind or another. Parliament should be at the apex of the system of scrutiny. Similarly, Parliament should be at the hub or public consultation, which is again a matter to which several noble Lords have referred. In that context, perhaps I may commend one piece of work of the Hansard Society; that is, its e-democracy programme. It has already worked with Select Committees in the other place and indeed with the Select Committee here on stem cell research. This autumn there will be a web consultation conducted by the Hansard Society to try and get maximum public involvement.
To conclude, if the Government were serious about modernisation and reform, and were really concerned about apathy and alienation, they would pursue a twin-track policy. They would pursue electoral reform. One would expect that from these Benches, but I hope that the Conservative Party will now be more sympathetic to the idea of electoral reform since it has been so scandalously misrepresented by the results of the recent election. I do not see warm support from those Benches, but perhaps it will come as the Conservative Party registers that in Wales it received 21 per cent of the votes but no seats at all. Those are hard lessons for minority parties which colleagues to my left might want to think about. However, on this twin-track of electoral and parliamentary reform, there is every prospect for the new Leader of the House in another place, who has himself the reputation of being a reformer, to take some steps forward which could produce a Parliament that is really fit for a mature democracy in the 21st century.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ Lord Howell of Guildford
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, made an excellent speech, of which I agreed with 75 per cent. I shall come to the other 25 per cent in a moment. I also enormously enjoyed, as all your Lordships did, the superb maiden speeches of my noble old friend Lord Fowler and the noble Lord, Lord Clark. They were extremely clear. I also enjoyed the splendid speech of my noble friend Lord Peyton about the shackles of parliamentary 1506 party control and the fact that parties are an unnecessary evil, although he put it more bluntly than that. I have not noticed, frankly, that the shackles of party control have restrained much of his natural ebullience. But there it is; some people can wear the whip more lightly than others.
Since the early days I have been a very partisan and strong supporter of developing the Select Committee systems of both Houses of Parliament. It always seemed to me that, as we moved into the immense complexities of the modern age, hearings, public hearings, hearings in front of television cameras and hearings where one could come back again and again in question and answer were a much more effective way of establishing who was accountable for what and why, or if public power had been wielded under what responsibilities and authorities, than the traditional methods. In that sense I disagree with my noble friend Lord Fowler about the glories of oral questions. They do not come anywhere near the power of effective Select Committees.
Therefore, I was delighted, as all your Lordships were the other day, and many people in the other place as well, when the fingertips of the whips got sharply sliced and caught over the attempt to over-manoeuvre the membership of Select Committees. That was a splendid moment and I hope that the lessons are learnt, although that remains to be seen.
But the truth is that power is now far more widely distributed in the network age, particularly into the media, as noble Lords have mentioned, and into the Internet service providers, the credit agencies and a variety of other enormous baronies of power. People expect their elected and appointed institutions—anyway Parliament as a whole—to call all these bodies to account. That cannot be done by the old processes. It requires the enormous strength of the committees which have grown up over the years—very successfully in relation to the European Union, which I shall come to in a moment—in your Lordships' House. Within limits—I shall come to those too—they have done a very good job.
I was disappointed that in the Wakeham Commission's report more was not made of the fact that this is now the central issue: the power of committees to hold to account the sources of public power in our society, not just the executive. That is where this noble House can make by far its most effective contribution. That should have had much more emphasis in the Wakeham report. The Wakeham report urges that our committees should have more resources put in. Heaven knows why we did not do that long ago. Our committees are staffed by the most marvellous people, but with impossible workloads. In the House of Lords they have far bigger workloads than in the other place. But they have a pathetic paucity of resources. It is extraordinary that we have sat here long enough and done little to reinforce and strengthen these committees ourselves.
I also agree with those noble Lords who say that if ever there was a case for further powerful committee examination, it should be of the Wakeham 1507 Commission and its proposals. That is natural material for a detailed committee examination. But apparently we are not to have it. I am reminded of the story from my predecessor, who as Energy Secretary went to France to find out how they had succeeded in dotting the whole of France with nuclear power stations without any bother of planning inquiries or consultation. He received the contemptuous reply, "But when you are draining the swamp you do not consult the frogs". I feel that the frogs in this case perhaps should be consulted just once more before the swamp is drained.
I turn briefly to my concern about our general desire to call everybody and everything to account. That is fine, provided those we call to account are the people who have the power, the jurisdiction and the control and can initiate and propose laws and can be questioned about them. But the reality—I slightly wonder that perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, did not give a little more emphasis to this—is that since about the mid-1970s a growing number of powers which affect every citizen in this country have been wielded in camera by the Council of Ministers of the European Union.
A recent very detailed authoritative study stated that by 1997—that is under both governments, so it is not a partisan point—40 per cent of all the legislative flow affecting the citizens of this country was authorised and initiated, and occasionally added to, in the European institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg. It also states that that level is now 55 per cent and suggests that if we go for the Europeanisation of judicial co-operation, if we adopt corpus juris and if we have the full euro-membership, that figure will rise to between 70 and 80 per cent.
Last year, no fewer than 4,000 statutory instruments were pushed through the various scrutiny committees—A, B and C in the other place—and the legislative committee and our own European Union committees, most without any debate at all, and almost all of them without even minor debate.
Therefore, whether or not one likes this project—I myself have doubts about it—we have a serious duty to ask how we control this fantastic flow that now dominates our citizens' lives. We have the scrutiny system. However, I had the privilege of being chairman of one of the committees a year or two previously and I must say that the work is very hard, the reports are excellent and widely admired around Europe, but the scrutiny is perfunctory. In many cases we found that the Minister had acted because he could not wait for the scrutiny to be lifted. The truth is that this can never change unless the national parliaments of all the member states of the European Union have a much earlier look in on the drafting and initiation of legislative proposals.
As someone once said, the duty of democracy is to know then what it knows now. That is the problem—that all the time we are discovering about legislation when it is much too late. We should have the opportunity long before to hear what the Council of Ministers and its increasingly powerful secretariat is 1508 up to. I do not see that we shall change this at all or restore anyone's confidence that we are properly calling our law-makers to account until the Council of Ministers itself, which is the Parliament of the European Union, is far more open and democratic and reports to and has open co-ordination with the national parliaments. We will then begin to see some accountability in the early stages—pre-legislation, pre-draft regulations and pre-instruments. That is the real truth of the matter. However much we set up new groups and bodies, we will not restore public confidence until it is known that we have far greater access to, and are able to call to account, the people who are initiating and authorising the legislation which governs us.
Finally, I would make one immediate plea, which again should come into a further Wakeham debate that we are not going to have. This noble House should have its own Foreign Affairs Select Committee. We have our European Union committees. They are excellent. I hear it constantly said outside the House, "Why do not your Lordships look at Russia, the Middle East, Hong Kong, Africa, Latin America and relations with the United States? What is wrong with you?" The House is full of experts on these matters but we have no committee to look at them. It is said that we should not overlap with the Commons. But I can speak from authority and say that the powers and remits of the Commons committees are inevitably limited and that there is only so much they can get through. I believe that your Lordships could add a most powerful addition to the processes of accountability and public debate if the House had its own Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
§ 5.11 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, in listening to the debate I have at moments wondered whether my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby would have been a water diviner if she had grown up in the Australian outback. She has certainly touched a rich spring today. There is, however, one danger in the theme we have set ourselves. It is the danger of looking for a golden age. My academic colleagues, I fear, have made the mistake of consistently overrating the importance of the legislature and underrating the importance of the executive and of the power of patronage. It is a fundamental weakness of the sovereignty-based way of thinking about politics.
I do not think there ever has been a golden age of Parliament. Having said that, I have been asking myself over the past few days whether I can think of any period since the death of Simon de Montfort when the power of Parliament was clearly less than it is at present. I very much regret to say that the answer to that question is, "No, I am not sure that I can". I do not think it needs to be like that. If this debate can do anything to change it, it will have performed a very signal service.
Those who believe that there is a golden age are, I suspect, thinking of the period of the "invention of tradition", just after the opening of the building in which we now sit. Between 1855 and 1865 the 1509 government were defeated in another place no fewer than 112 times. My great-grandfather, among other senior politicians, hated it. He hated it so much that he actually made his peace with Palmerston. I am not suggesting that we go to that extreme, but pendulums do tend to swing too far. Between 112 and one there is an undistributed middle. It is that undistributed middle which I think we might usefully explore.
We have had an extremely good debate in terms of thinking about improvement of our performance. What I have not heard as much as I had hoped to hear is an alarm which we all ought to feel; that we may be improving our performance in a rapidly emptying theatre; the fear that there is no longer anyone out there listening to what we are doing. The drop in turnout is serious. It is not just a matter of conscientious abstention, which I believe is a legitimate weapon of democratic politics. It is not even any more that people are angry with us. It is that they are not interested enough in what we are saying to bother to be angry with us. I do find that rather alarming.
When I listen to my own pupils, I get what is near enough to be a consistently based sample to add to a kind of tracking poll. I hear as much concern as I ever did about injustice. I hear a rapidly diminishing faith in solutions, which is not just a distrust of our own good will but an awareness of the points made by my noble friend Lady Williams about global governance, global power and the limits of the power of national governments. In that context, it is interesting that, with the exception of a noisy and entertaining minority with whom I enjoy talking, I hear less distrust of the power of the European Union than I do of the power of Westminster and Whitehall.
At a wider level among the electorate, I hear total indifference and sometimes a very deep anger; a sense of people saying, "You're all the same. You're all in it for yourselves". I know that has always been there; but I heard it in the recent election with a volume that I have never heard before—and it worries me.
I do not have very many answers. My right honourable friend Mr Kennedy has answers about language which I think are right and have been proved to be right. I shall not repeat them. The first point I want to make is that I believe we should live in a world in which all votes count equally. I was reading recently Macaulay's speech on the second Reform Bill, protesting that Aldborough was allowed representation when Manchester was not. That sense of proportionality is something which now we lack. My honourable friend Mr Oaten, when he won the first election at Winchester in 1997 by two votes, was asked by a journalist how he explained the result. He said, "I always said that my wife and I were right to go to live in the constituency". On the other hand, at the recent election, my son put me on the spot the way only one's children can do. He said, "What difference does it make whether I come back to vote at this election?" I put up a series of answers which he shot down in flames as only one's children can. I was finally reduced to saying to him that whether he voted would make a small difference to the amount of Short money our 1510 party would be allocated. That is true, but it is an answer that only an aficionado would for one minute begin to understand.
That is not all votes counting equally. It is going back to the 18th century days of electoral property when if one happened to own electoral property, one had an amount of power that other people did not have. An electoral system which lets a vote in one place carry equal weight with a vote in another would be very welcome. We should not forget that outside Parliament the overwhelming majority of electors are, in effect, Cross-Benchers. If I think, for example, of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, the first adjective that comes to mind is not apathetic, but their political passions are not in favour of one party rather than another. They could not express their preferences in an election unless they were allowed to do so through a single transferable vote, by which they could vote for people's policies on something other than just which party they support.
I wonder why the Conservative Party has the masochism to continue its attachment to first-past-the-post when we look at the way in which that voting system has treated it. With a nine-point lead, Mr Blair has acquired a majority of 167. Mr Peter: Kellner recently calculated what would have happened if Mr Hague had had a nine-point lead. He would have been 41 votes short of a majority in the Commons. That is perturbing. It perturbs me and I hope it perturbs the Conservative Party also.
More seriously, about once every century—perhaps a little less—the recognition symbols of politics change; the magnetic poles of politics shift. There was one such occasion which Namier immortalised in his study on 1761–14 years after the succession ceased to be the motor of political ideology which it had been for a century; and 15 years before the American Revolution began the extension of rank and privileges which became the staple of the 19th century. When the recognisable symbols of politics shift, people do not recognise what they see. They do not understand what divides the parties. They say that nothing divides them, when patently that is not the case. Under those circumstances, they notice only the sleaze. They say, "You're all in it for yourselves".
Since 1997, I have wondered many times whether again we are in a moment of ideological slack water such as described by Namier in 1761. The other two parties each need to redefine their philosophical identity. When they do so, I hope that the voters will be more interested. If they are not, we are all in trouble.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Newton of Braintree
My Lords. I wish to intervene only briefly, because it could be said that others have already said much of what f wish to contribute to this subject. They have also written it, in the shape of the report of the Hansard Society Commission, to which so many friendly references have been made in the course of the debate—or at least, I think that all the references have been friendly.
