HL Deb 13 November 2001 vol 628 cc458-62

3.7 p.m.

Read a third time.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I rise to intervene at this stage of the Bill, having advised both the Government and the Opposition in advance that I would be doing so and of the rough grounds upon which I propose to argue.

The Bill is described as a "(Money Bill)" on today's Order Paper. However, on the Bill itself, where one would normally expect a designation of this kind to appear, it is stated: Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal"— that is us— and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows". There then follows the text of the Bill.

For some time now—at any rate, for as long as I can remember—this abbreviated procedure whereby the House is not invited to consider in any way the detail of the Bill has always been taken as a convention of the House. We are prohibited by convention—I shall return to that in a moment—from tabling amendments to the Bill or, indeed, engaging in detailed arguments about it. The position is, I suppose, that these matters have been established as a convention. The nature and extent of that convention is presently unknown, but it seems to have been slavishly followed without reference to any text at all except that of the Parliament Act 1911, which is taken as the basis for the convention that this House does not intervene in any way in considering the detail of a money Bill.

I leave it to others to decide whether that should be so. There are those who say that the convention exists and is valid, that this should be the approach, and that this House should not be involved in a Bill designated as a money Bill. Another view—I cannot say whether or not I subscribe to it—says that, whatever the convention may be, there is nothing to prevent this House intervening in the detail of a Bill, however it is described, so long as it comes before the House.

This matter is somewhat apposite at present, when consideration is being given to the ideal functions of this House and its methods of operation. Speaking mildly—as is my custom—I believe that the House ought to consider how much it wants to become involved in considering the detail of legislation and advising Her Majesty and everyone else. I do not see why that should not happen.

It lies in the power of the Government and Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition to give us their views on the subject. There is a general view, with which I have become acquainted over the past two or three months, that there is no intellectual reason, and no representative reason either—in the true meaning of "representation"—why this House should lack any authority in considering money Bills. Sometimes such Bills are complex. On reading Hansard, in many cases I cannot detect any intellectual or other ability in another place that is not demonstrated here. We are all honourable men, and we all have our heads screwed on.

This consideration becomes of some importance in the following circumstances. As the Explanatory Notes indicate, the Bill provides for some degree of flexibility in the conditions under which money is provided out of our own Exchequer. It also provides some description of how it is dealt with. For example, there are some amendments—otherwise it would not have been necessary to include them in a Bill—to the way in which own resources are determined by the European Commission, by the European Council and indeed by the European Parliament.

I am certain, having looked at the papers, that my noble friend is justified in saying that the Bill does not provide for any change in the own resources available to the European Community that would be of any disadvantage to the UK. In my submission it is immaterial whether the Bill provides for some changes in the method of calculation of own resources, and whether they are more or less favourable at the moment. The point is that they are mentioned in some detail in the Explanatory Notes and are, therefore, relevant to our discussions.

The mention of own resources brings us to the question of how the whole system works. It works by the mechanism of the European budget. The budget is considered regularly every year; it lays down the amount of own resources—even though it may be unchanged; and it describes in some detail—which many may think unnecessary and unintelligible—how the money is to be spent.

This is all well and good. Members of this House who are zealous in their work, as I am sure your Lordships are, will not object very much to that—except that there are further circumstances. In the normal way, the European budget, which makes provision for European own resources, is debated in some detail in another place. Members of the other place have normally given the Bill their consideration—with what degree of thoroughness I am not prepared to speculate.

We have no inherent right to examine the European budget in this House. But the current circumstances are such that we ought to have, as of right, the power as a House to examine the European budget and to pass judgment on it. Noble Lords who have seen the contents of the papers will know how voluminous they are. I can assure the House that even those who are most efficient and who are the quickest readers would take at least three weeks to read through the damn thing, let alone understand it. My question to the Government is this. How do they and the usual channels propose that this House should have the opportunity to discuss the European budget in view of the fact that Members of another place have now given up that task? It now goes through on the nod at 10.30 p.m. without any consideration at all.

