HL Deb 26 June 2001 vol 626 cc212-4

2.59 p.m.

Lord Blaker

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What importance they attach to the principle that statements of government policy should be made first to Parliament.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston)

My Lords, the Ministerial Code makes it clear that when Parliament is in Session Ministers will want to bear in mind the desire of Parliament that the most important announcements should be made in the first instance to Parliament.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that only two days before the Queen's Speech the Chancellor of the Exchequer made an important new statement of policy on competition and taxation? He made it apparently at a press conference, when he could surely have waited just two or three days to make it in Parliament. Has it occurred to the Government that there may be some connection between the habitual undermining of Parliament by the Government and the fact that in the recent general election voter turn-out fell by 12 percentage points?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I do not make that connection. The number of oral statements made by this Government to Parliament in 1999–2000 was 76. Five years before that in 1994–95, during the noble Lord's party's administration, the figure was only 16 oral statements.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, will the noble Lord tell the House that Ministers are aware of the wish of Parliament to hear statements first in our joint Chambers? It is the duty of government to come to Parliament. The undermining and sidelining of Parliament in ministerial statements is not a sin wholly confined to the previous administration, but, my goodness, it has been practised very badly over the past four years. Can the noble Lord now give us some assurance that there will be a real effort to make a change in this new Parliament?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I should have thought that the passion of my noble friend Lord Shore might have been mediated a little by the comparisons that I made between practice today and practice in the past—perhaps the practice when he was in government. However, I assure noble Lords that we shall certainly make every attempt to bring important announcements to Parliament, but we do not wish to impose overly much on parliamentary time.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, how many of the oral statements to which the noble Lord referred were preceded by statements by Ministers outside Parliament?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I cannot give that figure. However, the disparity between the figures that I mentioned surely underlines the commitment of this Government to report to Parliament.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, did the Minister hear the programme last night on BBC Radio 4 on this very subject? The programme, chaired by Mr Charlie Whelan, concluded that the persistent bypassing of Parliament by this Government was a major cause of the undermining of the reputation of both Houses.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I did not have the opportunity to hear that programme. I am always interested in journalists' comments on these matters. I shall certainly bear that point in mind but I shall also study the figures. I repeat that the figures show a commitment to reporting to Parliament by this Government that is far greater than was the case in the past.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, has my noble friend any figures to indicate on how many occasions government statements were made in the other place but were declined in this House by the Official Opposition?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I do not have the appropriate figures to illuminate our discussion. In February of this year in another place Mr Eric Forth and Mrs Angela Browning complained that Ministers took up time with non-essential statements. They considered that Ministers should ask permission of the Speaker to make such statements in order to cut down the number of statements made to the House by government Ministers.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, in order that the House, or certainly the Cross-Benches, might have something to look forward to, can the Minister give the House any indication of when there may be an end to these comparisons with the increasingly distant past?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, that assurance can be given when the stream of questioning is diverted from its present course.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, on behalf of the Opposition I welcome the noble Lord's appointment as Cabinet enforcer. When statements are made outside Parliament I invite him, on behalf of all in this House, to take it upon himself to write to the relevant Secretaries of State to point out that fact and to make sure that the complaint has been well understood. Further, will he confirm that the splendid convention that has been built up over many years—namely, that of the Prime Minister making statements after European summits—will continue and that they will be repeated by his noble and learned friend the Leader of the House?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind regards. I advise noble Lords to make such approaches themselves rather than my taking that responsibility on my shoulders, as the noble Lord suggested. If there was an implicit reference in his question to Gothenburg, I should say that my right honourable friend explained in another place that Parliament was not sitting at the time of that summit and therefore it was not possible to make a statement. However, the Prime Minister has been diligent in reporting back to the House on these matters. I am sure that that tradition will continue.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the noble Lord consider the example he set when he held his previous post? He was very helpful indeed, but it seems that he has made a lamentable departure from the standard he then set.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, if that is the case I apologise. I shall certainly try to measure up to the high standards that the noble Lord sets.