1511 However, I felt that I should speak for several reasons. The first was that I have been looking at these matters in my role as chairman of that commission. Secondly, I, too, wish to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for introducing the debate and thank her for her kind comments on the report. I should like also to pay tribute to the Nuffield Foundation which financed it, to the Hansard Society for putting the report together, to the other members of the commission and not least—I say this with emphasis bsecause they were hugely helpful—to the two vice-chairmen of the commission, Peter Riddell of The Times and Robert Hazel] of the Constitution Unit. They should share in taking credit for the report.
A further pleasure has been added to the debate, other than that of following the noble Earl, Lord Russell. On a previous occasion I pointed out that I have been debating with him in one way or another for some 40 years. I still find myself dazed on each occasion that I listen to him. Today has also been the occasion of two excellent maiden speeches, one of which particularly interested me because it was that of my noble friend Lord Fowler. He and I have been doing business together for as many years as either of us cares to remember. He was senior to me both as an MP and as a Minister. We formed a long-running partnership at the then DHSS. Not to put too fine a point on it, I worked for him for something like six years. It is a pleasure to see him in this House and, indeed, in any place where I can claim to have been around for longer than he.
The customary approach to this subject—I have heard echoes of it in several contributions, in particular in the speech immediately preceding my own—is to talk about the decline of Parliament. I could echo that exact phrase in my notes, but I am suspicious of what might be called the "theory of the golden age". That was recently reinforced for me when I attended a speech day at which the headmaster performed a classic and always effective rhetorical trick by quoting an unattributed source which referred to the monstrous decline in the morals, behaviour and so forth of young people. That account might easily have been written today, but he then revealed that it had been written in the 12th or the 13th century. I believe that Parliament falls into much the same category.
The main point of my contribution is to say that, while I think it is right that we should try to identify the causes of the problems that we perceive—namely, of the fall in the standing of Parliament—we should not spend too much time trying to stop them, remove them or turn back the clock. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, clearly identified some of those problems. There are difficulties as regards the scale and complexity of government, the growth in the number of agencies, regulators and non-parliamentary scrutineers; the great expansion and development of the media, including the electronic media rather than simply the "Today" programme; the growth of new institutions; the growing demands being made of MPs; and one argument was put forward that the mere 1512 availability of television pictures of what goes on in the House of Commons in offices outside the Chamber itself has diminished its role. However, the fact is that whether we wanted these developments and whether we like them is irrelevant; they will not go away. I hope that the emphasis of our deliberations both here and in the other place will not be on whingeing about them or attempting to make them go away, but rather to work out how best we can adapt the way in which Parliament operates to accommodate them.
The biggest problem has not been that Parliament has not changed. For example, the introduction of Select Committees is a huge credit to my noble friend Lord St John of Fawsley, who introduced them some 20 years ago. They represented a major and significant change. The major underlying problem is that Parliament, working in a world that is moving and changing faster and faster—cliché though that may be, it is the case—has not adapted at anything like the same pace. What we need to do now is to spend much more time seeking ways in which we can adapt the procedures and working methods of both Houses of Parliament—although the focus of the report was on the House of Commons—to our fast-changing world. The report proposes—not least in its observations on Select Committees, to which many references have been made—adaptations to the way in which the Chamber of the House of Commons debates matters. These should be undertaken in a shorter and sharper manner, with more topical and focused debates, along with more rapid discussion of Select Committee reports. Those proposals are designed to encourage the speedier adaptation of Parliament to the world as it is today and not as it was or even as we would like it to be.
For reasons of time and common sense it would not be sensible for me to attempt to rehearse the recommendations of the report. I shall not seek to do so. Not all noble Lords will agree with the detail of all the recommendations. It may be that not even every member of the commission would have written the recommendations in exactly the form in which they now appear. But I am encouraged by the overlap of observations from the commission which I had the privilege to chair, the commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and, indeed, those of the House of Commons Liaison Committee, in particular in respect of Select Committees. I believe that a kind of tide is running here which it would be unwise for anyone in politics to disregard, including those in government. New Leaders of the House have taken office here and in the other place, both of whom I regard as having given signals that they intend to bring a constructive approach to these matters. I hope that they will regard these proposals as helpful rather than tiresome.
My final point has nothing to do with the report because it did not cover legislative scrutiny. I should like to add my own words of support to what has been said by my noble friend Lord Fowler and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, about the scrutiny of legislation. Some years ago, when my noble friend Lord Cranborne and I were respectively Leaders of the 1513 two Houses, we were pleased that we were able to persuade our colleagues to accept much more readily the publication of Bills in draft in the year before they were brought before the House. That is a practice on which we wanted to build. I think that it is fair to say that the present Government have themselves sought to build on it. It is absolutely vital for the improvement both of accountability and of scrutiny that that policy should be further developed.
§ 5.29 p.m.
§ Lord Smith of Clifton
My Lords, this is a vital subject for debate and I congratulate my noble friend Lady Williams for initiating it. Unfortunately, owing to a prior engagement, I shall not be able to remain for the winding-up, which I am sure will be of equal merit to the contributions that we have heard so far. I apologise to the House and crave the indulgence of noble Lords.
I accept the warnings issued by my noble friend as regards the myth of a golden past, but I believe that since 1979 successive governments seem to have pursued actions that have had the disastrous effect of exalting the power of the executive while diminishing both the effectiveness and the status of the legislature. That observation is generally accepted—except, of course, by Ministers in post at any one time. It is heartening to hear the conversion to reform of so many ex-Cabinet Ministers. It was always thus.
Some noble Lords have identified, and doubtless others will be identifying, the increasingly overweening power of the executive relative to that of Parliament as one of the main reasons for the greater alienation of citizens with politics, their growing apathy and the consequential steady decline in voter turnout at elections. As has already been observed, the problems of Parliament's weaknesses have been the subject of two recent investigations: one was led by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for the Conservative Party; the other by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, on behalf of the Hansard Society. In their way, both reports are admirable in the proposals that they make to restore the balance between the two branches of government. I see merit in the procedural reforms they advocate and I shall take them as read, so to speak.
However, my main purpose today is not to expatiate further on the uneven ratio of powers between government and Parliament. My purpose is to highlight recent developments within the executive branch of government itself—to which my noble friend alluded in her, if I may say so, consummate introductory review—that are all of a piece with the present era of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, once called "elected dictatorship", and which contributed in no small measure to the popular disaffection with politics. I refer to what I shall term the demi-monde of politics and government. It is this which has occurred almost unnoticed and is the reason why parliamentary scrutiny needs to be strengthened so urgently.
Were Walter Bagehot to be reincarnated today to apply his penetrating insights into the real workings of the British constitution—as he did so perceptively a 1514 century and a half ago—what would he his likely observations? If he were to employ his twin analytical categories of "dignified" and "efficient", it is not too fanciful to suggest that he would have had little hesitation in transferring most of the erstwhile functions of both Parliament and the Cabinet from the "efficient" into the "dignified". He would have noted that, with the growing assertion of prime ministerial power that has burgeoned under both the Thatcher and Blair administrations, the institutions of Parliament and the Cabinet that he had emphasised—particularly the latter—as the hallmarks of British governance in the 19th century, were but a shadow of their former selves.
He would note, too, that they had been superseded in the "efficient" category—though I doubt he would think that the appropriate term nowadays; "de facto" would perhaps be more accurate—by a myriad of persons and agencies that have mushroomed over the past 20 years or so. These comprise what I have called the demi-monde of government. They are sometimes accorded the more sanitised term of "policy networks". They are that part of the British state that is characterised as tentacular government.
These various expressions refer to the host of quangos, task forces, executive so-called "First Step" agencies, ad hoc czars, peripatetic unaccredited plenipotentiaries, regulators and inspectors, all of which comprise a patchwork of governance that is beyond the capacity of Parliament to monitor and is thus effectively shielded from the public gaze.
I suppose that a gifted spin doctor could contrive some sort of rationale for these developments. It might be said, for example, that they introduce a greater measure of flexibility and quicker responses in dealing with items on the policy agenda. Equally, it may be claimed that some represent a degree of administrative devolution away from the deadening clutches of Whitehall departments, while bringing in outside and more relevant skills that cannot always he provided by the conventional Civil Service.
I do not dismiss such arguments out of hand, nor do I think that there is no case for such innovations in particular circumstances. I accept that there may have been some successes. What I am querying is the cumulative effect of these developments and their overall impact on our constitutional arrangements. For each part of this governmental demi-monde that may be justified on the grounds of expediency, in aggregate the sum of the whole cannot be justified in terms of democratic accountability. Taken together, these developments constitute a major by-pass operation on the body politic, effectively immunising it from the checks and balances that ought otherwise to characterise a system of representative democracy.
Democratic and constitutional considerations apart, there is the further problem of discovering the effectiveness of these developments. For example, to judge from the reports of successive chief inspectors, it is not obvious that the state of our prisons has improved following their operations being hived off to a First Step agency.
1515 The emergence of the demi-monde has had, in my view, two other deleterious effects. First, it has spawned a new breed of personnel to serve it; a kind of nomenclatura of fixers, henchmen and renegades who, in many ways, are the emblems of the epoch. They are recruited from the ranks of management consultancy, other parts of commerce and industry, what is left of the higher Civil Service and occasionally entertainment management. If para-state agencies are to be used, it would make for a better degree of public accountability if, say, two MPs were to be members of them ex-officio.
The primary role of the nomenclatura is to serve and advise the handful of senior Ministers who, led by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, effectively determine government policy. The second unfortunate effect of the demi-monde is to have reduced the traditional role of the higher Civil Service and of local government.
What I have been describing has led to a serious shrinking of the public realm in this country. Too much of governmental activity is now befogged. It is this as much as anything else that has contributed to public disaffection with politics and voter apathy. The familiar saloon-bar Johnny opinion that, "You don't know the half of what goes on in government" is no longer an exaggerated speculation but a valid interpretation of reality.
Form and clarity must be restored to our constitution if popular cynicism is to be reversed. The Scottish Parliament has made a start with its proposed "bonfire of the quangos". Devolution has put the searchlight of democracy on this aspect of the demi-monde. Regional assemblies for England, now the most under-enfranchised part of the United Kingdom, could follow Scotland's example. English regional devolution would stimulate similar democratic impulses and would help to re-engage the elected with the electorate.
§ 5.37 p.m.
Lord Butler of Brockwell
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on initiating the debate. It has been well concerted, if I may say so, among her colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches in covering most aspects of the subject.
I approach the debate from the perspective of a career in the non-parliamentary executive. I believe that I am the only speaker today who will do so. Perhaps I may catch the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, as he leaves the Chamber. As I am the only representative of the Civil Service, I take the opportunity of thanking him very warmly for his generous remarks about the Civil Service. They will, I know, be greatly appreciated by those who, like me, worked with him when he was a Minister in the Cabinet Office.
I begin on a slightly less gloomy note than some other speakers. It is easy, even for parliamentarians, to underestimate the influence of Parliament on the 1516 executive. To a man from Mars, it must appear that a government with a substantial majority in another place can vote through whatever business they like and take no notice of any opposition. But it is not as simple as that.
Perhaps I may give an example. The noble Baroness referred to the report of the Hansard Commission and to the fact that 71 per cent of Members of the House of Commons think that Prime Minister's Questions are ineffective. The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, described that part of the procedure as "farcical". However, it has one very important effect. Seen from the other side, it means that the head of the British Government has to spend some hours each week briefing himself or herself in detail on the policies of the Government. Having had the opportunity of seeing and comparing heads of governments at European Councils and international meetings, I believe that it has resulted in the head of the British Government being better informed on matters of detail than any other head of government in the western world.
Even when faced with a large majority, oppositions have ways of making life difficult for governments. Oppositions have levers in their hands. Deals have to be done, and are done, between the usual channels, as the Whips will know better than I. These often cover policy as well as procedure.
A poor performance by a Minister in defending a government policy matters. It matters when the Opposition get the scent of blood and the Minister's supporters cannot summon up the enthusiasm for full-hearted support. Many times, in returning with a Minister from the House of Commons, I have seen that in such circumstances policy has to be revised.
Civil servants do not take lightly appearances before Select Committees. They prepare for many hours. I have seen careers broken when such events go wrong. When a weakness in departmental performance is exposed, departments have to work hard to see that it is not repeated.
Of course, the power of the Opposition to push attacks home is lessened when a government have a large majority. It is not a coincidence that we hear more of the ineffectiveness of Parliament in the present circumstances than we did during the term of office of the previous Conservative government or during that of the Labour government of 1974–79. When a government's majority is large, the Opposition know that they cannot push through even a good case in the arena where it ultimately matters—on the Floor of the House of Commons. Conversely, when a government's majority is small, the Opposition know that they need only split off a small number of government supporters to win a good case. But there is another side to this coin: oppositions may be tempted to use that power to win bad cases, and I have seen that happen.