We are not talking about "chicken feed"; we are talking about a net contribution from this country of some £350 billion. It is now a consideration whether we ought to charge the usual channels—who ultimately determine the business of the House—to make provision for this House, even though it may not consider the other implications of money Bills, at least to have the opportunity to give constructive and thorough consideration to the European budget.

To underline that point, only today a report was published from the European Court of Auditors revealing losses due to fraud and irregularity of £2.5 billion. This is not chicken feed—and we do not even have the document here. I hope that this matter may merit further discussion among your Lordships about the desirability or otherwise of this House being able to exercise its talents and its time in a thoughtful examination of European finances and money Bills on the same basis as the other place.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the House is frequently grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, for his wisdom and his diligent hard work on these matters. We have frequently had occasion to benefit from them. On this occasion we on this side of the House are grateful to the noble Lord for supporting a view that we have expressed previously, notably in relation to a Bill introduced not long ago by my noble friend Lord Saatchi. Clearly, these are important matters.

One of the noble Lord's points related to whether or not we should be having this discussion on a money Bill. For greater accuracy, I have just looked up the Companion to the Standing Orders, which specifically says that the conventions on money Bills do not debar the Lords from amending such Bills—and clearly from debating them as well. I understand that on a few occasions amendments have been made in this House to such Bills and that they were accepted by the Commons. The only provision is that if we fail to pass the Bill without amendment within one month of it being sent to your Lordships' House, it becomes law automatically, so we have to get a move on with such Bills, particularly if we wish to amend them. That is why there is a special note on today's Order Paper explaining that we have not observed the usual intervals in considering this Bill.

There is no doubt that we can discuss and amend money Bills. However, that has not been our usual practice; nor has it been our usual practice on any Bill to have extended discussions on the Motion that the Bill do now pass. That practice has recently been criticised by the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, among others.

Those are the customs and rules of your Lordships' House at the moment. They may change. If some of the propositions that are flying around about the future of your Lordships' House come to pass in any form—it seems unlikely at the moment, but let us suppose—those rules will certainly be under the greatest and most careful scrutiny and will almost certainly be altered considerably. I know that the Government do not wish to discuss powers on these occasions, but that is my view and I do not think that I am alone in holding it.

Meanwhile, we should observe the customs of your Lordships' House with regard to money Bills. We should not stop ourselves entirely from talking on them, but we should exercise a certain self-restraint.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I shall do my best not to open up debate on the matter. The House owes a debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Bruce and to the Opposition Chief Whip for expanding the time-scale of House of Lords reform. While other people want to move forward, they appear to want to move back to 1911. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, wanted to do that, because he wished to question Section 1 of the Parliament Act 1911, which debars the Lords from rejecting money Bills.

The procedural situation with money Bills is that they are certified as such by the Speaker. That certification is final and there can be no challenge to it. The Bill is then sent here and if it is not sent back within a month—I believe that this Bill arrived here on 18th October—it is presented for Royal Assent without the intervention of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, is right that such Bills can be amended, but the Commons is not obliged to consider any amendments that are made and if the Bill has not been passed in the form in which it arrived in this House, it can still go for Royal Assent without us.

I do not propose to say more on the constitutional matter. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, raised three points of substance about the Bill to which I shall respond briefly. First, he raised matters relating to the European Union budget. I remind him that the Bill concerns the own resources decision, which sets out the system by which the budget is financed. It does not directly concern the setting of the annual budget.

Secondly, the noble Lord raised a question about debate in another place on the European Commission budget. It is true that the last such debate was on 12th July 2000 about the 2001 budget. However, a scrutiny debate on the 2002 budget is scheduled for committee on Monday 19th November at 4.30 p.m. I understand that that will not simply go through on the nod, although of course that is a matter for the House of Commons and not for us.

Thirdly, for anyone worried about European Community spending rising, the Berlin agreement maintains the own resources ceiling at 1.27 per cent of EU GNP and will stabilise spending through the EU budget. For the first time, spending in the existing member states will be lower in real terms at the end of a six-year financial perspective than it was at the beginning. I hope that that goes some way to calming my noble friend's fears.

On Question, Bill passed.