So is all well with parliamentary control of the executive? No—I agree with previous speakers—it clearly is not. There are grounds for concern when important legislation is pushed through with no 1517 scrutiny in another place. Mistakes are made, and these matter to our fellow citizens. There are grounds for concern when the proceedings of Parliament are not thought worth reporting in the media except as a source of amusement. There are grounds for concern when Ministers give higher priority to announcing their measures to the public through the media rather than through Parliament—although it is fair to say that that problem is not unique to this country.
I believe it now to be true that in the relationship between the executive and the legislature the executive has got too many of the levers into its own hands. I believe also that this situation may be getting worse. There is obviously a case for a user-friendly Parliament in which no one has to stay late at night or attend at inconvenient times. But exhaustion and inconvenience are important weapons in the hands of the Opposition. Their removal weakens the Opposition's negotiating power.
What is the remedy? In considering that question, we need to consider why this situation has come about. Over the past century or so, successive governments have increased their grip on Parliament—not because Parliament is unimportant, but because it is important. If governments could get a similar leverage over the media, they would do so. They may be working on it, but they have not achieved it yet!
If that analysis is correct, I am afraid that another conclusion follows. The executive will not voluntarily give up the power it has established over Parliament. If Parliament is to matter, it must make itself matter. In this, issues of procedure are important; but they are not the whole answer. The exercise of will is also necessary. It was important to establish the departmental Select Committees in another place, but their importance depends on how they are used. It is important, given the dominance of the executive, that the further stages of reform of your Lordships' House produce an independent and representative House. The need for that came out again and again in the evidence given to the Royal Commission. But again, the importance of the House of Lords depends on the way in which its powers are used.
There are certain powers that Parliament has; for example--as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Howell— it has power over its own expenditure and the provision of advice which it commands. Parliament needs the will to use its powers to exert an influence over the executive. While enabling the executive to govern, Parliament must be prepared to resist the executive's unreasonable behaviour. That depends to a large extent on the will of Members, and particularly Members of another place. Parliament should be more than a waiting room for an appointment in the executive. If Parliament is to become effective, the remedy must lie, as it always has, in Parliament's own hands.
§ 5.46 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, it is always a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell. lit is a great relief to hear that the executive 1518 can still to some extent control a government—"Yes, Minister" is still alive and well. But ate we not primarily concerned with parliamentary control of the executive, which is not quite the same thing?
At the outset, perhaps I may congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on an outstanding speech, which covered the ground for her assertion, with which I unreservedly agree:Thus far and no further and, indeed, we ought to step back".The presidential style of No. 10, the structure of the Cabinet, with its committees, ad hoc committees and so forth, is simply not in accord with the traditional style of government and is not acceptable, as I now understand it, to either of the parties in Opposition in this House. It may be unacceptable also to those on the Cross Benches, as it assuredly is to some Members on the Benches opposite.
The refusal to consult on stage 2 reform of this House is but a manifestation of the style of government that we oppose. There is no need for any formal understanding between the Liberal Democrats and our party on opposition to such a style of government. In the previous Session, the Liberal Democrats voted against the Government on 256 occasions—well over a third of the number of occasions on which they voted for the Government. There is absolutely no question of any need for a formal understanding on matters concerning control of the executive by Parliament, on consultation and such. A joint opposition to this Government will be spontaneous in this House.
As the noble Baroness recognised, the voter is the determinator of the democratic process of preservation of the body politic. That is our concern. That is what lies at the core of this debate. I liked the way in which the right reverend Prelate expressed it. He referred to,the common good of nation and people".Such would be the situation as would have been understood by Burke. Sooner or later all political parties lose their way. Now the new Labour Party has lost its way, for want of control of the executive—apart from want of due provision of public services and the impending doom of recession in manufacturing.
Parliament will not be in Session for three months. Preservation of the body politic demands that both opposition parties should draw this state of affairs to the attention of the electorate as from now, pending cohesive opposition in both Houses on the return of Parliament. If the voter is to regain interest and enthusiasm, he has to be lured out of his lair of disenchantment and apathy and assume the role of determinator.
The House will also be grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to debate want of control of the executive by Parliament, at a time when we have an over-weaning Administration—an authoritative Administration—the likes of which has not been seen for a very, very long time. A Government who have abused their power, not only in another place but also in your Lordships' House: a 1519 government who have sold the dummy to their paymasters, the trade unions, fiddled with Select Committees to suit their own political ends, and used representatives of the people as their placemen.
The Government are due to remain in office until the next general election, save for the extremely unlikely event of a vote of "no confidence" in them. Therefore, this style of government could well become the norm. The Quintine philosophy has all but been fulfilled; but not quite so, as yet. If our traditional form of government is to be restored by the voters, the only effective opposition in Parliament to this style of administration may be made in your Lordships' House, weakened already by design and, by design, to be weakened further without consultation.
I conclude my remarks at this point because the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made a speech in which he said everything that I would have wished to say, and said it better. I agree with every word, and repetition is idle. However, I shall finish my contribution by reference to the charming and amusing remark that I believe was made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, "Is there anyone out there that listens?"
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ Lord Dahrendorf
My Lords, my comments are a mere footnote on the question of what your Lordships' House can do in order to hold government to account. However, I cannot do otherwise than begin by making an observation. I am struck, and actually pleased, by the fact that no fewer than seven of the speakers previous to me on the Speakers' List are former Members of the other place; and in many cases were Members for long periods of time. The other day I heard mention on a radio programme that at this point more than a quarter of the Members of your Lordships' House have been Members of the other place. Indeed, I believe that I am probably not wrong to guess that another quarter of them have been elected somewhere at some time, or are presently in an elective position. If I am not mistaken, that is very different from the House that I joined some eight years ago. I believe that it is relevant to the ability of this House to have an authoritative discussion of issues concerning Parliament in general.
I share the view of those who have indicated in a variety of ways that parliaments everywhere—I repeat, everywhere—are in an extremely difficult position today. Politics have changed; the style of politics has changed. There is the curious development of what I sometimes call "celebrity politics". There is also a development that one might call "throw-away politics", where people make political choices which last about as long as what they have bought in the nearest supermarket, after which such choices are thrown away and ignored. People are capable of electing a government and turning against them a week later, even in active demonstrations.
I believe that there is quite a fundamental change in the style of politics which has moved us away from the deliberative style and a sense of the medium term; 1520 indeed, allowing governments to be unpopular for a period. I take that as a background for pointing to three areas in which I believe your Lordships' House has a very special role to play precisely because, as such, it is not elected at this time. Some noble Lords may know that I am not a supporter of an elected, or part-elected, House. But even if the House were part-elected, it would be different from an elected Chamber. I also think that this House has a special place because it is not distracted by obligations that are, quite rightly, the obligations of Members of the other place. Therefore, in a sense, this House has the time to concentrate, for example, on the detail of legislation.
Perhaps I may give your Lordships my three examples, which are not particularly original. Incidentally, the splendid chapter on the decline of Parliament that is to be found in the report by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, lists them all in one way or another. The first is the growing complexity of legislation, including the strange significance of secondary legislation. The House has tackled that subject in a most effective way. Now that I am no longer a member of it, I can praise the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee as a supreme example of holding the executive to account. I am sure that that committee would be prepared to engage to a greater extent than in the past in pre-legislative scrutiny and thereby be involved in the process of legislation at its various stages. Indeed, that is an excellent example. Perhaps I may add to that the scrutiny of European legislation through the European Union Committee.
However, I cannot help but say that we should examine in due course the question whether our European committee is really scrutinising the decisions of the European Union sufficiently or whether perhaps the committee and its sub-committees have become too deeply involved in the undoubtedly more interesting process of producing reports about wider issues that are suitable for general debate. There is a case for scrutiny at an early point. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, observed that there is a case for becoming involved in European legislation at a very early stage.
The second major area in which this House has a particular function relates to the key development as regards parliaments; namely, the emigration of important decisions from the spaces for which parliamentary institutions and our other political institutions were originally established. If more and more decisions are taken—or not even explicitly taken; indeed, they happen in some cases—beyond the nation state, not just in Europe but in undefined, wider spaces and quite often with worldwide implications, we shall be faced with a whole new set of problems. I am not suggesting that any country, any national parliament or, indeed, the House of Lords can solve them. But there is a strong case for involving national parliaments in the scrutiny of international decisions.
Although I appreciate the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, about a foreign affairs committee, for some time I have felt that my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, with his 1521 insistence on looking at treaties and getting involved—I put it in those terms—in the process of ratification is one important handle, although not the only one. We should probably do both.
The third area I wish to mention specifically is the following. Nowadays we are often faced with situations—I hate to say this as a traditional Liberal—where common sense alone is not enough to take a considered decision. I should love to think that we continued to live in a world in which ultimately common sense judgment could be applied to all necessary decisions. But as one who has the pleasure of being a member of the Select Committee on stem cell research, I know that we are sometimes faced with issues in which political, legal, scientific and ethical questions are intertwined in such a way that in order to take a considered decision one needs the advice of a group which includes all those aspects in its deliberations. The Select Committee on stem cell research may constitute a good precedent for discussing issues of that character. I believe that your Lordships' House is almost uniquely suited to hold the decision makers to account in that area.
There are not many successful second chambers in the world. I do not know a single second chamber this side of the Atlantic which I would describe as a truly effective second Chamber and a model for others. We could become a model in the area of holding government to account if we concentrated on issues which we are uniquely qualified to decide. I prefer a debate on that kind of issue to a further debate on the composition of your Lordships' House.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ Lord Desai
My Lords, it has been a good debate and we have had two excellent maiden speeches. There are two ways of considering this problem. We can consider i t from the narrow perspective of how we reform the procedures of this Parliament or from the perspective of how we make the executive more accountable. But many noble Lords have already commented on that matter. Not having been in another place, nor having been a Cabinet Minister, a junior Minister or even a civil servant, I am not well qualified to speak on that matter.
I wish to consider a broader perspective which I believe was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Haskel and, to some extent, by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Parliament is irrelevant—whether or not it is powerless I do not know—because in a sense it has not changed with the times. There was perhaps never a golden age. But in all our minds we have an ideal model of the days when the executive was subject to the will of Parliament and parliamentarians were independent, good people, often of noble character. They were usually all men, but we shall skip that for the time being. Somewhere in 1867 that system disappeared. That was a pre-democratic Parliament.
We are in a much worse situation now because our citizens do not find politics interesting. To the extent that they may have complaints, they do not realise that addressing those complaints to their MP is an effective 1522 way of dealing with them. It may or may not help to locate the Dome in Sutton Coldfield, but when citizens want to complain about fuel prices, for example, they take to the streets. That is a much more effective method of protest. No amount of petitioning Parliament would have changed that situation at that time. The action of citizens taking to the streets abolished the poll tax. Given the parliamentary situation at that time, it could not have been abolished within Parliament. We have to consider Parliament in the broader context of the world outside. We must ask ourselves whether the whole parliamentary system is obsolete and whether that is why people do riot respect it and do not bother to vote.
Although people are sceptical of opinion polls, and it is de rigueur for the losing party to throw doubt on their findings, the final result of the 2001 election was not all that unpredictable. It could be predicted about three months before the election was held. People could not be bothered to vote because they thought that the result was predictable. As the son of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked, what difference does it make whether or not one votes? My friends who study political choice theory tell me that it is not rational for a citizen to vote as it makes not the slightest difference to any outcome. In terms of a citizen's self-interests, voting is not worth the effort. Of course, we have to believe that that is wrong. However, we must ask ourselves whether we are in need not just of procedural reform but of a very sharp look at ourselves.
It is not at all clear to me that the drift of decisions away from the classic executive is all that, bad. I believe that that happened because the sys tern was too cumbersome to achieve good results. It is more efficient for decisions to be taken by specialised agencies because Parliament is too elaborate and too cumbersome for that. It constitutes a democratic but not an efficient way of doing things.
We believe that amateur parliamentarians are best equipped to judge matters. As the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, said, that is increasingly not the case. We do not take sufficient account of specialist opinion while legislation is going through. Therefore, increasingly, decisions are entrusted to specialised agencies. That is indeed what has happened in every other walk of life. Why should Parliament continue to be run on an amateur basis with people thinking that their speeches change the world? Parliament is far too large, with far too many Members.
Robert Mackenzie, who was a professor of political science at the LSE, told me long ago that the British Parliament sat on more days than any other Parliament but did less work. That was true then and may still be true. However, if we carried out an efficiency audit on ourselves, I do not believe that it would reveal satisfactory results. I do not believe that anyone has carried out an efficiency audit on Parliament to determine whether it constitutes an efficient way to do business. We must ask these broader questions. Everywhere people are being subjected to downsizing, organisations are becoming less hierarchical and managements are becoming "flatter". But we still want Parliament to be at the apex 1523 of society, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, said. I know the great democratic dream that that is what we fought for in 1832. Be that as it may, it is not relevant now.
We have to ask ourselves how we can better adapt our democracy to modern times. Our democratic system is old-fashioned and the world has moved on. Our citizens do not have the patience to read an entire speech, much less an entire debate. They want quick soundbites. They have been brought up on television rather than the printed word. If we receive information from the television or the Internet, it has to be fast, well presented and succinct. It cannot include orotund, endless sentences. Newspapers are in competition with television. They have to adopt the methods of television. They must concentrate on leaders and soundbites. No one has the time to read the complete, unexpurgated version of any speech, elegant though it may be. That is not an efficient way of communicating information.
We must rethink our methods of communication and operation, the size of Parliament and what Parliament does. Why does Parliament have to meet in London all the time? Why cannot it meet around the country? Why do we not have more citizens coming not only to listen but also to contribute? Perhaps every week we should bring in 30 citizens to participate in Parliament. In a sense, we have cut ourselves off. That is why governments find it more useful to go to the "Today" programme, "Newsnight" or the newspapers; otherwise the news will never come out from Parliament.
We need to look more critically at ourselves. While the executive may be horrible, and I believe that it is always horrible—and a majority of 167 the second time running can only cast doom and gloom—we must consider democracy in Parliament in a far more radical way.
§ 6.12 p.m.
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, I am pleased to note that the depressing commentary of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, on the valuelessness of speeches did not inhibit him from making a very good one.
I shall concentrate in a practical way on some suggestions that have not necessarily been covered in the many powerful speeches which have been made. One of the most powerful was that of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, to whom I am particularly glad to pay tribute. He and I were members of the same cohort (if that is the right word) in Cambridge 40 years ago; and he has hardly changed since then—and nor have I, I think!
The proper functioning of a modern parliamentary democracy requires that Parliament should be active, professional and inquiring in calling the executive, public authorities and public officers to account. Parliament, through both Houses and the Select Committees, performs vital scrutiny functions—it has been said again and again—as public watchdog and bloodhound working for the public interest of the 1524 people we serve. As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, Parliament is the friend and not the enemy of good government.
Since I came to this House eight years ago, I have sought, somewhat obsessively some would say, with noble Lords across the House working together, to enhance the functions of bloodhound and public watchdog, for example seeking to protect fundamental human rights more effectively, to enable the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to be a more effective watchdog and to scrutinise the prerogative powers of the Crown in ratifying international treaties. I have sought to have a proper independent supreme court for the United Kingdom in place of the hotchpotch of the Judicial Committees of this House and of the Privy Council and, if the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, will forgive me, to create a constitutional Civil Service which is regulated by statute rather than under a scheme devised to rule the British Raj in the 18th and 19th centuries.
I am sorry to say that the pace of reform is painfully slow—a snail's pace. Apart from the notable exception of the Human Rights Act, we have not accomplished very much in any of those areas. Even though the Wakeham Commission supported the creation of a treaty scrutiny committee, that has been kicked into long grass. Even though the under-powered Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration deals with a miserably small case load compared with other powerful ombudsmen in other democracies, there is no indication that the Government intend to give priority to the reform of his office. The Cabinet Office review is already 15 months old and gathering dust.
I am glad that in his interview in The Times on Tuesday the senior Law Lord, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, said that there is very strong case for having a supreme court that is in the same position constitutionally as the supreme courts of every other country in the world, whether in the United States, Canada, Australia, India or France. He is right to question whether the link with this House is justified. He was right to quote Bagehot indicating that,The Supreme Court of the English people ought to be a great conspicuous tribunal. ought to bring our law into unity, ought not to be hidden beneath the robes of a legislative assembly".It should not be cramped in the absurd way that it is, with the public not served with proper facilities when they attend to argue their cases through lawyers like myself. I think that the creation of a supreme court would enhance both the administration of justice by the independent judiciary and the workings of this House.
In the time that remains, I wish to mention another important way of increasing the effectiveness of Parliament in calling the executive to account: that is, by requiring that important public appointments should be subject to parliamentary advice and consent. The admirable report of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, for the Hansard Society noted that Parliament should stand at the apex of the scrutiny network which ought to exist. The Chief Inspector of 1525 Prisons is only one of a long list of public office holders and public watchdogs appointed by government to scrutinise the executive and other public authorities with little, if any, input from the theoretically supreme Parliament.
Another example is that of the Information Commissioner who plays a vital role in protecting personal information and, when the Freedom of Information Act 2000 eventually—I hope not too "eventually"—comes fully into force, will play an even more important constitutional role. She is officially responsible to Parliament and is often assumed to be a government official, something that she finds wholly unacceptable. Elizabeth France believes, and I agree with her, that her office could contribute much more effectively to holding the Government to account than it currently does if there were some effective mechanism in place through which Parliament could call systematically on her expertise and, I would say, if her appointment could be scrutinised and vetted by Parliament to give her greater authority.
The same applies to the Commissioner for Public Appointments. She monitors, regulates, reports and advises on 12,500 ministerial appointments to public bodies. Surely she should be appointed not by the very Ministers whom she is intended to call to account but by the Crown with the advice and consent of Parliament. One could give other examples. The Comptroller and Auditor General and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards have some parliamentary input in another place into their appointments. Those examples show that it is entirely feasible to do what is done in other European and Commonwealth democracies. For example, the Police Complaints Authority, the equality commissions, the Director-General of Fair Trading and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and other regulators could have a greater parliamentary input into their appointment and their work.
My final point arises from the report of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, with regard to the effectiveness of scrutiny by the Select Committees. I want to emphasise the importance of the recommendation that the core responsibilities of Select Committees should be defined from the outset, if possible by a co-ordinating overall parliamentary committee. My personal experience on three or four Select Committees of the House is that with a changing membership and changing chairs it is very important for a Select Committee to know from the beginning exactly what it is expected to do. For example, I serve with other Members of this House on the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It is important to be clear from the outset whether such a committee is to be a scrutiny committee, a wider debating kind of committee or both; and for the resources for that committee in terms of membership and expertise to be geared to those core functions.
In the interests of good, efficient and accountable government, we must hope that the new Leader of the House of Commons will be able to usher in a new era of much-needed reform sooner rather than later. As 1526 the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said, there needs to be an exercise of parliamentary will to use the powers of Parliament in those and other ways.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ The Earl of Dundee
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on introducing the debate. Characteristically, she presented her case with great clarity, energy and independence of mind. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, and my noble friend Lord Fowler on their excellent maiden speeches and thank them for their valuable perception of certain shortcomings and remedies of address in the procedures of the other place.
I shall touch on three themes to arrive at a certain conclusion. The first point is the traditional concept, emphasised by many of your Lordships—the role of Parliament as it should be and is expected to be. That means carrying out the function to which the noble Baroness draws attention—holding the executive to account and thereby becoming more relevant to voters.
My second point is the current scope for such balanced parliamentary democracy in Europe. More than anything else, this opportunity has been enabled by two developments: the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the consolidation of peace in the majority of the former Yugoslavia at the turn of the century.
Connected to that, my third point is the benefit and reward arising from the right form of parliamentary democracy. Those benefits include the maintenance of peace and stability and the progress of social development in European states, regions and communities.
From those three themes, once connected, the conclusion may be fairly obvious: that the achievement of much better parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom is essential and that the example of its practice will also benefit other European states and their collective security. That is so for a particular reason. No outside observer will necessarily be fascinated by British policy towards the European Union, still less by changing British pronouncements on aspects of European institutionalism. On the other hand, the rest of Europe has much respect for and takes a keen interest in the tradition and continuing practice of British democracy.
By example, Britain can exert considerable influence for good in Europe. It goes without saying that we can do so by avoiding one kind of parliamentary democracy and espousing another. The version to be espoused is the traditional concept called for by the noble Baroness today. The type to be avoided is that which may appear to have become entrenched and should now be altered radically, because it reflects an insufficient capacity by Parliament to hold the executive to account. As the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, has reminded us, my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham described that system as flawed many years ago and castigated it as "elective dictatorship".
1527 In considering ways to redress the imbalance in this country between Parliament and the executive, we will all be grateful to my noble friends Lord Newton of Braintree and Lord Norton of Louth, both of whose committees have produced very good reports. As my noble friend Lord Newton has said today, those reports emphasise the need for adaptation. For Members of the other place, career prospects within Parliament, as distinct from within the Government, must become far more attractive. Hence also independent-mindedness and the deliberative function must be encouraged far more. My noble friends illustrate how that change of direction and culture will enhance the quality and focus of legislation and debate. As a number of your Lordships have already observed, the reports show how such a change of direction will also improve public confidence in the operation of both party politics and executive control—each often accused of stifling parliamentary scrutiny and debate and each currently held in very low esteem.
My noble friends also distinguish in their reports between necessary expedients and the political resolve to implement them. No doubt political resolve has its best chance of implementation when it is entertained cross-party and if it can be assisted by the Government. Arguably, there is now a strong case for partnership and co-operation on the issue, not only between political parties, but also between Parliament and the Government.
When the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House winds up today, I am sure that he will concur that that is the best approach in this case: I am sure too that the Government will give all their support to the efforts of the current Leader of the House of Commons to improve parliamentary scrutiny and will support the establishment of new systems for attracting Members of the other place towards a parliamentary career as an alternative to a government one.
This House can give constructive help to that process of adaptation in the other place. There is already a satisfactory balance between Lords and Commons Select Committee work. The two are able to complement each other. However, there are anomalies. My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford referred to the absence of a Foreign Affairs Select Committee in this House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, another anomaly is that, while the Select Committee scrutiny remit applies to the European Union, it does not go beyond that boundary to address Council of Europe conventions, let alone to consider international treaties.
It has been contended that parliamentary scrutiny of relevant matters within that wider area should be set up through a committee in this House. Does the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House agree that that would be a good and timely development, all the more so in the context of this debate?
My second theme is how improved democracy here can assist reliable democracy in Europe. That is clearly a constant challenge, quite separate from the issue of 1528 European Union membership, although, conversely, it is of particular relevance to emerging and consolidating democracies in the Balkans and in central and eastern Europe.
My third theme is the benefit from stability and the progress of social and economic development arising from sustained balanced democracy within Europe. The United Kingdom All-Party Group for Social Development in Europe, of which I am currently chairman, seeks to address that issue. The group is affiliated to the Council of Europe, and thus includes a number of parliamentarians from each of its states. Its purpose is to exchange information and to increase awareness and involvement by European parliamentarians in effective methods and expedients for social and economic developments, which, within regions and communities, are often best evident on very small scales.
In summary, the matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is one of the most important with which we are faced. We must get it right. The combined remedies and adaptations required are even quite simple to set in place. The key to success is partnership and shared resolve by all concerned. The results of success are also very clear. In this country, it will result in much more confidence by voters in their politicians and parliamentarians. Correspondingly, on political delivery, there will be a much more convincing version of social and economic development. For Europe and beyond, this country's example will make a far more valuable contribution towards human rights and security.
§ 6.28 p.m.
§ Lord Phillips of Sudbury
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Williams for instigating the debate and I congratulate the two maiden speakers, the noble Lords, Lord Fowler and Lord Clark. My noble friend Lord Lester said that he was a member of the cohort of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. I was a member of the same college and remember with mixed feelings the way in which he gave me a jack pass in handing over the chairmanship of the Trinity Hall Debating Society. It is a great pleasure to have him here.
The Motion calls attention to the case for control of the executive by Parliament, thereby making Parliament "more relevant to voters". I shall concentrate on the relevance of Parliament to the voters. It is plain that if Parliament is to have the authority to hold the executive to account effectively, it needs the loyalty or allegiance of the electorate.
My particular interest in the subject goes back a long time. Many years ago, I got a headmaster to allow me to experiment with his pupils to see whether politics, democracy and the law could be of interest to typical 15 and 16 year-olds. I believe that noble Lords who said, as many have done tonight, that citizens do not find Parliament interesting—we have heard that phrase on a number of occasions—are wrong. If the problem that we have were one of interest, it would, in a sense, be easier to tackle. However, I believe that the problem is more complex and more profound.
1529 In the past fortnight, three reports have been published which I believe throw light on this matter. One is the Carnegie report on promoting young people's involvement in public decision-making. Another is the report on Bradford, Community Pride not Prejudice, which, ironically, came out just a few days before the Bradford riots. Finally, there is the Parekh report, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. Two of those reports have been debated in this House.
The Crick report in 1998 was the foundation upon which the Government decided—in my view, absolutely correctly—to make, as from autumn of next year, citizenship a compulsory component of every secondary pupil's curriculum. The Crick report concluded a long analysis of all the evidence as to public attitudes towards Parliament and democracy by saying:There are worrying levels of apathy, ignorance and cynicism about public life".In last year's European elections the turn-out was 23 per cent and the turn-out of voters under the age of 25 was considered to be lower than 15 per cent. We know that in the recent general election the turn-out was 59 per cent but, again, it is believed that the turnout of those under the age of 25 was well below that. Indeed, an Adam Smith Institute report last year by Dr Pirie and Robert Worcester of MORI found that of that age group—the 18 to 24 year-olds—no fewer than 40 per cent had failed to register. Therefore, the statistics underestimate the problem of "citizen inaction", if I may use that phrase.
The Carnegie report made this remark:young people need to feel they are having a tangible influence, and to perceive the link between their contribution [to civic societies] and real changes".Plainly, they do not. The Parekh report quoted with approval the findings of Miss Adolino. Following research, she wrote—I consider this to be a telling observation:Political parties are more interested in ethnic minorities' votes than their opinions".I would say that that is no less true of the majority white opinion also. The Parekh report went on to say:Rather than concentrate on minorities based on ethnicity or religion, should we not urge the Government increasingly to counter the emergence of an underclass whose deepening exclusion—known to every Youth Magistrate—is a matter of shame to the whole nation?".I am sure that we would all say, "yes", "yes" and "yes" to that.
Finally, the report of the Bradford working group not only made as its first recommendation the teaching of effective citizenship—it is not a marginal matter—but referred to the lack of leadership in our communities and what it called "white flight". It also made the point that:People at street level are rarely told what is going on by politicians or leaders and therefore form misconceived or wrong views".I believe that we need to look again at the basics of an effective democracy. As I see it, we need to look at the absolutely fundamental proposition that democracy is a bottom-up relationship with us here. It 1530 is about heart rather than head and about loyalty and relationship. I believe that we should consider the needs of common men and women with perhaps greater acuteness than we sometimes do. We need to look at their hopes and fears and spend less time examining the observations and the often considered conclusions of what is needed of bureaucrats with first-class degrees, professionals with specialist expertise, and the like.
We need to look at the whole question of the centralisation of powers. I believe that a relationship exists between the year-by-year aggregation of power at Westminster and Whitehall as against local councils of different types that has a great deal to do with the lack of identification between so-called "ordinary citizens" and the institutions of our democracy.
We need to examine the ethos of central government, which has become ever more corporatist and managerial and increasingly forgetful of the fact that most of us would rather make our own mistakes in our own way and learn in the process than have everything decided for us by our supposedly cleverer superiors. That has resulted in a type of infantilism in British public life, and the consequences run deep.
I believe that we also need to accept that the diminishing power of local government has led to a problem in relation to local leadership. The best in local societies are no longer drawn to local government and its institutions of democracy. That is a crucial element in the democratic malaise from which I believe we suffer.
Then there is what I would call the "culture of detachment and disparagement". If people do not own politics or have a sense of allegiance to it, they will too readily and too easily criticise it and stand back from it in a detached way. Disparagement has become the leitmotif of British life—my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham referred to that—crowding out virtues of affirmation, loyalty and—dare I use the word'?—forgiveness, because politicians, too, need forgiveness.
In ending, perhaps I may say a word about the concept of "crowding out". I believe that a problem of indigestion exists in public life. In my view, the British public long ago ceased to feel competent to deal with the everlasting flow of laws, secondary legislation, European directives, regulations, diktats, guidance, the endless creation of quangos and committees, and initiatives and projects. You name it, we have heard it all today. I believe that it has become a serious problem.
The consequence, or, rather, the mode, of dealing with such crowding out is so fundamental that one is apt to be accused of being simplistic if one asks whether or not we should seriously contemplate limiting the sheer volume and complexity of legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, perhaps we should spend far more time examining the post-legislative impact of legislation and, if it has not achieved what it was supposed to achieve. we should consider chucking it out. There is much that we should do.
1531 I turn to the issue of displacement. We cannot continue to shove a quart into a pint pot. So much of what we do is self-indulgently useless. It does not hit its mark. It adds to the confusion; it adds to the detachment; and it adds to the democratic malaise that we all very much want to remedy. With those few remarks on what is perhaps a slightly different aspect of an enormous subject, I must hold my peace.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Harptree
My Lords, it is very welcome that at the beginning of this Parliament we should debate how to make Parliament more effective. Many noble Lords have already mentioned the low turnout at the last general election. That is a serious and disturbing matter, particularly for a country such as ours, which is steeped in a parliamentary tradition going back many centuries.
Our forefathers fought many battles in Parliament to extend the franchise which eventually achieved universal suffrage. But we must now face the fact that many people—particularly young people—do not feel that Parliament is relevant to them or that we encourage their hopes or understand their fears. I believe that it is the first duty of both Houses of Parliament to put that right. We must find ways of bridging the gap between Parliament and the people. In my judgment, that is our most important job.
The Government also have a very important role in this matter. As I am sure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will agree, there has been an increasing tendency for governments of both colours to make major statements outside the House rather than in Parliament, where they can be subject to cross-questioning. Of course, if the government of the day bypass Parliament and devalues its role, no wonder the electors do the same. The noble and learned Lord well knows that criticisms in that regard do not come only from this side of the House; they come from all sides. I hope that he will assure us, with the great authority that he has in Cabinet, that he will do his utmost to ensure that major statements from now on are made to Parliament and not to the media outside.
I turn to rather more optimistic themes—to the procedure and effectiveness of your Lordships' House. I do not believe that we need more powers; it would be unrealistic to ask for them and they would be unnecessary. We merely need to use our existing powers to greater effect.
There are encouraging developments. The Government, to their great credit, are introducing increasing numbers of draft Bills. That is greatly to be welcomed because it enables parliamentarians and people outside to make a contribution before Bills are set in concrete. That should lead to better legislation and people outside will feel that legislation is more relevant to them. That is an encouraging development on which the Government are to be congratulated.
We also have in your Lordships' House a well-developed system of Select Committees, on which we pride ourselves. The European Union Committee and 1532 its sub-committees produce high-quality reports that influence the government and Brussels. We also have what is now called the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which I had the privilege to serve until I was rotated off it. It gives valuable guidance to the House and the government on the use of delegated powers. Governments of both colours have almost invariably accepted the recommendations of that committee. That again is an optimistic point about the working of your Lordships' House.
We now have the new Constitution Committee, which I greatly welcome. I am sure that it will give us valuable guidance on the constitutional implications of Bills. I also hope that it will be able to assist us in developing good relations between Westminster and the devolved bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is new territory and differences of view are bound to develop between Westminster and the new bodies. It is important to find ways to remove friction and to get those bodies working effectively together. Your Lordships' House can be more effective in that regard than the other place. Of course there will be differences of opinion, but I hope that we can work with the aid of this new committee to produce harmony and that we will strengthen the unity of the United Kingdom. There is much work to be done in that regard. That is another optimistic note that I strike.
The new Joint Committee on Human Rights is much to be welcomed. We need to avoid the dangers of having conflicts between Parliament and the judiciary—we are all conscious of those dangers when we look back in history. Conflict did neither side any good. If the new committee enables us to avoid those dangers it will be very welcome indeed.
Select Committees are one of the jewels in the crown of the working of this House. I make a plea to the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House and the usual channels: may we have more opportunities to debate those valuable reports in -prime time"? Such debates should not be tucked away on a Friday, as they so often are.
What about procedures in the Chamber? Our general debates are of great value. Unstarred Questions and debates on Wednesdays enable noble Lords to discuss subjects that would otherwise remain unheard. I hope that we shall not move Wednesday's business to Thursdays. If we do, the likes of me would be tempted to go home and we should reduce the number of noble Lords participating and devalue the significance of those debates.
I turn to the revising function of your Lordships' House. That is one of our most important functions, on which we pride ourselves. It is wholly right for the Committee stage of most Bills to be taken here on the Floor of the House. It may well be that not too many noble Lords take part, but that is not the point. It means that our revising role is at centre stage—long may it remain so. Equally, all amendments are discussed if noble Lords so wish. That arrangement should also be retained. There are differing views 1533 about the Moses Room. In my view, the Moses Room is all right for technical and non-controversial Bills but the Committee stage of main Bills should be taken on the Floor of the House.
My time is running out. I had hoped to say a word about secondary legislation. I am glad that during the previous Parliament this House asserted its right to vote down secondary legislation if it thought that that was appropriate. That is not a veto; the Government can always come back with the same secondary legislation or with an amended version if they want to. However, it is wholly right to maintain the right.
I am glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, in her place. When she was Leader of the House she was always telling us that we are now more legitimate. We should therefore have greater confidence about using the powers that we have. That is especially necessary when a government, of whichever party, have a big majority in the House of Commons. That puts a bigger onus on us to use all of our powers to hold the government to account. We are well equipped to do so.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ The Earl of Listowel
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for giving us an opportunity to debate this important matter.
I am concerned that we should not rush to strengthen the Upper House in order to fill the breach created by the lack of an effective opposition in the other place. It is of concern that the Government do not face more challenges from Back-Benchers and opposition parties. However, this House has its virtues and I am concerned that they should not be lost. I have seen a small part of that value during the past three years—three short years.
One important role of your Lordships' House is to sensitise government to the unforeseen consequences of legislation. One might describe this House as a focus group of people with great life experience who are already highly tuned to existence in our society and beyond.
When the Children (Leaving Care) Bill was making its way through your Lordships' House, my noble friend Lord Laming, the chief inspector of social services, attempted to persuade the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, that significantly more protection should be offered to children leaving local authority care. Significantly stronger provision for those vulnerable young people was included in that legislation, which is to the immense credit of the Minister and the Government.
Concern was expressed last week about a new code for children with special educational needs and an amendment to that code was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. However, the code was postponed before even reaching your Lordships' House. On another occasion involving legislation to enable further development in human embryo research, your Lordships examined the hopes and 1534 concerns that such research brings with it. That contentious legislation received the full and expert scrutiny that it clearly needed.
There are many virtues in this House as it is currently constituted. Of course, one must always be self-critical and consider what could be done better. Let me make it plain that I am not asking for myself and other hereditary Peers to remain, but I am asking that party should be strengthened only as little as possible and that the expertise and experience of individual Peers is given as much play as possible.
§ 6.51 p.m.
§ Lord Hunt of Chesterton
My Lords, I. too, am grateful to the noble Lady, Baroness Williams of Crosby, for holding this debate on a vital question that is important not only to those affected by government but to those who work in all branches of government who, let us remember, are also voters.
I apologise that I could not be here for the opening speech and for the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and my noble friend Lord Clark, both of whom have contributed greatly to the public administration and politics of this country. I speak from experience as a former civil servant, a local councillor and as someone who has had other involvements with many branches of government.
I have had no real constitutional education beyond reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall as a student and the excellent textbook that was given to me when I arrived here last year. I do not share the gloom of some noble Lords, but I believe that we can learn from the experience of other countries and perhaps teach them something too.
Electors judge governments by demanding high standards, expecting governments to improve their health, welfare and, to some extent, their happiness. All governments and Parliaments are struggling, and not always succeeding, in meeting rising expectations. The United Kingdom is not unique. I shall read a report from an international newspaper, which I read yesterday, which states:Last summer with its record delays and deteriorating passenger service was a memorably unpleasant ordeal. Business has not forgotten it … The current decline in business travel is responsible for the worst year in a quarter century … 'We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it any more'. Several thousand passengers sat fuming for up to eight hours with no food, toilets overflowing and surly employees barking at them".That was in the United States, involving private sector airlines, which incidentally led to a national passenger rights Bill shortly afterwards.
Governments take on more responsibility and increase expectations—even about how long we should be here. But at the same time, governments want to keep the civil service at a constant level, so they realise that only a limited range of services can be delivered. Therefore, governments have to rely on the private sector, non-governmental organisations and encourage individuals and groups to collaborate in working towards society's goals. That is now as important a role for government and the executive branch as passing laws and running the civil service 1535 and armed forces. Governments and their agencies are so complex that they cannot be closely co-ordinated. They have to be led by general guidance and broad policy directives, rather than by micro-management.
Government and Parliament have not addressed how they should best monitor and help this new role. We need to learn from industry how it should be done. The Government do not micro-manage. Indeed, they have abandoned the command and control approach and have to focus on a much more general approach. They no longer focus on detailed matters of maladministration.
I very much hope that the ideas that emerge from this debate will be considered by our reforming Leader of the House and by those from the Prime Minister's office who are responsible for the workings of government. They are now responsible for training in the Civil Service. Reforms reported in the recent annual report are welcome, but further change is needed as the modes of government and Parliament change.
The first corollary of governments operating by guidance and target setting is that there is inevitably some ambiguity, as we have seen from the current debate on the national health service. The Civil Service at every level must be encouraged to understand how to respond, just as in business good managers aim to meet their overall objectives, whether in health, the environment or the economy, through intelligent use of resources and by listening to the overall strategy. This new managerial approach would mean that government departments and civil servants should be monitored more according to how they innovate, and how they generally meet their objectives, and less by the errors that they make. That is the antithesis of the Public Accounts Committee approach.
History records how often government servants in this country were pilloried for their efforts. I was reading recently how Clive of India was scolded by Parliament after his great achievements. Only occasionally do we read of successes like Watson-Watt who invented radar and received £100,000.
This week, Peers on all sides of the House attempted to move an amendment encouraging all government departments to contribute to international development and poverty reduction, but disappointingly, it was turned down. The spirit of the amendment was to ensure that the Government were taking an overall strategic view and encouraging all branches of government to co-operate. I regret that that approach was not accepted.
I believe that Parliament and the Government need to have a completely new approach to legislation and its execution to change the culture, as they say in business. Appropriate rewards and encouragement of innovation is an essential part of that transformation. Parliament should also monitor the executive by looking more closely at how the Government measure their own performance. There is a good deal of scepticism about targets and what information is being revealed, but the Freedom of Information Act should 1536 lead to some improvement in openness. Only a new Select Committee format or genuinely open seminars are likely to produce more confidence and more informed monitoring. My noble friend Lord Desai made some good suggestions in his speech, and yesterday, in a Select Committee in the House, we were considering having a seminar to bring in more people.
Currently the Government appear to resist amendments to legislation that call for regular reporting on the grounds that satisfactory arrangements are in place. That was discussed in a debate in the House this week. That is not a widely held opinion outside Whitehall, but Parliament, in its own interests, needs to address that point. The problem of monitoring government intelligently becomes even more necessary when government act more like a broadcasting organisation and funding agency and less like a signal box pulling levers and switching points.
Clear examples of new governmental processes include the openness and guiding procedures of the Food Standards Agency, which is the great success of this Government. Another example is the open publication of statistics and predictions of mathematical models for the spread of foot and mouth disease. Surely Parliament should be studying such developments and considering whether they can be applied elsewhere—even to foreign affairs and understanding arms races, as was suggested in a recent letter to Nature.
There are many new ways through open government and the Internet that encourage wider public involvement and input. Perhaps bulletin boards should be set up by investigating committees for monitoring and developing policy.
The greatest responsibility for government and Parliament is to look after the long-term interests of the country. That requires considering issues that are far from urgent, but which will become so. The House of Lords, through its regular debates and questions raises such strategic issues, many of which are highly controversial, such as Europe and defence, or highly unpredictable, such as the future effects of climate change, rising sea levels, demography, technology, societal change, and so on. The Government's chief scientist says that his job is to scan the horizon for up-and-coming problems. Surely it is the responsibility of the permanent secretary and Ministers in all the departments to do that.
There are several institutes for studying the future in the United States, but there are none in the UK. Instead we have various groups in government that quietly plan future legislation and carry out their own predictions. Surely it would be appropriate to have a House of Lords group at least once in each parliament to hold hearings to get the views of the Government, the executive, the agencies and those outside government about how the Government should be looking into future problems facing the UK and seeking milestones to be set by the Government in their plans to deal with long-term issues.
1537 I agree with all the noble Peers who have said that Parliament must examine its relationship with the Government and the executive. I hope that such a study will not be framed in the slightly antagonistic wording of the resolution. The role and ambitions of government are changing and they are now more complex. With a new openness, new technology, devolution of power and a willingness to listen, as well as investigate, I am sure that we can move forward with new and constructive procedures.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Roberts of Conwy
My Lords, anyone listening to this debate. as I have been, would certainly agree that the general opinion is that there is something rotten about the present state of Parliament. Almost every speaker has sought to sniff out that rottenness, and some have sought to remove it.
My own analysis is that the Government have certainly given the impression that the only kind of accountability which really matters is their direct accountability to the electorate. Therefore, they have concentrated on direct public presentation of policy and decisions through the press and the media, too often at the expense of the traditional parliamentary procedures for dealing with such matters. But, of course, the trouble is that, as my noble friend Lord Fowler said in his eximious maiden speech, these traditional procedures have been steadily devalued and, I might say, almost banished like boom and bust.
The Government have been very successful in engineering that revolution in their own thinking about accountability. The overall result, in terms of their parliamentary majority, has been astonishingly good. But, of course, judged from a democratic, parliamentary standpoint, the consequences have been disastrous.
The leader column in The Times on Monday last referred to the Government's,apparently obsessive need to manipulate public opinion and control all dissent".It described that as damaging faith in the new Labour Government. The Times, of course, was encouraging the successful Back-Bench rebellion over the removal of the two chairmen of Select Committees. The subsidiary headline on that leader was:MPs and PM both stand to gain from a stronger Parliament".I guess that Mr Murdoch's conscience was working on The Times on Monday.
The change in the Government's approach to presentation is understandable, of course, in this day and age of facile, direct and instant communication. But that, of its very nature, tends to be one way, dictatorial in style, authoritarian and contemptuous of Parliament. It is not without other shortcomings.
The difference in quality between the accountability direct to the electorate system, so often practised by the Government, and the various forms of parliamentary accountability which have been relegated to an inferior role, is truly immense. In general, the electorate cannot question Ministers, except in a very limited way through focus groups, the 1538 Internet or the intermediary priesthood of the media which are always emasculated by time constraints and all sorts of other considerations.
Parliamentary scrutiny is, of course, a very different matter and properly done can be much more testing, critical and revealing. It can be helpful to the Government's thinking, as the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, said in his excellent maiden speech. The Government should welcome parliamentary scrutiny and use it. Parliamentary scrutiny is certainly essential to the public, to enable individual electors to form a proper considered judgment. Therefore, in my view, the Government have a duty to ensure, in their own best interests and those of the country, that the parliamentary system of scrutiny and accountability works efficiently and effectively.
Of course, that duty is shared by Parliament. If the system does not work, the electorate will become increasingly disillusioned with the political process. Parliament itself will fall further into disrepute and so, ultimately, will the Government.
Whether the low poll at the general election was entirely attributable to the Government's alleged abuse of Parliament is questionable to my mind. But it may have been a contributory factor to the general apathy that prevailed. With regard to the election itself, I tend to agree with the analysis given by the noble Lord, Lord Desai.
There is a particular point that I wish to raise which concerns devolved government and the promised White Paper on devolution for the English regions. My question is: what is the relationship between those proposals and the Government's proposals for further reform of the House of Lords? I ask because there is some concern, of course, that our existing devolved institutions, which have had a fair ration of praise in this debate, are drifting away from us here at Westminster and becoming remote. Frankly, we do not know, for the most part, what is going on in those institutions except what we read in the press and that does not always inspire confidence.
The Royal Commission, of course, favoured the representation of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom here in this House, and it expounded a detailed scheme of election with possible variations. The Constitution Committee, also recommended by the Royal Commission, was encouraged to set up a sub-committee to look further into the issues raised by devolution. However, although the main committee has been set up under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, I do not believe that much progress has been made, as yet, on the devolution front.
Nevertheless, some Welsh Members in the other place, addressing the Welsh Grand Committee on 3rd July, appeared to assume that the relevant recommendations in the report of my noble friend Lord Wakeham concerning national and regional representation in your Lordships' House were acceptable to the Government in principle and would be the subject of legislation. Down at the other end, do they know something that we do not know? I should 1539 be grateful if the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House could throw some light on the situation and perhaps give us the drift of the Government's thinking.
Representation for the nations and regions here, independent of the devolved institutions themselves, whose members have a full-time job and cannot serve in two places, might help us to be better informed about what is happening in the regions which are somewhat neglected, and might thereby contribute to the process of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability for regional affairs, which is fairly thin at present.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Lord Roper
My Lords, we have had an excellent debate and on these Benches we are delighted with the response by so many Members of your Lordships' House to the Motion initiated by my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby.
We have had also two particularly outstanding maiden speeches from two former Cabinet Ministers speaking with the new-found freedom of the Back Benches who demonstrated what additions they will be bringing to the power of this House to scrutinise and control the executive. Both of them entered the other place on the same day as I did, so in one sense we are part of that cohort, although they stayed the course rather longer than I did.
Reference was made to a Cambridge mafia or cohort. However, I had particular pleasure in listening to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, because when I started teaching economics at the University of Manchester in the early 1960s, he was one of my first pupils. I am extremely glad that there are now in your Lordships' House two noble Lords who survived at my hands the teaching of economics at the University of Manchester and who seem to be doing quite well.
We have had a rich debate. It is difficult to add much at this stage. Reference has been made to the challenge felt as a result of the poor turn-out and the implications that that appears to have had for the standing of Parliament at the general election. Of course, it was an immediate warning to the House of Commons—this is a matter to which I shall return—and I suggest that it is also a warning to this House, especially as part of the membership of this House is likely to be elected at some stage in the future. The turn-out for that election is something to which we should give thought.
Part of the problem, to which implicit reference has been made during the debate, lies in the structural ambiguity of the parliamentary system, particularly in the other place. Primarily, government Back-Benchers in the other place are there to support the Government. How do they combine that with their responsibilities, as part of the legislature, to scrutinise and to control the executive? To some extent that is linked to the disputes and controversies that arose earlier this week on the formation and nature of Select Committees. My noble friend pointed out the dangers of the scrutinised appointing their own scrutineers.
1540 I have a certain caution about commenting on proceedings in another place, particularly as I have the rather unusual experience of having been part of the usual channels there and now I am part of the usual channels in this House. I hesitate to intrude on the private grief of whips in either place, but I believe that the results of the votes on Monday were very good for Parliament and I trust that lessons will be learned.
In looking at the role of your Lordships' House, we need to look at the complementarity of the two Houses and to pick up an idea developed by my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf, to try to play to the comparative advantages of this House. Although your Lordships, by yourselves, cannot bring down a government, and it is unlikely, in the foreseeable future, that there will ever be an automatic majority in this House to endorse the actions of a government, this House can probe more effectively and more efficiently than the other place.
The point made recently by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, was that this House has the advantage of being able to look over a longer time horizon than can the other place. The other place is constrained by the prospect of the next general election. In terms of giving a longer time horizon to public policy, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, suggested, we may have a useful part to play.
Turning to the operations of this House, reference has been made to our function in scrutinising legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, made a most important contribution by suggesting that we should look at our role in post-legislative scrutiny more carefully. However, I believe that we should consider ways in which our scrutiny can be improved. A number of years ago a group of Members, under Lord Rippon, looked at the subject. Some ideas in that report have been taken up, for example in relation to the Moses Room, but others deserve to be revisited and re-examined as to how matters can be conducted more effectively.
The scrutiny of the European Union has, of course, been referred to frequently and most recently by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree. While it can be said that we have had useful debates in this Chamber in relation to Europe which are read seriously in Brussels and in Whitehall, I am not convinced that we produce the results of those committee's work in a way that is as effective as it could be in improving the debates with our citizens, the dialogue with our citizens to which the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, referred in a different context.
In considering the role of this House, I believe that we need to consider how we project more effectively what we are doing. I believe that when we look at reports of our Select Committees we should consider them not only as reports to this House but as reports that can play a larger part in stimulating a wider debate in the country as a whole.
Turning to the scrutiny of other international bodies, as referred to by my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby, recently in the debate on the 1541 World Trade Organisation there has been a sense that there is inadequate parliamentary scrutiny in our country. am unsure how that can be improved; to some extent it has been done already by one of the subcommittees of our European Union Committee. It is a subject that we should examined.
On the third area of scrutiny, the scrutiny of the operations of the executive, in the past we have been inhibited, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, by the convention that was agreed, that we should not duplicate the departmental committees that operate in another place. We should consider whether there could be other ways in which we could have more effective scrutiny of the operation of the executive. We have a great deal of talent and competence in this House that I believe could be better used and could provide useful complementary information.
My noble friend Lord Goodhart and the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, developed at some length a perfectly justified criticism of the decision that was announced last week by the Government not to create a joint committee on the future of the House of Lords. I believe that that announcement was extremely unfortunate. The lack of consultation undermines, in this case as elsewhere, the credibility of government and will not necessarily facilitate the passage of the legislation. I understand what the Leader of the House meant when he referred to not having undue delay, but appropriate consideration may ensure that the passage of the legislation, when it is considered, may be quicker rather than slower. One has to consider the process as a whole.
In his speech on the loyal Address, the Leader of the House made reference to an inquiry into the future working practices of this House. I know that he has taken that matter further. That is no alternative to the proposal for a joint committee, although it is something that could have some value, but—this is an important consideration—it is critical to ensure that we strengthen the mechanisms of scrutiny and the operation of this House rather than weaken them in the name of modernisation. With great interest, I noted the telling and powerful remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, who, I suspect, knows the inside of government better than almost anyone else in this House. He spoke of the importance of the role of parliamentary will to carry out scrutiny of the Government.
We also need to consider how we can strengthen the resources available to do that job. One or two important remarks were made on that. The noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, referred to the particular way in which the Comptroller and Auditor-General was able to provide professional assistance on a permanent basis, on an ongoing basis, to the Public Accounts Committee, the jewel in the crown of the other place. How can we look at ways to strengthen our capacities?
My noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill referred to the desirability of creating a supreme court. One important side-effect of such a creation, as referred to in the article of the noble and learned Lord, Lord 1542 Bingham, this week, may mean the departure of the Law Lords from this place and provide us with more space so that we could have more people working here to serve your Lordships' House in order to ensure that there was more effective work in our committees.
I turn, in conclusion, to the matter of trying to ensure that your Lordships' House is better understood and known by the people of this country, who, I remind noble Lords, may well be voting for part of the membership of this House within a few years. I note that this country spends about £200 million a year on government information services so that we know what they are doing. When I attempted to find out how much was spent on the information services of this House, the evidence suggested that it was about £300,000 in total. If one assumes that the House of Commons spends perhaps five or six times as much as this place, the executive spends perhaps 100 times more than the legislature in making sure that it is known.
It is important not only that we do good work in this House but that it is known in the country. As we move to a Chamber that is to a greater or lesser extent elected, we need to prove our role to the electorate in ways which have not been necessary in the past. Our procedure and performance must be improved if we are to persuade the electorate that it should participate in elections. But in addition to doing better we should ensure that we are seen to be doing better. It is no use doing good merely by stealth. Your Lordships' House has an obligation to persuade the people of Britain that this Chamber contributes effectively to holding the executive to account if it is to persuade people to take part in future elections of Members of your Lordships' House. Otherwise, it is difficult to know what will be the turnout in an election which will not determine the political complexion of the government of this country or, on the proposals apparently advocated by the Government, significantly affect the composition of this House.
§ 7.21 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, I join all those who have congratulated, rightly, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, on initiating the debate today. She is a parliamentarian whose distinction is respected across all parties. The noble Baroness has been prepared to pay a price to stand for what she believes in. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Fowler and the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, on their outstanding maiden speeches. I hope that we shall hear much of them in future and that they will continue to participate fully in the workings of the House.
Parliament as a whole should take note of perhaps the most important theme of all to which the noble Baroness drew attention. It is a theme on which and many others in this House have reflected for some years. As the noble Baroness pointed out, we have probably the most powerful executive in the democratic world. Recently, we read the conclusions of a distinguished commission of the Hansard Society on parliamentary scrutiny chaired by my noble friend 1543 Lord Newton of Braintree, whose speech I was delighted to hear this afternoon. I agree substantially with the burden of what that group had to say, not least on the ineffective ritual of Questions in another place.
The findings of the Newton commission followed the notable report produced by the commission set up by the Conservative Party and chaired by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. Both reports accurately analysed the same problem. The conclusions of the commission of the Hansard Society were crisp:Serious gaps and weaknesses in the working of accountability were found. Scrutiny of government is neither systematic nor rigorous".The commission is right. If Parliament is not working—I very much agree with the remarkable speech of my noble friend—no one can find a solution to the problem but Parliament itself.
Over the past 25 years, as the noble Baroness said, a dangerous imbalance between the power of No. 10, buttressed by the party Whips in another place and the power of another place to coerce this House, has grown up and an inexorable decline in power and influence of Parliament has emerged. The issues at stake here transcend party. I do not want to divide the House by assailing the party of noble Lords opposite. There are great parliamentarians in numbers on the Benches opposite. How much do we today miss the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, in his accustomed place for a debate in which he surely would have spoken!
Today, I should have been tempted even to spare those Liberal Democrat MPs who supported timetable Motions and guillotines if I had not then heard what the noble Baroness rightly said about the need for better scrutiny of treaties and only last week had not watched Mr Menzies Campbell on behalf of the Liberal Democrats in another place commending a timetable Motion that limited scrutiny of the Treaty of Nice in Committee. There is no one so pure that he should feel free to cast the first stone. We all dug this hole and together we must dig our way out. Naturally, I accept the blame which lies with my party.
But one wonders whether noble Lords opposite are happy with much that they have seen since 1997: announcements consistently made outside Parliament; Cabinet reduced to a 45-minute pep talk from the chief executive; spin doctors crowding even the cleaning cupboards of No. 10 Downing Street and Whitehall and expanding into No. 12; candidates for the European Parliament, the Mayor of London or the First Minister for Wales handed down by Millbank; procedures "modernised" in another place to timetable and curtail scrutiny at every stage of every Bill; and chairmen of Select Committees in another place who have shown independence and authority and done one of the jobs that Parliament is there to do, lined up for the chop.
Look around us even here. Who would have forecast five years ago that over one-third of this House would be appointed by a single man? That is 1544 scarcely the mark of the "modern and democratic" House of Lords of which the Government talked in 1997. We have seen patronage and spin erected into a system of government. I sometimes ask myself what the Government are afraid of. Is it perhaps that someone may ask what they have achieved? We have seen 16 constitutional Bills in four years. Is our constitution any more coherent? Is Parliament controlling the executive any better today?
While Mr Blair has dallied with the constitution, are our hospitals and transport system working better or our education being improved? Is anyone happy about the deluge of red tape that falls as snow on small businesses? How right is the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, to complain about that and the fungus of rules to which my noble friend Lord Peyton referred in his vintage speech!
Why should we believe unequivocally in a stronger Parliament—not to be a nuisance, or to keep some of the newer working Peers waiting when they have more important things to do, but to safeguard the citizen and business against badly drafted law, give voice to the public's concerns about the actions and proposals of the executive and improve the quality of government? Parliament may sometimes be an inconvenience but it does improve the quality of government. A stronger and more independent Parliament will, paradoxically, lead to a stronger government so long as government, after full scrutiny, carries the respect and support of Parliament. Perhaps this Government would gain greater respect if they listened to Parliament a little more and feared it a little less.
What can we do in this House to improve scrutiny? We should be confident about our powers and be ready to use them, and we should be wary of the executive when it talks of "modernising procedure". I give two examples. First, this House has, and must retain, the power to reject bad legislation. We were right to use it on the restriction of trial by jury, and we would be right to do so again. I detected one or two worrying signals in the gracious Speech about further reductions in our ancient freedoms, so we must he on our guard again in this Session.
Secondly, as my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree reminded the House, we need to keep the power to reject secondary legislation. Today, I read a major article in the Financial Times which clearly relied directly on government briefing:On disability benefits—another flashpoint—Ministers will try to avoid a revolt by making changes by administrative order rather than primary legislation".That is a startlingly naked expression of what this debate is about.
I am tempted to coin a Strathclyde doctrine: wherever Ministers openly seek to use secondary legislation to avoid detailed scrutiny in another place, this House should seriously consider rejecting it so as to ensure that the other place has the right to full scrutiny. We would have a better governed country if more appeared on the face of primary legislation instead of being buried in the detail of unamendable 1545 orders. I entirely disagree with the conclusions of my noble friend Lord Wakeham, who sought to reduce the power of this House in relation to secondary legislation.
If we had the power and authority in this House, and used it, we would do a service to another place which would then be put on its mettle to test the Government further; and we would also do a service to Ministers. When I stood at the Government Dispatch Box nothing concentrated my mind more than the prospect of defeat, or the sense that, unless I persuaded my colleagues to amend legislation to respond to intelligent scepticism in this revising Chamber, defeat might be the result at a later stage.
Time and again I find that when Parliament, and especially this House, puts up hurdles, the result is better legislation and often better policy. Therefore perhaps I may echo what the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said in his weighty speech, and I very much hope that we shall be hearing more from him in the months ahead. If what we do in Parliament is seen to carry weight with government and make them think more deeply, then people will take a far more active interest in Parliament and who is sent here.
I am certainly ready to look at changes in procedure in this House. But that does not include ones which weaken the capacity of this House to do its job. Therefore, I shall need much persuading before I agree with the recent suggestion of the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House that this House is not allowed to amend legislation in Committee without agreement by the executive. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord when he replies will explain how this idea would improve parliamentary control of the executive.
Perhaps too I can now reach my conclusion. I regret that my terms may be a little disagreeable. Making Parliament work better and controlling the executive better will be achieved only if all parties believe in it and if we have cross-party consultation. Like the noble Baroness, I believe that there is the expectation in the House that that will happen. That is why, like the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, and many others who have spoken this afternoon, I was so bitterly disappointed by the Answer given last week by the noble and learned Lord to my noble friend Lord Rees when he asked about the consultations on the future of this House.
We all heard the gracious Speech with its phrase "following consultation". We all heard the noble and learned Lords the Lord Chancellor and the Leader of the House refer again to consultation in debate on the gracious Speech. I was not alone in thinking that that meant genuine cross-party consultation. In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, it would be "grotesque"—that was his word—if we acquiesced to the ambition of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. What the noble and learned Lord said in his Answer last week was that the executive would now take over this process, presumably in a White Paper, and then, and only then, let people comment on it.
1546 We heard what the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, had to say about government consultation. Crudely, the noble and learned Lord said that the executive had no intention of adjusting its plans by listening to anyone; and bluntly he said that he would allow no joint committee to consider ideas, even though that was explicitly promised in Labour's 1997 manifesto and has since been promised so many times, as the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, exposed in his demolition of the Government's position. In the words used by my noble friend Viscount Cranborne in another not unrelated context, the noble and learned Lord's Written Answer "bushwhacked" the House.
The noble and learned Lord is the Leader of the House. As such, he should owe a particular duty to Parliament. I know that he believes he owes such a duty. Surely he must recognise that the Government cannot proceed to long-lasting and genuine reform which will affect both Houses perhaps for a century or more, except on the basis of full consultation with open minds; that is, consultation that we, the Liberal Democrats and others with no party affiliation thought that we had been promised.
The question of the future of Parliament opened up today by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is a question without parallel in importance because from an effective Parliament the solution to so much else will follow. The noble and learned Lord now has an opportunity to help craft a great House into something better. To do that he must sometimes lead and sometimes let himself be led. If the noble and learned Lord seeks to go forward alone by publishing the unilateral proposals he wrote of last week he will not be serving this House of Parliament, as many in this House, including me, believe that he should.
§ 7.34 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am about to utter heresy: the noble Earl, Lord Russell, was wrong. There was once a golden age. It was glad confident morning. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and I were both together at Cambridge. The noble Lord will remember that the sun was always shining. It is lost in the mists of pre-history now. The Conservative Party was still alive, sane and hoping to be re-elected. Things changed so very quickly. More lately—the noble Lord will allow me this personal observation— the friendship between his daughter Kate and my daughter Imogen has illuminated both our lives.
In 1997 I worked with the noble Lord, Lord Clark. The tributes paid to his work on freedom of information are rightly deserved. I was particularly pleased, because I was going to mention it myself, at the reference by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney. I have written to the noble Lord on behalf of us all wishing him well, but in particular saying that we would miss his trenchant interventions on occasions such as this. I know that his name was originally on the draft speakers' list, which is why my heart began to tremble. We miss him and I hope that he returns as soon as possible.
1547 I shall come to consultation in a moment or two by being—to use a word used by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—disagreeable. I am afraid that I shall have to refer to what I actually said. It is always an inconvenience, but sometimes it is quite a helpful guide. I agree with the spirit of what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, implied, and with what the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Roper, said. We all want to make this House better, and soon.
My stance is quite plain. I cherish the absolute right of this House to question the Government, to probe their proposed legislation and their activities and to ask the other House to think again. Both Houses have to work together. We want to make Parliament as effective as possible in scrutinising the Government and in holding them to account. The fact that we are not elected makes it easier because there is no Whip, as my noble friend Lord McIntosh will agree, that has any effect in this House; and there are no sweeteners of which I have been made aware. That will come as disagreeable fodder to those who have the purist view. I recognise the honourable nature of their stance that this House should be wholly elected. However, there would be a serious danger—I make no offensive criticism of our colleagues at the other end of the corridor—that this House would contain clones of those elsewhere. We should do our country and our Parliament no favours in that.
I continue to believe that we should be as effective as possible in holding the Government to account. I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that it does not matter who is the temporary incumbent of No. 10. I believe that this Chamber has a distinctive but different contribution to make. I want us, if this does not sound disagreeably inclusive, to create together a House fit for modern conditions and one which will deliver sound, informed, reasoned criticism, recognising that we must complement the Commons and not seek ultimately—I emphasise that qualification—to defy or override the other place. That gives us plenty of room for manoeuvre and allows us to deploy the functions and powers that we already possess.
I said that I would come to the question of consultation. There was a time, rather more recent than the time of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and mine at Cambridge, not too long ago when my noble friend Lord McIntosh and I sat on the other side of the House. My memory must be fading, but I think that we had 100 Members in this House. How many Conservatives were there in a permanent entrenched substantially hereditary majority? About 400—or was it 500? One's memory passes so quickly. I do not want to be unduly partisan, but at that time I do not think that I heard a single syllable of desire for improving scrutiny of the Government. Of course it may be that I was just asleep at the time and I missed it, to quote Bob Dylan, but I do not think so.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord's memory does not serve him as well as that. There was no Conservative majority in this House. 1548 There was a majority over the Labour Party. The records will speak for themselves. The Conservative Party had 40 per cent of the House. That is not a majority. If there was such an overwhelming majority, why was it that, year after year after year, as so many former Cabinet Ministers behind me will testify, the government were defeated by this House and legislation was changed, not least by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am happy to look at the figures. There were about 400 Conservatives. Forty per cent of well over 1,000 is more than 400. In my characteristically modest way, I have understated the value of my position.
I turn straightaway to consultation because I know that a certain amount of unhappiness has been caused. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Roper, that I want to carry on the spirit of co-operation that I hope the three of us have begun to establish. In the debate on the gracious Speech on 21st June, I pointed out to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby—it was the fact—that there was no commitment in the manifesto to having a Joint Committee. I pointed out, which again was the fact, that we could not reach agreement on terms of reference because,we were adamant to the point that composition had been dealt with by the Wakeham Commission; and it was the parliamentary aspects that the Joint Committee was to consider".It is always agreeable to read one's own words and reflect on the deep wisdom underlying them. I also said—I repeat it; I hope to demonstrate it; and I hope that I have demonstrated it on many occasions when noble Lords have put forward points to me and I have accepted them either in the Chamber or outside the Chamber—Consultation' means that one has to listen fairly and open-mindedly to other people's points of view; but it does not mean that one has to put off decision day for ever and ever. Amen".—[Official Report, 21/6/01; cols. 114–15.]The answer given by my noble friend Lady Jay of Paddington to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Alli was quoted perfectly accurately by the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill. She said that there would be a Joint Committee on the parliamentary aspects, but we failed to reach agreement on that. We have not resiled from our commitment, but we were not able to agree. That being so, we must seek to get on. But I am not in command of any sufficient troops to dictate to your Lordships' House, even if my own troops were unanimous or were capable of being Whipped—and my own experience demonstrates the contrary.
This has been a remarkable debate because it has contained a large menu of proposals that could usefully be fed into the Leader's group which I am setting up. Many views have been put forward. They do not all derive from the same original premises. I thought that the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, was a very fine speech indeed. Whether one agreed with all the propositions put, or even with the tender reproach that she offered to me, having, as always, courteously told me beforehand, it was a remarkable tour de force and an examination of 1549 our current horizon. The noble Baroness is right in being deeply troubled at the low electoral turn-out. My thoughts were that it was particularly the young who were disenchanted. The statistics show—I hope that this is not regarded as disagreeable—that many young working women were disenchanted with the process. It was partly—I may hear a "hiss" when I say this—that the population was generally content with the direction the Government were going in. It was partly the lack of a coherent Opposition deploying their forces properly. It was partly because people thought, having read the opinion polls, that the outcome had already been decided. But it does not offer us any comfort, whether I am right or wrong, in whole or in part.
I do believe fundamentally and beyond almost any other consideration that is relevant—the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was good enough to refer to this point—that our work is to control the executive. We need to do it in a constructive way. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is right. If a government are generous-hearted enough to recognise that they do not have a total monopoly on all wisdom, useful constructive criticism and an urge to review actually make government work better. If that makes government work better, it makes the people more likely to re-elect the government. So noble benefit and ignoble calculation all come together in one superb construction.
What has happened at the other end? One has to be cautious about their practices. I, unlike some whom I hesitate to identify, never was polluted by membership of the other place and therefore I am able to take a much more detached and objective view. What happened on Monday was an event of great significance. Curiously, I think we prefigured it in some of our debates because we all agreed just a few weeks ago that a sea change was occurring, the nature of which we could not properly describe or identify.
I hope that we can seize our opportunity. We have the opportunity to reform composition. There will never be agreement on the composition of the House. There cannot be in the nature of things. If one begins from the stance of the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, one will not be able to reconcile that with a view that there should be no elected element or a totally elected element. We shall never agree on this. We must recognise that in a spirit of amity and concord, not of violent disputation.
The whole history of our constitution has been one of organic, pragmatic development. That is the glory of the British way. We do not tend to have revolutionary change. What is happening at the moment is that we have begun a reform of the House. It has changed in all kinds of subtle and indescribable ways already, since most of our hereditary friends left. We have the opportunity now to make our working practices fit for the modern age. It chimes in, for instance, with the fact that the expenses now payable will be more reasonable to the expenditure incurred. All of these considerations should go together.
1550 When we come to the Leader's group or to putting forward proposals, whatever they may be—I simply do not know what they might be; whether we can agree about them in whole or in part, I do not know— we should really be looking, as I ventured to say a few weeks ago, to the way we actually work. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, said that many important topics are simply excluded from the present calendar; and they are. Can we not think about making time available, perhaps before 2.30 p.m.? Those who are interested in particular debates of the kind mentioned by the noble Lord will perhaps number 25 or 30 of your Lordships. The) could be accommodated in debates of great value if we simply looked at that suggestion. We cannot complain about a straitjacket in which we have bound our own arms. That is why I respectfully suggest that this is such an opportunity to make ourselves better, more effective and more helpful to the executive.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord leaves that point, he said that he will consult on changing the procedures of the House; he will not consult on changing the composition of the House. On the former, he believes that he will get agreement; on the latter, he believes that he will not. The noble and learned Lord has not even tried to get agreement on the latter. Should he not think again, change his mind and offer proper consultation in Parliament on the future of this House?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I do not think that I have made myself plain, or perhaps the noble Lord did not catch my drift. What I have suggested—the noble Lord knows because I have written to him—is a small Leader's group to deal with recommendations only about our working practices. It will then be for the House to decide. I repeat what I said. I am perfectly happy to take other people's views. "Consultation" means that one has to listen fairly and open-mindedly to other people's points of view. I cannot be more generous than that. The Joint Committee failed because we could not agree on terms of reference. It is far from accurate to misrepresent me as saying that I will not consult on composition. It is not an option for me to consult or not. Of course I have to consult, because your Lordships have the final say and I do not; and quite right too. So it is utterly wrong to suggest—I hope to nail the myth once and for all—that I have refused to consult. I have not. As recently as 21st June 2001 (at col. 114 of the Official Report for those who are interested) I set out our position. As I have only another 10 minutes in which to speak, I shall try to continue my remarks
The points made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, on pre-legislative scrutiny are extremely important. When that has taken place, on, for example, the legislation covering freedom of information—the noble Lord will recall that I gave evidence to his committee—it worked well. I do not suggest that it worked to the perfect satisfaction of all, but the outcome was an improvement. The question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, which others 1551 commended, regarding post-legislative scrutiny is something that we should consider. It might not apply to every Bill. For example, it may be easy to conduct that kind of scrutiny on social welfare legislation after, say, two years, but it would not be so easy with a major criminal justice Act, with which we are all familiar—if not depressingly so. But that would require a change in our working practices and a far greater time commitment from those who would be engaged on it. There is no way of squaring that circle. I am perfectly open-minded about these ideas. I hope that they will be fed into the group which should begin work before we depart for the Summer Recess.
The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, mentioned the devolved assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I agree entirely with his points. Indeed, arrangements are in hand for me to visit all the assemblies during the summer break in order to maintain close contact. I appreciate that they may not be sitting, but at least we shall be able to learn from them. Furthermore, I agree with the points made by other noble Lords, such as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, that we can study their working practices, albeit that they have been agreed in a unicameral situation, and perhaps learn from them.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, unusually for him, is unable to be in his place for the final speeches of this debate. He has a domestic emergency. He wrote to me and I have replied on behalf of the whole House. All noble Lords know how conscientious he is, but he had to leave to attend to a private matter.
I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, was extremely interesting. It echoed other views and took a slightly unique course by pointing out that what we do in this place may not necessarily depend on how we are composed. He went on to echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, about the possibility of scrutinising treaties.
It is plain that none of these proposals is in my gift, but they are all ideas worthy of serious consideration and I genuinely believe that we have before us opportunities which, if we lose them over the coming year to 18 months, we shall not regain in our lifetimes as Members of this House. The opportunity to regain that initiative will not arise. The tide is moving and if we become bogged down in apparently partisan differences, we shall miss that tide and it will be entirely our own fault.
I have tried to do justice to the general themes that have been put forward in the debate. One further general theme touched on was the question of the English regions. I can confirm that work is continuing on the production of the White Paper. A good deal of thought is being put into its terms and it will be published in due time.
The Constitution Committee of this House is an innovation. We must see how it develops. Even the most apparently unpromising committees which may not initially resonate as being full of interest—I cite 1552 here the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee on which most noble Lords, given a free choice and faced with a name like that, would not have volunteered to serve—can become authoritative. The noble Lord, Lord Dean, pointed out that the committee has become virtually the most authoritative committee of this House. As far as I can remember, I do not think that any government of either complexion have gone against a firm recommendation from that committee. The committee provides a perfect example of what I seek to urge upon noble Lords as the way forward. It is not a question of the composition of a committee; it is how that committee works and delivers its considerations. A committee makes its own authority. It does not matter whether those serving on it have been directly elected, indirectly elected with a single transferable vote, are former hereditary Peers, continuing hereditary Peers or retired Bishops. That does not matter. What does matter is the way that the committee works and the outcomes it produces.
This has been a good debate. It is interesting to observe that there has been a marginally different complexion to every single contribution. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, made a most important point: we ought not blinker ourselves into believing that our work is simply for the United Kingdom. It is not. Other noble Lords have pointed out that we form a part of a greater Europe. A number of noble Lords have also pointed out that we may have lessons of virtue to be learned from Europe. Furthermore, I do not doubt that we have considerable offerings for Europe.
I shall conclude five minutes ahead of time, for which I shall receive my reward in the hereafter—so the right reverend Prelate has assured me. I should like to reassure noble Lords and underline the fact that if there has been any misunderstanding about what I believe to be the way forward—namely, through consultation,—I shall be happy to put that to rest. Once again, I thank the noble Baroness and all noble Lords for their contributions.
§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
My Lords, I shall detain the House only for a few moments. I, too, should like to add my regrets to those which have been expressed for the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney. He is a very longstanding friend of mine. All noble Lords profoundly regret that he had to be swept away from this House, typically in mid-speech. We all hope that he will recover quickly and then resume his accustomed place in our debates.
I should like to add a word or two of congratulation on our two outstanding maiden speeches in what I think has been a scintillating debate - perhaps it almost represented a return to the golden age. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has always been distinguished for his directness, honesty and, indeed, his capacity to address members of the public and to be understood. It is wonderful to have him here as a Member of this House.
1553 Turning to the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, there is nothing that I admire more in political life than moral courage, and I believe that the noble Lord has shown moral courage. All of us are grateful to him for what he did with regard to freedom of information.
Finally, I should like to respond briefly to the remarks made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams. Along with other noble Lords on these Benches, I found his words to be encouraging. However, there may be something of a linguistic difficulty in the sense that working procedures and methods might be considered a rather limited definition. However, as the noble and learned Lord developed his argument, he began to describe new areas of possible reform which became distinct and exciting. I believe that we shall have to pursue this matter somewhat, since my right honourable friend the Leader of the Liberal Democrats takes the view that no tripartite discussion has taken place on some of the issues that have been raised. I shall not pursue that matter now beyond saying that we respond warmly to the tone and style of the remarks of the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House.
l shall conclude my remarks by echoing the noble and learned Lord in pointing out that this is indeed a window of opportunity, one that we on these Benches and, I believe, those on the Opposition Benches would wish to seize. Furthermore, that opportunity should extend beyond simply working procedures to some of the functions and, indeed, the potential of this House, given the new challenges facing Parliament.
§ My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.